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Response to Pocket Stoic on Fate - by Owen Howard on Behalf of the School

Click here for the original article by Scott Perry, author of the Stoic Creative Handbook and an Editor of PocketStoic. Mr. Perry contributes to Stoicism in a unique way by exploring, explaining, and communicating how Stoicism is a philosophy of creativity. Our comments are in blue.


Embracing Stoic Determinism

I was hung up on it for years. I’ve heard popular Stoic advocates like Ryan Holiday express the same reservation. Many who embrace the principles and practices of ancient Stoicism just can’t, or rather won’t, accept that their life is fated.

“Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.” ― E.B. White

You use quotes effectively throughout this article.

We come to the idea of being above fate honestly. If you’re American, it’s part of your cultural birthright. An inherent tenet of the “American Dream” is the idea of “the self-made man.” Of course, your mileage may vary, but if you were born white, male, and even of modest privilege in the good ol’ USA you’ve likely never questioned the idea that you determine your destiny.

"Your mileage may very" is one of many creative and adroit uses of English, which make the ideas enjoyable to learn and make them clear both consciously and subconsciously.

But do you…?

Historically, the image of the self-made man or woman involved “pluck,” or the summoning up of courage or boldness. Pluck was required because if you were going to make something of yourself beyond the position you were born, you were going to have to bootstrap. You’d need to set an aspiration and work hard to reach it. You’d receive little to no assistance and would likely have your efforts met with resistance, indifference, mockery, or even hostility. In today’s age of participation trophies, entitlement, and increasing narcissism, there is a glaring absence of pluck. You’d think that we’d believe that the bounty we receive simply for showing up was fated. But no, somehow, we’ve convinced ourselves that we’ve earned it!

This is a good example of knowing the general thinking of the audience and using that knowledge to begin introducing smoothly the irony of their own thoughts. This is very Cicero-like.

“Accept the things to which fate binds you….” 
― Marcus Aurelius

To get over our unwillingness to accept that our lives are fated, we first must get over ourselves. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations provide plenty of reminders of our insignificance. “Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future too.”

This is an echo of the irony above. This time, we can see forward by looking back. A Neural Linguistic pattern is beginning.

“Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died, and the same thing happened to both.”

In the end, whether we steer the ship of our destiny or fate steers it is of little consequence. No matter who we are or become, and no matter what we do or create; the only ultimate result is we die. All of our accomplishments will eventually be forgotten. Whatever we built will be destroyed. And anything that remains or is remembered no longer matters to us after we’re gone.

“Confine Yourself to the Present.” — Marcus Aurelius

If you have embraced the most basic of Stoic principles and practices, then you must accept determinism. The dichotomy of control, the Stoic touchstone that says some things are within your control and others are not, has “letting go” built into it.

We can’t change the past. The future is always uncertain. Therefore, all we have to work with is the here and now. The discipline of perception helps us recognize this, and the discipline of action encourages us to do so in accord with our virtue (our moral character). The practice of these disciplines is the path to practical wisdom, equanimity, and true happiness.

“Nothing has happened which was not going to be….”Cicero

There are two primary hang-ups most modern Stoics have with the idea of accepting fate. First, is the notion that if everything is predetermined, there’s no sense in actively engaging with our life. If the future is fixed, why not just give up and satisfy our hedonistic instincts? Second, is the idea that predestination is at odds with freewill. How can our future be set when we appear to have the ability to think and act freely?

The first notion, that life being fated implies there’s no need for us to actively participate, was addressed by Chrysippus (third head of the school established by Stoic founder, Zeno). Chrysippus called it argos logos, “the lazy argument” and it comes about through some equally lazy thinking.

A life that is fated does not imply that it simply happens to you. It also happens through you. Yes, you are but a tiny cog in the machinery of the universe, but you still have a role to play. Past events do not solely determine your future, you can and should be an active participant. How you proceed is indeed fated, but it also is a reflection of your character. Do your best and let what unfolds be what it will be!

To illustrate our interaction with fate, many have used the metaphor of a ship. Today it is more identifiable to use the metaphor of a car. Either one likens us to a child in a vehicle being driven by his parent. The child does not determine the final destination. The child’s freewill comes into play by whether he is happy or not. Does he constantly ask, “Are we there yet?” or is he content and happy to enjoy the journey.

Another thing related to our part of freewill is that each of us have divine logos in us, including logos spermatikos – the Generative Nature. Logos spermatikos includes creativity of many kinds. If we cooperate with divine logos, we will have a more creative life. If we fight it, we have a life of futility, frustration, unhappiness, etc. We have within us part of the very force that generated the Cosmos. We can tap into it or fight against it, but we cannot avoid what it determines to do. We cooperate with it by practicing Virtue, which means strength, which Chrysippus contrasted with laziness, in his “lazy argument” dialogues.

The second notion, that determinism is at odds with freewill, is somewhat softened by the argument against the lazy argument above. Taking it further, a modern Stoic accepts that they are not free from their past. Who we were and what has happened are immutably fixed. As for who will become and what happens next, we must decide what position and action to take.

Not many write about the School’s teachings on time. The subject is a vital part of understanding the consistency of our teachings on Fate, Nature, Providence, Determinism etc.

The role we decide to play and whatever action we choose to take are on us. It will reflect who we are now and, along with fate, shape our destiny and our character.

A good example of this is Oedipus Rex. He made his own decisions in life, but it only showed he could not avoid his fate.

“I want to do such and such, as long as nothing happens which may present an obstacle to my decision.” — Seneca

Seneca’s quote is one of many manifestations of what is known as the Stoic “reserve clause.” We may (and indeed virtue implies we should), act honorably and for the common good in the execution of our daily lives. Set properly motivated aspirations and strive to achieve them with diligent effort and in accord with virtue.

But since the outcome is beyond our control, we do so “fate permitting.” The result is not the reward; the reward is in the quality of our intention and effort. In fact, the and disagreement with the role fate is really a non-starter for the modern Stoic. Doing the right thing is always the right thing; fate be damned.

So, be here now. Do your best. Accept and absorb the results. Repeat and enjoy!

You are a very good writer and can explain complicated ideas very clearly. Your work is a pleasure to read.

The School has always encouraged a variety of thinking on most topics. This interaction between Fate and Will has more than one explanation among Stoics. The School has a consistent unified explanation, however, and any Stoic can get to the accurate understanding, but we realize the depth of this issue and do not make it necessary for all students to agree on one explanation.

Related to this, my favorite part of your article was, “In the end, whether we steer the ship of our destiny or fate steers it is of little consequence.” You show you are serious in training as a Stoic. Here is why. First, you use the metaphor of the ship. Second, metaphysic realities are one of the things over which we have no control. They are indifferent to us. In other words, they are "of little (maybe no) consequence.”