“But Fortune, who never forgets her duty, turns her wheel suddenly.” – Marie de France

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius, commonly called Boethius lived from 477-524 CE and was a Roman senator and counselor to the Ostrogothic King of Italy, Theodoric the Great. He was also a philosopher who translated Aristotle into Latin wrote philosophical texts of his own, and was likely a Christian though his “real religion is philosophy.”1 He was convicted (probably unjustly) of high treason and for one year prior to his execution, imprisoned in a dungeon where he wrote one of the great masterpieces of human civilization, The Consolation of Philosophy. Here we can witness the response of a great philosopher to the most extreme of ill fortune.

It opens with Boethius’ lament about the reversal of his circumstances, about injustice in the world, and the fickle nature of Fortune. He is visited by Lady Philosophy and a dialogue ensues. She urges him to cease in complaining and seek healing and courage. She reminds him that philosophers often clash with the ways of men in their opposition to evil and must reconcile themselves to the consequences of this clash, conquer the fear of death, and be unyielding to good and bad fortune alike.

The basic question for Boethius is whether the universe is guided by a rule of reason or by chance?  He concludes that all things have the reason of God as their source. Therein we can analyze the nature of fortune – life cannot stand still, change is integral to living, and fortune may bring one alternately high and low – these are the rules of the game and understanding them prevents unnecessary misery. The solution is detachment from fortune; if one bears everything with a calm mind, one’s lot will be blessed. Happiness lies within not without. The mastery of yourself is the most important of all possessions, and fortune cannot take that from you.

And ill fortune has an upside; it distinguishes true friends from doubtful acquaintances, and true friends are greater than any amount of riches. Dejection is caused by a too limited, too human perspective; philosophy’s job is to raise man’s sights, to give him divine vision. Any individual turn of fortune is not understandable in isolation, but must be placed in the total scheme of things, and to do that is to philosophize. Philosophy does not change events or reverse fortune but it does provide the understanding by which the events of life may not only be accepted, but also enjoyed. When fortune reverses itself, the first cry is for restoration, but philosophy teaches that man’s chief need is not for change, but for understanding. The goal is to seek the highest good and scorn the gifts of fortune.2

In summary, Boethius teaches us that the philosophical approach to chance in life is: (1) acceptance of and detachment from the inevitable cycles of good and bad fortune, (2) maintenance of perspective on individual fortune in the larger picture of the cosmos, (3) identification of enduring goods such as true friendship through changes in fortune, and (4) recognition of the ultimate value of self-mastery and internally-focused contentment. What greater legacy can one man hope to leave to humanity?


1Edman, Irwin, Editor, The Consolation of Philosophy; The Modern Library, New York, 1943. Page x.

2MacGill, Frank and McGreal, Ian, Editors, Masterpieces of World Philosophy; Harper-Row Publishers, New York, 1961. Pages 264-268.

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“Fortune, Good Night! Smile once more; turn thy wheel.” William Shakespeare, King Lear,  Act II, Scene II.

In this section so far we have looked at two modalities of our experience of the unfolding of life – free will and fate. Today we will look at the third modality – chance or fortune.  Fate refers to deterministic aspects of our existence such as our human form, gender, physical attributes, time, place and family of birth, world events, and so forth – typically considered the necessary aspects of life. Free will represents our ability to choose our future within the limits of the environment and our abilities – that is the contingencies we appear to control. Fortune represents the contingent aspects of life that appear to be outside our control such as weather, people we meet or who influence our life course, or other chance events.

Fortune then is simply the factor of chance in human affairs. Fortune can be good or bad, but very few of the greatest people who have ever lived deny the part serendipity played in their accomplishments. The role of philosophy is to recognize chance as an inescapable factor in life and to guide us in how to use fortune (or overcome it) in living well.

We can start by looking at the phenomenon of chance. Bertrand Russell defines chance as an event whose cause is unknown. Other philosophers such as Aristotle and J.S. Mill think chance is the concurrence of two independent causal chains – coincidence as it were. Alternatively Epicurus, Charles Peirce, and William James all see chance as events that are uncaused.It seems to me that we should accept all three of these facets of fortune.

