What Is Fate?
Fate or Destiny refers to a predetermined course of events, which may be conceived as affecting the world in general or a specific individual. It is a concept based on the belief that there is a fixed order to the universe. That order can be seen as the product of a divine Creator, that of a personified will (“he is beloved by Destiny”) as in Greek mythology, or that of some blind impersonal force.
The very notions of fate and destiny imply a limitation of human freedom. And, while it is obvious that everyone’s freedom is limited due to circumstances, belief in fate or destiny adds the idea that there is a preordained course of action that no personal or common effort can alter. Destiny in particular can also indicate that there is a given direction, hence a possible purpose to our lives. Nevertheless, such beliefs do not necessarily preclude humans’ free participation in fashioning their destiny—they often indicate that human actions take place within a fixed framework that hints at a certain outcome but remains open to human intervention.
The meaning of destiny and fate
The very thought that an invisible, unexplainable guiding force can be at work in our lives besides the quantitatively measurable series of cause and effect events is contrary to the scientific mindset. Accordingly, many educated people today would be reluctant to openly admit a belief in fate or destiny. At the same time, uncertainty about the purpose and outcome of life, as well as a certain sense that there are meaningful patterns of events around us, leads many to assume more or less consciously that precisely such a force is at work. The question of destiny forces one to question whether there is a purposeful origin to existence, whether irrational dark forces control the universe, of whether the succession of days in history is a qualitatively indifferent sequence leading nowhere. In the contemporary Western world, it is safe to assume that many if not most people maintain in their mind a mixture of all the above, regardless of their scientific or religious beliefs.
A sense of destiny in its oldest human sense is in the soldier’s fatalistic image of the “bullet that has your name on it” or the moment when your number “comes up,” or a romance that was “meant to be.” The human sense that there must be a hidden purpose in the random lottery governs the selection of Theseus to be among the youths to be sacrificed to the Minotaur.
The belief in destiny has also had an important concrete impact on human affairs. Often associated with a sense of religious calling, but sometimes purely secular, the conviction that one is chosen by destiny to accomplish certain goals has led individuals, nations, and religious traditions to actively pursue what would appear unacceptable from a common sense perspective. The American concept of Manifest Destiny is an example. White American settlers felt it was their appointed destiny to colonize the far West of the United States. The belief of being a chosen people (e.g., Israel) or community has led to many similar historical situations. There is often a conflict between the proponent of such beliefs and those who consider them to be mere manipulation in order to achieve an intended goal (e.g., Nazi Germany’s takeover of surrounding countries in the name of Aryan superiority). Sometimes, two such convictions enter into direct conflict with one another (e.g., the case of Islam and Israel in the Middle East).
Destiny versus fate
Although the words are used interchangeably in many cases, fate and destiny can be distinguished conceptually. Fate is strongly connected with mythology, especially that of Ancient Greece. The words has a pessimistic connotation, as it implies that one’s life course is imposed arbitrarily, devoid of meaning, and entirely inescapable. Destiny, on the other hand, is generally used to refer to a meaningful, predestined but not inescapable course of events. It is the course our life is “meant” to follow. Destiny is strongly related to the religious notion of Providence.
Modern usage defines fate as a power or agency that inexorably predetermines and orders the course of events. Fate defines events as ordered to be. Fate is used in regard to the finality of events as they have worked themselves out, and that same finality is projected into the future to become the inevitability of events as they will work themselves out. In classical and Eureopean mythology, there are three goddessess dispensing fate known as Moirae in Greek mythology, Parcae in Roman mythology, and Norns in Norse mythology, who determined the events of the world. One word derivative of “fate” is “fatality,” another “fatalism.” Fate implies no choice, and ends with death. Even the gods are sometimes seen as subjected to destiny in Greek mythology. Many Greek legends and tales teach the futility of trying to outmaneuver an inexorable fate that has been correctly predicted. The legend of Eoedipus is a good example of the workings of fate as understood in that context: Oedipus meets his fate by his very efforts to avoid it.
If fate is an outcome totally determined by an outside agency, with destiny the individual involved is participating in achieving the outcome. Participation happens willfully. Destiny can be seen as a plan or potential that can be fulfilled or missed depending on the individual’s response. Even if a person is perceived to have a glorious destiny, the outcome prepared by that destiny is not seen as certain. On the other hand, if the destiny is seen as dark and unfortunate, unlike in the case of fate, that outcome can be altered if the root cause of that destiny is removed by one’s effort. Examples are the prophesized destruction of Niniveh in the Old Testament, a destruction that was averted when the inhabitants heeded Jonah’s call to repentance. Similarly, in the legend of Faust, though Faust sold his soul to the devil, the destiny he took upon himself through that decision was not final. In a famous verse found at the end of his Faust II, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe poignantly expresses the view that whoever striving does his best, for him deliverance is possible (Wer immer strebend sich bemüht, den können wir erlösen).
