Pathways to PhilosophyKindle eBooks by G Klempner

on this page

Or send us an email

Application form

Pathways programs

Letters to my students

How-to-do-it guide

Essay archive

Ask a philosopher

Pathways e-journal

Features page

Downloads page

Pathways portal

Pathways to Philosophy

Geoffrey Klempner CV
G Klempner

International Society for Philosophers
ISFP site

Home   Leech 1   Leech 2   Leech 3   Leech 4

pathways (essays)

Oliver Leech

The Free-Will Determinism Problem in Greek Philosophy: Aristotle

Although the tradition of western philosophy was once famously called a series of 'footnotes to Plato' (A.N. Whitehead), there seems to be at least one major philosophical debate that owes it s heritage neither to Plato nor to any of his ancient compatriots. The problem of free will and determinism seems not to have been a major issue directly exercising the minds of philosophers of the ancient world. There are probably two main reasons for this. First, 'the prevailing view of the universe in their day did not presuppose an omnipotent deity. The Olympians were certainly magnificently superhuman but they fell far short of total power. Even Zeus, the greatest of the gods, did not have everything his own way as many a myth testifies. However, once the Judaeo-Christian notion of the Almighty came to dominate the thinking of Europe, then doubts emerged about the scope of human freedom. For, if God is the omnipotent creator of all, then his created beings may well enquire whether they are his totally passive automata or endowed with independent choice and responsibility. Second, the Greeks lacked a deep-seated belief in scientific determinism. Scientists and non-scientists alike, we children of the modem world cannot escape strong conditioning into the belief that all physical events have physical causes, that we live in a universe governed by inexorable laws of nature. Once we apply this general principle to human behaviour we are bound to ask whether our actions are the expression of our free will or simply mechanistic reactions to stimuli. In this essay I intend to examine a central doctrine of Aristotle and in the course of this examination show that, although Aristotle did not develop an explicit position on the question of free will and determinism, an implicit position can be identified.

In Book Two of his Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle describes the origin and development of character. For Aristotle there is in us no innate character, no inherited (or astrologically determined) set of qualities that make us the types of people that we are. What we do possess at birth, however, is a capacity, an undifferentiated potentiality, out of which a particular set of qualities called our character develops. His denial of inborn character he explains by reference to the quaint physics of his day: 'a stone, which has a natural tendency downwards, cannot be habituated to rise however often you try to train it by throwing it into the air.' There is an implicit definition of natural here. Aristotle takes it to entail unchangeabihty. if character were natural (innate), it could not be subject to change. Since, he implies, there is evidence that character within one individual is variable and malleable, then it cannot be part of an inborn nature.

Character, then, exists at birth for Aristotle only in the sense of an unmanifested potentiality which can be channelled into different directions or moulded into different shapes. We are not born just or unjust, gentle or cruel, smug or diffident but acquire all such traits after birth. Here is an analogy. According to one linguistic theory, babies are born with the potentiality to make the sounds of any language. Infant utterance is an experimentation with this wide range of culturally unlimited sounds. In the course of time, however, the growing child repeatedly imitates and gradually learns to use only the sounds he hears around him, those of his native language. The ability to use the rest he loses. In this way, out of the potentiality to master speech using all human sounds there develops in him a competence in a particular set of sounds. In a similar way for Aristotle individualised character forms out of the wider potential.

How exactly does character arise and develop? According to Aristotle it is by habituation. 'Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it' (ibid. II.i). We become brave and generous as a consequence of performing brave and generous acts. A single brave act is not in itself evidence of bravery as a characteristic of the agent. Repeated brave acts plant and in due course firmly establish the quality of bravery in him until bravery becomes part of his 'fixed and permanent dispositions' (ibid. II.iv). We might call this the potty-training theory of character formation'. Toilet habits are not innate — hence the multi-million pound nappy industry — but are acquired by repeated performance. Aristotle, however, likens the acquisition of character to the learning of a skill such as the playing of a musical instrument. A raw beginner on the violin may occasionally play a beautiful note, perfectly in tune (perhaps on an open string) but this momentary felicity is no evidence of his competence as a musician. Only when he can regularly and at will play beautiful notes in tune is he entitled to be called an accomplished musician. So with character. If I am brave on Monday but cowardly on Tuesday, I am not a brave man. To deserve that description I need to be brave on every day of the week. (And for much longer than a week too.) :

