BMCR 2006.04.21

La catena delle cause. Determinismo e antideterminismo nel pensiero antico e in quello contemporaneo

, , La catena delle cause : determinismo e antideterminismo nel pensiero antico e contemporaneo. Supplementi di Lexis ; 29. Amsterdam: Hakkert, 2005. 421 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9025612008 €108.00.

[Table of Contents is provided at the end of this review.]

Questions of determinism and freedom are central to much modern metaphysics and also to discussions of practical reasoning and human agency. Recent work on ancient philosophy, particularly of the Hellenistic period, has done much to reveal the ways in which ancient discussions of necessity and freedom are both related to and, perhaps more often, distinct from their modern counterparts. In this collection, the editors have brought together a number of contributions spanning the range of ancient philosophy. Together, they demonstrate clearly the variety of ancient philosophical engagement with a cluster of questions in ethics, psychology, logic, theology and metaphysics. That no similarly clear signs can be easily discerned of either a continuity or development of these discussions throughout antiquity is probably no accident; it is not evident that we are entitled to expect Democritus, Aristotle, and Cicero — to take three of the thinkers discussed here — to be engaged in exploring the same question(s).

The contributions are arranged in roughly chronological order of their principal subject. The earlier pieces have to struggle quite hard to find ‘determinism’ in their mostly Platonic and Aristotelian sources. What is at issue here is more usually a conversation between two approaches to causation: materialist necessitation against some form of teleology. Indeed, in her useful and wide-ranging contribution Barbara Botter begins by pointing out the ways in which Aristotle’s own conception of causation set him and his discussions with his predecessors out of line with modern analyses (see esp. 99, 126-7). Morel and Herrmann both want to see reactions to Democritus in classical sources, Morel by considering Aristotle Phys. II.4 and Hermann by looking principally at Plato’s Phaedo. Unfortunately for both, Democritus is mentioned by name in neither of these texts, although it is certainly not implausible to think that he is at least one of the opponents in the minds of the respective authors.

Morel uses the Aristotelian source to elucidate Democritus’ own causal account, which denies uncaused events but also accepts that it is sometimes reasonable to attribute effects to chance, once this is properly understood. For Morel, using in particular Phys 196a24-35, Democritus thinks it is appropriate to refer to chance in non-regular cases such as the formation of a cosmos ‘in un luogo e in un tempo non determinati’ (34). It might well be asked, however, in what sense on this model Democritus could assert that the time and place of cosmos-formation is undetermined; surely there must be in the atomic motions in that area and at that time sufficient conditions for cosmos-formation. Morel’s is a hard case to make solely on the basis of this passage of Aristotle. A stronger case would need to review all the available evidence for the Democritean accounts of τύχη and αὐτόματον (which Morel takes to be more or less interchangeable) and, anyway, Aristotle himself is primarily concerned in Phys II.4 to begin his own account of chance with his customary preparatory analysis of endoxa; he is unlikely to be overly concerned with the finer details of Democritean exegesis.

Herrmann builds a argument to some extent based on seeing a Platonic reworking of an originally Democritean use of the word idea to clearly un-Democritean ends. This is an intriguing possibility, but we shall have to wait for the publication of his full defence of this claim to evaluate it fully.1 Certainly, Plato and Aristotle both want nothing to do with the sort of materialist necessitation they discern in Democritus. But it seems that in the particular texts under consideration here, Plato is again less concerned with particular opponents than with making a general case against what he and later Aristotle in their respective ways took to be a widespread and common fault in their predecessors.

Celluprica and Zucca give clear, if perhaps not particularly novel, accounts of De Int. 9 and Phys. II.4-6 respectively. Viano scans Aristotle’s biological works for signs of material psychological determinism but concludes plausibly enough that Aristotle’s hylomorphism will allow him easily to avoid any such possibility.

