Fatalism - Harvard

Fatalism 1
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Fatalism 2
The purpose of this paper is to compare the philosophical or worldview of fatalism
and the Christian view of fatalism. The author analyses the arguments put forth by different
philosophers such as Origen, Cicero, William Ockham and Spinoza and compares their views
to what the Bible and the Christian Theology teaches about fatalism. For example, Origen and
Spinoza put forth the most famous argument in support of fatalism known as the Idle
Argument. The Idle Argument suggests that one need not visit a doctor when they fall sick
because at the very end fate will prevail over their actions. On the other hand, Christians
believe in God's gift of free will to man and that man has the freedom to choose his action.
This belief however is subject to God's omnipotence that makes Him the controller of the
universe and human actions. Such a belief gives some similarity between the Philosophical
view of fatalism and the Christian view in that both recognize the presence of a supernatural
power that controls the universe. The author of the paper explores the differences in between
the views and how both views have a supernatural power at the center of their arguments.
Keywords: Fatalism, freewill, supernatural, control, pre-determine
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The Christian View of Fatalism and the Philosophical View have a Supernatural Force
at the Core
Fatalism is a Philosophical term which argues that humans are subject to the fate that the
universe directs to them and that they have no power whatsoever to change such fate (Fischer
and Todd 2015). Fatalism presents individuals as powerless with no power to influence their
own actions to change fate. Philosophers have argued for and against fatalism for several
centuries now. Initially, it was a debate mostly perpetuated by pagans and the ancient
Philosophers. With the rise of religion and specifically Christianity however, the idea of
Fatalism has been redefined to fit into the Christian religious beliefs. One thing that is
common to both the Christian view and the Philosophical view of Fatalism is that both
involve a supernatural power that controls the universe. Whereas the Philosophical view
believes entirely on fate, Christians believe in the providence of God and hope (Goldsmith,
Joel and Lorraine 2013). They believe in a just God who gives humans the gift of free will to
choose their actions, though the final judgment about any act rests on Him. This paper
discusses both the Philosophical view of Fatalism and the Christian view to show that even
with varying arguments, they both lay back on a supernatural power that controls the universe
and consequently human action.
Philosophical View of Fatalism
One of the famous arguments in support of Fatalism, The Idle Argument, was put
forth by Origen and Cicero (Buller 1995). The two used the example of sickness in their
argument. They argued that regardless of whether one visited the doctor or not, their fate was
already sealed whether to recover or not. Their argument was that if one was fated to recover,
they would certainly recover even without calling the doctor. If one was already fated not to
recover, they would still not recover even if they called the doctor. According to Origen and
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Cicero, therefore, it was futile to call the doctor in any way. The question that arises from this
is the importance of doctors. If calling a doctor was futile either way, it would mean the
profession was of no use to humans. Humans would then not need to put any effort to change
the course of action but rather resign to fate and let things be. Actually, well-known fatalists
such as Thomas Hardy, David Foster, and William Ockham argue that despite the freedom of
choice that humans have, they should resign to fate to avoid Psychological stress (Fischer and
Todd 2015). Their argument is that even if one wanted to choose a different course of action
from that which they are fated, they would not succeed because at the very end fate will
triumph over them.
In the ancient days, fate was quite a great force. In some societies, it was viewed as
even being able to overrule the will of the gods (Woolf and Pietro 2015). It was therefore
treated as a god in itself before Christianity came and taught that only God was all-powerful
and that everything had its origin and end with him (Goldsmith, Joel and Lorraine 2013). In
the Greek society, fate was regarded as following an individual all the way back from their
ancestors. In such cases, fate was either as a form of punishment for some wrongs done back
then or as compensation for some good things that one's ancestors had done back in the days.
With the rise of Christianity however, the Jewish God was given all extreme qualities and
abilities as being the sole creator and controller of the universe (Goldsmith, Joel and Lorraine
2013). In the two contexts, however, the base is that human destiny was already pre-
determined whether by the gods of the old society or by the Jewish God. In both instances,
human effort is futile in trying to change their own destiny.
Cicero wrote extensively on the divinity of the future. He argued that if indeed there
were gods who pre-determined human action, then these gods must be powerful enough to
foresee the future (Woolf and Pietro 2015). If that was the case with the gods, then the future
that they foresaw must be certain and if certain necessary to humans. In the event that all that
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was true about the gods, then human fate was certainly sealed by these gods and humans were
completely powerless in changing their destiny. Cicero, however, faced criticism from the
proponents of humans having free will to determine their actions. The people in this camp
argued that were Cicero's arguments true, then, there would be no need for prayers and
sacrifices to the gods (Woolf and Pietro 2015). They argued if the gods determined the future
of man with certainty and made it necessary to be faced, prayers and sacrifices to change the
course of action would be futile. In response, however, Cicero argued that such prayers and
sacrifices were also foreseen by the gods.