In Greek myth, Fortune is a goddess who combats against the Fates and like them has power even over the other gods. Aristotle lumps good fortune into the category of external goods. Such goods are beyond man’s power and merit, rather they are unpredictable. But no philosopher or myth of antiquity investigates the human experience of fortune as lucidly as Boethius does in the sixth century. That is the subject of the next blog.

1Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 2, page 73.

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” And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” – Romans 8:30.

Within the mix of fate and determinism is a special variation known as predestination, the doctrine that all events of a man’s life, even one’s immortal destiny, are determined beforehand by Deity.1  In some ways the Greeks belief in fate could be included as the Moerae were goddesses, but for this site, I will use the word only with regard to monotheistic religions, especially Christianity.

The traditional argument for predestination is based on the premise that God is omniscient, that is, God knows absolutely everything including all future events. In that case, anything God knows will happen must happen, implying men’s actions occur by necessity and cannot be considered free. This echoes the arguments discussed in the section on free will and on the metaphysics of fate. Augustine attempts to refute this argument by countering that necessity of foreknowledge by God does not make actions involuntary; God may simply know exactly what actions a man will choose. This is powerfully demonstrated by pointing out that otherwise, anyone’s foreknowledge of a choice makes that choice unfree2 although of course some philosophers will still disagree.

Predestination however usually means something more than necessity due to God’s foreknowledge. Fundamentalists believe all future actions occur due to divine will or order. In that line of thinking, voluntary choice appears less viable. St. Paul seems less fatalistic believing man’s own sinfulness or imperfection makes his salvation utterly dependent upon the sheer grace and election of God even if his actions are freely chosen. John Calvin and Martin Luther go further believing that man does absolutely nothing toward his salvation apart from the good will of the Divine.1 At its extreme man is unable to do good other than through the divine will; all actions chosen by men are otherwise evil.3

Of course these views of predestination are contingent on the existence of an omniscient deity with particular will regarding humans and belief in an afterlife, all of which appear to depend on faith rather than philosophical reasoning. For us predestination is metaphorically represented in the inevitability of human error and the apparent unpredictable consequences of our actions on our own futures and on the chains of causation within the world.

Next time we will begin look at the third modality of the human experience of life – fortune or chance.


1Runes, Dagobert D., Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, New York, 1960, p.248.

2Brody, Baruch A. Readings in the Philosophy of Religion. Prentice-Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs, NJ. 1974. ISBN 0-13-759340-6, pages. 384-389.

3Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 2, page 363.

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” Dreadful is the mysterious power of Fate: there is no escape from it by wealth or war, by walled city, or dark, sea-beaten ships.” – Sophocles, Antigone.


We have discussed how humans experience life as fated and the metaphysical argument for fate. Now I would like to examine some mythical and philosophical traditions that employ fate in its various forms.

In ancient Greece, three Goddesses, cohorts of Ilithyia, the goddess of birth, were identified as the Fates or Moerae:  Clotho (The Spinner) who spins the thread of life, Lachesis (Disposer of Lots), who determines its length, and Atropos (Inevitable), who carried the shears which cut the thread at death.1 Sophocles’ play, Oedipus the King, is the epitome of the Greek sense of the unfolding of fate. Oedipus’ father abandons him as a baby after learning his son will kill him and marry his wife. Oedipus is found and adopted, and in adulthood learns of his fate to kill his father and marry his mother. Hoping to avoid this fate, he leaves his adopted family only to kill his biological father in a scuffle on the road and later marry his mother.  Fate in this tradition is predominately tragic; it seems the ancient Greeks used fate as a means to console themselves in tragic circumstances.

Fatalism reappears later in the Hellenistic philosophy of the Stoics who suggest the best approach is a calm acceptance and disinterest in one’s future, a stance they called apatheia. This approach is later incorporated in the philosophical foundations of Christianity where it was transformed into predestination which is the subject of the next post.

The Eastern world has two alternate conceptions of fate – karma and quietism – both of which are less absolute than the Greek tradition. In Hinduism, karma, or The Law of the Deed, assures causality in the spiritual world. Since rewards and punishments cannot occur within a mortal lifetime, they are stretched out over other lives. The good or bad in the present life then is based on events from prior (unremembered) lives and cannot be avoided by actions in this life. Like Greek fate, this law is above gods and men.2 Karma then is a metaphysical explanation of the unequal situations and inevitable helplessness in the present life, and suggests a continuing unpredictability of the actions of this life on the next. This dogma extends to other Eastern religions including  Buddhism.

