Workshop in Ancient Philosophy (Week 2 HT18)

Ancient Philosophy

The School of Athens

Speaker: Ursula Coope (Keble College)

Title: 'Free to think?'


We depend on others for much of what we believe. Does this dependence undermine our ability to determine for ourselves what to think? In this paper, I discuss two ancient responses to this question, the first from Cicero and the second from the Neoplatonist philosopher Olympiodorus. Both philosophers assume that this dependence on others threatens something important (freedom for Cicero, self-movement for Olympiodorus), and both see in Plato’s dialogues a suggestion as to how this threat might be averted. But there the similarity ends. Cicero claims that we can preserve our freedom insofar as we refrain from wholly committing to any belief. For him, Socrates’s interlocutors are free to make up their own minds just because Socrates, lacking knowledge, never provides them with compelling arguments for adopting one view rather than another. Olympiodorus’s response is quite different. For him, when we learn from someone who has knowledge, we are ‘self-moved’ in that we are brought to form beliefs on the basis of a certain kind of compelling argument (a demonstration) instead of merely accepting things on the basis of authority. On this account, to form beliefs on the basis of demonstration just is to determine for oneself what to believe. In discussing these two accounts, I shall ask about the nature of this supposedly valuable thing (freedom, self-movement), why it might be valuable, and whether it is either undermined or preserved by the use of demonstrative arguments.


Convenors: Dr Karen Margrethe Nielsen, Prof Ursula Coope, and Dr Luca Castagnoli

Webpage: Workshop in Ancient Philosophy