Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 November 2022
At the beginning of the debate over free will, freedom is nowhere to be found. In the Hellenistic period, the question of human autonomy is not one of freedom (eleutheria) but instead, given the nature of the universe, what is “up to us” (eph’emin) and thus left to our choice (prohairesis). It is Cicero and the Epicurean poet Lucretius who first turn the debate into one specifically over man’s freedom from fate. But Cicero’s idea of the will’s libertas – its opportunity to conquer vice and win honor – is very different from that of Lucretius in De rerum natura, a text Cicero read and may even have edited. De fato, one of the last in his corpus, returns to the question of a libera voluntas explicitly to refute the Epicurean doctrine of the swerve (clinamen) and their abandonment of civic duty. For Cicero, free will is the locus of public virtue, the justification of “praise and honors,” and the power to strengthen ourselves against natural vice. Cicero’s letters reveal, in turn, that this technical treatise on fate has decidedly political stakes for the Roman Republic.
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