Animals, Freewill, and Animal Freewill: A Development in Cudworth’s Freewill Manuscripts

By Matthew Leisinger

1. The Freewill Manuscripts

Ralph Cudworth’s ‘freewill’ manuscripts (British Library Additional Manuscripts 4978-4982) may be somewhat long and rambling, but they are far from incoherent. On the contrary, Cudworth’s substantive views appear to remain largely unchanged across the manuscripts, even if Cudworth constantly seeks new modes of expression. This fact is remarkable because, as Mark Burden explains in his recent and important blog post, the manuscripts may well have been composed over a relatively long period of time. In their substance, the (perhaps) early sketches of 4982(1) and 4982(3) appear largely to agree with the (perhaps) later and more polished 4978 (the posthumously published A Treatise of Freewill).

Of course, this proclamation of consistency begs refutation. Scholarship on Cudworth’s freewill manuscripts remains in its infancy. The task at this point is simply to understand what Cudworth’s views are, not to chart how those views might have developed over time. As scholarship progresses, however, developmental stories may begin to emerge. As the freewill manuscripts become more accessible (in part through the efforts of The Cambridge Platonist Project) and as more scholars follow Burden’s lead by taking seriously the complex textual and philosophical relations between the manuscripts, it may become possible to distinguish the motions of Cudworth’s thought against the fixed background of his understood philosophical commitments.

I wish to make a modest (and perhaps premature) contribution to this project by attempting briefly to point out one such apparent motion. My suggestion will be that Cudworth’s views about animals seem to have gone through three stages. Assuming that Burden’s relative dating of the manuscripts is roughly accurate, I will argue that Cudworth initially believed that animals lack freewill but then lost confidence in this belief and went through a period of indecision before later changing his mind and adopting the contrary opinion that animals do indeed possess at least a kind of freewill.

2. Freewill, Animal and Moral

In order to see this motion in Cudworth’s thought, we need first to establish some fixed background as a frame of reference. To this end, allow me to provide a cursory and dogmatic sketch of Cudworth’s account of freewill.

Cudworth holds that human beings possess three distinct and oftentimes conflicting principles of motivation. The first is appetite, which gives rise to passionate impulses that ‘urge importunately towards their particular objects’ (4980, 6). By contrast, the second principle of motivation, ‘inferior reason’, has ‘a large and comprehensive view of what belongs to our utility[,] considers all the conveniencies and inconveniencies of things, compares the future with the present and discovers that some small present gratification may procure a greater future inutility’ (4980, 6). As a result, whereas appetite motivates us to pursue immediate pleasures, inferior reason motivates us to pursue what we take to be in our own long-term self-interest. Finally, the third principle of motivation is what Cudworth variously calls ‘superior reason’, ‘the dictate of honesty’, ‘conscience’, ‘the intellectual instinct’, or ‘the superintellectual instinct’. What distinguishes this third principle of motivation is that, whereas appetite and inferior reason both motivate us to pursue mere pleasure or what Cudworth at one point calls ‘the good of animal delight’ (4980, 58*r), Cudworth argues that the third principle of motivation motivates us to pursue a different kind of good, which he usually calls ‘the good of honesty’.

Cudworth’s account of freewill takes as its starting point the need to adjudicate between these conflicting principles of motivation. Cudworth argues that the ‘hegemonicon’ or ‘ruling principle’ in the soul is ‘the soul as comprehending itself’ (4978, 51/TFW, 178). According to Cudworth, the soul is able to reflect upon its conflicting principles of motivation and serve as a kind of ‘umpire’ (4978, 60/TFW, 182), in some way resolving conflicts by determining which of these principles of motivation will issue in action. In fact, he argues in Chapter XVI of 4978 that imperfect rational beings like us, who possess conflicting principles of motivation, must necessarily possess ‘some one thing presiding over them, intending itself more or less, directing, and ordering, and giving the fiat for action’, otherwise ‘We should be like to a disjointed machine or automaton all whose wheels are not well set together, which therefore will be either at a stand continually, or else go on very slowly, heavily, and cumbersomely’ (4978, 84-85/TFW, 194). He goes so far as to claim that ‘God Almighty could not make such a rational creature as this is, all whose joints, springs, and wheels of motion were necessarily tied together, which had no self-power, no hegemonic or ruling principle, nothing to knit and [unite] the multifarious parts of the machine into one’ (4978, 89/TFW, 195). So, in brief, Cudworth holds that freewill consists in the soul’s power reflectively to adjudicate between its conflicting principles of motivation, and moreover that beings like us that possess conflicting principles of motivation must necessarily possess such a power.

