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The question of Freedom is one of the most contentious questions in philosophy. It is a concept that borders on issues of human self determination. Generally, the idea of freedom comprises two related but distinct concepts: freedom of the will or freedom of choice (or simply, free will) and freedom of action, meaning the absence of external constraints. Minimally the notion of freedom deals with the question whether human beings are initiators of their actions or they are determined.   Some questions associated with the topic of freedom (or free will) are: ‘what is it to act (or choose) freely?’ Are we free agents? And finally, Can we be morally responsible for what we do? The etymology of these terms reveals that these questions are implicit in the meanings of the terms.

The standard Greek term for the ‘will’ is prohairesis, literally, “choice” or “disposition to choose.” The Greek term for the relevant notion of freedom is eleutheria or eleutheros meaning without constraints or that which is loosed or set free. This term provides us with some guidance as to how the notion of freedom is to be understood. This is because freedom may refer to Free will, Liberty, Rights, Civil liberties, Political freedom, Freedom of assembly, Freedom of association, Freedom of choice etc. Freedom, therefore, would mean the ability of an agent to choose freely and to carry out actions without any external constraints.

As the very term indicates, it must be a notion formed by analogy to the political notion of freedom. According to the political notion, one is free if one is a citizen, rather than a slave, and living in a free political community rather than in a community governed, for instance, by a tyrant. This political notion of freedom is two-sided. It is characterized, on the one side, by the laws which the citizens of the community have imposed on themselves and, on the other side, by there being no further external constraints on a free citizen which would systematically prevent him from doing what he could reasonably want to do in pursuit of his own good, in particular from living the kind of life he could reasonably want to live.1

Free will is, therefore, the ability of agents to make choices unconstrained by certain factors. Factors of historical concern have included metaphysical constraints (such as logical, nomological, or theological determinism), physical constraints (such as chains or imprisonment), social constraints (such as threat of punishment or censure), and mental constraints (such as compulsions or phobias, neurological disorders, or genetic predispositions). The principle of free will has religious, legal, ethical, and scientific implications.

Ilham Dilman sees the concept of freedom as that concept that reflects on the condition of human existence in which human beings are, either or not, in bondage. It thus asks: what does it mean to be in bondage or to be free, whether this bondage is in any sense evitable or not,  and if it is, how can one turn away from it and move towards greater autonomy and freedom? What is free will and in what way is it distinctive of and grounded in human existence? 2

To the questions outlined above on the notion of freedom different philosophers have different contributions.

A survey of Early Greek writings, whether poetry, drama or philosophy, reveals that they had a tragic perception of the subjection of human beings to what they themselves initiate. But they thought of it as subject to their own character and of that, in turn, as subject to something in them all, something which belongs to ‘human nature’. An example of that can be seen in Homer’s poem the Iliad where he stated that it was human beings who initiated the Trojan War. The poem represents the men fighting on both sides as caught up in and enslaved by it. It is they who wage the war, but they become what the war makes of them. Yet it is because they are human that they become what the war makes of them. They are transformed by their pursuit of victory: both by the nearness of victory before it eludes them and by the nearness of death when victory slips from them. While in the war front, Homer thinks, human life has only one dimension; and Ilham Dilman  summed this point thus:

Within their one-dimensional life on the battle field, they have no choice but to obey what takes them over: they have to prevail over the enemy, teach them a lesson, and avenge their dead. As the scores to settle mount each side is further and further anchored in their determination to prevail, to avenge, to destroy. That is how they are locked in an endless cycle of reaction and counter-reaction, each side bent on destroying the other, whatever it takes to do so, that is, at whatever cost to themselves.3


Simone Weil wrote a very searching and thoughtful essay on the Iliad and took a deeper view of what the poem portrays and expresses. She described it as ‘a poem of force’; she says that force is its real subject. It changes, she says, all those it touches, all those who are subject to it, into things: its victims, the weak, as well as those who wield it, the strong – like Achilles. Force petrifies, she argues, differently but equally, the souls of all those who are its victims and those who manipulate it. Those who manipulate it become drunk with it.

