On Fate

ftFate is a disposition inherent to changeable things, by which Providence connects each one with its proper order.

~ Aquinas (attributed to Boethius)

The idea of Fate in literature, poetry, philosophy, politics and history was often presented in human form, sometimes abstractly personified as the opponent of freedom in the spectacle of human history and life.  This was the understanding of Fate to the Greek poets and philosophers of antiquity.  We find this reoccurring leitmotiv in the Greek tragedies where the Fates must be confronted by the protagonist.  Some inescapable curse demands fulfillment usually at a critical juncture in the plot.  Nevertheless, the actors on the stage are not merely hapless victims of an unstoppable metaphysical fate they neither understand nor can control.  Transfixed by the structure of the inevitable, the tragic hero struggles to determine his own destiny; manipulating the Hobson choices in a usually (but not always) vain attempt to forestall his tragic end. 

Sisyphus, King of Corinth, due to his chronic deceitfulness is fated by Zeus to roll a giant boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down again for eternity. The Titan, Prometheus, is punished by Zeus for stealing fire from heaven and giving it to mankind thus providing warmth and a giant leap forward for human civilization, nevertheless, Fate destined this cultural hero to suffer the torture of having his liver eaten by an eagle everyday only to have it grow back the next day and the whole process repeated in perpetuity. Oedipus, predestined to murder his father and marry his mother, is not fated to question his past and to learn the evils which, when he understands, he determines to understand no more (willful ignorance). The Furies which chase Orestes is tormented by them for killing his mother, Clytemnestra, an act not fated but an act of free will done to avenge the murder of his father.

The ancients’ idea of Fate or better “Chance” or “Destiny” was that men had a critical role to play, through choice, demonstrating some control over human nature and the vagaries of Life.  Tacitus, for instance, while declaring that “most men … Cannot part with the belief that each person’s future is fixed from his very birth,” asserts that “the wisest of the ancients … leave us the capacity of choosing our life.”  He also identifies a transcendent order, a natural law of events outside man’s authority to affect, though he discoveries no logic concerning its source—whether it be contingent “on wandering stars” or “primary elements, and on a combination of natural causes.”  Subjectively speaking, Tacitus proclaims, “I suspend my judgment” on the question “whether it is fate and unchangeable necessity or chance which governs the revolutions of human affairs.”  In this manner, he allows the chance there are events in life that man can control through choice—that not everything which is outside man’s control is doomed or fated. Therefore, Tacitus believes that Fate, including Destiny, Chance, and Fortune play an important role in governing the affairs of mankind.  

In ancient poetry and mythology, both Destiny and Chance were personified as deities or agents of the metaphysical realm.  There were the goddess of Fortune and the three Fates, as well as their three evil sisters or counterparts, the Furies.  The Fates—were the white-robed incarnations of Destiny (e.g., the “sparing ones”, or Fata; also comparable to the Germanic Norns prominent in Richard Wagner’s music drama, Gotterdammerung). Tradition eventually fixed their number at three: Clotho (spinner), Lachesis (allotter) and Atropos (unturnable). The Latin derivation of “fate” means an oracle, and so indicates what is divinely predestined.  Life moves from event to event by fate and thus is fated—something exclusive to the metaphysical realm of Zeus and thus is divinely ordained and commanded in the councils of the gods on Mount Olympus. Nevertheless, even ancient Greek history demonstrates time and again that there any events concerning the fate of man that reside outside the supernatural destiny of the gods; a fate that not even Zeus himself can control, affect, or prevent.

Moreover, the concept of fate suggests a supernatural will, what Schopenhauer called a “Will to Life” and Nietzsche called “Will to Power,” just as destiny suggests predestination by a metaphysical force capable of knowing the future but also to ordain that destiny.  The certainty of fate and destiny is thus different from that of simply natural inevitability which controls the future to the extent that it could be the unavoidable consequence. We often find the Fate theme in art and music for example, the subject matter of one of Verdi’s most famous operas, La forza del destino (The force of destiny), has a fate force so strong that many great opera singers in history refused to sing this opera for fear of bad luck. (In a 1960 Met production one opera singer actually died on stage singing this opera).

