Concerning The “Fate” Of The Ancients From The Latin Justus Lipsius.[1]

Fate (says Apuleius), according to Plato, is that, whereby the purposes and designs of God are accomplished. Hence the Platonics considered providence under a threefold distinction: (1) The providentia prima, or that which gave birth to all effects, and is defined, by them, to be the intention or will of the supreme God. (2) The providentia secunda, or actual agency of the secondary or inferior beings, who were supposed to pervade the heavens, and from thence, by their influence, to regulate and dispose of all sublunary things, and especially to prevent the extinction of any one species below. (3) The providentia tertia, supposed to be exerted by the genii, whose office it was to exercise a particular care over mankind: to guard our persons and direct our actions.

But the stoical view of providence, or fate, was abundantly more simple, and required no such nicety of distinction. These philosophers did, at once, derive all the chain of causes and effects from their true and undoubted source, the will of the one living and true God. Hence, with these sages, the words Deity, Fate and Providence were frequently reciprocated as terms synonymous. Thus Seneca, speaking of God: “Will you call Him fate? You will call Him rightly, for all things are suspended on Him. Himself is the cause of all causes beside.” The laws of the universe are from God, whence the same philosopher elsewhere observes, “all things go on according to a certain rule or decree, ordained for ever,” meaning the law of fate. So Cicero, “All things come to pass according to the sovereignty of the eternal law,” and Pindar, probably, had an eye to this where he Says, “That the law ruleth all, whether gods or mortals.”

Homer cannot begin his “Iliad” without asserting this grand truth, “The counsel or decree of Jupiter was fulfilled.” The Divine poet sets out on this exalted principle: he puts it in front of the noblest poem in the world, as a testimony both of his wisdom and his faith. It was as if he had said, “I shall sing of numberless events, equally grand, entertaining and important, but I cannot begin to unfold them without laying down this, as a first fundamental axiom, that though brought to pass by the instrumental agency of men, they were the fruit of God’s determining will, and of His all-directing providence.”

Neither are those minuter events, which, seemingly, are the result of chance, excluded from this law. Even these do not happen, but come to pass in a regular order of succession, and at their due period of time. Says Seneca: “Cause proceeds from cause: the long train of things draws with it all events, both public and private.” Excellent is that of Sophocles (Aj. Flagell.): “I am firmly of opinion that all these things, and whatever else befall us, are in consequence of the Divine purpose; whoso thinks otherwise is at liberty to follow his own judgment, but this will ever be mine.”

The Longus ordo rerum, mentioned by Seneca, is what he elsewhere styles Causarum implexa series, or a perpetual implication of causes. This, according to Laertius, was called by the stoics, ‘an involved or concatenate causality of whatever has any existence’. Agreeably to this idea, Chrysippus gives the following definition of fate: “Fate is that natural, established order and constitution of all things from everlasting, whereby they mutually follow upon each other in consequence of an immutable and perpetual complication.”

Let us examine this celebrated definition of fate.

(1) He calls it a natural: meaning by nature the great Natura Prima, or God; for, by some stoics, God and nature are used promiscuously. But because the Deity must be supposed both to decree and to act with wisdom, intelligence and design, fate is sometimes mentioned by them under the name of reason. Thus they define fate (Laert. in Zen.) to be that supreme reason whereby the world is governed and directed; or, more minutely, thus: that reason, whereby the things that have been, were; the things that now are, have a present existence; and the things that are to be shall be. Reason, you see, or wisdom, in the Deity, is an antecedent cause, from whence both providence and inferior nature are derived. It is added, in Strobseus, that Chrysippus sometimes varies his terms, and, instead of the word reason, substitutes the words truth, cause, nature, necessity, intimating that fate is the true, natural, necessary cause of all things that are, and of the manner in which they are.

(2) This fate is said to be from everlasting. Nor improperly, since the constitution of things was settled and fixed in the Divine mind (where they had a sort of ideal existence) previous to their actual creation, and therefore considered as certainly future, in His decree, may be said to have been, in some sense, co- eternal with Himself.

(3) The immutable and perpetual complication mentioned in the definition means no more than that reciprocal involution of causes and effects from God downwards, by which things and events are necessarily produced, according to the plan which infinite wisdom designed from the beginning. God, the First Cause, hath given being and activity to an immense number of secondary subaltern causes, which are so inseparably linked and interwoven with their respective effects (a connection truly admirable, and not to be comprehended by man in his present state) that those things which do, in reality, come to pass necessarily and by inevitable destiny, seem, to the superficial observer, to come to pass in the common course of nature, or by virtue of human reasoning and freedom. This is that inscrutable method of Divine wisdom.

