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Topic #G58


Stoic fatalism


25 February 2002
Scribe: Atis Reisenauer


These minutes were spoken on 27 February; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes



                  Fatalism and determinism are placed in a religious context by the Stoics.  Professor Hutchinson read two hymns from Cleanthes, II-22 then II-21.


                                    Lead me, O Zeus, and you O Fate,

                                    to whatever place you have assigned me;

                                    I shall follow without reluctance, and if I am not willing to,

                                    because I have become a bad man, nevertheless I will follow.


                                                      (Hellenistic Philosophy, II-22, p.141)


                                    Most glorious of the immortals, called by many names, ever all-mighty

                                    Zeus, leader of nature, guiding everything with law,

                                    Hail! For it is right that all mortals should address you,

                                    since all are descended from you and imitate your voice,

                                    alone of all the mortals which live and creep upon the earth.

                                    So I will sing your praises and hymn your might always.

                                    This entire cosmos which revolves around the earth obeys you,

                                    wherever you might lead it, and is willingly ruled by you;

                                    such is [ the might of ] your thunderbolt, a two-edged helper

                                    in your invincible hands, fiery and everliving;

                                    for by its blows all deeds in nature are <accomplished>.

                                    By it you straighten the common rational principle which penetrates

                                    all things, being mixed with lights both great and small.

                                    By it you have become such a lofty power and king forever.

                                    Nor does any deed occur on earth without you, god,

                                    neither in the aithereal divine heaven nor on the sea,

                                    except for the deeds of the wicked in their folly.

                                    But you know how to set straight what is crooked,

                                    and to put inn order what is disorderly; for you, what is not dear is dear.

                                    For thus you have fitted together all good things with the bad,

                                    so that there is one eternal rational principle for them all--

                                    and it is this which the wicked flee fromm and neglect,

                                    ill-fate, since they always long for the possession of good things

                                    and do not see the common law of god, nor do they hear it;

                                    and if they obeyed it sensibly they would have a good life.

                                    But fools they be, impelled each to his own evil,

                                    some with with a strife-torn zeal for glory,

                                    others devoted to gain in undue measure,

                                    others devoted to release and the pleasure of the body.

                                    ... they are swept off in pursuit of different things at different times

                                    while rushing to acquire the exact opposites of these things above all.

                                    But Zeus, giver of all, you of the dark clouds, of the blazing thunderbolt,

                                    save men from their baneful inexperience

                                    and disperse it, father, far from their souls; grant that they may achieve

                                    the wisdom with which you confidently guide all with justice

                                    so that we may require you with honour for the honour you give us

                                    praising your works continually, as is fitting

                                    for mortals; for there is no greater prize, neither for mortals

                                    nor for gods, than to praise with justice the common law for ever.


                                                      (Hellenistic Philosophy, II-21, pp. 139-141)


Professor Hutchinson said that II-21 in particular reflects temple worship and that we should imagine a ritual ceremony when reading it.  Professor Hutchinson said that II-21 has a certain quality found in the Judeo-Christian interpretation of God towards which the worshipers belittle themselves in order to magnify God.


                  Professor Hutchinson then gave some background information on Cleanthes.  We are told that Cleanthes was the second head of the Academy and that Chrysippus was his student.  Cleanthes was said to have learned very slowly but very, very well by ancient sources.  So much so that Cleanthes was often compared to a scratch pad, the ancient equivalent of a post-it note.  In the ancient world, there were two kinds of scratch pads, one of which was a tablet with wax warmed over a fire making it susceptible to impressions; this is what the mind is referred to in Plato’s Theatetus where perceptions are likened to seals made in wax.  Another scratch pad was the shoulder bone of a sacrificed calf, which was heated, scraped, used for successive notes, and then thrown away.  Zeno is known to have said of Cleanthes that he was a living shoulder blade.  Cleanthes was not a flashy genius, he believed in the religious inspiration of the Stoic system, so that when you put yourself in the hands of the higher being your future is managed for you, and that what happens is the way it should be.  What happens in history to us happens through the wisdom and goodness of the higher being.  That the future is fated since God is doing it for us is a large part of the Stoic inpiration.  Therefore, a good Stoic must welcome the future as one welcomes the next sentence of God’s conversation. 