Lao-Tzu, the great Taoist sage embraces fate more optimistically with the ethic of quietism. This philosophy encourages a man to shun human society and artificial complexity and embrace a “Stoic obedience to nature, and abandonment of all artifice and intellect, a trustful acceptance of nature’s imperatives in instinct and feeling…Quiescence, a kind of philosophical inaction, a refusal to interfere with the natural course of things, is the mark of a wise man in every field.”3 Taoism then not only refuses to resist natural fate, but finds wisdom in a detached acceptance. Here is an opportunity to see fate as beneficent rather than malevolent.

The study of myth and philosophy allow us to see that free will ultimately means our subjective experience of fate need not be absolute nor seen as  good or evil. And at least man has the good fortune to be the one earthly creature capable of recognizing, accepting, affecting, and embracing it.


1Seyffert, Oskar, Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, The World Publishing Company, Cleveland, Ohio, 1961, pages 397-398.

2Durant, Will, Our Oriental Heritage, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1954, page 514.

3Ibid, pages 654-656.

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” Perhaps the most majestic feature of our whole existence is that while our intelligences are powerful enough to penetrate deeply into the evolution of this quite incredible Universe, we still have not the smallest clue to our own fate.” – Fred Hoyle.

We noted in the last post that despite good arguments in favor of free will, subjective experiences of situational limitations, helplessness, and unpredictability of personal action drive the human notion of fate. Today we will examine the metaphysical argument for fate.

The Stoic tradition starting with Zeno of Citium and continuing at least until the reign of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius 500 years later understood the world as divinely ordered and humans as having free will, but accepted that the actual outcome of action is determined by providence. The Stoic premise for fate as the truth content of future statements is outlined by Simplicius in his discussion, On Aristotle’s Categories:

“concerning [pairs of] contradictories which bear on the future the Stoics accept the same principle as they do for other statements. For what is true of [pairs of] contradictories concerning things present and past is also true, they say, for future contradictories themselves and their parts. For either ‘it will be’ or ‘it will not be’ is true if they must be either true or false. For they are fixed by the future events themselves. And if there will be a sea-battle tomorrow, it is true to say that there will be. But if there will not be a sea-battle, it is false to say that there will be. Whether there will or there will not be a battle; therefore each statement is either true of false.”1

If the Stoics are correct that future statements can have a truth value, it follows that the future is fixed by virtue of that truth. Our actions may be free, but future truth implies we will simply choose the action that leads to the outcome or our choice of action will not affect the outcome.

Richard Taylor presents the case methodically:

1.   Statements are true or false; there is no ‘excluded middle.’

2.  Truth has nothing to do with time.

3. There exists a set of true statements about my life past and future.

4.  The future of my life is fixed by those truths.

He then goes on to refute the counter-arguments. The absence of our ability to foresee the truth and the fact that true statements are not the cause of events are irrelevant in his opinion. The argument that this proof conflates fact and necessity is erroneous as no one has ever changed a true statement. Last the argument that facts are not true in advance is, he believes, arbitrary, resorted to only in an effort to eliminate fatalism.2

Here we find a fascinating and exceptional example of metaphysical and empirical concordance. Our subjective sense of fatalism is substantiated by our concept of truth. This conundrum is not easily escaped, but I think most likely rests on the fact that the truth of future statements is fundamentally different from those of past and present statements, but it is up to the reader to decide for himself. Next time we will look at some mythical and philosophical expressions of fate.

1Inwood, Brad and Gerson, L.P., Hellenistic Philosophy, Hackett Publishing Co., Inc., Indianapolis. ISBN 0-87220-041-8, page 129.

2Taylor, Richard, Metaphysics, Prentice-Hall, Inc., New Jersey, 1974. ISBN 0-13-578468-9, pages 62-71.

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“It is as though a dog is tied behind a cart. If he wants to follow, he is both dragged and follows, exercising his autonomy in conjunction with necessity. But if he does not wish to follow, he will nevertheless be forced to. The same thing happens in the case of man.” – Hippolytus Philosophoumenia

It seems inexplicable that even though we believe in free will, we still have at least transient feelings that our future in life is fixed or unavoidable. Today I will explore this subjective experience while future blogs will look at the objective arguments for fate.