Natali encourages us to look for the roots of discussions about ‘free will’ in Aristotle’s analysis of the ‘voluntary’ and claims that NE III sets the stage for much of the Hellenistic debate to come. This would be interesting, if true, and Natali himself offers some direction for how the investigation might proceed by pointing to Theophrastus as the most obvious intermediary (161-3; though note that the sources for Theophrastus’ views listed in 163 n. 58 — FHS & G 502-6 — are all Hellenistic or later and may well have returned to his peri hekousiou with their own philosophical debates in mind).

The most successful contributions, perhaps unsurprisingly, tackle issues in Hellenistic philosophy. Here, if anywhere in ancient philosophy, we come closest to recognisable concerns with ‘free will’ or debates between compatibilist and incompatibilist approaches. Here too the Aristotelian concern with the truth-value of future-tensed statements (‘There will be a sea-battle tomorrow’), discussed in this collection by Celluprica, resurfaces, but now complemented by the added force of the Megarians’ interest in modality and the common assumption that, if true, statements are true in virtue of corresponding to some state of affairs or causal factors obtaining at the time of their being expressed. David Sedley explores these presumptions in his discussion of Cicero’s De Fato, noting both the similarity of the Epicurean position with Aristotle’s and also the differences between Aristotle’s more narrowly ‘logical’ discussion and the integrated Hellenistic concern with logic and causation. In accounting for this difference, Sedley detects the hand of Diodorus Cronus. As Natali also notes, there is clearly more interesting work to be done on how these debates were transformed in the period between Aristotle and Epicurus and transmitted to the Hellenistic period.

Masi offers a detailed discussion of the frighteningly obscure and much-debated and re-edited book XXV of Epicurus’ On nature. Her contribution here gives only translations of the relevant passages, so readers will need to keep Laursen’s edition from CErc 25, 1995 and 27, 1997 close by; it would also help to have at hand Masi’s contributions in CErc 35, 2005 and 36, 2006. Her suggestions are in the main plausible, particularly her welcome emphasis on the dialectical and educational nature of the text (she gives a good summary at 194-5). Some of her later comments might need further elaboration, however. She quickly addresses the metaphysics of the relationship between the atoms of the soul and the power of human agency, arguing that Epicurus is interested here in addressing the specific relationship between the mind’s powers and abilities and its individual various moving constituent atoms. (190: ‘[L]a mente, una volta generata, riesca ad adempiere a funzioni non esplicabili dalle sue parti, non sia condizionata, se non in maniera irrilevante, dall’azione dei suoi singoli principi e sia in grado di imporre vincoli comportamentali alle sue componenti’.) But Masi’s account leaves some important metaphysical possibilities still open. While she is no doubt correct that the ‘singoli atomi’ will not have the ‘specifico potere causale’ of an autonomous person (see 189-91, esp. 190 n.111 and 194-5), is this a claim to a strong emergent dualist position, or rather a reductionist one? Both agree that the individual atoms lack such properties, after all. And in less complex structures than a mind there are causal properties of groups of atoms which are not properties of any of the individual component atoms.2

On the Stoics, Sharples tries to reclaim the famous ‘dog and cart’ analogy as at least compatible with Chrysippus’ explanation of what is ‘up to us’ in a thoroughly and benevolently determined cosmos, against Bobzien’s restriction of its relevance to later, Epictetan, Stoic concerns. Gourinat uses a wide range of sources to relate the Stoic doctrine of ‘co-fatedness’ to questions of divination and, in particular, to a dilemma offered to the Stoics by Diogenianus (in Eus. PE 4.3.10-13, SVF II 939): if some predictions (via oracles, astrology or the like) are useful then not everything is fated since we can avoid unwanted possible outcomes by being forewarned. But, if everything is fated, then such predictions are useless: there are no possible but avoidable outcomes. Yet the Stoics, as is well known, often used the efficacy of prophecy as an argument for universal determinism. The use of co-fatedness as a response is obvious enough (it is fated both for the general to take the omens and also on their evidence to call off the battle and save the campaign) but Gourinat picks his way through the dialectic elegantly and clearly.