Thus power, the poem shows, while it is something which many, perhaps most people, find desirable and seek, is not something anyone can appropriate or make his own. It determines their conduct and they do not know how to get on without it.

This is a game of power that strips man of his humanity, and Ilham Dilman continues:

This is a powerful picture of human subjection, of the slavery of individuals to a cycle of reactions that are natural but mindless – mindless because in his uprooted state the individual has very little to mind: to care, to respect, to take into consideration. With the rupture inherent in such uprootedness, the natural reactions that take over are those of self-assertion and retaliation to any threats to such assertion, taken as insult to the self, and self-preservation. The reactions of self-assertion are ruthlessly aggressive, while those of self-preservation have their source in near-animal fears. Both sets of reactions are human, but at source they are entangled with the activation of the capacity to survive that is part of all biological life.5


Thus human beings are ruptured from the many-dimensionality of human life by the deception of power. An individual is considered free if he can move within these dimensions and choose within their framework.

Another example is to be found in Sophocles’s play: King Oedipus, where the tragic fate of Oedipus was sealed even before his birth. It was revealed that Oedipus will kill his father. Even when his parents and he tried to avert the said fate, it was all in vain. He eventually killed his father. Ilham described this kind of fate thus:

‘Fate’, in the sense relevant to Sophocles’ play, has a more specific and poignant meaning which, likewise, presupposes the foreclosure of the future in a relative sense. It symbolizes the sum total of things in a human life which the individual can make no sense of in terms of who he is and what he deserves. In Oedipus’ case what awaited him was fixed before his birth – in some ways similar to the way a congenital weakness or disability is fixed by the genes we inherit from our parents.6


Sophocles, therefore, is telling us that a human being has to face the fact that there are things in life which go to make up his particular fate, things that are there for no reason that has anything to do with him and which, moreover, are beyond his powers to change.

Can we then conclude that Sophocles was a determinist? Even though, in many of his plays he represents the individual’s destiny as fixed or determined and human affairs as subject to inexorable laws. Yet, according to Ilham Dilman, freedom is possible within the framework of those inexorable laws. And this is what counts as wisdom for Sophocles. All that is required for freedom is that an individual recognizes them and takes them seriously. Oedipus’ fate was sealed in his lack of wisdom. This position is not in agreement with Sartre’s stand which maintains the freedom of man from all forms of determinism. But for Ilham, Sophocles is not deterministic in the modern sense. But only points how individuals will end should they continue to live some pattern of life. For him, if this is a form of determinism, it does not contain a denial of freedom. 7


The early Greek literature as we have seen in the Iliad and King Oedipus emphasizes the subjection of human life to what were perceived as forms of necessity to which human beings are vulnerable because of their ‘unthinking’ responses.

How does Plato (BC 427-347) fit into this picture and what does he have to say about it? His view, in the Phaedrus, is that if one lacks moral knowledge or wisdom one will be inevitably subject to evil; and evil then, in the form of the ruthless exercise of power, insatiable greed, malice, envy, an obsession for revenge for some harm suffered, etc., becomes a form of necessity. Such a man, he argues, does not act with intent, and voluntarily, and so is a slave to the form of evil which has taken hold of his soul. When someone is at one with the good, in the moral necessity that informs his actions such a person is free– his actions come from him and he does what he wills. In contrast, when he is at one with evil or, at any rate, makes concessions to it he is in bondage– his actions do not come from him, for his will does not belong to him, it belongs to the evil that is in him.

This is embodied in his popular statement that if one knows the good one will do the good and that evil is as a result of ignorance. The knowledge referred to by Plato here is moral and not intellectual knowledge. It is an affective orientation which takes the form of a love and respect for others. And for Plato, it is identical with virtue; in other words it is a mode of being. for him, then, only philosophical contemplation and the exercise of virtue can partially liberate one in this life.

