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Topic #G58


Stoic fatalism


25 February 2002
Scribe: Craig Killen


These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes



Epictetus quotes the following hymn by Cleanthes:


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.

(Enchiridion 53, SVF 1.527 IG 22,  p. 141)


It is from this fragment that we can begin to see the more religious side of the Stoic ethic.  We can also see this simple side, the religious side of the Stoic ethic, in Seneca’s letter 107.  Imagine the following hymn being recited during a ritual ceremony:


The Hymn to Zeus by Cleanthes (Stobaeus Anthology 1.1.12 p. 25.3 – 27.4; SVF 1.537)


                  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 in 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 from and neglect,

ill-fated, 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 a strife-torn zeal for glory,

others devoted to gain in undue measure,

others devoted to release and the pleasures 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 requite 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 forever

(Hellenistic Philosophy.2nd ed. Inwood & Gerson. Hackett. 1997. P.139-141)


There are many similarities between this hymn and those in Christian literature.  Themes which both share include hailing to God, praising God, and giving oneself to God.  The Professor argued that we magnify the God we are praising, just as the Stoics do with their hymns.


Digressing, the Professor explained to us how these ancient philosophical writings were written.  Writers had a choice of writing on a slab, which could be too expensive for some, or using the shoulder blade of an Ox or cow.  Using a shoulder blade was cheaper in that it could be re-used again and again, but it did have its own drawbacks.  It was difficult to inscribe onto it, and again difficult to clear it in order to inscribe something new.  Zeno had once said of Cleanthes “the man is a living shoulder blade”, meaning that Cleanthes was a slow learner, but once he had taken in some information, it was very hard to get it off.


Returning to the religious aspects of Stoic ideology, the Professor asserted that according to the Stoics, when we put ourselves in the hands of the higher being, we trust it to manage the future for us.  Essentially, what happens to us in reality is at the hands of the higher being.


Stoic ethics are extremely deterministic.  The Stoic’s themselves put forth three reasons as to why our lives are pre-determined.


1.      Whatever happens is set to happen.  The Stoic thinking behind this reason is that, whenever something happens to us, be it good or bad, God is the cause of it.  God made it happen.

2.      Causal.  Everything that has happened has a cause, therefore everything is being made to happen, and as God is the primary cause of all things, everything is set to happen.

3.      Logical.  To explain this theory, Professor Hutchinson used the example of the bottle cap from the water he was drinking.  Holding it in the air, he said that once he had dropped it, he could not possibly imagine any consequence other than it dropping to the floor.  The possibility of intervention is very small.  The same applies to humans then.  At the present there is little chance of intervention.  In the future though, there are many possibilities, and by the same degree, in the past there is absolutely no chance of intervention as the events have already taken place.


The notion we have of moving “freely” is an illusion.  We are part of a physically determinate system. The Stoics envisioned this system with a religious motivation, they are placing us in his care.


The deterministic view of the Stoics was criticised by the Epicureans.  This is made evident in the Master Argument (Hellenistic Philosophy.2nd ed. Inwood & Gerson. Hackett. 1997. P.179).  The discussion in the Master Argument concerns truth, plausibility and logical fatalism.  Professor Hutchinson attempted to give us an example.  “The Leafs will win the Stanley Cup this year.  This is a prediction, it is either true or not true.  If it is true, then it was true today, when we predicted it.  Now, if we go to sleep and wake up tomorrow, if I said something true yesterday, it still is true, regardless of what the future brings.”


The Professor also quoted Aristotle regarding this issue.  Aristotle’s De Interpretatione offers us a background for the discussion in the Master Argument.  He said:


18b9.  Again, if it is white now it was true to say earlier that it would be white; so that it was always true to say of anything that has happened that it would be so.  But if it was always true to say that it was so, or would be so, it could not not be so, or not be going to be so.  But if something cannot not happen it is impossible for it not to happen; and if it is impossible for something not to happen it is necessary for it to happen.  Everything that will be, therefore, happens necessarily.  So nothing will come about as chance has it or by chance; for if by chance, not of necessity.