Cudworth distinguishes two species of freewill, which he calls ‘animal freewill’ and ‘moral freewill’ (4980, 5). Importantly, this distinction is not a distinction between the freewill of animals and the freewill of human beings. Instead, it is a distinction between two kinds of freewill that human beings possess. Whereas animal freewill is the kind of freewill that human beings possess with respect to their animal nature, moral freewill is the kind of freewill that human beings possess with respect to their moral nature. Cudworth’s thought is that there are two central kinds of conflicts that require resolution through freewill. First, appetite may come into conflict with inferior reason, requiring resolution through the exercise of animal freewill. Second, appetite or inferior reason—both of which motivate us to pursue mere pleasure or ‘animal delight’ and therefore belong to our lower, animal nature—may come into conflict with the higher principle of superior reason, requiring resolution through the exercise of moral freewill.

While much more could be said about Cudworth’s account of freewill and this distinction between its animal and moral varieties, we already have enough of the fixed background that we need in order to recognize the development in Cudworth’s views about animals.

3. Do Animals Have Animal Freewill?

In 4978, Cudworth quotes a passage from Lucretius’s De rerum natura, which Sarah Hutton translates (in her edition of 4978) as follows:

“Do you not see also when cells are thrown open at a given moment, that nevertheless the eager force of the horses cannot burst forth so suddenly as the mind itself craves?” (4978, 81/TFW, 192)

Commenting on this passage, Cudworth says that ‘Epicurus’ (represented here in the writings of Lucretius) ‘was of opinion, that as well brute animals, as men, had a power over themselves, of intending themselves more or less to their sensual or animal good, fancied by them’. He goes on to explain that Epicurus

“conceived that brutes were not merely passive to their own fancies and hormae but that they could add something of their own to them more or less, and actively intend themselves beyond what they suffered or what was by nature impressed upon them; which, if it be so then must there be something in brutes superior to their hormae, some one thing, which, taking notice both of outward objects by sense, and of its own fancies and hormae, can intend them more or less, and add more or less to them.” (4978, 82/TFW, 192-193)

As Cudworth reads him, Epicurus believed animals to have a kind of freewill. When its cell is thrown open, the horse is subject to various ‘fancies and hormae’ but has in addition to these a further ‘power over [itself]’—that is, a power of freewill—by which it is able in some way to adjudicate between these conflicting impulses in the pursuit of its ‘sensual or animal good’.

Does Cudworth agree with Epicurus? Do animals possess a kind of freewill? It turns out that Cudworth’s view on the matter seems to have changed over time. So far as I can tell, Cudworth refers to Epicurus’s position on animals in four of the freewill manuscripts. Besides the passages just quoted from 4978, he also discusses Epicurus’s view in 4979, 4980, and 4982(1). Following Burden’s analysis of the manuscripts, we can arrange these discussions into approximate chronological order: 4982(1), 4979, 4980, 4978.


We can begin with the earliest discussion, from 4982(1):

“I cannot think as Epicurus did seem to do that there is such a liberum arbitrium as this even in brutes themselves, there being no appearance that they have so large a prospecting and freely discursive faculty as that reason in men is, about matters of interest and utility, but the discord which is between them is of things coordinate and on the same level, a discord of narrow short-sighted passions alternately shuffling with one another where the victory at last a naturally falls to the strongest.” (4982(1), 18)