Necessity is the consequence of fate. So Trismegistus : “All things are brought about by nature and by fate, neither is any place void of providence. Now providence is the self-perfect reason of the super-celestial God, from which reason of His issue two native powers, necessity and fate.” Thus, in the judgment of the wiser heathens, effects were to be traced up to their producing causes; those producing causes were to be farther traced up to the still higher causes, by which they were produced, and those higher causes to God, the cause of them. Persons, things, circumstances, events and consequences are the effects of necessity, necessity is the daughter of fate; fate is the offspring of God’s infinite wisdom and sovereign will. Thus, all things are ultimately resolved into their great primary Cause, by Whom the chain was originally let down from heaven, and on whom every link depends.

It must be owned that all the fatalists of antiquity (particularly among the Stoics) did not constantly express themselves with due precision. A Christian, who is savingly taught by the Word and Spirit of God, must be pained and disgusted, not to say shocked, when he reads such an assertion as this: “God Himself cannot possibly avoid His destiny” (Herodot. 1), or that of the poet Philemon: “Common men are servants to kings, kings are servants to the gods, and God is a servant to necessity.” So Seneca: “The self-same necessity binds the gods themselves. All things, Divine as well as human, are carried forward by one identical and overpowering rapidity. The supreme Author and Governor of the universe hath indeed written and ordained the fates, but, having once ordained them, He ever after obeys them. He commanded them at first, for once, but His conformity to them is perpetual.” This is, without doubt, very irreverently and very incautiously expressed. Whence it has been common with many Christian writers to tax the Stoics with setting up a first cause superior to God Himself, and on which He is dependent.

But I apprehend these philosophers meant, in reality, no such thing. All they designed to inculcate was that the will of God and His decrees are unchangeable: that there can be no alteration in the Divine intention, no new act arise in His mind, no reversion of His eternal plan, all being founded in adorable sovereignty, ordered by infallible wisdom, ratified by omnipotence, and cemented with immutability.

And this, not through any imbecility in God or as if He was subject to fate, of which (on the contrary) Himself was the Ordainer, but because it is His pleasure to abide by His own decree. For, as Seneca observes, “It would detract from the greatness of God, and look as if He acknowledged Himself liable to mistakes, were He to make changeable decrees: His pleasure must necessarily be always the same, seeing that only which is best can, at any time, please an all-perfect Being.” A good man (adds this philosopher) is under a kind of pleasing necessity to do good, and if he did not do it he could not be a good man.

“It is a striking proof of a magnanimous will to be absolutely incapable of changing.” And such is the will of God: it never fluctuates nor varies. But, on the other hand, were He susceptible of change, could He, through the intervention of any inferior cause or by some untoward combination of external circumstances, be induced to recede from His purpose and alter His plan; it would be a most incontestible mark of weakness and dependence, the force of which argument made Seneca, though a heathen, cry out, “Outward things cannot compel the gods, but their own eternal will is a law to themselves.” It may be objected that this seems to infer as if the Deity was still under some kind of restraint. By no means. Let Seneca obviate this cavil, as he effectually does, in these admirable words : “God is not hereby either less free or less powerful, for He Himself is His own necessity.”

On the whole, it is evident that when the Stoics speak even in the strongest terms of the obligation of fate on God Himself, they may and ought to be understood in a sense worthy of the adorable uncreated Majesty. In thus interpreting the doctrine of fate, as taught by the genuine philosophers of the Portico, I have the great St. Augustine on my side, who, after canvassing and justly rejecting the bastard or astrological fate, thus goes on: “But for those philosophers (meaning the Stoics) who by the word fate mean that regular chain and series of causes, to which all things that come to pass owe their immediate existence, we will not earnestly contend with these persons about a mere term, and we the rather acquiesce in their manner of expression, because they carefully ascribe this fixed succession of things, and this mutual concatenation of causes and effects, to the will of the supreme God.” Augustine adds many observations of the same import, and proves from Seneca himself, as rigid a Stoic as any, that this was the doctrine and the meaning of his philosophic brethren.

[1] Vide Lipsii Phsiolog. Stoic. Lib. i. Dissert. 12.


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