Richard Sorabji: "Necessity and Responsibility in Alexander: Defence, Criticism and Relation to Aristotle"

Richard Sorabji: "Necessity and Responsibility in Alexander: Defence, Criticism and Relation to Aristotle". Listen to the talk here.


The nature and origin of ideas of freedom, of the will and of free will, are all interesting subjects, but the third is best kept somewhat separate from the other two, I believe, because it has a closer connexion with moral responsibility. Only some connect freedom in a similar way with responsibility, not Aristotle and not normally Epictetus, although I shall consider one connexion he makes.

Susanne Bobzien has shown how the Stoic Philopator got Aristotle’s defender Alexander to say that our actions need not always be necessitated even at the last moment, whereas Aristotle had objected to necessitation only a long way back. Since I believe there is no actual proof that necessitation of our actions from before we were conceived is compatible or incompatible with responsibility for our actions, philosophers ancient and modern have appealed to intuition, but in this case intuitions have always differed. Alexander in De Fato Ch, 34 illustrates the intractability of such discussions, when he attacks as question-begging Philopator’s argument that necessity from indefinitely far back is compatible with action being up to us, by pointing out that he assumes virtue and vice are compatible with that. 

Alexander’s view has been subjected to three modern objections.

Objection (1) If actions are not necessitated even at the last moment, then they are divorced from the motives of the agent. In Chapter 15 of De Fato and in the Mantissa, Alexander begins on an answer in two parts:

(a) Unnecessitated actions still have motives, and these are causes.

(b) We are not confined to one motive, but it is not always necessitated in advance on which of our standing motives we will act. 

To complete his case, I think Alexander would need a third argument that nobody thought of in antiquity. For a thing to be caused is not for it to be necessitated, but for it to have a certain type of explanatory factor as its explanation, and even complete explanation does not require necessitation.

Objection (2). Alexander objects to the Stoics in De Fato Chs 18 and 19 that they should have allowed that our actions are free, but he should have accepted the Stoic explanation of the sense in which actions necessitated from indefinitely far back do remain free. I entirely agree that he should, in relation to Epictetus’ extremely valuable account of one very rare kind of freedom as a sort of invulnerability. But Alexander’s subject of responsibility should be kept separate from the subject of freedom in this sense. There was no need for him to accept as relevant to responsibility the different concept of  “free by nature” that Epictetus put forward as relevant. Epictetus held that even under the threat of death, if you gave in, this was merely one prohairesis of yours (to stay alive) defeating another. On whether one would remain as responsible as ever in these circumstances intuitions again differ.

Objection (3) takes it that Alexander thinks that being able to do otherwise (even up to the last moment) makes action praiseworthy or blameworthy and that actions derive their merit from this. If he was saying only that being able, or having once been able, to do otherwise is a necessary prerequisite for one’s action being praiseworthy or blameworthy, might there not be something to be said for this? Or if it seems not, would that be more than an intuition? 

Alexander’s differences from Aristotle are multiple, not only

(i) Action need not be necessitated at the last moment, but also

(ii) He thinks the voluntary behaviour of animals is not up to them, because they cannot deliberate about the reliability of particular appearances, and

(iii) He does not appreciate Aristotle’s denial that coincidences lack causes.