Due to the conflict between the Christian and the Philosophical view of fatalism,
modern forms of fatalism have been developed. They include Spinoza's Necessarianism
(Allen and Stoneham 2011) which is a modification of the pagan fatalism and Modern
Materialistic Fatalism which was developed by Clifford and Huxley (Feinberg and Shafer-
Landau 2013). The theory of Necessarianism argues that there is neither free will from God
nor man and that human decisions flow from necessity (Allen and Stoneham 2011). It,
therefore, follows that nothing is pre-determined by God or man and that neither God nor man
shapes the future. Every action comes about as a result of the current need which determines
the course of action at that particular moment. The critics of Spinoza's view of fatalism,
however, argued that were that the case, man would not be responsible for his own actions
because he did not choose to engage in them but his actions were rather determined by
necessity. There would then be no one responsible for crimes committed. In response,
however, Spinoza argued that evil was only a limitation of human action and hence not real.
He was of the view that whatever was real could only be good.
Clifford and Huxley on the other hand in their Materialistic fatalism argue that humans
are consciously autonomous and that their thoughts and actions do not move material objects
in the real world. They give the reason for man being unable to influence objects in the
Fatalism 6
universe as; man's mental process was originally bound as a result of being pre-determined
during its actual formation by the same universe. With this kind of pre-determination of the
mental process of man, man can therefore not act in any way to change his fate which is
already determined by the universe. Critics of this argument argue that were all action pre-
determined, man would not be responsible for his actions and hence no base for punishment
or reward (Feinberg and Shafer-Landau 2013). The critics especially the Christians argue that
were such the case, whereby all action was pre-determined, then that made God the origin of
sin and evil.
In an effort to harmonize the various forms of fatalism, Mill summarized them into
two categories namely pure/oriental fatalism and modified fatalism (Mill, cited in Somay
2014). In pure fatalism, human actions are not dependent on their desires but are influenced
by a supernatural power. In modified fatalism, Mill is of the view that human actions are
determined by human will. The human will is in turn determined by character and the motives
that act upon this character. The character, on the other hand, has been given to humans by the
supernatural force acting upon the universe.
Christian View of Fatalism
Several religious Philosophers and Theologians have tried to modify Fatalism to fit
into the Christian belief. They have tried to distinguish between the Philosophical and pagan
view of Fatalism. One of these believers is John Calvin who was a Theologian. He adapted
Fatalism into his Theological doctrine of Predestination (Wright 2011). In this doctrine,
Calvin argued that from the very beginning, God had determined every event in an
individual's life. As such, a man's actions are not out of himself but already pre-determined by
God. Even for a vital Christian teaching such as salvation, Calvin is of the opinion that
whether one gets saved or not has nothing to do with their actions because such actions were
already pre-determined even before their actual occurrence. His argument can be supported by
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scripture from the Bible in Romans 8:20-38 which talks about God having predestined those
that He had called to be the first among the brethren. Ephesians 1:3-11 talks about believers
obtaining the inheritance that had been predestined according to the purpose and will of God.
Following this argument, it can be seen that both the Philosophical Fatalism and the doctrine
of Predestination have a supernatural force at the centre that controls all events in the
Though the pagans had the view of an external power that controlled all action in the
universe, they did not primarily define it as divine. It could, therefore, have been human or
divine (Fischer and Todd 2015). Christianity, however, gave Fatalism a new form.
Christianity brought the idea of a personal and infinite God who acted on own free will to
control the universe which Himself had created (Goldsmith, Joel and Lorraine 2013). The
very early religious writers wanted to oppose the idea of Fatalism but their very own idea of
an all-powerful and all-knowing God who controls the universe made their progress difficult
(Fischer and Todd 2015). They, therefore, settled on a modification of the idea of Fatalism to
suit the Christian faith with ideas such as God's providence and hope in a just God. For
example one of the common Bible verses about God's Providence is seen in Genesis 22:8-13
where Abraham was fated to sacrifice his only son Isaac but instead God provided a ram for
the sacrifice.