In the Phaedrus and the Republic, Plato gives the doctrine of tripartite nature of the soul consisting of the rational, the courageous/spirited, and the appetitive parts. He likens the soul to a chariot being pulled by two horses, one black and one white, with the charioteer in control or not as the case may be. The black horse represents appetite; the white horse stands for love, while the charioteer is meant to represent reason. The horses are what move the soul while the charioteer tries to guide the horses in the light of what vision he has of reality or the good.

It is clear that the white horse stands for what we call ‘goodness’ and the black one ‘evil’ as is evident in the quotation below:

One of the horses, we say, is good and one not … The horse that is harnessed on the senior side is upright and clean-limbed; he holds his neck high and has a somewhat hooked nose; his colour is white, with black eyes; his thirst for honour is tempered by restraint and modesty; he is a friend to genuine renown and needs no whip, but is driven by the word of command. The other horse is crooked, lumbering, ill-made, stiff-necked, short-throated, snub-nosed; his coat is black and his eyes a blood-shot grey; wantonness and boastfulness are his companions, and he is hairy-eared and deaf, hardly controllable even with a whip and goad.8


Socrates, Plato’s mouthpiece in the dialogue, describes the white horse in words that clearly depict restraint, consideration and obedience, a characteristic of pure love and generosity, and the black horse in words which sum up ego-centricity, a characteristic of greed, lust and appetite.

In the Gorgias, Socrates argues that for a person to achieve the kind of freedom that is autonomous, that is, where a person acts to do what he himself wants to do, approves of, and can wholeheartedly endorse and give his blessings to, he needs to be whole. He needs to integrate his desires, make them his own, that is what he wants as a person who has come together. Only then will his desires be responsible to considerations.

But to achieve such wholeness in which a person has self-mastery, he has to be prepared to commit himself to the discipline of values which matter to him because of what he sees in them. While such discipline may impose some restraint on him in certain circumstances, this will be self-restraint.9

For Plato then, to give in to evil in the form of envy, hatred, resentments, thirst for power, reactions of retaliation etc, is to give up one’s freedom; it is to submit to the determination of one’s will by evil. So freedom is something to be won and he believes that it can only be won by doing what it takes to let goodness into the soul. His view is that it is only the good man who is free.

In the myth of Er in the Republic, Plato shows that there is freedom of choice before necessity. He explains that all souls were given the chance to choose their lots before Lachesis; and once that choice was made, it is irrevocable. There is, therefore, freedom of choice set before necessity, but only the wise man knows how to distinguish good from evil and arrive at true happiness.10


In the Nicomacean Ethics, Aristotle (384–322BC), does not question the reality of free will; his concern was to demonstrate its limits: when, under what conditions, can a man be said to act ‘voluntarily’, that is, of his own free will and when, even though intentional, are his actions not free? He stated that just as a carpenter and a cobbler have certain works and courses of action, so does ‘man as man’. Man is not just there to live and to pursue a life of nourishment, instinct and sensation. Human beings pursue ends in accordance with reason; they form intentions, make choices, and act on them. In short the work of man, for Aristotle, is a work of the soul in accordance with reason. A good man then, according to Aristotle, will come to be one in whom the working of the soul is in an excellent way, since, for him, the work of a good man is to do things well and nobly. This then means that what distinguishes man from other animals is man’s rationality, which is the ability to deliberate make choices and decisions. He went on, in book three, to discuss the distinction between what is done willingly (‘voluntary’ actions) and what is done without the agent’s willingness or with a willingness or consent that does not issue from knowledge but from ignorance (‘involuntary’ actions). Thus when the agent is unwilling to do what he nevertheless does it must be that he is in some way compelled to do it – an action done on compulsion. He also maintains that choice is plainly voluntary. Where a person makes a choice, whether moral or not, he is exercising his will. This implies that deliberations and decisions are par excellence the exercise of the will. Aristotle, therefore, took for granted the reality of free will and sees it as that which characterizes human existence and makes it radically distinct from other forms of existence.

