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The Stoic Perception of Free Will

The Stoic Perception of Free Will

The Stoic Perception of Free Will Thesis

I’ll be discussing the Stoic perception of free will, general concepts of free will and determinism, how the Stoic perception of compatabilism is possible through universal and personal nature, why the Stoic definition of a perfect sage is an impossible in theory, why universal nature cannot know personal nature, why the cosmos, logos, universe & god can share the same definition and why cause and effect cannot control personal nature or our emotions.

Free Will and Determinism

Most simply put the Stoics believed in free will as well as determinism. There are multiple detailed descriptions for each but I will explain general examples of the two. Free will is the belief that we control and are responsible for all of are actions. Determinism is the belief that all of our actions are predetermined by cause and effect.
 If your working outside on a hot day you probably want a nice glass of iced tea. Do you want iced tea because you want ice tea? (free will) or Is the cause for your craving ice tea pre-determined by the heat, in which the heat was predetermined by something else, also your craving for iced tea was predetermined by trying ice tea before, which was predetermined by others enjoying ice tea, which was predetermined by the invention of iced tea, so on and so forth? (determinism)



In philosophical terms believing in free will as well as determinism would be called compatibilism. In order to believe in the Stoic perspective of compatabilism, you have to understand universal nature and personal nature.

Universal Nature

Universal nature is belief that the universe is governed by cause and effect. We are bodies. Humans and animals are bodies. Universal nature can control where bodies are in the universe and the situations they’re in. Say the universe has a hundred dollar bill floating in the wind next to you. You will follow that hundred dollar bill. Universal nature has lead you to a cliff. A tree leans over the edge of this cliff, where the dollar bill has landed in the tree’s leaves.

Personal Nature

This is where personal nature comes into play. The decision now is up to you whether you think a hundred dollars is worth risking your life. It is also up to you whether you followed that hundred dollar bill, but who wouldn’t follow a hundred dollar bill? If you didn’t follow the hundred dollar bill, universal nature would still get you to the tree by the cliff if that’s where it wanted you to be.
 Where universal nature has control over the universe, personal nature allows us to govern our emotions, which therefore governs our actions.

We can control how we feel about any situation, in any situation. It actually seems to be a lost art. We’ve all started controlling our feelings since the age of the terrible twos however once we are able to at least function up to society’s standards it seems we subconsciously stop caring or trying because hey, everyone gets sad or angry. It’s normal. It’s only if we get too angry that we’re forced into anger management. Stoics believe that getting angry is not normal and we should aspire to avoid it, unless it is the correct emotion to feel at the time.

Universal and Personal Nature Recap

It seemed to me that our actions (vs our feelings) would be part of universal nature, but Quoted from the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus. “It’s up to an agent how to act, so long as the actions flow from the desires and character of that agent. if you put a cylinder on a table, it will roll off. If you put a cone on the table, it will roll side to side.” We do not have the choice of where we are put, but we have a choice on how we roll with our situations, the choice to be a cylinder or a cone.

Another great example from Chrysippus, when Oedipus was lead to the crossroads by universal nature it was his decision on what to do there. Murdering his father was a choice he made due to his personal nature. A meeker man would not have chosen to commit murder.
 I never read so clear of definitions from Marcus Aurelius in notes to himself from his book, or journal rather, Meditations. Though he did go into detail to explain some differences of universal and personal nature.

         6:25 – “Another does wrong before me, what is it to me? Let him to see it. I now have what universal nature wishes me to have, and I do what my own nature wishes me to do now.” and 12:32 – “Think nothing important other than active pursuit where your own nature leads and passive acceptance of what universal nature brings.”

Multiple descriptions like this from Meditations make it clear that Marcus believes he has his own choices on how he feels, acts even what he pursues. but universal nature will lead him anywhere it wants regardless.

My Stance

When the stoic perception of free will is put like Chrysippus has made it, I still have trouble with a detailed definition. Marcus tells us we are different people every day. I believe this to be true. We ever so slightly grow every day and more importantly feel differently every day. So, are we only bouncing back and forth between being the persons our emotions make us? If we do not control our personal nature our emotions must. I believe we control our personal nature until we let our emotions take over. It is an ongoing battle.

I mentioned before that we could be forced into anger management. Data was hard to find, but in a 1998 study involving thousands of participants there is a 67% success rate with anger management. Even if there was a 1% success rate, that is proof we can have control over our emotions, we just need to learn to control them further.

