Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Week 9. Cudworth and Stoic Fate


The Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth (1617-88) has lots of interesting things to say about Stoicism. Indeed he has lots of interesting things to say about many other ancient philosophies too and his works are packed with quotations from and detailed discussions of a wide range of ancient philosophers to such an extent that he looks somewhat out of place when compared with some of his seventeenth century contemporaries. In some ways it is tempting to call him the last great Renaissance philosopher insofar as his works are shaped by his classical learning and pursue the sorts of philosophical problems that preoccupied Ficino and his contemporaries. But rather than see him merely as an anachronistic anomaly I think he ought to be placed alongside Hobbes and Locke as the third great figure in seventeenth century English philosophy.

Cudworth’s magnum opus is truly a great work: The True Intellectual System of the Universe, published in 1678, fills 900 folio pages. In fact what we have is only the first of three intended parts and is subtitled The First Part, Wherein all the Reason and Philosophy of Atheism is Confuted and its Impossibility Demonstrated. Cudworth’s philosophical project as a whole is threefold – to defend i) the existence of God, ii) the existence of objective moral values, and iii) the existence of free will – and The True Intellectual System of the Universe was conceived in three parts addressing these three topics. But when Cudworth died in 1688 only the first part had been published and the other two were never completed. However numerous notes for the second and third parts survived and some were published posthumously. Material destined for the second part was published in 1731 under the title A Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality. Material for the third part survives in a series of manuscripts now in the British Library (BL Add. MS 4978-82) and just one of these manuscripts was edited and published in 1838 under the title of A Treatise of Freewill by the Reverend John Allen, the second chaplain of King’s College London and the first ever Fellow of King’s.

One thing that Cudworth makes clear in the Preface to the published first part, which introduces the whole project, is that the third and final part on free will, or liberty and necessity, was for him the most important part of the whole project. He writes that his initial plan was simply to write about liberty and necessity, and in particular to argue against ‘the fatal necessity of all actions and events’. Of his three enemies – atheism, moral relativism, and determinism – Cudworth thought the last the most serious for on his view determinism not only denied free will but also undermined belief in God and objectivity morality as well. So, ironically, the very short A Treatise of Freewill, which is only an extract from the surviving manuscripts and published 150 years later, is in one respect the most important part of Cudworth’s entire philosophical project.

What is striking about A Treatise of Freewill is the role that the Stoics play in it. Indeed, perhaps we should say the roles they play in it, for they seem to figure twice. (The Stoics also figure twice in the discussion of theism and atheism in the first part of The True Intellectual System.) Cudworth’s principal target in the text is Hobbes (see ch. 2) but, following the approach deployed in the published part of The True Intellectual System, Cudworth traces contemporary philosophical positions back to ancient exponents and then attacks the ancient version, on the assumptions that i) the ancient versions are nobler and ii) if the nobler version is undermined then more recent derivatives of the same will fall with it. So on that basis Cudworth’s polemic against determinism focuses its attention on Stoic determinism (see ch. 3), for Cudworth thinks that Hobbes’ position ‘was stolen from the Stoics’. Cudworth was not alone in connecting Hobbes with the Stoa, and John Bramhall had done the same in his discussions with Hobbes concerning liberty and necessity.

Cudworth points to three errors of the Stoics, as he sees it: i) that everything must have a sufficient cause, and everything with such a cause must necessarily come to pass; ii) that there is a cyclical recurrence of events; iii) God is subject to necessity. In summary we might say that a range of doctrines in Stoic physics undermine belief in the autonomy of human action.

What really stands out in Cudworth’s discussion, though, is that the language he uses to describe his own, alternative view appears at first glance also to draw on the Stoics. In particular he uses a number of Greek terms that we find in the works of the later Stoic Epictetus. These include eph’ hêmin (‘up to us’, ‘in our own power’), proairesis (‘choice’, ‘will’), and hêgeminokon (‘ruling part of the soul’, ‘mind’). The first two are introduced in ch.1; the third in ch. 9. These Greek terms are not unique to Stoicism, of course, but I think it is fair to say that these three are signature concepts of Epictetus. In any case, Cudworth is explicit that he is taking these terms from the Stoics (in ch. 1) when discussing what is up to us or in our choice. It looks as if he wants to turn Stoicism against itself. It has sometimes been claimed that later Stoics like Epictetus with their focus on the role of ‘choice’ or ‘will’ (proairesis) move away from the rigid determinism of the early Stoa. If one were sympathetic to that view then one might say that it looks as if Cudworth is drawing on late Stoic voluntarism and trying to turn it against early Stoic determinism. However I think we would be wrong to put it in those terms. Epictetus’s discussion of ‘choice’ and of what is ‘up to us’ or ‘in our own power’ takes place primarily in a discussion about how to avoid frustration and disappointment, and not in one about the metaphysical problem of free will and determinism. There is no reason to see him as moving away from Stoic determinism at all.

So what is going on in Cudworth’s discussion? The difference between Cudworth and the Stoics in their use of the phrase eph’ hêmin (‘up to us’) is while the Stoics understand in a one-sided causative sense (something is up to me if I make it happen), Cudworth understands it in a two-sided potestative sense (something is up to me if I can choose to do otherwise). So Cudworth is not using this seemingly Stoic terminology in the same way that the Stoics did. It has been suggested that the first person to use this phrase in the two-sided sense that Cudworth follows was the peripatetic Alexander of Aphrodisias, whose De Fato is among other things an extended polemic against Stoic determinism. Given Cudworth’s impressive knowledge of ancient philosophical texts it would be surprising if he was not reading Alexander’s treatise arguing against Stoic determinism when writing his own on the same topic. Indeed, Cudworth mentions Alexander in ch. 6. So it looks as if Cudworth is drawing on Alexander here for his polemic against the Stoics: either silently borrowing arguments from him, or mistakenly applying his sense of these technical term back onto the Stoics, and most likely both.

Let us say for the sake of argument that Cudworth is mistakenly assuming that the Stoics understood ‘up to us’ in a two-sided sense. For him, that is what the debate about free will is all about – being able to act other than we do. It would not seem unreasonable to assume that anyone talking about a free will would be doing so in just that sense. However it has been argued that in fact the two-sided notion of free will was a relatively late innovation. Indeed it makes its very first appearance, it has been suggested, in Alexander’s De Fato. Earlier philosophers simply didn’t think in those terms, just as there was a time when metaphysicians didn’t think in terms of possible worlds. It would be perfectly natural for Cudworth to assume that the Stoics grasped this concepts in exactly the same way that his contemporaries did, and when Alexander’s own treatise, where the notion is introduced, is one of our principal sources for earlier Stoic thinking about determinism, the potential for confusion is great.


(I have discussed Cudworth on Stoic fate further in ‘Stoics Against Stoics in Cudworth’s A Treatise of Freewill’. I have also discussed Cudworth on Stoic theology in The True Intellectual System in ‘Is God a Mindless Vegetable? Cudworth on StoicTheology’. For more on the ancient models of free will in the Stoics and Alexander of Aphrodisias see S. Bobzien, ‘The Inadvertent Conception and LateBirth of the Free-Will Problem’)