St. Augustine (354–430) had no doubts about the reality of free will in human beings, that is, about our capacity to act and choose freely, in other words according to our own lights as individual agents. For him, ‘When I willed or did not will something, I was wholly certain that it was not someone other than I who willed or did not will it.’11 ‘Will’ here means ‘decide’ or ‘act with intention’. He is saying, in other words, that he had no doubt that he was the author of his decision and action, that he had himself formed the intention in his action. In De Libero Arbitrio (On Free Choice of the Will), he considered free will to be a gift of God to man. Man was given free will so that he can do what is right by choosing freely between good and evil. What that implies now is that man has the capacity not only to do good but also evil. But man is responsible for his deeds whether good or evil, since he now has the freedom to choose between the two. Even though man is free to choose, for him to do right, follow goodness, he needs the grace of God. Augustine also believes that it is man’s lusts, greed and avarice, pride and hates which lead him to evil deeds; and these are the kinds of things that enslave the will.

Augustine, in his idea of free will, appreciates the fact that this human capacity to choose freely is threatened from many different quarters, like predestination and God’s for knowledge. He worked hard to explain how these are all compatible with free will.

In the De Veritate, ‘On Free Choice’, of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) we see a combination of Christian teaching that God has given man free will with which he can choose between good and evil, and that of Aristotle which holds that man is a rational animal having the capacity to make choices between right and wrong. We also see during this period a dichotomy between the will and reason.  Aquinas, in Article I, sees the will as that rational appetite that moves us into action; and it is directed to an end that is determined by the agent’s capacity for judgment. Thus animals and human beings act voluntarily in contrast with non-living things. Animals follow ‘natural judgment’ or instinct, for that they lack freedom of choice, while in human beings the judgment is that of reason hence they have free choice. For an individual to be said to have free will, according to Aquinas, he must be capable of apprehension and judgment. And it is only human beings who fit this bill. This is, for him, the foundation of the possibility of merit and demerit, of reward and punishment. Aquinas, like Augustine, also had to grapple with the question of the compatibility of free will and God’s grace and fore knowledge. These, for him (as it was for Augustine), do not tamper with human freedom. 12


In the Passions of the Soul, Article 41, and the fourth Meditation, Descartes (1596–1650), despite his dualistic view of the human person, still holds that the human will is free. In his Sixth Meditation, he distinguished human beings, their life and actions, from the rest of nature. And this was due to the rise of the sciences during his time which saw things in causal terms. He thought of the unique agency of human beings in terms of the activity of the mind. The mind, according to Descartes, acts through the acts of the will and these acts of the will are uncaused and represent the initiative of the self which constitutes the mind’s activity. Ilham Dilman sums up this view thus:

In these acts the will is totally or absolutely free. There is nothing outside the mind to restrict or limit it. What the mind wills is determined by the mind itself in accordance with its own wishes and judgments. It is in this sense that for Descartes the will is self-determined and, therefore, free. The person or self, in the sense of mind, can will whatever he wants to and judges, can realize his objectives. Nothing can prevent him – or should I say it, the mind – from doing so. He may judge badly and fail to obtain what he wants, or otherwise come to grief; but that is only the result of his failing to judge correctly the course of events independent of him, external to the mind. It is in this sense that, for Descartes, the will is totally free in its own sphere – a sphere only causally and, therefore, externally related to the world in which the person, as an embodied being, acts. 13


Descartes also asserted that the will is not the source of errors, it is the understanding that errs with the judgments it makes since it informs the will of what to do; and the will, for Descartes is indifferent.

Benedict de Spinoza (1632–1677) views the human person as being part of a whole called nature and subject to the laws of nature and the rules of causality. He paints the world as being deterministic and maintains that human freedom in the form of self-determination is an illusion. Nevertheless, in his Ethics, he propounds a different sense of human freedom. For Spinoza, the only way that man is to be free is for him to understand and accept the fact that he is part of a bigger whole and, as such, nothing happens to any of us could have been otherwise given the state of the whole from which we arise. To achieve this, he said, man needs to cultivate the spirit of detachment and self-knowledge. The detachment in question is from the ego. In other words man would be free if he stops interpreting events egocentrically and sees what happens to him as affecting the whole machine of which he is but a part. Freedom, for Spinoza, therefore, does not mean uncaused but yielding to the inevitable. This is not, however, taking a passive attitude towards evil, or a dismissal of its horror. One opposes it, one fights it, but one does not take it personally. This view stands in direct contrast to Sartre who sees human freedom as the foundation of human agency and responsibility.