                  There are two other reasons why the future is determined without our control.  The second is the causal-physical one.  The universe is a living thing, matter is inert, and form is active.  If everything is caused by effects, then everything being caused is set to happen.  Though some events are unpredictable, once they are started, they are fated.  Professor Hutchinson provided the physical example of a pen cap falling to the floor.  Once let go of you cannot imagine a future where the cap does not hit the floor, barring a nuclear holocaust occuring at that moment where the cap is in mid-air.  Thus, the falling cap is immune from intervention.  Although intervention is possible, the possibilities become narrower with time.  Similarly, if a human is a physical system it must be caused by external forces.  As soon  as you decide to let the cap go then its falling to the floor is fated.  The future looks free but the past is fixed.  The true future contains strands of possibilities but the present is that point where the strands meet, the tip of the cone of actuality.  The cone of actuality appears free and no doubt things can occur unpredictably.  If there is no freedom in the system then freedom is an illusion.  Granted that a person is part of a physical system then it looks like everything is caused, likewise internally.  With the previous argument the Stoics reach out to god for comfort.  In this causal-physical argument, Professor Hutchinson said we are looking at a challenge to strict determinism put forwrd by the Epicureans and the Academics to criticize the Stoics for limiting humans to being parts of a machine.


                  The third so-called logical argument is the most slippery, and is a logical puzzle that has to do with logical propositions.  From simple premises Aristotle raises problems of the future.  The Master Argument is part of a longer complex disccussion of logical fatalism.  The prediction “the leafs will win the Stanley Cup” is either true or not true, if it is true then it is true on the twentyfifth of february, its truth value matters for today.  If yesterday you said something true then that cannot change.  Professor Hutchinson read from chapter 9 of Aristotle’s Interpretation “if white now it is true to say earlier it was white; everything that will be happens necessarily”.  This discussion of Aristole’s is the background for the Master Argument discussion in our source book.  Thus, the Master Argument is a development of Aristotle’s argument.  According to it different people abandon different postulates.  You either deny that “everything past and true is necessary” or that “the impossible does not follow from the possible” because certain things are no longer capable of taking place, or you deny that “there is something possible which neither is nor will be true” as did Epicurus.  These logical paradoxes make a difference to the shape of your logical system should you choose to have one.


                  “I have learned from research that Diodorus retained one pair, the followers of Panthoides and Cleanthes another, and the followers of Chrysippus another” (Epictetus, Discourses 2.19, IG II-76). Professor Hutchinson then said that there are reports that Cicero’s On Fate, in the parts that survived, four to five levels of response-rejoinder, response-rejoinder debate can be discerned, indicating how they functioned. From this report it seems that there were spokespersons for the corporate view, some of whom repeatedly say “that’s what they said.”  The Stoics were less conservative, and there was more room for innovation and novelty in their debate, whereas the Epicureans limited spokespersons to saying “well that’s what they said”, which contributed to Epicurean philosophy becoming known as the philosophy of the book.