We become just by performing just acts, temperate by performing temperate ones, brave by performing brave ones.
Nichomachean Ethics II.i

In the case of bravery, for example, Aristotle's view strongly challenges one conventional definition. Independent Television recently presented a programme called 'Don't Try This at Home' in which volunteers accepted challenges to perform frightening stunts. For example, a hairdresser from Essex waded across a tightrope strung over a pit of crocodiles; another contestant tried to drive over a very deep ravine on two strips of leather hardly wider than her vehicle's tyres. The appeal of the show was the mixture of voyeuristic pleasure in witnessing the very visible fear and trepidation of the competitors and awe-struck respect for their bravery. A contestant who performed such tasks as these while remaining cool and relaxed, whose total sangfroid was never disturbed, would have been less impressively brave, ,perhaps not brave at all in the eyes of some viewers. Why? Because it is an essential part of this attitude to bravery that it demonstrates itself in a battle against fear. The competitor goes through with the task in spite of an almost overwhelming desire to run away. We hear the trembling voices, see the quivering knees, and admire the strength of will in the competitor to overcome that fear. Without the trepidation, the panic and the bowel-clenching urge to flee, there cannot be any real bravery. No fear, no courage — at least according to this model of bravery.

This is not Aristotle's. To him the presence of fear is evidence of the incomplete formation of the quality of bravery in the character. Initially, when faced with danger, a man experiences inner conflict. The desire to be brave is posed by the desire to run away from the danger. But, when recurring situations of danger are met, bravery is step-by-step strengthened as fear diminishes, just as when milk is poured from a bottle into a jug, one vessel empties as the other fills. Ultimately, with sufficient habituation, the experienced man faces danger without flinching. For now bravery has been firmly fixed or deeply engraved in his character and the internal conflict of former times has faded away. It has been written into his being, like the name Blackpool in a stick of rock. In this way, for Aristotle, it is not those fighting to suppress the powerful forces of fear, like the contestants in the TV show, who qualify to be called brave but those made blase by the confidence of experience.

What is true of bravery is true of all our characteristics: we become generous, kind, just, honourable, ambitious by habituation; by repeated action the quality of which the action is an expression becomes permanently embedded in our personalities, 'a fixed and permanent disposition'.

There are several areas where Aristotle's doctrine of the formation of character is open to question. I shall consider one criticism briefly since the theme of this essay is not evaluation of this doctrine but its implications for the problem of free will. I think it will also emerge that the challenge to Aristotle even if valid leaves those implications untouched. But we shall see.

First, I want to examine his comparison of the formation of character with the learning of a skill. It is surely implausible to assert that learning to play a musical instrument, Aristotle's own choice for analogy, is merely a question of habituation. There is ample empirical evidence of this. Any music teacher will confirm that if two children practise the flute with equal regularity, one will advance in skill further than the other. Certainly this will be true in some cases which is all that my argument needs. Since, if we allow that the habituation is the same in both children, then we must look elsewhere for an explanation of the discrepancy, probably to the notions of inherited talent or of motivation. No one really believes that Mozart's genius as a child prodigy was the consequence of longer hours practising scales and arpeggios (though, for all I know, he may have been a prodigious practiser too). Now if it is the case that aptitudes and talents are in part inherited, and if Aristotle wants to liken the acquisition of skill to the development of character, it follows that men and women, just as they may be blessed at birth with a genetic predisposition to excel at mathematics or music, may similarly be born with a predisposition to be gentle, ambitious, arrogant or whatever. Aristotle's position is underlined, I suggest, by following through the implications of his own analogy.

But to return to the central theme and to recap briefly. First, I have no character when I am born. Second, the character that develops in me or, the type of person I become, is the consequence of the habits of behaviour I adopt and maintain. Now which particular habits these turn out to be seems to depend on the nature of the environment in which I am reared. If I am brought up in the household of George Washington and repeatedly behave in a thrifty and honest mariner, then, according to Aristotle, thrift and honesty will become part of my fixed disposition; if, however, I am brought UP in the household of Fagin, then I will turn into well trained pickpocket with dishonesty a fixed part of my disposition. In both cases since my character is formed by external influences on the condition of tabula rasa in which I was born, it is difficult to see any justification for attributing of any responsibility to me for my character and, for that matter, for the actions I carry out which are expressions of my character. To put it slightly differently, there seems to be no place in Aristotle's system for a self which exists over and above my character and, furthermore, my character itself has been formed as a consequence of environmental influence over which, even if there were a separate agent, some concept of a self, it would have no influence. It was not my decision as to which household should nurture me and I had not pre-existing character with which to resist the attrition of habituation.