I will get more into how control over our emotions is possible, necessary, and the effects it may have in the The Sage, Interaction of Natures, and My Philosophy, as it needs to be defended at every point and may be the most important piece of the Stoic perception of free will. Interestingly it is my argument against the perfect sage but for the Stoic perception of free will as a whole.

The Sage

The Sage is essentially a perfect mortal being in the Stoics eye. The only person who can be in control of their emotions, personal nature, or act according to their personal nature all of the time is the perfect sage. The sage knows how to act and acts appropriately in every situation. The sage is never too happy, never too sad or too jealous. The sage can feel any emotion, but only the proper amount at the proper time. He maintains perfect composure in every situation and acts accordingly. He has godlike virtue.

Stoics agree that anyone who is not a perfect sage is despicable including themselves. Most Stoic philosophers do not give themselves credit for being a perfect sage though they aim to be one in every situation. The stoic idea of a perfect sage has been highly debated by disbelievers in the sole concept.

Impossibility Of The Sage

I do not believe in the possibility of a perfect sage for many reasons. I cannot prove it impossible but I will use Socratic method to question the possibility.

What is the perfect composure to every situation? Marcus Aurelius believes either teach or live with. Help, or say nothing. So would a sage help a man see the error of his ways or go on to a larger task that could help a larger number of people? How could a perfect sage turn down a chance to help? Surely there is no time for both, as a situation to help a larger number of people will always be available somewhere.

Going one step deeper in the same argument, if a sage had to choose between saving one life or two. To make it as even as possible, let’s say identical twins are being held hostage. The kidnappers say one lives and one dies, you pick. How does the perfect sage make the right decision? What is the right decision? I don’t believe there is a right decision but the perfect sage cannot make a wrong decision.

Nevertheless controlling our emotion into being as level headed as possible at all times could certainly effect our lives. For better or worse? Turn every situation into a positive. Be optimistic even during a time of great disappointment. Have a smile but not too wide. Set aside our personal desires to focus only on the good of all society or at least self control.

If we all accomplished these things, would we be sacrificing beautiful works of art? Songs, paintings, books, all created in deep part from our emotions? How can the sage be a perfect sage if he cannot grow to show emotion like Edgar Allan Poh?
    Seneca, another Stoic philosopher, says “The sage can feel certain emotions like anger if it is the correct time to be angry.” But can a sage really just become sad so he can write a sad story? I don’t believe even a sage-like being would think that to be appropriate.

If you disregard all things art, which is a very difficult to do seeing how it’s everywhere that we look, keeping a cool head would more than likely bring a positive outcome in most situations. Even there, though, you need to define “positive outcome”. How would you explain the Mona Lisa to be more positive or negative than having a more balanced, plain, Pleasantville-like society?

Emotional Control

It’s hard to believe we have control over ourselves when we’re angry. In fact we may not have control when we’re beyond a certain point of anger. However I’m willing to bet we were very angry about one situation at one point in time, but, we were less angry about that same situation repeating itself at a different time. We may not be in control when we’re angry but control over emotions is possible even if they’re not repeating situations. If we can keep a cool head in intense situations, our actions can and will be cool to follow. We may not be able to stop a slight twitch of anger but we can control it as a whole.

“If you’re angry count to ten before you speak, if you’re very angry, count to one hundred.”
- Thomas Jefferson.

I interpret this quote as control yourself before you let anger take ahold of your actions.

Interaction of the Natures

The Stoics have to believe universal nature guides everyone to their next step, but it does not know the emotions of our personal nature, so universal nature cannot plan our next event until the currently setup event has been completed. If universal nature brings you to a pool, it cannot make you want to swim. If universal nature wants you to swim and you do not go into the pool, universal nature can then decide to make you trip into the pool.

If you believe universal nature does know our personal nature, how we’re going to act in each situation, your being fatalistic and there’s no way around it. If universal nature brings us to a pool and knows we want to go swimming, it does not need a secondary plan of action. It can then plan every event to the end of time. Fatalism.

It’s impossible to deny that the universe is governed by cause and effect. I can see cause and effect being the argument that hooks many pure determinists. So why doesn’t cause and effect govern our emotions or personal nature? Can’t universal nature throw events our way that will make us furious?
 No, it cannot. That’s the beauty of it. No matter how hard universal nature tries, we can prevent any situation from making us angry. Sure a person that cannot control their emotions will get angry but a stronger person will not. Universal nature can even try and trick us and show us how useful anger may be but it cannot make us choose the path of anger.