Cudworth’s position in this passage could hardly be clearer. As of 4982(1), Cudworth takes himself to disagree with Epicurus, denying that animals possess freewill (‘liberum arbitrium’). Cudworth’s argument for this position is revealing. Recall that Cudworth distinguishes two kinds of freewill: animal freewill and moral freewill. Animals clearly do not possess moral freewill, in Cudworth’s view, because they lack superior reason, the distinctively moral principle of motivation that is unique to human beings. So, if animals were to possess freewill, they would (perhaps unsurprisingly) have to possess animal freewill. For Cudworth, however, animal freewill presupposes the possibility of a conflict between appetite and inferior reason, where inferior reason is a principle of motivation that motivates a being to pursue its long-term self-interest rather than the immediate gratification of its present impulses. In the passage from 4982(1), Cudworth denies animal freewill to animals because they lack such a principle. According Cudworth, there simply is ‘no appearance that [brutes] have so large a prospecting and freely discursive faculty as that reason in men is, about matters of interest and utility’. Instead, Cudworth suggests that animals are mere creatures of appetite, driven about by ‘a discord of narrow short-sighted passions alternately shuffling with one another where the victory at last a naturally falls to the strongest’. In other words, as of 4982(1), Cudworth thinks that animals do not have conflicting principles of motivation and therefore have no need of freewill. At this point in his intellectual development, Cudworth thinks that animals always simply act on their strongest appetite without any intervention of freewill.


In 4979, however, Cudworth’s position softens considerably:

“I conceive it to be of the two more rational rather to conclude with Epicurus that the brutes themselves have a kind of lower self-power in them not extending at all to morality rather than that there should be none at all in men and angelical souls.” (4979, 119)

Significantly, in this passage, Cudworth no longer takes himself to disagree with Epicurus. Nonetheless, he does not wholeheartedly endorse Epicurus’s view either. Instead, Cudworth sets up a dichotomy between two extremes. On the one hand, we might simply deny the existence of freewill altogether. On the other hand, we might affirm the existence of freewill and attribute it equally to animals, men, and angels. Given these alternatives, Cudworth says that it would be better to adopt the latter position and grant animal freewill (‘a lower self-power […] not extending at all to morality’) to animals than to adopt the former position and deny freewill to men and angels. To this extent, at least, Cudworth aligns himself with Epicurus. This concession is hardly a ringing endorsement of Epicurus’s view, however. For all that Cudworth says in 4979, while it might be better to grant animal freewill to animals than to deny freewill to men and angels, it might be better still to adopt an intermediate position by restricting freewill solely to men and angels and denying it to animals.


Cudworth adopts the same position in 4980 as in 4979. He copies the passage quoted above from 4979 into 4980 largely unrevised:

“[I]t were more reasonable rather to conclude with Epicurus that brutes themselves have a kind of lower self-power and freewill in them though not extending to morality, than that there should be no such thing at all in men or angels.” (4980, 189)

Cudworth also mentions Epicurus’s view in one other passage from 4980. After distinguishing between animal freewill and moral freewill, he hastens to add the following clarification:

“However though there be such an animal freewill in men acknowledged by us, it doth not therefore follow that we must needs assent to Lucretius and Epicurus who asserted that all brute animals had a liberum arbitrium in them.” (4980, 7)

In this passage, Cudworth makes exactly the point that I made earlier on Cudworth’s behalf. For Cudworth, ‘animal freewill’ is not the freewill of animals. Instead, animal freewill is the freewill that human beings possess with respect to their animal nature. So, while Cudworth affirms the existence of animal freewill, he insists that he is not therefore committed to holding that animals possess any kind of freewill, as Epicurus (and, he now adds, Lucretius) maintained. This addition to 4980 merely underscores the tentative nature of Cudworth’s alignment with Epicurus. While it would be better to grant freewill to animals than to deny it to men and angels, Cudworth does not wish to commit himself to the claim that animals actually possess animal freewill.


