Notes on Ancient Greek Philosophy – The Stoics on Fate

April 23, 2013 — Leave a comment

What do the stoics mean when they say everything happens by fate?

Stoic methodology is described in modern terms as holistic; meaning all parts are mutually supportive and there is no single foundation. (Annas; p16) Fate is thought to be an ordering and a connection between events that is inevitable. Therefore the future is pre-determined: ‘nothing has happened that was not going to happen.’ (Cicero in Annas; p16) If all that will happen must necessarily therefore happen, and is caused eternally by nature and not by anything outside of nature, all things to come have effectively happened. This stands in opposition to the viewpoint of Plato who argued for eternal and infinite possible futures. For the Stoics, causes are contained by nature and so therefore this is a fate aligned with natural science and not superstition. However, the Stoics refer to the reasoning and organization in the universe as God. That all things are connected by cause are therefore a unity, and that all things that will be will be caused by things that exist, and that time itself is determined is the explanation the Stoics give for determined fate and God.
Perhaps think of this causal chain as inductive??

Why did the Stoics think that it’s also true that we can be responsible for our actions?

Cicero recognizes an argument regarding human free will. If all assenting, impulses and actions are necessary and caused by fate, neither praise nor blame nor honors nor punishments are just. (Cicero in Annas, p19) Since this is empirically wrong, philosophers are able to make the argument that all things are not caused by fate. The stoics however still argue that everything happens as a result of a cause, as causality is crucial to their view of the universe as holistic.

How did they think they could believe in both fate and responsibility?

Cicero gives an exposition of Chrysippus’ argument. Chrysippus concluded that there must be two types of causes: perfect and primary, and auxiliary and proximate. With this framework Chrysippus is able to argue that fate takes its course through auxiliary and proximate causes. The causality at the level of impulse is perfect and primary. The causality at the level of appearance is auxiliary and proximate. One could think of perfect and primary causes as having a subjective role in causality. These causes are related to the individual and the individual’s own experiences and characteristics. Hence two people can have different reactions to the very same appearance. In this way, each individual plays a role in how they shape their experiences and character, therefore having responsibility for their actions.

Why did Alexander of Aphrodisias think it was inconsistent to believe in both?

Alexander responds by analyzing mans ability to deliberate. He recognizes this ability as an advantage from nature over the other living creatures. For Alexander the power of deliberation comes first in mans own nature, before any appearance in nature. Humans do not deliberate in vain. Man demonstrates through his ability to deliberate that he can choose between appearances. Deliberation and reason put appearances to the test thereby creating a hierarchy of which appearances in nature are of the most importance to man. Moreover, we choose what we consider important to deliberate about. By arguing for the primary position of deliberation in the relation of causes, Alexander illustrates what he considers a more genuine picture of people as responsible for their actions. The Stoics strong account of determinism leads to a weak account of the human ability to deliberate.

(Julia Annas: Voices of Ancient Philosophy – Oxford University Press)


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