                  The seed of the Lazy Argument can be seen in Aristotle, and there seems to have been a focused response by the Stoics to it, by Chrysippus in particular.  The Lazy Argument goes like this: You are sick and tossing in bed with a fever, so what is the point of calling the doctor if you are fated to recover or not recover?  Or, equivalently, what is the point of writing a crucial assignment if whether or not you pass a course is predetermined?  Thus, it is not that calling the doctor is independent of recovery, but the previous causes are causing the calling of the doctor, and calling the doctor splices or braids them.  Thus, when talking of causation think of an event occuring due to a conjunction of things.  Reality is a tight network moving in time where contingency runs out when the network enters history.  Thus, your recovery depends on your calling the doctor.  This raises the queston, “if you are fated to call the doctor then who is in charge?” When you searched for the doctor’s number in the phone book were you programmed?  Concerning your ability to refrain from making a mistake or to achieve something praiseworhty what is the point in doing so, blaiming and praising when we are just a strand and have no control.  This point was used by Epicurus to attack the Stoics and surrounds the fundamental debate of moral responsibilty.  This is an issue of the way things need to be in order for you to get credit for them.  The flip side to this view is seen in Plato’s Protagoras where if someone is wicked we like to single them out, and say ‘shape up’, which does not make much sense if we hold that a person is just sleep-walking to the future.


                  In order to answer the question of ‘who’s in charge?’, we need the argument of the cylinder and the cone. The background to this is the Stoic doctrine of the different kinds of causes, as between the perfect and principal and auxiliary and proximate causes (IG II-90).  When analyzing children rolling down a hillside it is true to say that some children are cylinders while some are cones.  Likewise, when a streetcar is coming differences exist between those who crash the queue or join it, that is one type  of person responds cylindrically while the other conically, depending on the moral shape of the character.  The true cause of your moral behaviour is your moral character.  The question “Couldn’t you argue that your character shape was also fated?” was raised, to which Professor Hutchinson answered “not really” on the basis that the person who hangs around you the most is yourself, making yourself in charge, which is why most people  attribute their own learning to their own person.  That is, people turn out to be who they wanted to be.  The case of moral deformity is parallel to physical deformity. In Book 3 chapter 5 of Aristotle’s Ethics the question “some people are hideously fat, but can you blame them?” is raised, to which the answer is that although obesity could be the result of disease or our life choices, in general that person is capable of being in good fitness and thus should shoulder  the blame, to which Professor Hutchinson agreed.  This position is stated by Seneca in Letter 107 where he refuses to deny personal responsiblity.


Things will get thrown at you and things will hit you.  Life’s no soft affair.  It’s a long road you’ve started on: you can’t but expect to have slips and knocks and falls ...  At one pllace you will part from a companion, at another bury one, and be afraid of one at another.  These are the kind of things you’ll come up against all along this rugged journey ... ‘I’ve been deserted by my slaves!’  Others have been plundered, indiscriminated, set upon, betrayed, beaten up, attacked with poison or withh calumny - mention anything you like, it has happened to plenty of people.  A vast variety of missiles are launched with us as their target.  Some are planted in our flesh already, some are hurtling towards us at this very moment, others merely grazing us in passing on their way to other targets.  Let’s not be taken aback by any of the things we’re born to, things no one need complain at for the simple reason that they’re the same for everybody.  Yes, the same for everybody; for even if a man does escape something, it was a thing which he might have suffered.  The fairness of a law does not consist in its effects actually being felt by all alike, but in its having been laid down for all alike.  Let’s get this sense of justice firmly into our heads and pay up without grumbling the taxes arising from our mortal state ...  This is the law to which our minds are needing to be reconciled.  This is the law they should be following and obeying.  They should assume that whatever happens was bound to happen and refrain from railing at nature, one can do nothing better than endure what cannot be cured and attend uncomplainingly the god at whose instance all things come about ... <Seneca translates into Latin part of a hymn by Cleanthes>


Lead me, Master of the soaring vault / Of Heaven, lead me, Father, where you will, / I stand here prompt and eager to obey, / And ev’n suppose I were unwilling, still / I should attend you and know suffering, / Dishonourably and grumbling, when I might / have done so and been good as well.  For Fate / The willing leads, the unwilling drags along.


                  (Seneca, Letter 107, tr. Campbell, Penguin)                   


Likewise, Hippolytus in Philosophoumena 21 (IG II-92) likens a human to a dog attached to the cart of history to which it is better to trot along rather than be dragged along.