We can now return to 4978, which I am supposing (following Burden) to be Cudworth’s latest extant discussion. The passages from 4978 concerning Epicurus’s view that I quoted earlier occur in the middle of an entire chapter (Chapter XV) devoted largely to Epicurus. Cudworth begins his discussion on a critical note by ridiculing Epicurus’s suggestion that freewill (including the freewill of animals) is derived from ‘a contingent declination of senseless atoms from the perpendicular’ (4978, 79v/TFW, 191). Cudworth’s discussion soon takes on a more positive tone, however. He begins by tentatively endorsing the idea that animals are capable of ‘epeleustic’ liberty, that is, the liberty of choosing arbitrarily between equals:

“Now it is not easy to exclude brute animals from such a contingency as this, because there may be objects proposed to them (as of meat and drink) so exactly equal, and placed at such equal distances for a considerable time; as that it cannot be conceived what physical cause there should be necessarily to determine them at last to either of them, or to this rather than that. And yet they will not hang in suspense but certainly do one or other. So again where they are distracted betwixt an equal fear and aversation on one side, and equal hope or desire on the other, at the same time, as a dog betwixt a whip and a bone, they will not always continue in demur and suspense, though the scales be exactly even, and a perfect isorrope as to motives and causes. But there will after a determination, sometimes one way, sometimes another, which cannot well be thought necessary without anything of fortuitous contingency.” (4978, 80-81/TFW, 192)

As Cudworth argues earlier in 4978, however, epeleustic liberty ought not to be confused with freewill (4978, 24-26/TFW, 166-167). For Cudworth, freewill is the foundation of praise and blame. We cannot be praised or blamed, however, for the exercise of epeleustic liberty. After all, the whole point of epeleustic liberty is that we are able to choose arbitrarily precisely when it does not matter what we choose. So, even if Cudworth grants that animals possess epeleustic liberty, it does not follow that they are capable of animal freewill.

After attributing epeleustic liberty to animals, Cudworth goes on to quote from Lucretius’s De rerum natura and discuss Epicurus’s position on freewill in animals, as we saw earlier (I quoted the relevant material at the beginning of this section). It is difficult to draw any inferences from this paragraph about Cudworth’s own commitments. His focus here, it seems, is merely to report Epicurus’s position. That said, the paragraph’s opening sentence does seem to imply a continuation from the previous paragraph: ‘Moreover Epicurus was of opinion, that as well brute animals, as men, had a power over themselves, of intending themselves more or less to their sensual or animal good, fancied by them.’ Given that Cudworth’s claim in the previous paragraph was that animals may plausibly possess epeleustic liberty, the implication in this paragraph might be that animals may also plausibly possess a kind of freewill as well. But this is weak evidence, to say the least.

Fortunately, Cudworth takes a somewhat firmer stance in the next paragraph, which is also the final paragraph of the chapter:

“And there may seem to be some further probability of this from hence, because we find by experience that brutes are many of them docible, and can acquire habits, to do many things even to admiration. Now fancies and hormae as such are not capable of habits, no more than of freewill. And therefore that which these habits are in, and which thus determines their motions (and their hormae too) must be a kind of hegemonic in the acting probably not without some contingency.” (4978, 82/TFW, 193)

While this passage presents some complications, its overall import is clear. Cudworth now takes himself to be arguing in support of Epicurus’s claim that animals possess a kind of freewill (although his support remains somewhat tentative— ‘there may seem to be some further probability’ that animals act ‘probably not without some contingency’). He opens the paragraph by proposing to adduce ‘some further probability’ in support of Epicurus’s position, and concludes on the basis of some observations about habit that there ‘must be a kind of hegemonic in the acting’ of animals. Now, the passage is somewhat complicated because Cudworth does not explain exactly why he takes habit to be indicative of freewill or the activity of a hegemonic power. It would take us too far afield fully to explain Cudworth’s reasoning. Cudworth argues elsewhere in the freewill manuscripts, however, that habit is founded in the hegemonicon and that we would not be capable of forming habits if the soul lacked its reflective, hegemonic power. Cudworth thus takes the habit-forming ability of animals to imply that they possess a kind of freewill.

Cudworth adds the following sentence on the verso of the same page:

“However it is not easy to believe that every wagging of a dog’s tail, every motion of a wanton kitling sportfully playing and toying, or of a flea skipping, hath such a necessary cause, as that it could none of them possibly have been otherwise.” (4978, 82v/TFW, 193)

Cudworth’s claim that ‘it is not easy to believe’ that all of an animal’s actions are necessary provides further evidence that he believes that animals likely possess a kind of freewill. Admittedly, Cudworth might take the non-necessity of these actions to be the result not of freewill but of epeleustic liberty. However, given that Cudworth’s topic on the recto side of the page is freewill rather than epeleustic liberty, the more likely reading seems to be that he is pointing to the tail-wagging of dogs and the skipping of fleas as evidence of a kind of freewill in animals.

