Socrates (or, rather Plato, through the voice of Socrates) leads us to the conclusion in the dialog Protagoras (see this for example) that our actions are entirely determined by our beliefs of what is the good, and our beliefs of what is the good is determined by our knowledge. In other words, we cannot act against our knowledge of how we should act, and so our actions our determined entirely by our knowledge.

Does this conclusion mean that Socrates (or at least the Socrates Plato presents us with) in general denies free-will? Or is there some other work in which Socrates acknowledges free will?

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    There are few traces of free will in ancient Greek phil; contra, see Michael Frede, A Free Will : Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought (2011). The only ref to Socrates is page 22. Jun 12, 2014 at 15:22
  • Interesting reference, I'll have to check it out. It seems that even if the word "free will" wasn't used directly, there still could have been some concept of it at the time. As an example, there are several parts in Thucydides where two parties are debating in front of a third party for or against some decision. He never makes it seem that the decision is a fore-gone conclusion. Jun 12, 2014 at 19:28
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    I recall reading in Laws a discussion of free will, that it is a false and harmful belief that common folk possess.
    – yters
    Jun 13, 2014 at 11:13
  • I don't see any particular reference to free-will in the link; it appears to towards the conclusion of a debate on virtue; free-will seems to be something of a fetish in contemporary philosophy (free will, free democracy); and I wonder how much this is to do with the traces of Christian Theology - free to choose between right & wrong. Jun 13, 2014 at 11:37
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    Our current definition of free will, i.e. libertarian free will, is a modern concept. But the basic debate has been around since the earliest philosophers in the East and West. The debate is very prevalent today because the dominant worldview denies the existence of free will, which strikes most as strongly counter intuitive and morally dangerous. Additionally, the ideologies that fueled the 20th centuries genocidal dictators were based on some form of determinism. So it is a vital concept to preserve.
    – yters
    Jun 14, 2014 at 0:31

2 Answers 2


Socrates' personality was in some ways closely connected to his philosophical outlook. He was remarkable for the absolute command he maintained over his emotions and his apparent indifference to physical hardships. Corresponding to these personal qualities was his commitment to the doctrine that reason, properly cultivated, can and ought to be the all-controlling factor in human life. Thus he has no fear of death, he says in Plato's Apology, because he has no knowledge of what comes after it, and he holds that, if anyone does fear death, his fear can be based only on a pretense of knowledge. The assumption underlying this claim is that, once one has given sufficient thought to some matter, one's emotions will follow suit. Fear will be dispelled by intellectual clarity. Similarly, according to Socrates, if one believes, upon reflection, that one should act in a particular way, then, necessarily, one's feelings about the act in question will accommodate themselves to one's belief—one will desire to act in that way. (Thus, Socrates denies the possibility of what has been called “weakness of will”—knowingly acting in a way one believes to be wrong.) It follows that, once one knows what virtue is, it is impossible not to act virtuously. Anyone who fails to act virtuously does so because he incorrectly identifies virtue with something it is not. This is what is meant by the thesis, attributed to Socrates by Aristotle, that virtue is a form of knowledge.

Socrates' conception of virtue as a form of knowledge explains why he takes it to be of the greatest importance to seek answers to questions such as “What is courage?” and “What is piety?” If we could just discover the answers to these questions, we would have all we need to live our lives well. The fact that Socrates achieved a complete rational control of his emotions no doubt encouraged him to suppose that his own case was indicative of what human beings at their best can achieve.

So Socrates' view on free will, believing that the unexamined life is not worth living, was the wisdom and will for self-control, which for him required reflection or a conscience, in other words, for socrates free will is impossible without self-control, for people without self control arent capable of free will because being slaves to their passions they lack the free-will required for self-control. His view in the republic, (in the dialogue with Thrasymachus) is in conflict with the libertarian view, where people who are "slaves" to their passions have the right to self-determination, regardless of what their idea of the best life is, and the reason for his disagreement with libertarian free will in the republic is that justice requires reflection, and that the tyrant is a slave to his passions, does not reflect on his actions and believes he has the right to self-determination.

I also find the Stoic view (borrowed from Socrates) on emotional self-control interesting, namely, that all emotion emerges from incorrect judgement and that the person with reason properly cultivated is able to control their emotions because they posses the wisdom to properly put the source of emotional conflict into the correct perspective or context, and therefore able to make the correct decision.

  • "for socrates free will is impossible without self-control, for people without self control arent capable of free will because being slaves to their passions they lack the free-will required for self-control." Not sure I understand what you mean here: are you saying that Socrates claims free-will is required for self-control or vice versa? Jun 16, 2014 at 16:24
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    for socrates free will and self-control are one and the same, combined in his commitment to the doctrine that reason, properly cultivated, can and ought to be the all-controlling factor in human life. Jun 17, 2014 at 3:25
  • @musingsofacigarettesmokingman Why couldn't one say that reason determines our virtue, and ignorance determines vice? How could you define self-control in Socratic terms without the search for knowledge? Jan 16, 2023 at 15:21

Woah, something I actually read in my one year of college for philosophy.

Now remember folks, this here is pure conjecture.

I would say that Socrates, or Socrates as shown through Plato, don't put much stock into free will based off that Utopia they(?) came up with. I think they more or less viewed it as a thing people just irrationally do, which honestly is fairly accurate.

I mean, if you look at that class schema that they wanted to implement, it was pretty bad, in terms of what you were allowed and not allowed to do, in the light of free will that is. You would be bred for certain roles in society, and you were demoted, or promoted where necessary. If you started to show certain qualities, they would pick your job for you. Families would be abolished and replaced with the community. Socrates was probably one of the first advocates of Eugenics.

And of course the Philosophers would be the main decision makers.

I mean, his utopia works on a community level, but not on an individual level.

Socrates didn't care much for the emotional side of people in general. I forget the exact wording, but he pretty much totally disregarded any conclusion one made with their physical senses, stating that they aren't nearly as trustworthy as your own mind, or at least his mind.

So with all this conjecture, I would say he didn't care for it much. Edit: So with this conjecture I would say he at least respected it, but thought it was more of a nuisance. Or he thought it wasn't true free will if they weren't exercising their logic and reason to decide what they wanted to do.

Also if I got anything wrong, please let me know, and I will change the error of my ways. I mean, it has been a few years since I read Plato's writings in general.

Lastly, This is just one topic. I'm not totally riffing on Socrates here, only his view on utopia.

  • Oh, and I'm still new here, so if you people don't think this should be/isn't a complete answer, then let me know. Like I said, it is mainly conjecture based on other stuff he said, so I could totally sympathize with people thinking it should be a comment and not an answer.
    – Hobbes
    Jun 13, 2014 at 3:26
  • Hobbes, thanks and welcome! I believe the utopia you are referring to is the one described in the Republic, can you confirm and add citations? The question of a society deciding many things for you seems to be a different one than how an individual makes a decision (and whether that decision is inevitable or not). Jun 13, 2014 at 15:29
  • Urg, that sounds like work. It probably would be good for me to read up on it again. Weekend reading sounds nice anyway. I do need to start casually reading this sort of stuff anyway. Also yes, it was in the Republic, and The Laws maybe.
    – Hobbes
    Jun 13, 2014 at 17:32

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