The Great Conversation: Fate

By Matt McKeown

Fate is an idea as old as the written word.

The will of Jove, the Viking Norns, the cycle of samsāra in India—cultures across the globe have believed in some form of fate from time immemorial. The oldest surviving work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, is about the ultimately fruitless efforts of the title character to find a way of avoiding death. But the version we know best is the Greeks’. Three wizened goddesses spin, measure, and finally cut the thread of every life, and in some versions, Zeus himself cannot intervene. The motif of weaving is sometimes found with the Norns as well. The name of Urdr, the greatest Norn, is distantly related to the English word weird; the Weird Sisters of Macbeth may have gotten their name through that link.

Perhaps the most celebrated use of fate in literature is Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Fated from birth to kill his father and marry his mother, both Oedipus’ parents and he himself make his fate come true precisely by their attempts to avoid it. The strange fusion of fate and freedom in the play is what makes it so unnervingly convincing. The oracle told Oedipus that he was destined to kill his father, so he vowed never to return home—even though he had originally gone to consult the oracle about a rumor that he was adopted. But then, while traveling, he gets in a fight with a stranger and kills him. How could it have failed to cross his mind that this stranger might be his real father? He rescued Thebes from the Sphinx, and was rewarded with the hand of the recently widowed queen Jocasta, who owned a magical necklace that allowed her to stay youthful. How could he miss the possibilities inherent in the prophecy?

But neither Sophocles nor the ancient Greeks in general took fate to be in control of everything. Fate, or necessity, is frequently paired with fortune, or chance. Together, they embody those forces in the world that human beings cannot control. In other words, the three agents of existence are fate, fortune, and freedom.

The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

Fate’s transition from folk belief and the arts to philosophy and serious religion came largely through astrology. The Stoics came close to astrological determinism. However, casting horoscopes was forbidden in the Roman Empire (save in the direct service of the emperor, who had to care for the fate of the realm). Political malcontents might gather around an expert astrologer, trying to divine how best to advance a career or even a rebellion.

Christianity pushed back against astrology to a degree. St. Augustine and the Medievals allowed that the stars might influence people, but at the same time, sapiens dominabitur astris (“the wise shall rule the stars”)—i.e., intelligence, virtue, and divine grace could help a person overcome the merely effects of the stars, which might predispose us to this or that, but could not force us. Dante makes extensive use of this doctrine in the Divine Comedy. For instance, Beatrice’s rebuke at the summit of Mount Purgatory notes that he was born under fortunate stars; we might express the same idea today by saying Dante had all the physical and mental advantages of healthy parentage.

Astrology faded as the Copernican system of astronomy gained ground, but the concept of fate did not. Nowadays, fate is usually framed in terms of scientific determinism, often associated with strict materialism. However, the Hegelian doctrine of history allows fate a strong role, too. Almost every version of “belief in progress” makes it out to be inevitable, no matter what kind of politics, right or left (or center), are attached. The claim that the combination of thesis and antithesis into synthesis not just can but will be an improvement on the past, is very much a modern version of inexorable fate.

Suggested reading:

Æschylus, Prometheus Bound
Virgil, The Æneid
St. Augustine, The City of God
G. W. F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right


If you liked this post, try this author profile of Franz Kafka, this “Great Conversation” piece on the soul, or this essay on racism and American culture.

Published on 16th September, 2020. Cover image: The Norns by Arthur Rackham.

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