That Aristotle does not address this problem is the more surprising in the view of the fact that he devotes a later section of his ethics to the idea of responsibility. Book Three begins with a discussion of this very concern. For what feelings and actions do we deserve praise and blame, he asks. The initial move in his answer is to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary actions. It is for the former that we deserve praise and blame; for the latter no praise or blame should be allotted. Why is the agent responsible for his voluntary actions? 'Because the movement of the limbs that are the instruments of action has its on gin in the agent himself, and where this is so it is in his power either to act or not' (ibid. III.i).. For an involuntary act the agent is not praised or blamed for the obvious reason that, by definition, the act is not within his control. Aristotle gives as an example of such an act 'if a voyager were to be conveyed somewhere by the wind' (ibid. III.i). Clearly there are such involuntary events for which any notion of responsibility would be completely inappropriate: the kidnap victim is not responsible for the movement of his body from one hiding place to another; if, standing in a queue' I am pushed by the person behind into the person in front, I am not responsible for tipping his meal on to the floor; if the world's strongest man picks me up and hurls me across the room, I am not liable for any breakages. For the cause of the movement of my body is not in my body but external to it. Indeed, I am like an inanimate missile in such cases.

Now clearly there is a difference between the cause of an agent's acts which lies in the body of the agent and the cause of his acts which is located outside the agent's body. But is the difference one of responsibility? Does the agent deserve praise of blame for the former but not for the latter'? It is this question I want to consider next and first of all purely in Aristotle's own terms.

I am assuming here that actions are an expression of character, a view with which Aristotle would have almost certainly agreed. He attaches no importance to purely passive states, to qualities that are not manifested in behaviour. In an earlier discussion on happiness (more precisely, the long-term well-being or flourishing denoted by the Greek term, eudaemonia) he writes: 'an activity in accordance with virtue 'lies is possible for the state to be present in a person with-out effecting any good result (e.g., if he is asleep or quiescent in some other way), but not for the activity: he will necessarily act...' (ibid. I.viii). 1 take Aristotle to accept the implication of this, namely that character is the cause of behaviour. But at this point the problematic nature of responsibility begins to emerge. I have already shown that Aristotle's doctrine of character development leads inexorably to the conclusion that the agent cannot be responsible for his character. But what of his acts, in particular his voluntary acts which are internally caused? Surely he can be no more responsible for his voluntary acts than he is for his character? The location of the cause, internal or external, is irrelevant to the question of responsibility.

In this way, by taking the Aristotelian doctrine of character development and following it through to its full logical implications, there appears not only an inconsistency between two positions Aristotle adopts in his ethics, a matter of some interest, but, more significantly, an implicit inclination towards determinism and a rejection of free will. I am not responsible for the nature of the 'fixed and permanent disposition which developed as an effect of the habit-inducing environment in which I was reared. Aristotle seems to be invoking a moral centre of personhood, a seat of responsible choice-making without giving any reason to believe that such an entity exists.

Furthermore, what is true of Aristotle's doctrine of character will be true of any doctrine which ascribes the arising and development of character to causes. It makes no difference what those causes are. This is why the earlier point that Aristotle takes no account of a genetic input into character, although it may be a valid criticism, serves only to reinforce the case against free will which I find implicit in Aristotle. For if the traits of my character are inherited from my forebears, then clearly I am no more responsible for them than I am for the colour of my eyes or my inability to waggle my ear lobes.

In conclusion, I suspect that in Aristotle, though he is not addressing the problem of free will and determinism directly, he has recognised a social need to distinguish between actions for which men are or are not responsible. Blame and praise are crucial to the community's well-being; the identification of their rightful place is a legitimate task for the philosopher — hence the distinction between voluntary and involuntary action with its implication of free will. Elsewhere, however, he presents a doctrine which describes human action as derived from character shaping environmental causes. Clearly the two positions are inconsistent.