VI. Fate & Freewill

~ The Choice of Hercules by Annibale Carracci

As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be[1]. There is no escaping destiny; there is no flying from fate. What must be, must be[2]. Fate leads the willing, but drives the stubborn[3]. Times change and we with them[4]. One realizes that one cannot put back the clock; for now is now, and then was then. Lost time is not found again for it is too late to call back yesterday. Things past cannot be recalled. Remember that what is done cannot be undone.

Hercules, the son of Jupiter and Alcmene, was one of the greatest of the Greek legendary heroes. His life was continuously plagued by constant trials and hardships that he overcame through superhuman strength, wisdom, courage and endurance. But more importantly, Hercules was a symbol of hope that men can choose their own destiny and escape the clutches of the Fates[5], whose decrees over the lives of mortals in Greek mythology were nearly always final and adhered by the other Gods.

The Choice of Hercules by Annibale Carracci depicts the Greek hero sitting in between the two female representations of Virtue and Vice. Virtue’s road is upwards, difficult and narrow but led to timeless fame, whilst Vice’s road is leading downwards to an easy, lazy and lustful life of pleasure. Hercules choose the harder road of Virtue, and completed the infamous Twelve Labors of Hercules before cheating fate yet again by escaping death to become a god.

The notion of freewill is commonly used and perhaps the most commonly misunderstood. Most men believe that we have the freedom to make choices and that forces not under our control do not externally predetermine the events that happen in reality. The belief that ‘we make ourselves the individuals we are’ is the cornerstone of many people living in the world today as it was in the past. Freewill and the ability to choose is an attractive appeal to all of us by implying that we are what we ‘choose’ ourselves to be and that everything in the world starts with choice.

However, even if everything in the world started with choice some of the situations that we land ourselves in are not by our choice but by the choices of others. We cannot choose when or where we will be born. We cannot choose our parents. We cannot choose whether it will rain or shine tomorrow. We cannot choose the time and manner of our deaths. External forces do in fact very clearly determine the many things that happen all around us to which we have little or no control of. Just take a quick journey to the areas stricken with poverty and you will find yourself convinced that people are not suffering by choice. Given the alternative, who would not want a life of abundant wealth and good health?

According to Spinoza, men think themselves free because they are conscious of their volitions and desires, but ignorant of the causes by which they are led to such wish and desire. Schopenhauer echoed Spinoza when he declared that we do not want a thing because we have found reasons for it, we find reasons for it because we want it. “Men are only apparently drawn from in front; in reality they are pushed from behind,” said Schopenhauer[6]. How then can we claim to choose with our own freewill when we are uncertain of the hidden motives, impulses and desires that are buried deep within out own soul?

Putting aside the things beyond the realm of our consciousness, our ability to choose is also limited by time. Experienced time[7] cannot be rewound and every step we take cannot be reversed. Supposed a glass at the edge of the table topples to the floor and shatters into a hundred pieces. There is no way that we can reverse the breaking of the glass and return the glass to its previous state. The choices that we make in our younger days cannot be undone irrespective of the choices available to us in the future. The sad truth is that old men do not grow young again. And since there is no turning back, we are not free to choose to change the things that have already happened.

When we look objectively at our ability to choose, we realize that there is always a price to pay. People cannot gain something without first sacrificing something else. You cannot have it both ways. No man can do two things at once or be in two places at once. For every choice we make, there is an opportunity cost to pay for its price. At its most fundamental level, even choosing to do nothing is a choice in itself. Remember that with every choice comes the sacrifice of all other alternatives. With a price, every choice is not free. After choosing a path, we are forced to live with the consequences of our choice for the rest of our lives.

But if we are not free to choose, is everything in this world fated? The answer is no. Although our choices are not free, it does not follow that everything is fated. Choices exist in the present, and perhaps in the future. If everything is fated, all our choices and decisions are unalterable and inevitable as an effect of preceding causes that are already predetermined themselves. But through observation, we see that we cannot change the events in the past althout we are able to have a small room of freedom to choose from the alternatives that are available in the present.

Socrates once questioned whether one could ever deliberately, when able to follow either course, choose the worse, because overcome by fear, pleasure or etc. In other words, whether akrasia is possible. In his view, akrasia cannot occur. One always considers the end result before deliberately choose to do something. This consideration would result in one choosing to do what one thinks would achieve a certain good for himself. If someone were to be overcome by certain passions or emotions, he would not be acting deliberately. Thus, as long as one considers his actions, he cannot choose the worse for himself.

No one does wrong voluntarily, stated Socrates. But the world is filled with people that have made the wrong choices in life. Once the window of opportunity has passed, there is no rectifying the choices of the past. Thus, many people are forced to miserably live with the consequences of a wrong choice of the past. Wrongdoing is due to the lack of knowledge. If one is able to foresee the future consequences of one’s actions, one will be able to make the right choices in life. Hence, the highest virtue is knowledge and knowledge alone.

What else is left to be said of fate and freewill? Say not that one is absolutely free to choose when one is ignorant of all the choices available and not given the knowledge of all the consequences of the choices available. The things in the past are fated as they are, the present is full of choices that once made cannot be unmade and the future is an unknown place veiled by our own ignorance. Sometimes we are but marionettes dangling in the middle of choice and destiny. When one encounters difficult choices, remember that although there is small choice in rotten apples[8], of two evils, choose the less[9].

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;


Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim

Because it was grassy and wanted wear,

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,


And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I marked the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way

I doubted if I should ever come back.


I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

~ Robert Frost


[1] Ephesians Chapter 3 Verse 21, King James Bible.

[2] Familiar in its Italian form, Che sera, sera.

[3] A saying attributed to the stoic philosopher Cleanthes (3rd Century BC).

[4] An old Latin proverb, sometimes attributed to Ovid (1st century BC).

[5] The three Fates were the daughters of Jupiter, the king of the gods, and either Night or Themis, goddess of justice, law and order. The Fates determined the lifespan of every human, and were regarded as physically spinning, measuring and cutting a woolen thread of life.

[6] The World as Will and Idea by Arthur Schopenhauer.

[7] Time and Freewill by Henri Bergson.

[8] See Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1594)

[9] Traced back to the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle (4th century BC)

Comments
One Response to “VI. Fate & Freewill”
  1. Vladislav says:

    to be. This has been revealed csnutleos times over the centuries in many different ways.Choosing is a natural process by which parts of a single universe behave one way rather than another. Conscious choosing is when those parts are aware of themselves choosing. Perhaps increasingly conscious choice is, indeed, increasingly free choice.So, yes, we are like the stone being aware of itself. Except that the awareness itself causes us to act differently than if we were not aware. It is as if the stone, aware that it were going to smash into a harder stone, were caused by that awareness to alter its course, thus landing instead in a pool of water to avoid being smashed to smithereens. There is this emerging and yet primitive experience of intention or volition an ability for the Thing to take charge of its own evolution at many points in time-space (us) due to the expansion of awareness at those points, and a corresponding expansion of options for choosing. God really DOES depend on us, because we are It. And I believe, to address the moral question, that as we become truly aware of this, there is a natural recognition of responsibility, a sort of recursive or self-propelling impulse to make it happen in the right way. Our Spiritual Teachers, being more aware of this truth than we, become accelerators of the process.I hope this is not just a stream of babble, trying to say the same thing in various different ways. But it makes sense to me, and aligns with both my scientific understanding and my deepest spiritual experience.

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