Stoic Fatalism, Determinism & Acceptance
Excerpt from The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Stoic Philosophy as Rational & Cognitive Psychotherapy (2010) by Donald J. Robertson.
Whatever sorrow the fate of the Gods may here send us
Bear, whatever may strike you, with patience unmurmuring;
To relieve it, so far as you can, is permitted,
But reflect that not much misfortune has Fate given to the good. – The Golden Verses of Pythagoras
Paul Dubois was perhaps the first modern “rational” psychotherapist to explicitly argue that emotional problems could be made worse by certain, often unspoken, philosophical assumptions about freewill and determinism which prevail in modern society.
Patience towards unavoidable events, depending neither upon us nor upon others, is synonymous with fatalism; it is a virtue, and it is the only stand to take in face of the inevitable. […] The idea of necessity is enough for the philosopher. We are all in the same situation towards things as they are, and towards things that we cannot change. The advantage will always lie with him who, for some reason or other, knows how to resign himself tranquilly. (Dubois, 1909, pp. 240-241)
This notion is equally prominent in Stoic literature. In the Handbook, Epictetus boldly asserts that if we merely train ourselves in wishing things to happen as they do, instead of expecting them to happen as we wish, then our lives will go smoothly (Enchiridion, 8). In the Discourses, he actually defines the practice of philosophy in terms of such acceptance, when he writes, ‘Being educated [in Stoic philosophy] is precisely learning to will each thing just as it happens’ (Discourses, 1.12.15). In an extant fragment from his other teachings, he says that the man who refuses to accept his fortune is a “layman in the art of life” (Fragment 2).
The conceptual and metaphysical problem of freewill has been a central theoretical concern throughout the entire history of Western philosophy. However, Dubois, the Stoics, and others, have seen confusion over precisely this issue as a central psychotherapeutic concern. Dubois dedicates a whole chapter of his textbook on psychotherapy to the issue of determinism in which he asserts, ‘My convictions on this subject have been of such help to me in the practise of psychotherapy that I can not pass this question by in silence’ (Dubois, 1904, p. 47). However, in modern society we take certain metaphysical views regarding freewill for granted, and seldom examine whether they are well-founded, or even logically consistent.
There are some conclusions which we easily arrive at by using the most elementary logic, and which we dare not express. They seem to be in such flagrant contradiction to public opinion that we fear we should be stoned, morally speaking, and we prudently keep our light under a bushel. The problem of liberty is one of those noli me tangere [“do not touch me”] questions.
If you submit it to a single individual in a theoretical discussion, in the absence of all elementary passion, he will have no difficulty in following your syllogisms; he will himself furnish you with arguments in favour of determinism. But address yourself to the masses, or to the individual when he is under the sway of emotion caused by a revolting crime, and you will call forth clamours of indignation, – you will be put under the ban of public opinion. (Dubois, 1904, p. 47)
The philosophical debate concerning “freewill versus determinism” in modern academic philosophy is incredibly complex. Dubois only engages with it at a very superficial level. However, one aspect of the debate can perhaps be made explicit by means of a very crude syllogism of the kind Dubois had in mind.
Most people seem to assume that we generally act on the basis of freewill, which is constrained to varying degrees by obstacles in their environment. So a man is free from extrinsic restrictions or limitations, and therefore completely responsible for his actions, unless he is held at gunpoint, or brainwashed, etc. However, this popular way of looking at things seems to confuse two different concepts of “freedom”, that of freedom from the effects of preceding causal factors, and that of freedom to pursue future goals without obstruction. By contrast, the simple determinist position of Dubois can be outlined as follows,
- All physical activity of the brain is wholly determined by antecedent causal factors.
- All mental activity is wholly determined by physical activity in the brain.
- Therefore, all mental activity is wholly determined by antecedent causal factors.
There are many variations of this argument, exhibiting different degrees of philosophical complexity and sophistication. However, this simple “premise-conclusion” format should at least be sufficient to expose the basic controversy. As Dubois observes, if we accept the physiological basis of the mind, ‘all thought being necessarily bound to the physical or the chemical phenomena of which the brain is the seat’, we are ultimately forced to abandon the metaphysical theory of freewill (Dubois & Gallatin, 1908, p. 9).
