The question of the Freedom of Will in Epictetus

Dissertation, The University of Edinburgh (2009)
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Stoic philosophers had to face the accusation of incoherence, self-contradiction and Paradoxes since ancient times. Plutarch in his Moralia writes against them; Cicero devotes a separate work on stoic paradoxes. Even in contemporary Literature there are still discussions on the possibility of such an incoherence and existence of paradoxes in the stoic theory. At first glance, stoic Cosmology gives the impression to both accept a kind of Determinism, and at the same time it undoubtedly argues for the moral agent’s freedom of the Will. In pre-stoic or even other contemporary to Stoicism Philosophical Traditions, the definitions that these two terms/concepts are given, fairly accuse as incoherent any Theory that does not set them as “contraries”. Under these types of accusations, the stoic Cosmology and Theory of the Freedom of the Will is often to be included. This phenomenal self-contradiction inside the Principles of Stoicism becomes even more obvious in Epictetus, a philosopher of the Late Stoa. He is interested in practical ethics, thus the phenomenal contradiction gets more lucid. This would have augmented the criticism of the Stoic philosophy for incoherence, if Epictetus had not made his main philosophical aim/target : the clarification of how an agent’s Will can be Free inside a Universe ruled by Fate/Destiny ; namely, a Universe merely Determined by Nature’s/God’s Will. Epictetus’ originality appears in the way he interrelates the concept of Freedom of the Will with the concept of Destiny and Determinism, in order to accomplish their simultaneous co-existence. This approach guards him against being easily accused for incoherence and self-contradiction. Through the unique way he understands and defines the Moral Agency, which is the agent’s internal state/condition/disposition, he steers towards an integrated, accomplished, strong and coherent line of argument. This sturdy declaration is able to support the weight of the Consent to a Free Will, and thus a certain kind Freedom of the moral agent. The excellence of this line of argument is that it can bear also the burden of the Consent to the phenomenally contrary concept of Determinism and Destiny. The elements used to the construction of this argument, which is stretched throughout the whole epictetean corpus can be summarised to a few key concepts, which are: the things which are in our power and the things which are not in our power, the concept of Freedom. These concepts work towards his philosophical targeting, because of the special definition he gives them. Axiomatically Epictetus states that in order for man to be free, it is necessary to be liberated from what the body forces him to do. Desires, passions and beliefs are considered as elements which are external to the moral agent. The moral agent “shrinks” into the Will. Thus man has the capability to free himself from anything external to his Will and therefore to harmonise his own Will to the Will of Nature/God; namely, to will what Nature/God wills and thus never conflict to the external facts. Consequently, Epictetus’ solution, is to include in the category of τά οὐκ ἐφ' ἡμῖν anything that he defines as external to the prohairesis: the desires, beliefs, passions and in general anything the body entails, the external facts. Thus the prohairesis, remains unhindered and it is completely depended on man’s power ; as characteristically Epictetus writes, “not even Zeus himself can overpower” the prohairesis. Dissertation for the MSc Ancient Philosophy (2008-2009) at The University of Edinburgh, supervised by Inna Kupreeva

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Marina Christodoulou
Alpen Adria Universität Klagenfurt & Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès (Alumnus)


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