Spontaneity, Democritean Causality and Freedom

Elenchos 30 (1):5-52 (2009)
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Critics have alleged that Democritus’ ethical prescriptions (“gnomai”) are incompatible with his physics, since his atomism seems committed to necessity or chance (or an awkward combination of both) as a universal cause of everything, leaving no room for personal responsibility. I argue that Democritus’ critics, both ancient and contemporary, have misunderstood a fundamental concept of his causality: a cause called “spontaneity”, which Democritus evidently considered a necessary (not chance) cause, compatible with human freedom, of both atomic motion and human actions. Some influential contemporary compatibilists have argued that freedom and responsibility are compatible with causal determinism, but not intentional constraint where some other agent is intentionally manipulating or coercing one’s actions. In line with this, Democritus holds that humans should not blame their actions on other agents like the gods, or agent-like external forces like fate or chance, but should assume ultimate intentional control over their own choices and actions. The famous remark of his associate Leucippus that “everything happens for a reason and out of necessity” is a fitting slogan of their atomistic philosophy, for Democritus pursued what can without anachronism be recognized as a causal theory of freedom.

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Monte Johnson
University of California, San Diego


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