David Hume (1711–1776), in A Treatise on Human Understanding, represents the will as inevitably determined by the passions, with reason as their slave. And he denied the possibility of any conflict between reason and the passions.

Nothing is more usual in philosophy, and even in common life, than to talk of the combat of passion and reason, to give preference to reason, and to assert that men are only so far virtuous as they conform themselves to its dictates … On this method of thinking the greatest part of moral philosophy … seems to be founded; nor is there an ampler field … than this supposed preeminence of reason above passion. 14


Reason, for Hume, is a passive faculty through which we exercise the capacity of grasping connections between facts, it cannot move one to action. What is needed to move one to action is an active principle, which Hume found in the passions. The task of reason is just to point the way, so it can influence the will and human action only indirectly. Hume is sometimes described as a ‘compatibilist’, because, though he accepted determinism, he did not deny the reality of free will.

He argues that causality is not only not excluded by freedom and accountability, but is positively required by it. His case is based on the way he identifies causality with order or regularity, and dissociates it from compulsion. Some think that freedom stands opposed to compulsion, since there is violence in most cases of compulsion, and deny compulsion when we do not feel violence. But Hume insists:

Few (he says) are capable of distinguishing betwixt the liberty of spontaneity … and the liberty of indifference; betwixt that which is opposed to violence, and that which means a negation of necessity and causes. The first is even the most common sense of the word; and as it is only that species of liberty, which it concerns us to preserve, our thoughts have been principally turned towards it, and have almost universally confounded it with the other15


‘The liberty of spontaneity’ here is man’s capacity to initiate actions unhindered. His negative argument is that the claim that we are subject to causality, to which he subscribes, does not entail that man does not, and cannot, possess this capacity. But the capacity in question is the capacity for intentional action, the capacity to act for a reason; and Hume’s positive account of what this amounts to is unsatisfactory. For him the will and motives are causes of our actions and this fact rules out the possibility of a satisfactory account of intentional action. Be that as it may, Hume acknowledges human liberty of spontaneity, but claims that their supposed liberty of indifference is a chimera. By ‘liberty of indifference’ he means man’s alleged capacity to act without a cause. Since, for Hume, ‘motive’ in its broadest sense is a cause, to claim that man can act without a cause is to claim that he can act without a motive. He thus makes it impossible to deny that there can be uncaused actions.16 Even though human actions are determined (or caused) by motives, Hume maintains, they are free in as much as they are performed devoid of external restraints and constraints. Sartre would disagree with this view and insist that even the motive of an action is chosen in the fundamental project of man.

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) on the other hand, in The Critique of Practical Reason, allows for the possibility of a conflict between the reason and the passion, but claims that the will can and ought to be determined by reason, with the passion subordinated to its sovereign demand. This, for him, provides the necessary condition for the autonomy of the will. For Kant, therefore, the reason does engage the will directly and is in charge of the will in terms of initiating actions. Reason (practical reason) is not something external to the will, so when it is directed by reason it is its own master. Kant asserted both the power of causality over man and the possibility of human freedom. For him, causality reigns over the sensible nature of man which is part of the phenomenal world, while man’s rationality (or reason), which goes beyond the phenomenal world is free. A human being acts freely when his will is autonomous, and that means when it is determined by reason. 17

Schopenhauer (1788–1860), in his work: On the Freedom of the Will, presented a modified concept of freedom to signify the absence of any necessity or cause. But he saw that as inconceivable, because no one can will what he wills without being moved by any motive; and motives are considered as causes by him. So the will, despite the possibility in human life of deliberation and choice, is as strictly determined by motives as any physical phenomenon is determined by causes. He puts it this way:

Every man, being what he is and placed in the circumstances which for the moment obtain … can absolutely never do anything else than just what at that moment he does do. Accordingly, the whole course of a man’s life, in all its incidents great and small, is as necessarily predetermined as the course of a clock.18


He rejects also the idea that we know in ourselves that we are free in what we will and asserts that self-consciousness contains only the willing but not the grounds which determines the willing, as these are found in the consciousness of other things which lie in the word of objects. So what a person wills in a particular situation depends on what significance that situation has for the person, and the kind of person that he is. The combination of the two makes up what he termed as character. He only allows a relative freedom for human beings. In a nut shell, he claims that free will is an illusion, and his principal argument for that is that our actions issue from our will and that our will needs a motive to issue into action.

But Dilman observed some problem with Schopenhauer’s arguments.  He presents it thus:

To speak of the determination of the will by motive through character, the way Schopenhauer does, is a big jump. Such a jump is conditioned by presuppositions which need to be criticized and, indeed, rejected. Primarily among these is the assimilation of motives to causes and the acceptance of the analogy from mechanics – that of the clock, the spinning top and the billiard ball.19


The idea of freedom plays a central role in Soren Kierkegaard’s anthropology and the schema of salvation and that all his other concepts like anxiety, despair, subjectivity and faith (as it is evident in some of his works like: The Concept of Anxiety and The Philosophical fragments) are expressions of freedom. For, him freedom is always seen in tension with necessity. He distinguished between freedom as radical free will and freedom as liberation and maintained that unconditioned freedom is a chimera, nowhere to be found in the world, since there are always pressures, forces on the mind, emotional factors weighing down the soul that produce tendencies and actions. In fact, he is less interested in the idea of outward freedom of action, of whether one has a choice to raise his arm or not. Freedom, for him, is essentially an inward state which has to do with our loyalties, commitments and beliefs. However, in his notion of the fall and redemption the idea of freedom as free choice is implicit.20

Martin Heidegger held a rather positive conception of freedom. For him, freedom is not ‘freedom from’ but ‘freedom for’–a freedom with a content, a ‘toward which’. In Being and Time, this idea of freedom is central to most of his concepts. For example in his analysis of the ontological structure of ‘care’, he reveals that care discloses Dasein’s possibility of ‘being free for’. The uncanny nature of care reveals Dasein as a being always already ahead of itself, always beyond itself, thrown into a world of possibilities. In Dasein’s “being-ahead-of-itself beings are “freed up” to be the kind of beings which they potentially “are”, and at the same time Dasein is thrown into its potentiality for becoming an authentic self. Freedom is thus thought by Heidegger as Dasein’s authentic potentiality for being, a potentiality which reveals the being of beings as they are “in themselves,” including both innerworldly beings and Dasein itself.21


Jean Paul Sartre was born on 21st June 1905, in Paris. He lost his father the following year and was brought up by his mother and maternal grandparents. His grandfather treated him as an adult, and did not allow Sartre to mingle with boys of his age. So Sartre found solace in the company of the books in his grandfathers’ large library. He was educated at home until he was eleven. Intellectual and personal liberation only came for Sartre in the form of admittance to the Ecole Normale Superieure in (1924). This period was much happier for him as he was shaping up intellectually and personally, and developing important friendships such as the one with Nizan, Raymond Aron and Simone de Beauvoir. After receiving his aggregation, he took up a position as a Lycee Professor in a small town. He was later drafted in World War II as a simple soldier, and was made a prisoner of war in 1940. After his release in 1941, he went back to Paris convinced that he must get involved in the resistance; but when he could not succeed, he focused on his writing and from then on lived the life of an intellectual. He wrote a lot in the field  of philosophy and literature. Sartre’s most important works in the area of philosophy include: The Imagination, Transcendence of the Ego, Nausea, The Wall, A theory of Emotions, The Roads to Freedom, Being and Nothingness, etc.22  His theory of freedom shall be the main concern of the next chapter.