It starts to get very Star Wars like. Yoda see’s Anakin cannot control his emotions. Yoda knows that Anakin could be taken over by the dark side as anger and jealousy are components of the dark side. Obi One is blind to this, and willing to take a risk on young Skywalker. (Spoiler) Unfortunately emotions take over and they have trained the future dark lord. In episode 6 however, Darth Vader (Anakin Skywalker) gains control over his emotions and lets Luke Skywalker (his son yet arch nemesis) escape death in his final opportunity for redemption.

Interaction of Natures Recap

Stoics take an undeniable feature of life that is cause and effect and are able to weave an element of freedom into the argument which is their personal nature. Believing in cause and effect is not enough for the Stoics nor myself to wave their entire life in surrender to the cosmos.

The Cosmos, Logos, Universe & Gods

What are gods to the Stoics? The Cosmos, Logos, Universe & Gods all seem to be wrapped into one in the Stoic eye. Logos appears to be redefined as new generations of stoic philosophers came into play. We can only use logos as a principle of order and knowledge.

Different gods are mentioned by multiple Stoics. However Marcus and many others also simply refer to god as god. When these Stoics describe god as god, it sounds like they’re talking about universal nature. I’m uncertain why god needs to be thrown into things. Many Stoics say god is interwoven in the universe as one, although he is also a physical being. That is a highly criticized statement by Stoic rivals.

Zeus is referenced as the person who controls universal nature by Marcus Aurelius, which seems to be largely overlooked in my eyes. That’s a serious statement. That’s saying Zeus controls universal nature which includes the one Stoics proclaim as god. Marcus also defines god as apart of universal nature in the same book. Again, this book was his journal and he sounds angered at times, inspired at times, worried at times, and maybe he was trying to be poetic at that time.

The Cosmos, Logos, Universe and Gods Recap

This is one of the most misunderstand concepts about Stoics. I cannot unravel what each stoic Philosopher thought about the cosmos, logos, universe & god myself. However personally I believe you could just call all of these things universal nature and move on. All of these things are only attempts to define a higher purpose, find meaning behind our lives, or understand why universal nature is able to effect us the way it does. Universal nature is the only thing that can be reasonably understood. Nothing else in this group can be properly defined nor defended.

Personal Anecdote / My Philosophy:

Anger has a voice, sadness has a voice, frustration, jealously, pain, happiness, sorrow, courage, knowledge and virtue all have voices. Amongst every other feeling and action. How are we going to let ourselves feel? How we let ourselves feel controls every situation. It controls our entire perspective on life. When artists paint, write, compose, even think, their emotion have a great effect on the outcome.

Either way controlling your own emotion is easier said than done. Have you ever felt the rage, starting in the lower back of your brain. When angering news hits your ears, Zeus hurls a lightning bolt at the back of your neck which quickly sends a shockwave of tiny electric bolts circulating on the top of your brain until it reaches in-between your skull and the front of your face as your eyes gloss over and you immediately shout to the world around you.

Have you ever felt jealousy hit the pit of your stomach only to slowly start churning causing literal cramps and acting like an engine to keep even more ridiculous thoughts bouncing around your head like a pinball machine with two broken paddles blocking the exit but keeping every last idea up there as the balls overflow the board and your head is about to explode.

We’ve all felt these ways and hopefully we’ve all taken effective actions to be able to overcome these feelings. We have all become slightly more Stoic by (hopefully) effectively controlling these feelings from the age of the terrible two’s. Unfortunately once we have emotions mostly under control, most of us find excuses or really just make unconscious decisions to stop trying to control our emotions. We’re as good as we want to be. We can let ourselves slip on that one, can’t we?

Is every opportunity we have to be a sage but do not act accordingly one strike against us to whatever lies beyond this life? I don’t know the answer to that questions but that is the best way to think about life in my opinion. No, we’re definitely not going to reach a perfect sage status but most of the time it will benefit us and if there is a heaven and hell in the afterlife it’s more than likely the best way humans can interpret if we’re going up or down.

Determinism is undeniable, control over our own emotion is undeniable, emotions effecting our actions is undeniable, the understanding of anything beyond universal nature (such as the cosmos, logos, universe & god) is beyond our understanding and is a waste of time to try and contemplate. Just be the best person that you can be and when our time comes we will find out what our soul and memories truly mean.

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