Oddcast episode

Dylan Burns on the Birth of Free Will in Late Antiquity

[Corrigendum: In the interview it is asserted that ancient Edessa is modern-day Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey; our sources tell us it is actually Urfa in southeastern Turkey.]

In Part II of our interview with the uncommonly-handsome Doctor Burns we discuss when, how, and where the intriguing concept of ‘free will’ first emerges in the western tradition. Under discussion are three main sources, all of which describe a faculty of decision-making in the soul prior to the soul’s embodiment:

  • The Book of the Laws of the Countries, a Syriac dialogue between Bardaisan of Edessa and students on the subject of astral causation, variations in local conditions, and human agency,
  • Clement of Alexandria’s attacks (especially in Stromateis II and IV) on Basilides’ doctrine of the pre-existence of souls and consequent human responsibility for what happens to us during our lives (you might be being punished for something you did in a previous lifetime, so suck it up), and
  • Origen of Alexandria (On First Principles III, also preserved in part in the original Greek in the Philokalia) on self-determination, which might fairly be called the first Christian treatise on the question of free will.

We also discuss fate as ‘the laws of physics’ and the rise of astrological thinking from Plato onward, the possible origins of Plato’s ideas about souls and stars in Orphic and Pythagorean books, and, last but not least, ideas on providence and divine will found both in Plotinus (especially Enn. VI.8) and the Gnostic Tripartite Tractate (NHC I.5).

Interview Bio:

Dylan Burns is Assistant Professor of the History of Esotericism in Late Antiquity at the University of Amsterdam’s HHP. He is an editor of Brill’s Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies series. His many publications deal with ancient Gnosticism, Platonistic and Platonising religious movements, Platonism and ancient philosophy more generally, as well as the wider field of western esotericism studies. His most recent book at the time of writing is Did God Care? Providence, Dualism, and Will in Later Greek and Early Christian Philosophy.

Works Cited in this Episode:


The Tripartite Tractate (NHC I.5) can be found in English at Bentley Layton. The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations and Introductions. Doubleday, New York, 1995 or J. M. Robinson. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. Brill, Leiden, 1977. See Thomassen, Einar, “Tripartite Tractate”, in the Brill Encyclopedia of Early Christianity Online, General Editor David G. Hunter, Paul J.J. van Geest, Bert Jan Lietaert Peerbolte.


  • Pierre Boyancé. La religion astrale de Platon à Cicéron. Revue des Études Grecques, 65 (306/308):312–50, July-Dec. 1952.
  • Kevin Corrigan and John D. Turner, editors. Plotinus Ennead VI.8: On the Voluntary and on the Free Will of the One. Parmenides Press, Las Vegas/Zurich/Athens, 2017.
  • Izabela Jurasz’s work on Bardaisan can be checked out on her Academia page.
  • Jan Zandee. The Terminology of Plotinus and Some Gnostic Writings, Mainly the Fourth Treatise of the Jung Codex. Nederlands historisch-archaeologisch instituut in het nabije oosten, Istanbul, 1961.

Recommended Reading:

Bardaisan and the Book of the Laws of Countries:

  • Camplani, Alberto. “Bardesane et les bardesanites.” Annuaires de l’École des hautes études 112 (2003) : 29–50.
  • Drijvers, Han J. W. Bardaiṣan of Edessa. Assen: van Gorcum & Co., 1966.
  • Drijvers, Han J. W., ed. and tr. The Book of the Laws of the Countries. Dialogue on Fate of Bardaiṣan of Edessa. Assen: van Gorcum & Co., 1965.
  • Possekel, Ute. “Bardaisan’s Influence on Late Antique Christianity.” Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies 21:1 (2018): 81–125.
  • Ramelli, Ilaria L.E. Bardaiṣan of Edessa: A Reassessment of the Evidence and a New Interpretation. Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2009.

(Clement on) Basilides on Pre-existence and Freedom:

  • Layton, Bentley. “The Significance of Basilides in Ancient Christian Thought.” Representations 28 (1989): 135–51.
  • Löhr, Winrich. Basilides und seine Schule: Eine Studie zur Theologie- und Kirchengeschichte des zweiten Jahrhunderts. WUNT 83. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1996.
  • Nautin, Pierre. “Les fragments de Basilide sur la souffrance et leur interpretations par Clément d’Alexandrie et Origène.” Pages 393–404 in Mélanges d’histoire des religions offert à Henri-Charles Puech. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1974.
  • Pearson, Birger. “Basilides the Gnostic.” Pages 1–31 in A Companion to Second-Century Christian “Heretics”. Edited by Antti Marjanen and Petri Luomanen. VCSup. 76. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2008.
  • Schüngel, Paul. “Gnostische Gotteslehren: Zum 7. und 8. Fragment des Basilides, zu Valentins 5. Fragment und zwei antiken Kommentaren zu diesem Fragment.” VC 53 (1999): 361–94.

Origen on Free Will:

  • Benjamins, Hendrik S. Eingeordnete Freiheit. Freiheit und Vorsehung bei Origenes. VCSup 28. Leiden; New York; Köln: Brill, 1994.
  • Boys-Stones, George. “Human Autonomy and Divine Revelation in Origen.” Pages 489–99 in Severan Culture. Edited by Simon Swain, Stephen Harrison, and Jas Elsner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Gessel, Wilhelm. Die Theologie des Gebetes nach ‘De Oratione’ von Origenes. München: Ferdinand Schöningh, 1975.
  • Jackson, B. Darrell. “Sources of Origen’s Doctrine of Freedom.” Church History 35 (1966): 13–23.
  • Koch, Hal. Pronoia und Paideusis. Studien über Origenes und sein Verhältnis zum Platonismus. Berlin; Leipzig: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1932.
  • Rist, John M. “The Greek and Latin Texts of the Discussion on Free Will in De Principiis, Book III.” Pages 97–111 in Origeniana. Premier colloque international des études origéniennes (Montserrat, 18-21 septembre 1973). Edited by Henri Crouzel, Gennaro Lomiento, and Josep Rius-Camps. Quaderni di “Vetera Christianorum” 12. Bari: Istitutio di letteratura christiana antica; Università di Bari, 1975.
  • Scott, Alan. Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.


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