William B. Irvine is Professor of Philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. His book, A Guide To The Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, seems an apt read right around New Years. Irvine plumbs the wisdom of Stoic philosophy and shows how its insight and advice are still applicable to modern lives. In the excerpt below we begin to learn how to let go of the past and the present.
One way to preserve our tranquility, the Stoics thought, is to take a fatalistic attitude toward the things that happen to us. According to Seneca, we should offer ourselves to fate, inasmuch as “it is a great consolation that it is together with the universe we are swept along.” According to Epictetus, we should keep firmly in mind that we are merely actors in a play written by someone else – more precisely, the Fates. We cannot choose our role in this play, but regardless of the role we are assigned, we must play it to the best of our ability. If we are assigned by the Fates to play the role of the beggar, we should play the role well; likewise if we are assigned to play the role of the king. If we want our life to go well, Epictetus says, we should, rather than wanting events to conform to our desires, make our desires conform to events; we should, in other words, want events “to happen as they do happen.”
Marcus also advocates taking a fatalistic attitude toward life. To do otherwise is to rebel against nature, and such rebellions are counterproductive, if what we seek is a good life. In particular, if we reject the decrees of fate, Marcus says, we are likely to experience tranquility-disrupting grief, anger or fear. To avoid this, we must learn to adapt ourselves to the environment into which fate has surrounded us. We must learn to welcome whatever falls to our lot and persuade ourselves that whatever happens to us is for the best. Indeed, according to Marcus, a good man will welcome “Every experience the looms of fate may weave for him.”
Like most ancient Romans, the Stoics took it for granted that they had a fate. More precisely, they believed in the existence of three goddesses known as the Fates. Each of these goddesses had a job: Clotho wove life, Lachesis measured it, and Atropos cut it. Try as they might, people could not escape the destiny chosen for them by the Fates.
For ancient Romans, then, life was like a horse race that is fixed: The Fates already knew who would win and who would lose life’s contests. A jockey would probably refuse to take part in a race he knew to be fixed; why bother racing when somebody somewhere already knows who will win? One might likewise expect the ancient Romans to refuse to participate in life’s contests; why bother, when the future has already been determined? What is interesting is that despite their determinism, despite their belief that whatever happened had to happen, the ancients were not fatalistic about the future. The Stoics, for example, did not sit around apathetically, resigned to whatever the future held in store; to the contrary, they spent their days working to affect the outcome of future events. Likewise, the soldiers of ancient Rome marched bravely off to war and fought valiantly in battles, even though they believed the outcomes of these battles were fated.
That leaves us, of course, with a puzzle: Although the Stoics advocate fatalism, they seem not to have practiced it. What are we to make, then, of their advice that we take a fatalistic attitude toward the things that happen to us?
To solve this puzzle, we need to distinguish between fatalism with respect to the future and fatalism with respect to the past. When a person is fatalistic with respect to the future, she will keep firmly in mind, when deciding what to do, that her actions can have no effect on future events. Such a person is unlikely to spend time and energy thinking about the future or trying to alter it. When a person is fatalistic with respect to the past, she adopts this same attitude toward past events. She will keep firmly in mind, when deciding what to do, that her actions can have no effect on the past. Such a person is unlikely to spend time and energy thinking about how the past might be different.
When the Stoics advocate fatalism, they are, I think, advocating a restricted form of the doctrine. More precisely, they are advising us to be fatalistic with respect to the past, to keep firmly in mind that the past cannot be changed. Thus, the Stoics would not counsel a mother with a sick child to be fatalistic with respect to the future; she should try to nurse the child back to health (even though the Fates have already decided whether the child lives or dies.) But if the child dies, they will counsel this woman to be fatalistic with respect to the past. It is only natural, even for a Stoic, to experience grief after the death of a child. But to dwell on that death is a waste of time and emotions, inasmuch as the past cannot be changed. Dwelling on the child’s death will therefore cause the woman needless grief.
In saying that we shouldn’t dwell on the past, the Stoics are not suggesting that we should never think about it. We sometimes should think about the past to learn lessons that can help us in our efforts to shape the future. The above-mentioned mother, for example, should think about the cause of her child’s death so that she may better protect her other children. Thus, if the child died as the result of eating poisonous berries, she should take steps to keep her other children away from those berries and to teach them that they are poisonous. But having done so, she should let go of the past. In particular, she should not spend her days with a head full of “if only” thoughts: “If only I had known she was eating the berries! If only I had taken her to a doctor sooner!”
Fatalism with respect to the past will doubtless be far more palatable to modern individuals that fatalism with respect to the future. Most of us reject the notion that we are fated to live a certain life; we think. to the contrary, that the future is affected by our efforts. At the same time, we readily accept that the past cannot be changed, so when we hear the Stoics counseling us to be fatalistic with respect to the past, we will be unlikely to challenge the advice.