Chrysippus, Cylinder, Causation and Compatibilism

In Philosophical Imagination Thought Experiments and Arguments in Antiquity. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. pp. 65-82 (2021)


The debate on compatibility of fate with human responsibility lasted for five hundred years of the Stoic school and it is still with us in terms of contemporary discussions of the compatibility of determinism and free will. Chrysippus was confronted with the standard objection: It would be unjust to punish criminals “if human beings do not do evils voluntarily but are dragged by fate.” Chrysippus uses the famous illustration of the cylinder and cone, which cannot start moving without being pushed. However, when this has happened, from then on the cylinder rolls and the cone spins by their own nature. I explore the cylinder analogy and its modern relevance from the perspective of thought experiments. I argue that it helps us isolate the main causal factor (the locus of responsibility and agency) and insulate this factor from the rest of the causal history and causal background. The cylinder/cone analogy is a compatibilistic tool, a kind of “mental distillation” in which we separate in imagination those aspects (causal factors) which are relevant for moral responsibility from those which are not. I suggest, somehow anachronistically, but in line both with contemporary compatibilism and Chrysippian views on causal structure of agency that the actions of an agent are “fated” from the theoretical point of view, but they are up to her from the practical point of view.

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Danilo Suster
University of Maribor

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