Used in the past tense, “destiny” and “fate” are both more interchangeable, as both imply “one’s lot” or fortunes and include the sum of events leading up to a currently achieved outcome (e.g. “it was her destiny to be leader” and “it was his fate to be leader”).
Every language and culture has a number of terms to express a variety or notions related more or less closely to those of fate and destiny. Notable expressions found in the English-speaking world are kismet, fortune, and karma. The word “Kismet” derives from the Arabic word “qismah,” and entered the English language via the Turkish word “qismet” meaning either “the will\save Allah” or “portion, lot or fate.” In English, the word is synonymous with “Fate” or “Destiny.”
The notion of karma originated in India’s religious world before becoming a household word the world over. Karma is different from destiny in that it is an application of the law of cause and effect to explain one’s lot. Karma is not presented as either the fruit of a blind will or the will of a divinity, but as the consequence of one’s very own actions. Its often used translation into everyday English is “what goes around comes around.” Yet, since the consequences of earlier actions are often long-term, even affecting later generations, in such a way that the connection between the originating cause and the consequence remains invisible and unexplained, the perception of karma often bears a close resemblance to that of destiny: for better or for worse, the course of our life is defined by more than our immediate intentions. The key difference is that the outcome is not explained in terms of a divine providence or a blind will, but in terms of earlier actions.
The notion of fortune, often associated with East Asia, (e.g., fortune cookies) is closely related to that of luck, good or bad, hence to that of destiny. Like destiny, fortune implies that there is an “invisible hand” at work in one’s life, predetermining to an extent the result of our endeavors. Fortune is usually combined with the belief that it can be disclosed and even manipulated by proper intervention and the use of certain techniques. The belief in fortune ranges from low-level superstition to schools of philosophical wisdom based on the view that events are interconnected in mysterious ways transcending the world of senses. As with karma, good or bad fortune is seen as the eventual consequence of good or bad actions perpetrated in the past, including by one’s ancestors.
Divination and mediation
Since fate or destiny implies that the course of our life is decided in advance, it is normal that humans have come to believe that one’s destiny may be ascertained by divination. In the belief systems of many cultures, one’s destiny can only be learned about through a shaman, babalawo, prophet, sibyl, saint, or seer. In the Shang Dynasty in China, turtle bones were thrown ages before the I Ching was codified. Arrows were tossed to read destiny, from Thrace to pagan Mecca. In Yoruba traditional religion, the Ifá oracle is consulted via a string of sixteen cowries or oil-palm nuts whose pattern when thrown on to a wooden tray represents the 256 possible combinations whose named “chapters” are recited and verses interpreted for the client by the babalawo. The Ifa Divination system was added in 2005 to the UNESCO list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The Sociology of religion has long recognized that those entrusted with the role of mediating between humans and the higher powers of destiny have typically held considerable powers in the society themselves, a power in many ways comparable, sometimes even superior to those of temporal rulers. This has been true of isolated tribes in remote parts of the world as well as with the relationship between the pope and the emperor in medieval Europe.
On the other hand, the view also exists that it is unwise or even sacrilegious to try and figure out one’s destiny, which would be tantamount to challenging the gods. In a very down to earth way, this issue reappears with the ability of contemporary medicine to find out the gender of one’s child before it is born.
Destiny in literature and popular culture
The human struggle to overcome apparent meaningless edicts of fate, or their heroic effort to fulfill or change destiny have been a natural source of cultural achievements in all places and at all times. Destiny thus appears in the form of tragic irony in Greek tragedy, for example in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex and the Duque de Rivas’ play that Verdi transformed into La Forza del Destino (“The Force of Destiny”) or Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, or in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, whose knowledge of his own destiny does not protect him from a horrible fate.
Other notable examples include Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’urbervilles, in which Tess is destined to the miserable death that she is confronted with at the end of the novel; the popular short story “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs; and the M. Night Shyamalan film Signs. Destiny is a recurring theme in the literature of Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), including Siddhartha (1922) and his magnum opus, Das Glasperlenspiel also published as The Glass Bead Game (1943). The common theme of these works is a protagonist who cannot escape a destiny if their fate has been sealed, however hard they try.
Destiny is also an important plot point in the hit TV show LOST.
Amor fati is a Latin phrase that translates as “love of (one’s) fate.” It is used to describe an attitude in which one sees everything that happens in one’s life, including suffering and loss, as good. That is, one feels that everything that happens is destiny’s way of reaching its ultimate purpose, and so should be considered good. Moreover, it is characterized by an acceptance of the events that occur in one’s life.