Doing so does not logically entail apathy and inertia, as many people falsely assume. Indeed, a man may be causally determined to respond to the perception of universal determinism with a sense of renewed commitment to his ideals, and to vigorous action.
At the exact moment that a man puts forth any volition whatever his action is an effect. It could not either not be or be otherwise. Given the sensory motor state, or the state of the intellect of the subject, it is the product of his real mentality. […] But it is nowhere written that the individual is going to persist henceforward in a downward course, that he is fatally committed to evil. But the fault having been committed, it should now be the time for some educative influence to be brought to bear, to bring together in his soul all the favourable motor tendencies and intellectual incentives, to arouse pity and goodness, or found on reason the sentiment of moral duty. (Dubois, 1904, pp. 55-56)
To a large extent, the defence of freewill has been a central concern of medieval Christian ethics and traditionally depends upon making a sharp metaphysical division between the body and the mind, such that our will can be considered the unfettered activity of a soul which exists independently of the body, a “ghost in the machine”, as Gilbert Ryle famously put it (Ryle, 1949).
However, if we accept the argument for determinism at face value it has radical implications for our attitudes toward ourselves and other people. It forces us to see other people as the product of genetics and environment and therefore acting in a manner which they cannot be “blamed” for in the ordinary sense of the word, i.e., in an absolute, metaphysical sense. We are all, to a large extent, victims of circumstance, insofar as we do what we do with the brains and the upbringing that nature has given us. Dubois puts this quite eloquently,
I know of no idea more fertile in happy suggestion than that which consists in taking people as they are, and admitting at the time when one observes them that they are never otherwise than what they can be.
This idea alone leads us logically to true indulgence, to that which forgives, and, while shutting our eyes to the past, looks forward to the future. When one has succeeded in fixing this enlightening idea in one’s mind, one is no more irritated by the whims of an hysterical patient than by the meanness of a selfish person.
Without doubt one does not attain such healthy stoicism with very great ease, for it is not, we must understand, merely the toleration of the presence of evil, but a stoicism in the presence of the culprit. We react, first of all, under the influence of our sensibility; it is that which determines the first movement, it is that which makes our blood boil and calls forth a noble rage.
But one ought to calm one’s emotion and stop to reflect. This does not mean that we are to sink back into indifference, but, with a better knowledge of the mental mechanism of the will, we can get back to a state of calmness. We see the threads which pull the human puppets, and we can consider the only possible plan of useful action – that of cutting off the possibility of any renewal of wrong deeds, and of sheltering those who might suffer from them, and making the future more certain by the uplifting of the wrong-doer. (Dubois, 1904, p. 56)
In other words, contemplation of determinism, the idea that human actions are definitely caused by a complex network of multiple preceding factors, mitigates our anger toward other people, and leads us closed to a healthy sense of understanding and forgiveness. We are also more enlightened regarding our practical responses and more inclined to reform rather than punish wrongdoers. When Socrates argued in The Republic that the Sage wishes to do good even to his enemies, he meant that the Sage sought to educate and enlighten others, seeing that as their highest good. That harmonious attitude is the polar opposite of the one which seeks revenge through moralising punishment. It leads to a sense of generosity and equanimity, and resolves anger, resentment, and contempt.
Like Dubois after them, the Stoics were determinists, who believed that all events in life, including our own actions, are predetermined to happen as they do. However, paradoxically, they were also passionately in favour of increased personal responsibility and belief in one’s freedom to act and make decisions in accord with reason. Hence, Epictetus constantly reminds his students that no matter what happens to them they still have the opportunity to make of life what they will.
Sickness is an impediment to the body, but not to the faculty of choice, unless that faculty itself wishes it to be one. Lameness is an impediment to one’s leg, but not to the faculty of choice. And say the same to yourself with regard to everything that befalls you; for you will find it to be an impediment to something else, but not to yourself. (Enchiridion, 9)
Epictetus himself was famously lame, reputedly after being brutally crippled by his master when enslaved, so these remarks must have carried an extra poignancy, given his obvious physical disability.
To many people this seems confusing and contradictory. How can the Stoics emphasise both freedom and determinism? However, as often proves the case in philosophy, it is not the answer which is confused but the question. The Stoics evidently believe that the concepts of freedom and determinism are compatible.
