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Fate, Fatalism, and Agency in Stoicism*

  • Susan Sauvé Meyer (a1)


A perennial subject of dispute in the Western philosophical tradition is whether human agents can be responsible for their actions even if determinism is true. By determinism, I mean the view that everything that happens (human actions, choices, and deliberations included) is completely determined by antecedent causes. One of the least impressive objections that is leveled against determinism confuses determinism with a very different view that has come to be known as “fatalism”: this is the view that everything is determined to happen independently of human choices, efforts, and deliberations. It is a common fallacy, among students contemplating the implications of determinism for the first time, to argue: “But if everything is determined in advance, then it doesn't matter what we decide to do; what is determined to happen will happen no matter what.” This argument fallaciously infers fatalism from determinism.



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1 Daphitas is fated to perish by falling from a horse and so avoids all horses, but dies in the end by falling off a rock known as “the horse”; a man who is fated to die by water gives up his career as a sailor, only to drown by falling into a stream (Cicero, , De Fato, 5).

2 Greek and Latin texts from these and other sources are collected in von Arnim, Hans Friedrich August, Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta, 4 vols. (Leipzig: Teubner, 19031905), as well as, more recently, with English translations and philosophical commentary, in Long, A. A. and Sedley, D. N., The Hellenistic Philosophers, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987). Where possible, I will give cross references to von Arnim (SVF) and Long and Sedley (LS). Translations quoted will typically be from LS or from Sharpies, Robert, Cicero: On Fate (Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1991); and Sharpies, Robert, Alexander of Aphrodisias: On Fate (London: Duckworth, 1983). All unattributed translations are my own.

3 Diogenes Laertius, 7.149 (SVF 2.915); Gellius, Aulus, Noctes Atticae 7.2.15 (SVF 2.977); Cic., Fat. 21 (SVF 2.952; LS 38G), 41 (SVF 2.974; LS 62C); Alex, ., Fat. 164.17–20, 171.26–27, 181.8–9; cf. 210.15; Plutarch, , De Stoicorum Repugnatiis (St. Rep.) 1050a (SVF 2.937).

4 Diogenes Laertius, 7.135–36 (SVF 1.102; LS 46B), 7.148–49 (SVF 2.1132; LS 43A); Aristocles, in the writings of Eusebius, , Praeparatio Evangelica (Pr. Ev.) 15.14.2 (SVF 1.98; LS 46G); Nemesius, 309.5–311.2 (SVF 2.625; LS 52C); Aetius, 1.7.33 (SVF 2.1027; LS 46A); Cicero, , De Divinatione 1.126 (SVF 2.921; LS 55L3).

5 I develop this point in detail in “Moral Responsibility: Aristotle and After,” in Companions to Ancient Thought, vol. 4: Ethics, ed. Everson, S. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 221–40.1 follow Frede, Michael, Die Stoische Logik (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1974), 107–17, in reading Diogenes Laertius's account of the Stoic modal notions (Diogenes Laertius, 7.75 [LS 38D]).

6 Aetius, 1.28.4 (SVF 2.917; LS 55J); Gellius, Aulus, Noctes Atticae 7.2.3 (SVF 2.1000; LS 55K); Plutarch, , St. Rep. 1056c (SVF 2.997; LS 55R2); Aristocles, in the writings of Eusebius, , Pr. Ev. 15.14.2 (SVF 1.98; LS 46G).

7 A similar report of Chrysippus's response to the Lazy Argument is in Diogenianus, in the writings of Eusebius, , Pr. Ev. 6.8.25–29 (SVF 2.998; LS 62F).

8 Alexander of Aphrodisias explicitly infers fatalism about actions from Stoic determinism (Alex, ., Fat. 179.8–20).

9 I thank Satoshi Ogihara for emphasizing the importance of this point.

10 For a detailed treatment of the Stoic account of the psychology of human action, see Inwood, Brad, Ethics and Human Action in Early Stoicism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).

