Description of Epicurus on Freedom

Epicurus on Freedom is forthcoming Summer 2005 from Cambridge University Press. Here is a short description of the book, drawn from its opening section.

One of the most startling and distinctive aspects of Epicurean philosophy is the atomic motion known as the 'swerve.' The Epicureans are materialists, holding that the only things that exist per se are bodies and 'void,' which is just empty space. Bodies are simply conglomerations of atoms, which are uncuttable, extended bits of 'full' space flying through the void as a result of their weight, past motions, and collisions with other atoms. But the Epicurean poet Lucretius writes that if all atomic motion were the deterministic result of past motions and weight, we would not have the 'free volition' (libera voluntas) which allows each of us to move ourselves as we wish. Since we evidently do have the power to move ourselves as we wish, there must be a third, indeterministic cause of atomic motion, in addition to weight and past motions--a 'swerving' of the atoms to the side at uncertain times and places, which saves us from fate.

In part, this book is an attempt to discern the role the swerve plays in preserving human freedom. However, the swerve cannot be studied in isolation; it must be understood in the context of Epicurus' ethics, philosophy of mind, and metaphysics in general. So the subject of this book is Epicurus' overall theory of human freedom. I will argue that the swerve plays only a peripheral role in Epicurus' overall theory, and that an overemphasis on the role of the swerve has significantly distorted our understanding of Epicurus' ethics, philosophy of mind, action-theory, and metaphysics, as scholars read swerves into parts of Epicurus' philosophy where they are not mentioned at all.

Epicurus' theory of freedom deserves attention not only because of its place within Hellenistic philosophy, but because of the way it has shaped how we conceive of the issue of free will today. Epicurus plays a key role in the birth of the traditional 'problem of free will and determinism'--that is, the seeming incompatibility of causal determinism and the sort of 'ability to do otherwise' that is necessary for moral responsibility. Because Epicurus believes that freedom and determinism are incompatible, and because he denies that determinism is true in order to preserve our freedom, Epicurus has been hailed as the first person to discover the free will problem, and the first to offer a libertarian solution to it. But I think that this is mistaken. There is a great variety of 'freedom and determinism' problems, and Epicurus is responding to concerns quite distinct from the ones that motivate the traditional problem of free will and determinism. Epicurus is pivotal in the story of how our problem of free will and determinism arose, but not because he himself formulated this problem. Instead, his own position was appropriated and significantly reshaped in debates by subsequent philosophers, and through a process that owes a great deal to historical quirk and happenstance, Epicurus helped to form a libertarian conception of the freedom of the will that he himself would have repudiated.


I begin chapter one with a survey of different types of possible "free will and determinism" problems. I then summarize some of the main interpretations of Epicurus and categorize them based upon what problem they take Epicurus to be addressing with the swerve. After that, I look at the way in which Epicurus (and Epicureans) describe the sort of freedom they are concerned to defend, as well as what they should care about, given their ethics and metaphysics. I argue that most interpreters have mistakenly assimilated Epicurus' concerns to those of modern libertarians. It is both much more plausible and more charitable to ascribe to Epicurus a concern to defend rational agency rather than libertarian free will.

In chapter two, I look at Lucretius' poem De rerum natura. I argue that Lucretius' description of the swerve in DRN 2 251-293 does not give us good reason to think that there is a swerve involved in the production of every free action. In fact, he gives us little information about how the swerve is supposed to help preserve our freedom, other than that it somehow prevents what will occur from being predetermined. However, his description of the libera voluntas that the swerve helps safeguard makes it clear that libera voluntas is not a libertarian freedom of the will. Instead, Lucretius cares about our ability to move ourselves as we wish, in order to get what we desire.

In chapter three, I consider supposed Aristotelian antecedents in the Nicomachean Ethics to Epicurus' position. I agree with others who have thought that both Aristotle and Epicurus wish the agent to be the 'origin' of both his actions and his own character. However, for neither Aristotle nor Epicurus does this have any anti-determinist implications.

Chapter four is primarily an examination of Epicurus' philosophy of mind. I argue that Epicurus has an identity theory of mind: the mind is identified with a group of atoms in the chest, and mental events and states are identified with atomic events and states. I give an extended analysis of the extant portions of Epicurus' On Nature 25. In these passages, Epicurus is concerned to rebut the fatalist implications of Democritean eliminative materialism, not the deterministic implications of his reductionist materialism. (I also argue, inter alia, that Epicurus' response to the skeptical implication of Democritus' metaphysics, in which Epicurus defends the reality of properties like whiteness and sourness, is consistent with his having a reductionist metaphysics.)

The overarching negative conclusion of chapters two, three and four is that none of these texts allow us to discern the role of the swerve, and that the various attempts to use them for this purpose fail. The main positive doctrine that emerges from considering these texts is that Epicurus wishes to preserve our ability to use our reason to control our action and shape our character, a view that is (in itself) compatible both with causal determinism and with an identity theory of the mind.

In chapter five and six, I turn to my own view of the swerve. Chapter five concerns the role the swerve plays in explaining atomic collisions. In chapter six, I describe how the swerve is supposed to help preserve human freedom. Epicurus' reasons for positing the swerve are inadequate; he makes a number of mistakes that are subsequently uncovered by Chrysippus and Carneades. Nonetheless, I argue that my interpretation is preferable to the others both on textual grounds and on grounds of charity.

In the epilogue, I take up the question of how the traditional 'problem of free will' arose, if Epicurus was not concerned with it, and I look at the way in which Epicurus inadvertently contributed to its birth. I argue that Carneades should be credited (or blamed) for first formulating a libertarian position on the 'traditional' problem of free will and determinism, and that via Cicero's De fato, it was transmitted to the western philosophical tradition in St. Augustine's On Free Choice of the Will.

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