Stoic Serenity 4.3: Cause and Fate

For the Stoics, “God,” “Zeus,” “Nature,” and “Fate” were all one and the same. They strongly believed that everything that happened was a result of fate, and that everything that happens in life happens for the best (because God is in everything and is a rational being). Remember in the last lesson, where we learned that the Stoics believed there is only cause and matter in the Universe? “Cause” was determine to be “God” (think of the artist in the example of the statue). Well, because the Stoics believed God, Zeus, Nature, and Fate to all be the same thing, they considered “Fate” to be “cause.” Consider this excerpt from Alexander of Aphrodisias, an ancient philosopher who actually disagreed with the Stoic claims. Although here he is merely describing them:


Every single thing that happens in the Universe is caused by something before it. Nothing can come up “out of the blue.” It is always linked to a previous event, whether or not we know what or where that previous event took place.

[The Stoics] say that this world is a unity which includes all existing things in itself and is governed by a living, rational, intelligent nature. This government, which consists of existing things in the world, is an everlasting one that proceeds in a linked and ordered sequence. The things that happen first are causes for those that happen after them. In this way, they are all bound together with each other. Everything that happens in the world is followed unconditionally by something else, and thus the first event becomes attached to the second event as “cause.” Events that follow a cause cannot be detached from the cause; it is as if they are bound together. Every event has its consequent event, which by necessity it is linked to as the cause. Nothing in the world exists or comes to be without a cause, because nothing in the world is detached and separated from all the things that preceded it. For the cosmos would be torn apart and divided, and would no longer remain a unity forever, governed by a single ordering and economy, if a causeless motion were introduced. But a causeless motion could never be introduced because all existing things and events have antecedent causes, upon which they follow of necessity […] The very Fate, the Nature, and the Reason, in accordance with which the whole is governed—this they say is God, and it is in all things that exist and come to pass. Thus, it makes use of the proper nature of all the things that exist for the economy of the whole.

(Alexander of Aphrodisias, On Fate 191.30-192.28)

“It has been said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world.” — The Butterfly Effect

The Butterfly Effect — Chaos Theory

This brings “The Butterfly Effect” to mind. I’m not even coming close to claiming to know anything about these theories, but if you want a general idea of the Butterfly Effect, you can read about its presence in pop culture here on Wikipedia. A couple of months ago, when I was going through an extremely rough time, I was driving by myself one day and contemplating that energy can change forms, but it cannot vanish into nothing, and energy cannot become something from nothing. Energy is recycled. This is observed in the physical world, but can this also hold true for emotions and my personal reactions? For example, if a co-worker insults me, they’ve transferred (negative?) energy to me. Now I can change the form of this energy, but ultimately I’ve had energy transferred to me. I can hoard it up as anger and repressed emotions, or I can transfer the energy out either negatively (such as getting angry at someone else) or positively (using the “fuel” from the incident to accomplish a project, go around preaching about how we should respond to personal insults, etc). Like I said, I’m clearly not an expert by any means. And whether you buy into these theories or not, these thoughts are still important to entertain and consider. Because this is a bit what the Stoics were getting at when they believed that everything has a cause. Nothing can come to exist out of nothing.

If everything is the result of a previous event, how can humans have free will?

The theory that everything is caused = causal determinism

If this theory is true, how can humans have free will? Aren’t we mere puppets while the Fate of the Universe goes about its way? Wouldn’t that mean that even my own mental acts (believing, judging, intending) are caused by prior events? Doesn’t this contradict Epictetus’ claims that my beliefs/judgements/intentions are within my own power?

Author Keith Seddon says that, “the determinism versus free will debate has been a lively and contentious issue in philosophy from ancient times to the present day, and although the problem may now be better understood, it has nevertheless not yet been adequately resolved.”

At this point, some students of Stoicism may be turned off by the debate and seeming interruption in the line of logic and reason. Perhaps. If you are someone that demands that you understand everything 1,000%, then I suggest that you take some time to investigate this debate and work it out in your own mind. However, for someone like myself, I’m content for now to not get caught up in the debate because whether or not the theory is trueI’ve already experienced the positive effects of Stoic philosophy in my life, and that’s my main focus.

Seddon suggests that we not get caught up in this debate at the moment for three reasons:

  1. Each of us is already fully convinced that we are the authors of our own actions, and that we are responsible for what we do.
  2. It would be impossible to live as we currently do if we didn’t believe #1.
  3. We can actually see how our own actions are not distinctly severed from the series of causes throughout the history of the world. How can we come up with this notion? Consider that for each action that you have ever taken, there has always been a reason for that action (whether the reason was a good one or not). Those reasons only make sense if we follow their chains up of what has happened in the world, and our actions contribute to how the world becomes. Throughout the world’s history, we have taken action as a result of events, and our actions have resulted in a continuing chain events, thus contributing to the current condition of the world.

In short, the sequence of causes over the entire history of the world was referred to by the ancient Stoics as “Fate.”

Destiny-Fate.-e1383907678187The Stoics [describe fate as] a sequence of causes, that is, an inescapable ordering and interconnection.

(Aetius 1.28.4)

In On Providence book 4, Chrysippus says that fate is a certain natural everlasting ordering of the whole: one set of things follows on and succeeds another, and the interconnection cannot be broken.

(Aulus Gellius 7.2.3)

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