Christians believe that God gave man free will to choose his actions (Ecclesiastes
9:10). Christians believe that humankind will be rewarded or punished for the choices they
make either to obey or break the moral laws of the universe. To further demonstrate the belief
that Christians have on the free will of man that is given by God, in the Lord's Prayer that
Jesus taught his disciples, Christians pray for the will of God to be done here on earth as it is
done in heaven (Matthew 6:9-10). It would be useless to pray for the will of God to be done if
he had always determined what his will would be on humans. In yet another Biblical teaching
Fatalism 8
in 2 Corinthians 7:14, Paul taught Christians not to despair to fate but instead press on with
God and seek His will. It is from such biblical teachings that Christians derive inspiration not
to just sit back and accept whatever is happening in Syria, or elsewhere as the will of God and
do nothing about it (De Villiers 2015). Instead, Christians and Christian organizations have
taken the forefront in helping the war victims and seeking an end to the atrocities committed
against humanity.
Christians believe in God's Providence rather than fate. The Christian believe is that
God has a plan for each soul (Jeremiah 1:5 and 29:11). This belief does not, however,
overrule the free will given to man by God either to accept or reject this God's plan
(Ecclesiastes 9:10). Christianity views the Jewish God as Just. For example in John 9:2-3
when the disciples asked Jesus whether the blind man was being punished for his sins or those
of his ancestors, Jesus replied that was not the case and that the man was blind in order for
God to be glorified through him. In one of his Pontifical addresses, Pope Benedict XVI
invited Catholics and Christians, in general, to interpret negative happenings differently and
use such interpretation towards the conversion of their souls and those of others (Benedict,
Thornton and Varenne 2008). The invitation by the Pope further points out that Christians do
not resign to fate.
Christians uphold hope in God more than fatalism. Christians believe that God will not
let anybody down if they do not fail God themselves (2 Timothy 2:12). It is this hope in God
that make Christians believe in salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ. Though
Jesus was unjustly crucified on the cross, his crucifixion did not end in vain because it
brought salvation to humankind (Romans 5:10). To further point out to the hope that
Christians have in God when Jesus was about to be arrested, he went out to pray in the Garden
of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:35-56). He asked God to rescue him from the difficult moments
that were ahead of him, but in closing his prayers, he invited the will of God to prevail above
Fatalism 9
his request. The prayer by Jesus shows that he hoped the will of God was for his own good
and the good of humanity. Following the example of Christ, Christians are therefore driven by
hope in God and should not resign to fate.
In the original Philosophical view of fatalism and the subsequent worldviews on the
same, human beings do not fully control their actions in relation to the universe. Even in the
modifications to fatalism that have been developed such as Spinoza's Necessarianism and
Clifford's Materialistic Fatalism, there is always a force more powerful than man that
influences his actions. The pagan view of fatalism also upheld the argument that there was a
force that controlled all action. With the spread of Christianity, this view on a powerful force
that controls the universe was not abolished. All what Christianity did was to define this
supernatural power as a personal God and infinite God who acted on His own will and was
the origin and the end to everything. As such, the difference between the Philosophical view
of fatalism and the Christian view is the divinity of the argument introduced by Christianity.
At the center of the two views, both arguments are in agreement to the presence of a
supernatural power that controls all action in the universe.
Fatalism 10
Allen, K., and Stoneham, T. (2011). Causation and modern philosophy. New York,
Benedict, Thornton, J. F., and Varenne, S. B. (2008). The essential Pope Benedict XVI: his
central writings and speeches. New York, HarperOne
Buller, D. (1995). On the 'standard' argument for fatalism. Philosophical Papers. Vol. 24, No.
2, pp. 111-125.
De Villiers, D. E. (2015). In search of an appropriate contemporary approach in Christian
ethics : Max Weber's ethic of responsibility as resource : original research.
Theological Studies, Vol. 71, No. 1, pp. 1-8.
Feinberg, J., and Shafer-Landau, R. (2013). Reason and responsibility: readings in some
basic problems of philosophy. Boston, Wadsworth.
Fischer, J. M., and Todd, P. (2015). Freedom, fatalism, and foreknowledge.New York,
Oxford University Press
Goldsmith, Joel S., and Lorraine S. (2013).God, The Substance of All Form. Cork: BookBaby
Somay, B. (2014).The psychopolitics of the oriental father: between omnipotence and
emasculation. New York, Palgravae MacMillan
Woolf, R. and Pietro L. C. (2015). Cicero: the philosophy of a roman sceptic. London: Taylor
& Francis.
Wright, N. (2011). Predestination and perseverance in the early theology of Jurgen Moltmann.
The Evangelical Quarterly. Vol. 83, No.4, pp. 330-345.

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