Fatalism is in general the view which holds that all events in the history of the world, and, in particular, the actions and incidents which make up the story of each individual life, are determined by fate. The theory takes many forms, or, rather, its essential feature of an antecedent force rigidly predetermining all occurrences enters in one shape or another into many theories of the universe. Sometimes in the ancient world fate was conceived as an iron necessity in the nature of things, overruling and controlling the will and power of the gods themselves. Sometimes it was explained as the inexorable decree of the gods directing the course of the universe; sometimes it was personified as a particular divinity, the goddess or goddesses of destiny. Their function was to secure that each man’s lot, “share”, or part should infallibly come to him.
Ancient Classical Fatalism.—The Greek tragedians “frequently depict man as a helpless creature borne along by destiny. At times this destiny is a Nemesis which pursues him on account of some crime committed by his ancestors or himself; at other times it is to compensate for his excessive good fortune in order to educate and humble him. With Aeschylus it is of the nature of an unpitying destiny; with Sophocles, that of an overruling personal will. Still, the most important feature is that the future life of each individual is so rigorously predetermined in all its details by an antecedent external agency that his own volitions or desires have no power to alter the course of events. The action of fate is blind, arbitrary, relentless. It moves inexorably onwards, effecting the most terrible catastrophes, impressing us with a feeling of helpless consternation, and harrowing our moral sense, if we venture upon a moral judgment at all. Fatalism in general has been inclined to overlook immediate antecedents and to dwell rather upon remote and external causes as the agency which somehow moulds the course of events. Socrates and Plato held that the human will was necessarily determined by the intellect. Though this view seems incompatible with the doctrine of free will, it is not necessarily fatalism. The mechanical theory of Democritus, which explains the universe as the outcome of the collision of material atoms, logically imposes a fatalism upon human volition. The clinamen, or aptitude for fortuitous deviation which Epicurus introduced into the atomic theory, though essentially a chance factor, seems to have been conceived by some as acting not unlike a form of fate. The Stoics, who were both pantheists and materialists, present us with a very thorough-going form of fatalism. For them the course of the universe is an iron-bound necessity. There is no room anywhere for chance or contingency. All changes are but the expression of unchanging law. There is an eternally established providence overruling the world, but it is in every respect immutable. Nature is an unbreakable chain of cause and effect. Providence is the hidden reason contained in the chain. Destiny or fate is the external expression of this providence, or the instrumentality by which it is carried out. It is owing to this that the prevision of the future is possible to the gods. Cicero, who had written at length on the art of divining the future, insists that if there are gods there must be beings who can foresee the future. Therefore the future must be certain, and, if certain, necessary. But the difficulty then presents itself: what is the use of divination if expiatory sacrifices and prayers cannot prevent the predestined evils? The full force of the logical difficulty was felt by Cicero, and although he observes that the prayers and sacrifices might also have been foreseen by the gods and included as essential conditions of their decrees, he is not quite decided as to the true solution. The importance ascribed to this problem of fatalism in the ancient world is evinced by the large number of authors who wrote treatises “De Fato”, e.g. Chrysippus, Cicero, Plutarch, Alexander of Aphrodisias, and sundry Christian writers down to the Middle Ages.
Fatalism and Christianity.—With the rise of Christianity the question of fatalism necessarily adopted a new form. The pagan view of an external, inevitable force coercing and controlling all action, whether human or divine, found itself in conflict with the conception of a free, personal, infinite God. Consequently several of the early Christian writers were concerned to oppose and refute the theory of fate. But, on the other hand, the doctrine of a personal God possessing an infallible foreknowledge of the future and an omnipotence regulating all events of the universe intensified some phases of the difficulty. A main feature, moreover, of the new religion was the importance of the principle of man’s moral freedom and responsibility. Morality is no longer presented to us merely as a desirable good to be sought. It comes to us in an imperative form as a code laws proceeding from the Sovereign of the universe and exacting obedience under the most serious sanctions. Sin is the gravest of all evils. Man is bound to obey the moral law; and he will receive merited punishment or reward according as he violates or observes that law. But if so, man must have it in his power to break or keep the law. Moreover, sin cannot be ascribed to an all-holy God. Consequently, free will is a central fact in the Christian conception of human life; and whatever seems to conflict with this must be somehow reconciled to it. The pagan problem of fatalism thus becomes in Christian theology the problem of Divine predestination and the harmonizing of Divine prescience and providence with human liberty. (See Free Will; Predestination; Divine Providence.)
Mohammedan Fatalism.—The Mohammedan conception of God and His government of the world, the insistence on His unity and the absoluteness of the method of His rule, as well as the Oriental tendency to belittle the individuality of man, were all favorable to the development of a theory of predestination approximating towards fatalism. Consequently, though there have been defenders of free will among Mohammedan teachers, yet the orthodox view which has prevailed most widely among the followers of the Prophet has been that all good and evil actions and events take place by the eternal decrees of God, which have been written from all eternity on the prescribed table. The faith of the believer and all his good actions have all been decreed and approved, whilst the bad actions of the wicked though similarly decreed have not been approved. Some of the Moslem doctors sought to harmonize this fatalistic theory with man’s responsibility, but the Oriental temper generally accepted with facility the fatalistic presentation of the creed; and some of their writers have appealed to this long past predestination and privation of free choice as a justification for the denial of personal responsibility. Whilst the belief in predestined lot has tended to make the Moslem nations lethargic and indolent in respect to the ordinary industries of life, it has developed a recklessness in danger which has proved a valuable element in the military character of the people.
