In defence of choice – lessons from ancient Athens

by josieappleton

Today there is a large literature on the notion of ‘choice’, which discusses the concept in peculiar detachment from philosophical or historical context. It is as if we are the first generation to have discovered the idea, and discovered it only to slight it.

From a variety of different perspectives, books on choice suggest: that we have ‘too many’ choices; that choice is experienced as a ‘tyranny’; choices are difficult, leaving us anxious and unfulfilled; we make ‘flawed choices’, leading to sub-optimal outcomes for both us and society, and should be ‘nudged’ to make ‘better decisions’. At the same time, these books often argue that we don’t actually have that many choices, because we are in the grip of biology or our physical environment, influenced by other people or driven by temptation.

Yet the emergence of an early notion of choice, in fifth century BC Athens, was not in circumstances where individuals had perfect control over their lives. Nor did they uncomplicatedly make the ‘right choices’ or experience these choices as leading to optimal outcomes. From the beginning, the making of choices was accompanied with a great deal of suffering and uncertainty.

The ‘choice’ that we see in Greek tragedy is the small space opening up for the exercise of individual volition in a world they did not control. This appearance of individual volition was a moment of drama and nobility, and staged as intrinsically interesting and valuable, irrespective of its consequences.

We see this in Aeschylus’ play ‘The Suppliants’, which is framed around the making of a choice. A king is asked to shelter a group of women against their cousins, who are approaching with an army to carry the women off. The king must decide whether to protect the women or not; he stands for a moment sunk in thought, reflecting ‘downward into the depth’. This is the exercise of volition in circumstances he did not choose, and either course of action spells doom: if he gives the women up, he will violate the law of hospitality; if he protects them, he violates the claims of the brothers and will bring war upon the city.

In this, as in other tragic plays, there are different sets of tension going on: between individual volition and some larger force, whether fate, gods or the city; and between different principles and sets of loyalties, whether ancient law, city law or the individual’s own independent morality.

Choice therefore emerges when the individual separates out from the community, and becomes conscious of having a volition that gives rise to his actions, as well as the fact that he is faced with several possible courses of action. Actions are no longer predetermined, but within limited boundaries could take this course or that: A or B.

One of the earliest forms of choice is the rebellious choice – the simple rejection of a given authority. Hesiod’s Prometheus in late eighth century BC is nothing more than a ‘crooked-schemer’, a trickster and underminer of Zeus’ authority, yet by the fifth century Prometheus’ rebellious decision to help mankind takes on the nobility of a conscious and principled act. Prometheus’ defiance of Zeus is the source of great suffering personal suffering, and yet he feels his claim is right and will not submit. ‘Never would I exchange my evil fortunes for thy servitude’, he tells the minion Hermes in Aeschylus’ play.

Another early form of choice is the simple affirmation of destiny, which appears in tragedy in the chosen sacrificial death. The character is told: you must die. They reply: no, I choose to die. To bring about by one’s own hands and will the event that must occur means that the individual is no longer a mere object of events and fate; destiny is made to bear the impress of their will.

Therefore, the first space for individual volition is simply whether to reject or affirm destiny or other greater forces. Yet in this small space the individual is nonetheless faced with a genuine dilemma between different principles and loyalties. Should they follow ancient codes of honour or obey the city law? Should one trust the oracles, the king, or look only within oneself for the guide to action? The chorus sways this way and that with the swaying sympathies of the audience.

In the context of this, the contemporary literature on ‘choice’ appears myopic to say the least. Today’s authors make great play of the fact that choices are difficult, that sometimes we make the wrong choices, or that we make choices in a world we do not control…. welcome to the human condition! Choice is declared futile now on the flimsiest of grounds. It is striking how many of the books about the ‘tyranny’ or ‘myth’ of choice recount the author’s experience of not knowing which biscuits or jeans to buy, which they then take as indicating the futile nature of volition as a whole.

We would have to go back further to Homer for the innocence of a world without choices. Occasionally Homer stages a moment where the character has a dilemma, and they stand there debating with themselves, but they generally realise that there is actually no choice in the matter: ‘why do I stand here debating the point?’ Actually, the course of conduct is laid out for the individual: honour dictates that he stand and fight, or ill omens dictate that he retreat. The individual exists in a certain form (Achilles is persuaded by goddess Athena to still his hand, not forced), but this individual is not aware of his separation from or opposition to larger forces of fate, the gods or custom. Therefore, there is a clarity and ease to the Homeric world, a lack of tension which comes essentially from there being no choice.

So yes, in certain ways it is easier to not have choices, and they are often the source of suffering. And yet should we wish them away? The value of volition is not – and has never been – because of its beneficial results, or because it leads to increases in subjective happiness. The grandeur of a choice is simply in the fact that it is not ordained, not following by rote, but decided for oneself, and this gives these actions a sort of glow or special quality which makes them distinct from other actions.

The exercise of volition necessarily involves tensions and conflicts, between the individual and society, and within the individual. These tensions and conflicts should not be avoided but sought out as some of the most fertile points of existence, the means by which we can learn about ourselves and the world.

I will be giving a talk ‘In defence of choice’ at the London Philosophy Club on 18 February.