11 The argument is interpreted in this way by Long, A. A. in “Freedom and Determinism in the Stoic Theory of Human Action,” in Long, , ed., Problems in Stoicism (London: Athlone Press, 1971), 178, 196 n. 33; and in Long, and Sedley, , The Hellenistic Philosophers, 1:392; and by me in “Moral Responsibility: Aristotle and After.”

12 Plato, (Crito 44b–47a) portrays Crito as offering to help Socrates escape from prison before his death sentence is carried out. Socrates, who has just claimed that his death has been prophesied in a dream (44a–b), refuses.

13 On this point, I agree with Frede, Michael, “The Original Notion of Cause,” in Doubt and Dogmatism: Studies in Hellenistic Epistemology, ed. Schofield, Malcolm, Burnyeat, Myles, and Barnes, Jonathan (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), and Sorabji, Richard, Necessity, Cause, and Blame (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980), ch. 4 (“Stoic Embarrassment over Necessity”), against Duhot, Jean-Joel, La Conception Stoicienne de la Causalité (Paris: Vrin, 1989), 167–80.

14 Gellius, Aulus, Noctes Atticae 7.2.6–13 (SVF 2.1000; LS 62D).

15 Gellius, Aulus, Noctes Atticae 7.2.6–13 (SVF 2.1000; LS 62D). Modern scholars who accept this interpretation include Frede, , “The Original Notion of Cause,” 239–41; Long, , “Freedom and Determinism,” 178; and Cherniss, Harold, ad loc., in Plutarch's Moralia, vol. 13, part 2 (Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1976); for additional references, see Sorabji, , Necessity, Cause, and Blame, 82 n. 56.

16 Clement, , Stromata 8.9.33 (SVF 2.351; LS 551).

17 Long, and Sedley, , The Hellenistic Philosophers, 1:393. Duhot, (La Conception, 168, 185) suggests that the distinction is entirely ad hoc for the moral question, and has no implications for the general Stoic theory of causality or of fate.

18 The Stoics claim that physics has a foundational relationship to ethics: they liken physics, which they call the soul of philosophy, to the fertile field from which the fruits of ethics (surrounded by a wall of logic) grow (Diogenes Laertius, 7.40 [LS 26B3]).

19 See also Cic, Fat. 1920; Alex, ., Fat. 192.1, 193.6–7, 194.4–5, 195.14–15, 195.19, 196.2 (SVF 2.528, 2.914, 2.915, 2.917, 2.918, 2.933, 2.989); and Diogenes Laertius, 7.149 (SVF 2.915).

20 Long and Sedley give such a paraphrase in The Hellenistic Philosophers, 1:343.

21 This is not a new point. See Duhot, , La Conception, 257–58; and Long, and Sedley, , The Hellenistic Philosophers, 1:343, although Long, in “Freedom and Determinism,” 178, does attribute to the Stoics the view that effects become causes of future events.

22 See references in note 4.

23 For texts and discussion of this Stoic distinction, which cuts across the Aristotelian notions of nature and soul, see Long, and Sedley, , The Hellenistic Philosophers, section 47.

24 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) proposed that the basic substances in the world (“monads”) did not interact with each other, but rather unfolded their individual natures in a pattern of “pre-established harmony.” Leibniz had well-known disputes on this and other questions with followers of Sir Isaac Newton.

25 By contrast, Duhot, , La Conception, 187, denies that such “secondary” causes (secondary to the “sustaining” [sunektikon] causal role of Zeus) have any real causal efficacy, and explicitly suggests that the Leibnizian alternative captures the Stoic view.

26 On the Stoic sustaining cause, see Clement, , Stromata–9 (SVF 2.351; LS 551); and Galen, , De Causis Continentibus 1.1–2.4 (LS 55F). On fate as the sustaining cause of the world, see Alex, ., Fat. 195.3, 195.23–24; cf. Alex., Mantissa 131.5–10 (SVF 2.448), 182.20, 185.7; and Plotinus, , Enneads (SVF 2.934).

