Fate and freedom

The tension between fate and freedom is a tension that runs throughout the history of man’s thought on history. It is, no doubt, a tension that arises from the direct experience of man in the world. When considering his past, he is tempted to see himself as having been inexorably drawn toward his present situation. The choices and circumstances of his life have led him, inevitably it seems, to the point at which he currently stands. When he looks forward to his future, however, he feels as if the choices he makes are made freely and are the decisive factors that will lead him to where he will be. When faced with a fork in the road, a person will typically feel as if the direction he embarks is one that he chooses for himself. The tension between fate and free will is particularly evident and acute in the study of history.

The earliest works of history and literature evince a precarious indecisiveness in their treatment of fate and freedom. Homer’s Iliad, for example, opens with an invocation to “sing, o goddess, the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus, which hurled many mighty souls to Hades.” Shortly after, however, Homer attributes the events he records to “the will of Zeus.” There is a contrast here, within the first few lines of one of the earliest great works of historical literature, between the effectiveness of the decisions and actions of Achilles and the fate decreed by the supreme god of the Greek pantheon. It is a tension that Homer does little to resolve throughout the Iliad. While the gods incite and direct the Trojan war, in this revealing to us the otherwise hidden hand of fate, Homer takes great pains to list the names of each of the “mighty souls” who fought, implying a significance to their choices and actions as particular persons.

Later historians in the Greco-Roman tradition do little to resolve this tension first seen in Homer’s works. While adopting an approach to history that usually concentrates upon the decisions of great men, their personalities and their activities, Greek and Roman historians such as Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, and Plutarch, as well as later poets like Virgil, simultaneously give credit to fate as the determinative factor in the lives of persons, nations, and civilizations. Plutarch, for instance, demonstrates his belief in the significance of great men in the shaping of the Roman past in his approach to history through biography. Plutarch begins his Life of Alexander with a plain statement of his purposes; there, he conveys his desire to examine the influence of a person’s virtues and vices upon his life. In his Life of Romulus, however, Plutarch appeals to fortune as the primary determinative factor in the rise of the Roman Empire, asking his reader to “consider that the Roman power would hardly have reached so high a pitch without a divinely ordered origin.”

The Christian historians of the Middle Ages and later approach history with quite different conceptions of human significance and the nature of fate than their pagan precursors; the tension between fate and free will, however, is not entirely resolved by these authors. Augustine, for example, in his attempts to formulate a Christian understanding of history in his City of God, argues vociferously against any role for the celestial bodies in determining human events. He does not, however, take issue with the idea of fate, but, rather, with the terminology in that the notion attributes the flow of history to the impersonal forces of fortune rather than to the guidance of a personal God. “In a word,” he says, “human kingdoms are established by divine providence. And if anyone attributes their existence to fate, because he calls the will or the power of God itself by the name of fate, let him keep his opinion, but correct his language.” Augustine goes on only shortly after this, however, to ask, “What judgment … is left to God concerning the deeds of men … when to these deeds a celestial necessity is attributed?” There seems good reason to wonder similarly, however, about the justice of God’s judgment when the deeds of men are attributed to a divine necessity which is merely fortune under another name.

In the modern historians, the deterministic force of history is once again depersonalized and at last de-divinized. Rather than positing a metaphysical fortune as in the ancient pagan authors or the providence of a personal God as in the medieval Christians, the modern authors instead espouse a theory of history determined by purely material factors. Karl Marx is perhaps the ultimate example of this modern belief in the supreme power of impersonal material forces in his belief that all societies are governed by “natural laws of … movement.” For Marx, economic forces are the determinant, indeed the only truly effective, forces in history. While later modern thinkers have occasionally replaced the economic with the geographic, the technological, or the genetic, the attribution of preeminence in the movement of history to material factors remains the predominant mode of thought to the present day.

A survey of the history of historical thought reveals a dichotomy in emphasis upon and attribution to the forces of fate and human will in shaping the history of mankind, a dichotomy that often exists, and creates a tension within the thought of, a single author. While the trajectory of historical thinking has been toward a minimization of the role of the choices and actions of particular persons in the unfolding of history, there remains the problem most succinctly stated by John Lukacs: “no free will, no history — no history in our sense of history.” Hence, while Homer and Plutarch attributed the great events they recorded to the decrees of fortune, they also found it necessary to provide extensive lists of great men and their great deeds. While Augustine attributes the upbuilding of great kingdoms to the providence of God, fate by any other name, he also defends at length the particularity of persons and the possibility of choice in vice and virtue. And Marx, most ironically, decreed the supreme decisiveness of the material and impersonal, yet himself became one of the greatest forces in the shaping of twentieth century history.

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