18b17.  Nor, however, can we say that neither is true – that it neither will be nor will not be so.  For, firstly, though the affirmation is false the negation is not true, and though the negation is false the affirmation, on this view, is not true.  Moreover, if it is true to say that something is white and large, both have to hold of it, and if true that they will hold tomorrow, they will have to hold tomorrow; and if it neither will be nor will not be the case tomorrow, then there is no “as chance has it”.  Take a sea-battle: it would have neither to happen nor not to happen.


18b26.  These and others like them are the absurdities that follow if it is necessary, for every affirmation and negation either about universals spoken of universally or about particulars, that one of the opposites  be true and the other false, and that nothing of what happens is as chance has it, but everything is and happens of necessity.  So there would be no need to deliberate or to take trouble (thinking that if we do this, this will happen, but if do not, it will not).  For there is nothing to prevent someone’s having said ten thousand years beforehand that this would be the case, and another’s having denied it; so that whichever of the two was true to say then, will be the case of necessity.


                  (Aristotle, Interpretation 9, trans. Ackrill, Oxford 1963, chap.9.p.50-51).


Professor Hutchinson admired the Aristotle’s zeal for precision in this passage.  What Aristotle was saying was that if you insist that future contingent events are necessarily true in the present, then it is possible that you will end up in a situation you do not want to be in.  You can either deny that the past is true or you can deny that the impossible follows from the possible.


The Stoic’s thesis that everything is either true or not true was denied by Epicurus.  The Stoic’s attempted to sort through this denial.  These debates took a particular form in ancient philosophy.  One group would provide a thesis, and that would be followed by a response by another group.  This response would then be taken into account by the first group, who would make a further response.  The Stoic view was less conservative and had more room for innovation than that of the Epicureans. 


Aristotle put forth the lazy argument.  It could be used by a student studying for an exam, “I am going to pass or fail this exam, if I am going to pass, then what is the point in studying? I might as well watch T.V.  If I am going to fail, then what is the point in studying?  I might as well watch T.V.”.  A further example was provided.  This time it was that of being sick;  “I am ill, so should I call the doctor?  Well I am already sick then what is the point in calling the doctor?”.  The point here is that it is not that calling is independent from the event (calling), there are causes in calling the doctor, and causes in factors leading to your recovery.


The Stoics said that you often need a combination of causes for a particular event, not just an individual cause.  In terms of cause and effect, reality is much like a tight web, with interconnecting causes all around a single event.


The Epicurean and Academic attack on Stoic determinism makes a valuable point.  They asserted that if you were fated to call the doctor, then who was in charge of actually making the call?  The Stoics would have you believe that you were not responsible for that call, even though you searched for the number picked up the phone and called.  How can it be that someone else was behind this?


What kind of things do we want to be able to take credit for?  If someone behaves badly, we want to be able to hold them responsible.  Holding someone responsible for a crime they have committed would not make any sense if we do not have any free will.  The Stoic’s answer to this problem is illustrated by the analogy of the cylinder and the cone.  When we see children rolling themselves down a hill, they will go in different directions.  That is because some are cylinder shaped and some are cone shaped.  The same is applied to our behaviour.  When we have an inclination to do something, in any given situation, some of us will behave differently from others.  It depends on what moral “shape” we are in.  Our behaviour is caused by our moral character, that is to say, our different moral shape.


A student then asked a question; can we argue that our moral “shape” is fated as well?  The Professor answered that this is not a convincing argument.  The person who has the most influence on the self is the self; we contribute greatly to our own personality.  People essentially turn into the people they intended to be.  If a person is fat for example, there are two possibilities as to why he or she is in this physical state.  If the person has a disease, then he was fated to be that way, otherwise it is the individual who is responsible.  We are capable of being in good physical and moral fitness.  It is up to the self how we react in any situation.


“I’ve been deserted by my slaves!”.  Others have been plundered, incriminated, set upon, betrayed, beaten up, attacked with poison or with calumny – mention anything you like, it has happened to plenty of people.  A cast 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 not escape something, it was a thing which he might have suffered.     The fairness of a law does not consist in its effect being actually 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 on nature. One can do nothing better than endure what cannot be cured and attend uncomplainingly the God at whose instance all things come about.


So let us receive our orders readily and cheerfully.


(Seneca, Letter 107, tr. Campbell, p. 198-199)


The Professor felt that these were wise remarks indeed.  We are in fact attached to history, much like a dog is to his chain.