Modern Fatalism.—The reformers of the sixteenth century taught a doctrine of predestination little, if at all, less rigid than the Mohammedan fatalism. (See John Calvin; Martin Luther; Free Will.) With the new departure in philosophy and its separation from theology since the time of Descartes, the ancient pagan notion of an external fate, which had grown obsolete, was succeeded by or transformed into the theory of Necessarianism. The study of physics, the increasing knowledge of the reign of uniform law in the world, as well as the reversion to naturalism initiated by the extreme representatives of the Renaissance, stimulated the growth of rationalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and resulted in the popularization of the old objections to free will. Certain elements in the mechanical philosophy of Descartes and in the occasionalism of his system, which his followers Malebranche and Geulincx developed, confining all real action to God, obviously tend towards a fatalistic view of the universe.
Modern Pantheistic Fatalism.—Spinoza’s pantheistic necessarianism is, however, perhaps the frankest and most rigid form of fatalism advocated by any leading modern philosopher. Starting from the idea of substance, which he so defines that there can be but one, he deduces in geometrical fashion all forms of being in the universe from this notion. This substance must be infinite. It evolves necessarily through an infinite number of attributes into an infinity of modes. The seemingly individual and independent beings of the world, minds and bodies, are merely these modes of the infinite substance. The whole world-process of actions and events is rigidly necessary in every detail; the notions of contingence, of possible beings other than those which exist, are purely illusory. Nothing is possible except what actually is. There is free will in neither God nor man. Human volitions and decisions flow with the same inexorable necessity from man’s nature as geometrical properties from the concept of a triangle. Spinoza’s critics were quick to point out that in this view man is no longer responsible if he commits a crime nor deserving of praise in recompense for his good deeds, and that God is the author of sin. Spinoza’s only answer was that rewards and punishments still have their use as motives, that evil is merely limitation and therefore not real, and that whatever is real is good. Vice, however, he holds, is as objectionable as pain or physical corruption. The same fatalistic consequences to morality are logically involved in the various forms of recent pantheistic monism.
Modern Materialistic Fatalism.—Modern materialism, starting from the notion of matter as the sole original cause of all things, endeavors to elaborate a purely mechanical theory of the universe, in which its contents and the course of its evolution are all the necessary outcome of the original collocation of the material particles together with their chemical and physical properties and the laws of their action. The more thoroughgoing advocates of the mechanical theory, such as Clifford and Huxley, frankly accept the logical consequences of this doctrine that mind cannot act upon matter, and teach that man is “a conscious automaton”, and that thoughts and volitions exercise no real influence on the movements of material objects in the present world. Mental states are merely by-products of material changes, but in no way modify the latter. They are also described as subjective aspects of nervous processes, and as epiphenomena, but however conceived they are necessarily held by the disciples of the materialistic school to be incapable of interfering with the movements of matter or of entering in any way as efficient causes into the chain of events which constitute the physical history of the world. The position is in some ways more extreme than the ancient pagan fatalism. For, while the earlier writers taught that the incidents of man’s life and fortune were inexorably regulated by an overwhelming power against which it was useless as well as impossible to strive, they generally held the common-sense view that our volitions do direct our immediate actions, though our destiny would in any case be realized. But the materialistic scientist is logically committed to the conclusion that while the whole series of our mental states are rigidly bound up with the nervous changes of the organism, which were all inexorably predetermined in the original collocation of the material particles of the universe, these mental states themselves can in no way alter the course of events or affect the movements of a single molecule of matter.
The Refutation of Fatalism of all types lies in the absurd and incredible consequences which they all entail. (I) Ancient fatalism implied that events were determined independently of their immediate causes. It denied free will, or that free will could affect the course of our lives. Logically it destroyed the basis of morality. (2) The fatalism resting on the Divine decrees (a) made man irresponsible for his acts, and (b) made God the author of sin. (3) The fatalism of materialistic science not only annihilates morality but, logically reasoned out, it demands belief in the incredible proposition that the thoughts and feelings of mankind have had no real influence on human history.
Mill distinguished: (a) Pure or Oriental fatalism, which, he says, holds that our actions are not dependent on our desires, but are overruled by a superior power; (b) modified fatalism, which teaches that our actions are determined by our will, and our will by our character and the motives acting on us—our character, however, having been given to us; (c) finally determinism, which, according to him, maintains that not only our conduct, but our character, is amenable to our will: and that we can improve our character. In both forms of fatalism, he concludes, man is not responsible for his actions. But logically, in the determinist theory, if we reason the matter out, we are driven to precisely the same conclusion. For the volition to improve our character cannot arise unless as the necessary outcome of previous character and present motives. Practically there may be a difference between the conduct of the professed fatalist, who will be inclined to say that as his future is always inflexibly predetermined there is no use in trying to alter it, and the determinist, who may advocate the strengthening of good motives. In strict consistency, however, since determinism denies real initiative causality to the individual human mind, the consistent view of life and morality should be precisely the same for the determinist and the most extreme fatalist (see Determinism).