I read the following in Anthony Kenny's 'A New History of Philosophy' book. It is a paraphrase from Chrysippus the Stoic philosopher

Nothing can escape Nature's laws, but despite the determinism of fate 
human beings are free and responsible.

The text doesn't go into further detail at this point. So i'm confused about how a human being can be either free or responsible in a deterministic universe. In what sense are we free? What are we responsible for? How can our responsibility manifest itself?

Many Thanks for your thoughts

  • (Irrelevant: I wanted to suggest Kenny's book in a comment to your question about Russell's book; I'm glad you're checking it out.) Apr 25, 2014 at 10:50
  • You assume that he is talking about absolute determinism. But he is trying to say there is hidden level. Not deterministic one. Like in the car. If driver drives straight it is hard to determine if there is somebody intelligent inside. But as soon as he starts to drive as he wants it becomes clear that on top of physical level there is something more. This more is free. Same with us. Search yourself there is that amazing free part inside.
    – Asphir Dom
    Apr 25, 2014 at 14:10
  • It's a good question but bear in mind that Stoicism does not have a developed metaphysical underpinning, so questions like this are often given no clear answer. For an answer one would have to look elsewhere.
    – user20253
    Mar 11, 2020 at 11:51

3 Answers 3


This isn't an answer - more a suggestion as to how it might begin to be resolved.

The question of the compatibility of free-will & determinism as it is debated in contemporary philosophy is not how it it would be seen in Early Antiquity, but Bobiez argues that it does become a question in Late Antiquity

I'd suggest, that this compatibility question becomes acute when considered in materialist philosophy - like that of Epicurus & Democritus, or contemporary Physicalism; where freedom has to be manufactured out of matter & void.

According to the Stoic Philosophy:

The universe is a material, reasoning substance, known as God or Nature, which the Stoics divided into two classes, the active and the passive. The passive substance is matter, which "lies sluggish, a substance ready for any use, but sure to remain unemployed if no one sets it in motion."The active substance, which can be called Fate, or Universal Reason (Logos), is an intelligent aether or primordial fire, which acts on the passive matter:

One might suggest, that if anything has freedom, it is God/Nature (as the Stoics concieved it); and we - humans - partaking in God/Nature, also partake in freedom, more limited than that of God/Natura, and more than matter. In contemporary terms, this position might be called Panpsychism

This should be taken as speculation, but Bobiez in her book Determinism & Freedom in Stoic Philosophy discusses this question in much more depth - but note it is a scholarly work.

  • Thank you for that - it's very interesting helpful. My understanding of the Epicurians is that they had a 'swerve' in their atomic determinism so leaving a gap where free will might poke through. I'm not aware of anything similar in Stoic philosophy - it seems more bare fatalism to me Apr 25, 2014 at 13:56
  • Well, the Epicurian were pure materialists; except I think it is more complex than that, as they also had soul atoms - so perhaps it is better to say that they were pure atomists; the point I'm making is that freedom is already in the first principle of Stoic philosophy, the pneuma, or spiritualised aether; so that freedom is manifested in Nature, or immanent in it - including us. Apr 25, 2014 at 14:02
  • 1
    thank you again for that. I looked at the references in your answer - i think that part of my problem is a lack of understanding about the compatablist version of free will. I can see that if we are part of the determined cause then we perhaps can be said to be responsible. I'm still struggling with free but perhaps more clarity on what is actual (or could be) meant by free here would help Apr 26, 2014 at 14:48
  • I think you're on the right lines, in Stoic philosophy, it isn't determined cause we are part of, but spiritualised aether, and part of that includes both a determinate cause, but also freedom; Apr 26, 2014 at 16:35
  • this spiritualised aether seems to be in fact physic laws, mostly interaction laws. which are the reason why i started believing in determinism first. the actions of these laws acts on quantities such as energy and entropy, which are non palpable (purely math). Surely that's what they meant by spiritualised ?
    – v.oddou
    Nov 18, 2015 at 3:30

I don't have much education in philosophy, but I will give my take on this. I studied physics after high school and after two years I concluded, like Stoic, that the universe must be deterministic.

Which meant to me that if we were capable of knowing the exact disposition of all particles before the big bang, we could simulate everything up to this point, and of course continue to predict the future.
I asked myself the same question about free will and concluded that this is no excuse to get lazy, all depressed and just say "there is no point, it's all decided anyway".

This is what neo says when he answers to morpheus that he doesn't want to believe in fate because he prefers to be in control. I think that's wrong, even when fate exists, one is still very much in control. The future state of our lives may be computable, but is still where is stands because we are what we are. What I mean by the last phrase is that we do create our own fate, so it's entirely up to what we decide and our behaviors that we steer our lives. We cannot trick fate, one could think, "I realized everything is decided so I will rebel against it and become a hobo, or go kill 100 people, do something really unexpected". But that won't cut it because fate is not about a high level description of matters "this person will be president", this is too fuzzy. Fate is about every nanoscopic interactions between particles so everything is decided down to subatomic levels, our thought process being included. That's why there is no escape. So deciding to kill 100 people would just be following fate.

On the other hand, I havn't studied this field but some physicists post Einstein era (Einstein is quoted as having said "god doesn't play dice" which means determinism) think that some things are so unstable that they are fully, intrinsically random. Which means, you could create two rooms in isolated universes, with two human clones of each other at the exact same position on the atomic scale, start the timeline and see both persons behavior deviate from one another as time passes. That would mean the universe is not deterministic and there is no such thing as fate. I'm not one to know if that intrinsic randomness in nanoscale events is actually real randomness or just prediction impossibility at the human understanding. But to me both possibilities seem equally probable.

  • apparently I'm a compatibilist.
    – v.oddou
    Nov 18, 2015 at 3:20

I don't know much about Stoic philosophy but if you look at that question: "How can we have responsibility in the Stoic's deterministic universe?"

It implies that those who are asked have a free will. A deterministic universe and a free will are incompatible. If that question is asked to us, human beings, most of us would hold that individuals are accountable for their acts. Why? Because we are social animals that evolved in a jungle. We used to see individuals commit things and we used to hold those individuals accountable. We didn't bother going further than that. And, as long as, our species have been successful in surviving (so far), we must say that that approach was evolutionary stable (in other words correct for the sake of survival).

Now, if you ask me to imagine a deterministic universe and a free will in it, I'm not sure that's even possible to imagine. Because, a brain must be capable of predicting the environment it is in, to be called a meaningful brain. That means the environment influences the brain. And, a logical next step is to say that brain activity is determined by the environment it is in. If the brain doesn't predict the environment it's a detached brain. A creature with that kind of brain wouldn't last long, and even if it did, we wouldn't call it an intellectual creature.

But, of you ask me to imagine a brain that is good at predicting the environment it is in, and also has a free will, how do you even implement that kind of brain? Do you put a random dice in it? If brains decisions are chosen randomly, will it really be good at predicting (describing) the environment? Would we call such a brain meaningful?

As of nondeterministic universe... Every state in the universe is determined by its previous state, which in turn is determined by its previous state and so on. To imagine a nondeterministic world we, here too, would have to incorporate some random dice (assuming the dice is effectively random). Every state of the universe is now determined not by its previous state, but by a random dice. It's not difficult to see the level of chaos in that type of universe, wich would be incompatible with (potential) intelligent life in it.

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