The phrase is used repeatedly in Nietzsche’s writings and is representative of the general outlook on life he articulates in section 276 of The Gay Science, which reads,
I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.
Outside of Nietzsche’s works, the phrase can be found in works as far removed from German philosophy as Frank Herbert’s God Emperor of Dune.
Providence and Predestination
In religious thought, notably Christian theology, the notions of fate and destiny find an approximate counterpart in those of divine Providence and predestination. From that perspective, the idea that there could be a preordained course in our life apart from the will of the divine Creator is unthinkable. In general terms, one can say that the notion of Providence mostly applies to the destiny of humankind as a whole (the ways in which God mysteriously accomplishes his work of salvation), while predestination usually applies to individuals. John Calvin is famous for his extreme position called double predestination (from the beginning of Creation, God predestined some to the saved and some to be damned), a position that bears a strong resemblance to the notion of fate, with the difference that the conscious will of God, rather than blind forces, is the source of the arbitrary decision. Other forms of Christian doctrine make more room from human free will in responding to God’s work of salvation (see articles on salvation and predestination).
Max Weber (1864-1920), the German pioneer of sociology produced a fascinating study on the interplay between the sense of destiny and free will taking place in the depth of people’s minds. Weber remains famous for his study on The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In it, he noticed that the genesis of modern capitalism was closely connected to the Protestant tradition. Weber concluded that Protestants felt compelled to be successful in their business ventures, because they somehow irrationally hoped that this success would come as a sign that they belonged to those predestined to be saved—this, even in later generations where religious faith had ceased to be important.
Fatalism is commonly referred to as “the doctrine that all events are subject to fate or inevitable predetermination.”
More precisely, it can refer to at least one of three interrelated ideas:
- That there is no free will, and everything including human actions, could only have happened as it did. This version of fatalism is very similar to determinism.
- That although human actions are free, they are nonetheless ineffectual in determining events, because “whatever will be will be”. This version of fatalism is very similar to predestination.
- That an attitude of inaction and passive acceptance, rather than striving, is appropriate. This version of fatalism is very similar to defeatism.
Voluntarism, a position emphasizing the will, can be seen as the opposite of fatalism when it implies that human will is the key to deciding one’s future. When it is understood as referring to an overarching blind Will leading to the eventual destruction of individual aspirations, as in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, voluntarism is rather to be equated with a form of fatalism.
Determinism, fatalism and predestination
The level of equivalence between determinism, fatalism, and predestination is open to dispute. Determinism and predestination differ on the status of free will. Some fatalists deny that fatalism as a fact implies defeatism as an attitude, or put a positive interpretation on the acceptance of one’s fate (amor fati). Max Weber made a distinction between Christianity’s belief in predestination (applied to life after death) and Islam’s belief in [predetermination]] (applied to events in one’s earthly life).
For some, determinism should not be mistaken for Fatalism. Although determinists accept that the future is, in some sense, set, they accept that human actions affect what happens—even though those human actions are themselves determined; if they had been different, the future would also be different.
In other words, determinists think the future is fixed because of causality, whereas (predestinarian) fatalists think it is fixed in spite of causality. Determinists think that if the past had been different, the present would have been different (although for them the idea that anything could have been different is purely hypothetical and not a real possibility). Fatalists think that even if you could change the present or the past, the future would still be the same. Human actions are for determinists merely a special case of the dependence of the future on the present and past, and have no special properties beyond that.
The idle argument
One ancient argument for fatalism, called the idle argument, went like this:
- If it is fated for you to recover from your illness, then you will recover whether you call a doctor or not.
- Likewise, if you are fated not to recover, you will not do so even if you call a doctor.
- It is either fated that you will recover from your illness, or that you will not recover from your illness.
- So, calling a doctor makes no difference.
Arguments like the above are usually rejected even by causal determinists, who may say that it may be determined that only a doctor can cure you. There are other examples that show clearly that human deliberation makes a big difference—a chess player who deliberates should usually be able to defeat one of equal strength who is only allowed one second per move.
The logical argument
Arguments for fatalism, although rarely accepted, do have a bearing on discussions about the nature of truth. The logical argument for fatalism says that, if there will be a sea battle tomorrow, and someone says “there will be a sea battle tomorrow” then that sentence is true, even before the sea battle occurs. But given that the sentence is true, the sea battle could not fail to take place. This argument can be rejected by denying that predictions about the future have to be true or false when they are made (i.e., rejecting bivalence for sentences about the future, though this is controversial).
Adapted from New World Encyclopedia