The Stoics on Fate

Phil. 3383/Freeland/Spring 1996



Fate = a rational principle for things administered by Providence within the cosmos (B64); a string of causes, an inescapable ordering and connection (B65).

Upshot or Moral for the good life:

The wise man/sage lives according to nature and accepts fate


  • Chrysippus/Cleanthes' story about the dog and the wagon
  • Epictetus' manual: live out your part like an actor playing a role
  • Seneca, everyone must die and accept their fate
  • Marcus Aurelius: even ugly, fearful things or seeming accidents have a kind of beauty arising out of their necessity.

    Arguments for Fate

    Nothing is uncaused

    The cosmos is coordinated and administered by nature

    Divination is in good repute

  • wise men are contented in the face of events
  • every proposition is true or false

    This has a reference: Aristotle, De Interpretatione Chapter 9 on "Future Contingents"

    The Lazy Argument ("argos logos")

    A. Criticism of Stoic fatalism, probably by Carneades the Skeptic)

    (B70) If everything is fated, then why bother to do anything? There is no point to human decision-making.

    (side consequence: B67: The Stoics say that god is responsible for everything, even things that are bad and shameful.)

    B. Chrysippus' reply (the "confatal")

    Things are co-fated; it is fated that, for example, you will get AIDS AND that you will not use condoms or practice safer sex.

    Chrysippus' Distinction of Causes

    Fatalism (revised): Everything happens due to a cause, but due to proximate and accessory causes, not to perfect and principal causes.

    Perfect and principal causes: necessitate behavior from a thing's own nature.

    Proximate and accessory causes: contingent causes that are external to a thingšs nature

    Example: Zeno strikes a ball and it rolls.

    Proximate cause: Zeno struck the ball.

    Perfect cause: The ball rolled. (a feather would not have)

    Moral of the story: Accessory causes are the immediate causes or occasions of individual human behaviors, but the behaviors also involve as causes the nature of the people involved. Not every nature responds in the same way, and our nature is "in our power" or up to us, as it involves our assent.

    Example: Cynthia saw a doughnut and refused to eat it.

    Proximate cause: the appearance of the doughnut

    Principal cause: Cynthia's nature of virtue (temperance) means that she refused assent to eating or desiring the doughnut.

    Problems, Issues

    1. Cicero says this turns out to make everything necessary after all.

    2. Chrysippus seems to want to distinguish what is foreseen as necessary and what is foreseen as true but not as necessary (see pp. 130-31). This is a distinction many other philosophers also try to adopt, including Aristotle (perhaps) and Augustine.

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    April 29, 1996