Stoicism and the Free Will Problem

Most people if you ask them if they believe that everything has a cause, they’ll likely say yes.  Most people you ask them if they believe that everyone is basically morally responsible, they’ll likely say yes.

The ancient Stoics believed everyone was morally responsible more or less and that everything including our own behaviors were causally determined.  The question of course is how can you be morally responsible and determined to do what you do?

Well, one clever Stoic by the name of Chrysippus believed he possessed the answer.  Chrysippus believed human action could be modeled by a cylinder rolling down an incline.  Basically, the cylinder’s shape represents your character and the incline’s angle represents fate (gravity being a given).  Your character, represented by the shape of the cylinder, had an effect on how the cylinder would roll down the incline.  Chryippus thought that your character is where you possessed some control over how your fate was determined.  Essentially, the idea was that everything was fated but we did co-fate our future to a limited extent.  The shape of our characters is where we possess some control and that’s where we find moral responsibility.

Something counter-intuitive that the Stoics would say though is, yes, we had limited freedom to coordinate our future given whether fate allowed for it or not.  But ultimately none of us were truly free except for the Sage.  It was believed that if you couldn’t truly be a master of all of your passions and desires, you were a slave to your passions/desires and ultimately not truly free.  So even though Stoicism does make room for soft determinism (the position that free will and determinism are compatible), it also seems to paradoxically hold a hard determinist position (that there is only determinism but not really any freedom) about everyone except for the Sage.

So we end with that paradox.  We all possess limited amount of freedoms that are compatible with a determinist universe.  But ultimately we’re not truly free like the Sage.  We’re only capable of being free but not truly so.  So we still have to live with the idea that each of us each bear responsibility even if truly the Sage only truly bears responsibility.  It’s almost like we’ve been backed into a position that none of like by the Stoics.  We’re living an illusion of freedom because we’re all still slaves to our desires/passions unless we become truly free from our desires/passions and become Sages.

What do you all think?  Are we free or not?

Image result for ball going down incline

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One thought on “Stoicism and the Free Will Problem

  1. Thank you for this post. For me, it delivers a message most don’t seem to know, that is, that freedom is not about being able to do this or that, to wave this flag or that flag. Rather, it’s a capacity by which we attain some kind of inner taming of our ego, our passions, or small selves. Very nice post!

    Liked by 1 person

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