There are three reasons we naturally embrace fatalism. The first is situational. We simply are born in a certain place at a certain time to specific parents, and with instinctive drives, variable talents, and  a largely preset psychological structure. Almost all events in the world, including those that affect us play out without our meaningful input, leaving us as if precariously balanced on a piece of wood floating on the ocean.

The second reason we consider life fateful is instances of helplessness. At many times in life we sense that what is happening is unavoidable or that we are powerless to prevent it. The habitual experience of powerlessness leads to what psychologists call learned helplessness, wherein the person no longer can imagine fixing his problems or seizing control of his life. The consequent depression and defeatism in these cases is in fact a pathological form of fatalism.

The third reason for a fatalistic view of life is unpredictability. Even well thought out actions freely chosen often lead to unexpected and undesired consequences, often the very consequences or outcome we struggled to avoid or overcome. In a world with so many moving parts, the calculus of human action is imperfect for most of us.

In conclusion we come to know that even if we are free, that “freedom is at best exercised within exceedingly narrow paths.”1 The human experience of situational constraints, episodic helplessness, and unpredictability of effects of action are subconsciously reconceived as fate. Extreme experiences of this nature can lead to a pathological conception of it.

1Taylor, Richard, Metaphysics, Prentice-Hall, Inc., New Jersey, 1974. ISBN 0-13-578468-9, page 58.

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“Fate, however, is to all appearances more unavoidable than unexpected.” – Plutarch, Caesar


Despite robust arguments for free will and the cogency of free agency, most of us will have at least episodic feelings that the course of our life is not under our control but rather subject to fate. In this introduction, we will begin our discussion by looking at (1) clarification of the terms: fate, fortune, destiny, and predestination, and (2) the distinction between determinism and fatalism.

Fate is the apparent inexorable march of events, particularly as experienced by an individual, and including the element of necessity. Fortune also applies to the individual, but depends on chance, not necessity; that is, fortune appears to be contingent. Fortune can be good or bad, but its nature as chance makes it more “congenial than fate.”1 We investigate fortune in more detail in a later section.

The words destiny and fate can be used interchangeably, though in philosophy destiny is often used less for the individual and more generally as “future necessity; the legal outcome of actuality” or as defined by Charles Peirce: “the embodiment of generals in existence.”2 The book title, Human Destiny by Lecomte du Nouy, exemplifies the flavor of this word as I will use it on this site. This also will be the subject of a future section.

Predestination applies both to individuals and reality in general, most often with implications of divine planning. Theologically it is most often applied to salvation and depends on the grace or good will of the divine towards the individual. It too is the subject of a later section.

We have already looked at determinism, “the doctrine that every fact in the universe is guided entirely by law.”3 It is based on the “thesis that all events in the world without exception are effects or events necessitated by earlier events…a casual chain with every link solid.”4  Fatalism is slightly different; it is the thesis that “the future will be the same no matter what we do.” For instance a fatalist says it why call a physician when you are ill as you will get better or not get better whether you call him or not.5 Determinism then is more objective or scientific and fatalism more subjective and personal.

For the next few posts, fate and fatalism will be used to describe the individual, personal, or subjective sense of the inevitability of the course of one’s life related to forces outside one’s control, but not identified as mere instances of chance. We will begin next time by looking at the subjective warrants for belief in fate and fatalistic attitudes to life.


1Adler, Mortimer J, et. al., The Great Ideas – A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Volume II, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1952, page 515.

2Runes, Dagobert D., Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, New York, 1960, p.77.

3Ibid, page 78.

4Honderich, Ted, The Oxford Guide to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-534093-8 page 208.

5Ibid, page 291.

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“You say: I am not free. But I have raised and lowered my arm. Everyone understands that this illogical answer is an irrefutable proof of freedom.” – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace.


If free will is confirmed by the empirical and moral arguments discussed in the last two posts, the next question is how human will can be free when it appears everything else in nature is determined by antecedent causes or events. The answer depends on the proposition of free agency which is the subject of this blog.