On the whole, therefore, Cudworth’s discussion of Epicurus in 4978 seems to represent an (almost) complete reversal of his earlier position. Whereas Cudworth began in 4982(1) by straightforwardly rejecting Epicurus’s position, Cudworth seems slowly to have come around to the idea that animals possess a kind of freewill, first adopting an intermediate, non-committal stance in 4979 and 4980 and then arguing positively (albeit somewhat tentatively) in favour of the Epicurean position in 4978. Cudworth’s view of animals thus appears to have undergone a fairly radical evolution over the course of writing the freewill manuscripts.

I said that 4978 manifests an almost complete reversal. Recall that, in 4982(1), Cudworth denies animal freewill to animals because animal freewill presupposes inferior reason and animals, Cudworth claimed, show no signs of being able to reason about their long-term self-interest. If Cudworth had truly reversed his earlier opinion, we would expect to find him arguing in 4978 that animals are in fact capable of reasoning about their long-term self-interest after all. But there is little sign of such an argument in 4978. In recounting Epicurus’s position, for example, Cudworth says merely that, according to Epicurus, ‘there [must] be something in brutes superior to their hormae’ without suggesting that, for Epicurus, animals possess an additional principle of motivation such as inferior reason in addition to appetite. Similarly, when Cudworth argues in his own voice that animals must possess a kind of freewill because they are capable of developing habits, this argument does not obviously turn on the claim that animals do in fact possess a principle of motivation other than appetite.

Now, it is possible that there might be some thought about inferior reason lurking in the background of Cudworth’s discussion. When a dog hears its master’s command to sit, for example, Cudworth might be thinking that inferior reason is what motivates the dog to act contrary to its appetites and obey its master’s command in hope of future reward. As a result, Cudworth’s reference to the docibility of animals might imply that he now takes animals to possess inferior reason, which is why he now also takes them to be capable of animal freewill. Epicurus’s horses bursting from their cells might experience a similar conflict—they are trained to burst out as quickly as possible, but appetite gets in the way. Moreover, it is worth noting that Cudworth attributes to Epicurus the view that animals have a power of ‘intending themselves more or less to their sensual or animal good’, by which he may mean their overall or long-term animal good as opposed to the immediate gratification of their appetites. Nonetheless, if Cudworth does mean to attribute inferior reason to animals in 4978, he could have made this point much clearer.

Cudworth’s final position on animals, freewill, and animal freewill is thus somewhat ambiguous. Clearly, Cudworth’s view has undergone some change. Whereas Cudworth straightforwardly denied the Epicurean view that animals possess freewill in 4982(1), his mature view in 4978 is that animals do possess a kind of freewill. It is less clear, however, what exactly this change amounts to. One possibility is that, whereas Cudworth initially denied animal freewill to animals in 4982(1), he eventually came to grant animal freewill to animals in 4978. Another possibility, however, is that Cudworth continues to deny animal freewill to animals in 4978 but comes to realize that animals may nonetheless possess another kind of freewill, distinct from the ‘animal freewill’ that human beings possess, that is unique to animals and does not require inferior reason. On the latter reading, animals would possess a kind of freewill but, perhaps paradoxically, would not possess animal freewill. For my part, I tend to prefer the former, less paradoxical reading. The evidence, however, is indecisive.

Works Cited

Burden, Mark. 2019. ‘Ralph Cudworth’s Freewill Manuscripts: A Roadmap to Dating and Analysis.’ The Cambridge Platonist Research Group, June 9. Accessed June 9, 2019.

Cudworth, Ralph. Manuscripts on freewill. British Library Additional Manuscripts 4978-4982.

Cudworth, Ralph. 1996. ‘A Treatise of Freewill.’ [TFW.] In A Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality: With A Treatise of Freewill, edited by Sarah Hutton, 153-209. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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