Concluding this section, Maso argues for a number of different Ciceronian interpretations of the Epicurean atomic swerve in De Fato, De Finibus 1.20, and De Nat. Deorum 1.68-70. Maso might be right that the variations show Cicero trying to get to grips with material he found hard to understand in the Epicurean source material, but I confess that I cannot see why he reads Cicero’s declinare paululum in the last of these texts as describing ‘una linea ‘perennemente deviata’, cioè ‘curva” (261). Finally, Fazzo begins by setting Alexander of Aphrodisias’ Aristotelian approach in De Fato in the context of Severan and — in particular — imperial interest in astrology. (The treatise is dedicated to Septimius Severus and Caracalla.) He has useful things to say in contrasting the apparently general audience of this treatise with Alexander’s other, often more clearly anti-Stoic works, but then goes on to give an overly long appendix (half the length of the entire contribution) discussing the epigraphic evidence for Alexander and the ramifications for his dating. The collection would have been better tied together if Alexander’s post-Hellenistic Aristotelian approach could have been compared and contrasted with Aristotle’s own interest in explanation and causation, perhaps to illuminate what changes these debates had undergone in the intervening centuries.

It is not clear how much is added to the collection as a whole by the contributions in the last section. Little of direct help for those primarily interested in the ancient material is offered, for example, by Giannasi’s survey of some modern approaches to the question of determinism (much of which is taken up with a discussion of a few articles in one recent publication3) since it seems not to cover all the modern approaches even in the English-language literature (so no direct reference to Watson or Frankfurt, for example) which this might be introducing to an non-English-speaking audience.

Most readers will find something of interest here, but those who are interested in Hellenistic philosophy will be served best.


Prefazione: Carlo Natali e Stefano Maso;

Introduzione: Carlo Natali e Stefano Maso;


Pierre-Marie Morel, ‘Democrito e il problema del determinismo. A proposito di Aristotele, Fisica II, 4′

Fritz-Gregor Herrmann, ‘Plato’s answer to Democritean Determinism’


Vincenza Celluprica, ‘Il determinismo logico nel De interpretatione IX di Aristotele’

Diego Zucca, ‘Il caso e la fortuna sono cause? Aristotele, Phys. II 4-6′

Barbara Botter, ‘Il giusto mezzo tra necessità e finalismo nella scienza della natura di Aristotele’

Cristina Viano, ‘Virtù naturale e costituzione fisiologica. L’etica aristotelica è un determinismo materialista?’

Carlo Natali, ‘Perché Aristotele ha critto il libro III dell’ Etica Nicomachea ?’


Francesca Guadalupe Masi, ‘L’antideterminismo di Epicuro e il suo limite: il libro XXV del ΠΕΡΙ ΦΥΣΕΩΣ

Robert W. Sharples, ‘Ducunt volentem fata, nolentem trahunt’

Jean-Baptiste Gourinat, ‘Prediction of the future and co-fatedness: two aspects of Stoic Determinism’

David Sedley, ‘Verità futura e causalità nel De fato di Cicerone’ Stefano Maso, ‘ Clinamen ciceroniano

Silvia Fazzo, ‘Aristotelismo e antideterminismo nella vita e nell’opera di Tito Aurelio Alessandro di Afrodisia’


Matteo Giannasi, ‘Libertà e determinismo: una prospettiva contemporanea’

Yamina Oudai Celso, ‘L’eterno ritorno tra Nietzsche e gli Stoici’

Luigi Perissinotto, ‘”Non v’è un ordine a priori delle cose”. Una breve nota su volontà e fatalismo nel Tractatus logico-philosophicus di Wittgenstein’

Bibliografia; Indice degli autori moderni; Indice analitico.


1. F.-G. Herrmann, Words and ideas. The roots of Plato’s philosophy forthcoming from the Classical Press of Wales, Swansea.

2. For more on this kind of issue see T. O’Keefe, Epicurus on freedom, Cambridge 2005.

3. J. K. Campbell, M. O’Rourke and D. Shier, Freedom and determinism, Cambridge Mass., 2004. See the review in Notre Dame Philosophical Review.