In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant explains that the– metaphysics of causality require a first cause which is a free agent- that is  “a faculty of absolutely beginning a state and therefore also of absolutely beginning a series of consequences,” and “every beginning of an act however  presupposes a state in which the cause is not yet active; and a dynamically first beginning of an act presupposes a state which has no causal connection with the preceding state of this cause, that is, in no wise results from that preceding state.”  Kant calls this transcendental freedom as opposed to the law of causality. Free agency then is the faculty of transcendental freedom.

Mortimer Adler concurs: freedom of choice does not make the chosen decision “uncaused” rather the operative efficient cause is not like the efficient causes that operate in natural phenomena which are determined but unwilled. Action of the human will is outside the domain of natural phenomena studied by science. Such actions arise from the intellect and are necessitated (due to genuine knowledge) or arbitrary (based on unsupported opinion). Necessitated actions serve our happiness as we are unable to will not to seek happiness, whereas other acts of the will seek partial goods. Thus, free agency is affirmed by these three conditions: (1) the immateriality of the will, (2) the difference between the ways its acts are caused as opposed to natural events, and (3) its causal indeterminacy not due to chance.

In conclusion, free will can be demonstrated as a free agent deciding on a course of action unrelated to a prior causal chain. It relies on reason not causality. What seems unclear to me and is perhaps the fault of an excess anthropomorphic perspective is why other animals are not free agents. When a bird chooses to build her nest on one rather than another of the identical eave-covered outdoor lights outside my library, it seems a stretch to call it instinctual, due to sufficient and necessary cause or even chance. It appears to be a conscious choice of an unconstrained and non-coerced creature.

1Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason, Penguin Books Ltd., London, 2007. ISBN 978-0-140-44747-7, pages 405-408.

2Adler, Mortimer J., Adler’s Philosophical Dictionary. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1996. ISBN 0-684-80360-7, pages 56-57.

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“This is also clearly defined in the teachings of the Church, that every rational soul is possessed with free-will and volition; that it has a struggle to maintain with the devil and his angels, and opposing influences, because they strive to burden it with sins.” – Origen of Alexandria.


Previously I identified two main arguments for the existence of human free will. The first relies on empirical evidence as we discussed in the last post. Today we will look at Immanuel Kant’s moral argument for free will. In the Critique of Practical Reason, he demonstrates that an objective ethics can be based on reason alone, that is, necessity rather than empirical or contingent conditions. In his model, moral maxims can be tested for universality of form by inquiring whether such maxims if made a universal law would be contradictory. For example the maxim to seek one’s own happiness fails since if all men seek their own happiness it renders happiness for all men impossible; while the maxim for all men to tell the truth succeeds as any dishonesty renders all statements untrustworthy.

He then points out that one ought to follow the moral laws; and what one ought to do one must be able to do; therefore the will must be free to follow or not follow the moral laws. In other words, while freedom cannot be proven by reason alone, “freedom and the unconditional practical law imply each other.”1 Kant is denying that free will is a matter of faith as are, for example, immortality or God. Rather the will using practical reason determines the moral law and by virtue of its autonomy upholds that law.

Roger Scruton rephrases Kant’s moral argument, suggesting we suspend the idea of freedom and note the universal practice of holding people to account for their actions. In the case of a criminal act such as a mugging, we hold the mugger responsible for a deliberate act. In the case of negligence such as the inadequate supervision a child who is then harmed, we hold the caregiver responsible even though it is not a deliberate act. In a third case where the caregiver of a child is called away by an urgent emergency the same child’s injury is neither deliberate nor worthy of blame. This is the social practice which gives the concept of freedom its sense. When we hold someone responsible for a state of affairs, we do not necessarily imply his actions caused it, nor do we hold someone responsible for everything that he does deliberately. The judgment of responsibility attaches an event not to the actions of a person but to the person himself – with the implied understanding the person’s free will was the cause of his actions.2

The moral and empirical arguments provide a nearly impregnable defense of freedom of the will, but both depend on a coherent understanding of free agency which is the subject of the next blog.

1Magill, Frank. Masterpieces of World Philosophy. HarperCollins Publishers. 1990. ISBN 0-06-270051-0. Pages 547-548.

2Scruton, Roger, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy. Penguin Books. New York, 1999. ISBN 0 14 027516 9, page 99-103.

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