27 Cic, Div. 1.125 (SVF 2.921; LS 55L1); Aetius 1.28.4 (SVF 2.917; LS 55J); Gellius, Aulus, Noctes Atticae 7.2.3 (SVF 2.1000; LS 55K); Alex, ., Fat. 192.1 (SVF 2.945; LS 55N); and Stobaeus, 179.1–12 (SVF 2.913; LS 55M).

28 Plutarch, , St. Rep. 1053b (SVF 2.605; LS 46F); ibid., 1052c–d (SVF 2.604; LS 46E); Philo, , De Legibus Allegoriae 2.22–23 (SVF 2.458; LS 47P); Philo, , Quod Deus sit Immutabilis 3536 (SVF 2.458; LS 47Q); Philo, , Quaestiones et Solutiones in Genesin 2.4 (SVF 2.802; LS 47R).

29 Plutarch, (St. Rep. 1056d) seems to construe the thesis in this way.

30 I give a more extended defense of this interpretation of the Stoic thesis of fate in “Chains of Causes: What Is the Stoic Thesis of Fate?” (unpublished).

31 See, e.g., the essays in this volume by Michael S. Moore, Leo Katz, and Kenneth W. Simons discussing legal responsibility.

32 Chisholm, Roderick, “Human Freedom and the Self,” Lindley Lecture, 1964; reprinted in Free Will, ed. Watson, Gary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 2435, articulates such a view, citing, as antecedents, Reid, Thomas (17101796) and Aristotle (ibid., 24 n. 1). But Chisholm is mistaken in attributing to Aristotle the view that such active causal powers are a sui generis kind of causation distinct from what goes on in the natural order. I develop this point in “Self Motion and External Causation,” in Self-Motion from Aristotle to Newton, ed. Gill, Mary Louise and Lennox, James G. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

33 I offer a fuller discussion and defense of Chrysippus on this point in “Moral Respon sibility: Aristotle and After”; see also Long, “Freedom and Determinism.”

34 Diogenes Laertius, 7.101–5 (LS 58A, 58B); Cicero, , De Finibus (Fin.) 3.32 (LS 59L); Stobaeus, 2.96.18–2.97.5 (SVF 3.501; LS 59M).

35 Epictetus, , Discourses 1.1.7–12 (LS 62K).

36 Cicero, , Fin. 3.20–22 (LS 59D), 3.32 (LS 59L); Cicero, , Tusculanae Disputationes 5.40–41 (LS 63L); Epictetus, , Discourses 1.1.7–12 (LS 62K); Galen, , De Placitis Hippocratis et Platonis 4.5.21–26 (SVF 3.480; LS 65L); Alex, ., De Anima 2.164.3–9 (LS 64B); Seneca, , Epistulae Morales 92.11–13 (LS 64J); Stobaeus, 2.76.9–15 (LS 58K), 2.96.18–297.5 (LS 59M).

37 The interpretation I offer here agrees with that sketched by Long in “Freedom and Determinism,” 191–92.

38 Translated by Long and Sedley (LS 63M); cf. Epictetus, , Discourses 1.12.20–21 (LS 65V); and Stobaeus, 2.155.5–17 (SVF 3.564, 3.632; LS 65W).

39 Plato, , Republic, Books VIII–IX; Aristotle, , Nicomachean Ethics, Book IX, ch. 4.

40 Hume, David, An Abstract of a Treatise of Human Nature (1740), in Hume, , A Treatise of Human Nature, ed. Nidditch, P. H. and Selby-Bigge, L. A., 2d ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 662. In reporting the Stoic view, Philo explicitly uses the metaphor of glue or cement (Quaestiones et Solutiones in Genesin 2.4 [SVF 2.802; LS 47R]).

* For helpful discussion of previous drafts of this essay, I am grateful to the other contributors to this volume, as well as to an audience at McGill University, and to Ellen Frankel Paul.


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