Greek Fatalism?

I used to think of the Greeks as fatalists, poor pitiable pagans who thought themselves living in a world where the vagaries of impersonal Fate often combined with the cruelty of brute power (either of nature or of the gods) to make human life under the sun an endless tragedy of men being thoughtlessly crushed between the merciless gears of Chance and Necessity. I used to have an entry here called “The ‘Wisdom’ of the Greeks, Indeed,” which thought itself quite clever for its ability to cite the tragic poets to “prove” that the Greeks were “fatalists,” but I took it down some time ago when I started to question this portrayal of the Greeks.

What got me going on questioning that portrayal was the observation of my Ancient World professor at the University of Dallas that the Greeks believed that “character is destiny.” (He said this was in Pindar, but I have since seen it attributed to Heraclitus). That sounded intriguing, and although I didn’t fully understand it at the time, it led to me writing a paper on the tragic figure of Oedipus that was quite different than the one I would have written had the professor not told me what he did.

A few months later, I took the initiative to follow up on a side remark made by my Medieval World professor that one ought to compare Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine on the subject of the human will relative to moral character. I did so at Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine on Virtue, Vice, and the Human Will, and the exercise was, indeed, very thought provoking.

In my final two semesters at the University of Dallas, I have read large quantities of Plutarch and Plato, and, to make a long story short, between the aforementioned examples and the combination of Plutarch and Plato, I have experienced a complete reversal of my old opinion about “Greek fatalism.” Another exercise I performed was to re-write my old “The ‘Wisdom’ of the Greeks, Indeed,” post to reflect a more temperate evaluation. That rewrite is called Ethics, Character, Responsibility, and Fate.

I now think that the idea that “character is destiny” is one of the most profound things the Greeks ever said, and that it has profound connections with the biblical picture of man. Further, I think that it is chiefly a failure to understand this statement and how it condenses the developed, philosophical Greek notions about anthropology, cosmology, and teleology that lies behind the simplistic slur that the Greeks were “fatalists.”

I lack the time right now to locate and produce the numerous citations from Plutarch that I think support this new conclusion of mine, but because Plato is fresher on my mind at the moment, I can adduce several key passages from his corpus. First is the closing myth of the dialogue Gorgias, and second is the myth of Er found in Book X of the Republic.

The closing myth of the Gorgias (523a-526d) is about the fate of a soul after death relative to whether it lived a just or unjust life. As the myth progresses, we learn that the judges of men’s souls were originally living, embodied men, but that the condition of being embodied very often caused their judgments of souls to go awry.

The problem, sounding a key Platonic theme, is that the world of the senses is all about appearances not reality, and so the embodied state of the souls when the present themselves to the judges caused the judges to focus on external appearances rather than on what the embodied souls actually were in and of themselves. Human judges are frequently besotted with mere appearances of virtue, thus inadvertently allowing unjust men to pass the bar with just men.

Hearing many complaints about this, at last Zeus steps in to preserve justice among men. Zeus sets up new judges who are themselves disembodied and arranges for human souls to be judged after death, when they are also disembodied. This effectively prevents the obscuring of the soul’s true condition by mere appearances. Upon being separated from the body by death, the soul may be judged for what it is, not for what it only appeared to be when it was confounded with the outer covering of the body.

But as a matter of Greek thought itself, you no doubt can also see that the judgment of the souls, whether they are to go to the Blessed Realm or to Tartarus, takes place according to rational criteria, not irrational chance, and is directly based on the quality which each soul’s deeds caused it to manifest. There is no blind, stupid Necessity, no inexplicable and irremediable “fatalism” in this account. Each soul receives reward or punishment according to its deeds. One readily sees the parallels between this myth and the teachings of Scripture.

Similarly, in the myth of Er (Republic 614a-621d), we are told about the choice that every soul must make before it is born into the world concerning what sort of person it will be in the physical world. A spokesman for one of the three Fates, Lachesis, who spins the threads of “what has been,” presents each soul with a variety of “patterns of lives,” from which each must choose the one it wants to emulate.

Among these patterns are good and bad models, and each soul picks the one it wants to emulate. Each soul’s choice is based on its already existing character – each soul gravitates toward a pattern for mortal life that suits its own inclinations.

Many souls simply follow their baser inclinations, not caring to stop and think about what they are doing, and so, as one example the myth tells of us a foolish and gluttonous man who seizes upon the pattern of a powerful tyrant, totally failing to see that the pattern includes the fact that he will devour his own children and commit many other great evils.

Other souls are not in such a hurry to choose, and they try to discriminate more carefully amongst the patterns. These wind up picking patterns in which there is a rough mixture of good and evil. Still others, those of a more philosophical bent, take even more time to pick their pattern, and by careful labor and thought, they eventually pick the most virtuous one they can find.

The moment the soul picks the pattern it wishes to emulate, another of the Fates, Clotho, who spins the threads of “what is,” ratifies the fate the soul has chosen for itself. The third of the Fates, Atropos, who spins the threads of “what will be,” makes the pattern that the soul has chosen for its mortal life irreversible.
Of course, these are myths. They aren’t meant to be taken as being literally true, and for the Christian, obviously, wherever they run contrary to something Scripture says, they must be judged false.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that there is a great deal of truth in these myths, and not least among these truths is the fact that before God, men are responsible agents who choose their own manner of living based on their inherent condition, and subsequently have to bear the just consequences of their choices. The word “sin” is not used in either myth, nor is there any scheme of “grace” noted. But the underlying truths of man’s moral nature and the twisted state that so easily produces evil choices bringing evil fruit is the same as in the Scriptures.

From such considerations as these, I now believe it is false to slur the Greeks as “fatalists,” and to correspondingly imagine that they were simply idiotic idolators who had not the faintest clue about the way things work in God’s world. Rather, for all the errors they did make (and there are not a few, when one judges them against the standard of Scripture), they were gifted enough by God to figure out quite a few serious truths about the nature of God, the nature of man, and what sort of life God expects man to live.

The exaggerations of the tragic poets, upon which I solely relied in my earliest (and rather hasty and immature) thoughts on this subject, are exactly that – exaggerations. Part of the point of tragedy is evidently to call the audience’s mind to consider the profoundly ethical nature of reality, to the basic fact that the human condition is, as the Apostle Paul would have put it, “a little lower than the angels,” and, as the Old Testament would have put it, “like grass here today and tomorrow thrown into the fire.”

I suspect Aristotle’s treatment of tragedy in the Poetics will also yield support for this conclusion, but as of this time I have only had time to cursorily scan that work. I’ll have to save further remarks on it until such time as I can actually give it a decent reading.

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One Response to Greek Fatalism?

  1. I agree with this post. A lot of the slurring of pagan Greek thought seems to me to be caricature. Even reading some of the hymns of Orpheus or Proclus gives the impression that they believed in a very personal pantheon, and their sense of the divine was not that far removed from the Judeo-Christian one. Maybe scholars like Nietzsche are at fault for our “fatalist” view of the Greeks, as well as the over-emphasis on the idea of the eternal return.

    This also reminds me of the Indian idea of dharma: the performance of duty and the reward for it. If you scratch the surface of Hinduism, and get beyond some of the crazier metaphysical theories, you will see a religion that almost mimics Christianity, especially in the northern phenomenon of Krishna bhakti.

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