It is virtually certain that Epictetus’ concept of a free will, far from requiring the will’s freedom from fate (i.e., a completely open future or set of alternative possibilities or choices), presupposes people’s willingness to comply with their predestined allotment. The issue that concerns him is neither the will’s freedom from antecedent causation nor the attribution to persons of a completely open future and indeterminate power of choice. Rather, it is freedom from being constrained by (as distinct from going along with) external contingencies, and freedom from being constrained by the errors and passions consequential on believing that such contingencies must influence or inhibit one’s volition. (Long, 2002, p. 221)
Confusion is caused because of a well-known and long-standing ambiguity in the popular notion of “freewill”. Metaphysical “freedom” refers to the freedom of the soul to act independently of antecedent causal factors. However, by contrast, “freedom” in common parlance merely refers to the ability of something to perform its prescribed function without external impediment or obstruction. A wheel turns freely unless, for instance, it is buckled or stopped by a rock. People act freely unless, for instance, other people restrain them physically or mentally. ‘For he is free for whom all things happen in accordance with his choice, and whom no one can restrain’ (Discourses, 1.12.8).
The great Stoic academic, Chrysippus explained the Stoic theory of freewill and determinism by means of his famous “cylinder analogy”. In this example, it is argued that if we roll a cylinder along the ground, the initial impetus to move is given by someone pushing it, but the direction in which the cylinder moves, in a straight line, is determined by its own shape. The push is an example of what Stoics call an “external cause” coming from without, whereas the shape of the cylinder is the “internal cause” of the direction it takes, its own constitution. External causes impinge upon the human mind through the senses, and through other effects upon the body. However, the constitution, or character, of our mind determines how we will respond, acting as an “internal cause” of our response.
The mind is therefore autonomous to the extent that it can determine the direction in which it acts on the basis of its own character, however, external events impinge upon it and trigger its responses. Our actions are like the movement of the cylinder, insofar as both are due to a combination of “internal” and “external” factors. The cylinder is free to move according to its own nature so long as no further external causes obstruct it.
Whatever happens to you has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time. The twining strands of fate wove both of them together: your own existence and the things that happen to you. (Meditations, 10.5)
In this sense of the word “freedom”, which we should remind ourselves happens to be the normal sense, there is no incompatibility whatsoever with the notion of determinism because there is no reference made to the preceding causes which make the wheel turn, or the person act, in the first place. The cylinder rolls freely, its movement determined by antecedent events.
The notion of being free from preceding causes, by comparison, is a much more unusual and problematic concept. As Skinner argues at length in Beyond Freedom & Dignity, as our scientific understanding advances with regard to human behaviour, the notion that we were somehow exempt from universal determinism is very much eroded (1971, p. 21). He adds, ‘Although people object when a scientific analysis traces their behaviour to external conditions and thus deprives them of credit and the chance to be admired, they seldom object when the same analysis absolves them of blame’ (Skinner, 1971, p. 75).
But what of the inner feeling of freewill? Whatever sensations or impressions we might feel of “effort”, the idea that our actions are free is simply a sign that we are ignorant of their causes.
We do not think enough about the yoke inside, the result of ideas so thoroughly adopted that they seem like our own. That is what Spinoza meant when he said, “Men think themselves free only because they get a clear view of their actions, they do not think of the motives that determined them.” (Dubois, 1909, p. 53)
My freedom toward the future is a different matter and down to my specific circumstances in each situation, i.e., whether I am obstructed by external events or not.
When people are told that things happen because they have been determined by the preceding chain of causes they usually respond, at first, by complaining that there’s no point trying to change anything in that case. The Stoics and other ancient philosophers knew this as the “lazy argument”, and considered an obvious fallacy. The theory of determinism does not hold, as this fallacy requires, that all events are completely determined only by external causes, i.e., that people are completely passive in relation to the world. Rather, it holds that events are co-determined by the interaction of internal and external causes. My actions are part of the causal network, and therefore have an effect upon the things which happen. Nevertheless, accepting those things which are genuinely beyond my control, with philosophical resignation, is a key rational therapeutic strategy, and employed extensively by Stoics in the face of adversity.
Stoic Therapy Toolkit
Five-page summary of key Stoic ideas and practices for self-improvement.
Subscribe to download my Stoic Therapy Toolkit (PDF) free of charge, and receive your email newsletter.