Nonetheless, the ancients do not seem to be fatalists in the radical sense of the term.  To the degree that mankind can appease the gods through good works, prayers, alms to the oracles, offerings, as well as incite divine jealousy and wrath, the attitudes and actions of men appear to be a decisive dynamic in the will of the gods.  The question of whose side the gods are on is also an important and reoccurring theme in ancient Greek literature, poetry and history—Will the gods be antagonistic and incite human conflict (as in the Iliad), or be pitted against each other (as in the Odyssey)?  Even the Bible has a view of this existential cosmic dualism, or what the early Romantic writers called Strum und Drang (storm and stress), a dynamic natural law which is demonstrated in the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:18—“Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

English Historian Michael Grant, in his groundbreaking 1994 study, The Ancient Historians, speaks of Herodotus and his magnificent contributions creating the historical method in his magnum opus, Histories (or The History) Books 1-9: 

He [Herodotus] believed, that is to say, in a heavenly power that is common to all humanity. And, like the Ionian scientist Anaximander before him, he describes such a power by a neuter adjective ‘the divine’ (te theion), without any personal differentiation. When this agency spoke in oracles, it was convenient to departmentalise [sic] its activity by the bestowal of a name. Yet what keeps the balance in the universe and the world is deity undefined… Sometimes men have a tragic foreknowledge of their future destiny. And yet all Herodotus’ stories imply at least the illusion of free will, and much free will, too that is not illusory but authentic. For it had now become clear that a historian’s very subjects, the actions of men in communities, presuppose that human decisions have some power. But they are hampered by fate. What is more, they are hampered by accident, since Herodotus, like the tragedians, was very conscious that this is another factor which widens and deepens the gap between real and ideal. 

Under this worldview we see that Herodotus and also Thucydides played down the omnipotent, omnipresent power of Fate as distinct from and subservient to Chance. Grant continues: 

Accordingly, at the beginnings of his threads of causation, there is often an unresolved, irrational strand. Greek nouns such as Chance (Tyche) can mean anything between an abstraction and a goddess receiving worship. Chance had appeared in Greek literature as early as the post-Homeric epics, and had gradually taken shape until it was represented and portrayed by sixth-century sculptors. It was also occasionally personified in tragedy. Later Greeks would elevate it to a major deity, but its role in Herodotus, though vital, is not as great as that. The operations of Chance may be neutral, or catastrophic, or favourable. Its insertion into a story was a way of saying that some links in the course of events are not known. A complete understanding of causation is not claimed, and there is still room for the unique and decisive accident–a factor that is under-estimated by many modern historians. 

In what ways does Thucydides exemplify the recurrence of past events within the History?  For example, the fate of Persia in the prehistory and Athens; the Athenian response to Persians, Melian reaction to Athens; or the Plague, Corcyra, Athens attack/retreat at Sicily?  What is Thucydides saying about war, making war, winning war and so on? Thucydides was definitely not a pacifist, yet throughout his magnum opus, The History of the Peloponnesian War, he repeatedly iterates that war is unpredictable and cruel; that the Spartans did not lightly undertake aggressive foreign wars (1.118.2).

Thucydides understanding of fate is as the unchangeable, irrational dynamic of Tyche: not Doom or Fate, but Chance. If the will has a true foundation and the reason maintains its order, the man of power, the man of action, says Thucydides, can ascend above the compulsion of Chance — if not at all times, at least frequently enough to make a substantial difference in his own destiny and in the destiny and history of those people under his domain.

Thucydides (460-395 B.C.) and his contemporary Herodotus (484-425 B.C.) both were an important influence on Western historiography. In the seventeenth century, the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, in his 1651 magnum opus, Leviathan propagated the idea of absolute monarchy. Hobbes revered Thucydides and in 1628 was the first to translate his writings into English directly from Greek. Thucydides, Hobbes and Machiavelli are all considered the founding fathers of political realism, according to which public policy must primarily or exclusively focus on the needs of the State to preserve military, economic and political power rather than reliance on God, morality, ideals or ethics. Political realism is the antecedent political philosophy of collectivism, statism, progressivism and the modern Democrat Socialist Party. 

If Fate, according to Aquinas “is a disposition inherent to changeable things, by which Providence connects each one with its proper order,” then the Judeo-Christian understanding of Fate is intertwined with Providence (God). This does not make the Christian a fatalist (as humanists, atheists and progressives contend) believing that every human act is foreordained by God, therefore he resigns himself to fate. No, because God knows the beginning from the end, and the end from the beginning, and man does not, thus all of humanity is inextricably dependent on God to “Give us this day, our daily bread,” to order our steps and to preserve, to order society, to always obey reason by conforming to God’s natural law. Therefore, to act counter to reason, natural law, and good moral order is to embrace a tragic Fate; to doom oneself, your family, your society to choose one of the twin Fates Odysseus and his men faced in Homer’s Odyssey—Scylla (a 9-headed sea monster) or Charybdis (an inescapable whirlpool). 

Passing the coast of modern-day Sicily, Odysseus successfully sails his ship beyond the clutches of Scylla and Charybdis, nevertheless, Fate compelled Scylla to catch six of his men, devouring them alive. Homer writes:

“…they writhed
gasping as Scylla swung them up her cliff and there
at her cavern’s mouth she bolted them down raw—
screaming out, flinging their arms toward me,
lost in that mortal struggle.”

*N.B.: This article is based in part on excerpts from Great Books of the Western World, Vol. 2, chp. 27—Fate and Vol. 6 – Herodotus and Thucydides  

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