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Promoting the Study of the Philosophy of Epicurus

No Fate But What We Make

A discussion of the details of “Terminator 2” is far beyond the scope of this blog, but composites made from two scenes of that movie form a good frame for discussing a subject of critical importance.  One of the key observations at the heart of Epicurus’ philosophy was the same proposition that Sarah Connor carved into wood just before she set off to change the shape of the future.  Another character explained the thought in words that might have been spoken by Epicurus himself:

The future is not set.  There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.

The Epicureans enshrined the importance of this proposition in the very first of the Principle Doctrines, in which Epicurus set forth the reason why the the gods do not shape our lives. This principle served as the fountainhead for many of his other views of the gods and of fate, and it was expanded in many other passages in more explicit terms.  Here are some of the most memorable:

  • The wise man laughs at the idea of “Fate”, which some set up as the mistress of all things, because the wise man understands that while some things do happen by chance, most things happen due to our own actions. The wise man sees that Fate or Necessity cannot exist if men are truly free, and he also sees that Fortune is not in constant control of the lives of men. But the wise man sees that our actions are free, and because they are free, our actions are our own responsibility, and we deserve either blame or praise for them. It would therefore be better to believe in the fables that are told about the gods than to be a slave to the idea of Fate or Necessity as put forth by false philosophers. At least the fables which are told about the gods hold out to us the possibility that we may avert the gods’ wrath by paying them honor. The false philosophers, on the other hand, present us with no hope of control over our own lives, and no escape from an inexorable Fate. In the same way, the wise man does not consider Fortune to be a goddess, as some men esteem her to be, for the wise man knows that nothing is done at random by a god. Nor does he consider that such randomness as may exist renders all events of life impossible to predict. Likewise, he does not believe that the gods give chance events to men so as to make them live happily. The wise man understands that while chance may lead to great good, it may also lead to great evil, and he therefore thinks it to be better to be unsuccessful when acting in accord with reason than to be successful by chance when acting as a fool.  Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus
  • It was a central doctrine of Epicurus that “the Wise Man is but little interfered with by fortune. The great concerns of life, the things that matter, are controlled by his own wisdom and reason.”  Cicero’s Defense of Epicurus
  • Do not attend, said [Epicurus], to these idle and imaginary tales.  Do not attend to the “operator and builder of the World,” the God of Plato’s Timæus; nor to the old prophetic dame, the  “Fate” of the Stoics, which the Latins call Providence; nor to that round, burning, revolving deity, “the World,” [which some] endow with sense and understanding.  These are the prodigies and wonders, not of inquisitive philosophers, but of dreamers! Cicero – On the Nature of the Gods
  • The philosopher from whom we received all our knowledge [Epicurus] has taught us that the world was made by Nature; that there was no occasion for a workhouse to frame it in.  [He taught us further] that, though you deny the possibility of the world being made without divine skill, this is so easy for Nature that she has made, does make, and will make innumerable worlds.   But because you do not conceive that Nature is able to produce these results without some rational aid, you are forced like the tragic poets, when you cannot wind up your argument in any other way, to have recourse to a Deity.  You would not seek the assistance of such a Deity if you could view the vast and unbounded magnitude of the universe in all its parts.  There the mind, extending and spreading itself, travels so far and wide that it can find no end, no extremity to stop at.  In this immensity of breadth, length, and height, a boundless company of innumerable atoms are fluttering about.  Those atoms, notwithstanding the interposition of a void space, meet and cohere, and continue clinging to one another.  By this union the modifications and forms of things arise, which in your opinions could not possibly be done without the help of bellows and anvils. Thus you have imposed on us an eternal master, whom we must dread day and night.  For who can be free from fear of a Deity who foresees, regards, and takes notice of everything; one who thinks all things are his own; a curious, ever-busy God?  From here first arose your Fate, or as you call it, your fatal necessity; so that whatever happens, you affirm that it flows from an eternal chain and continuance of causes.  Of what value is this philosophy, which, like old women and illiterate men, attributes everything to fate?  Then follows your “divination”– which, if we would listen to you, would plunge us into such superstition that we should fall down and worship your inspectors into sacrifices, your augurs, your soothsayers, your prophets, and your fortune-tellers.  Epicurus has freed us from these terrors and restored us to liberty, and we have no dread of those beings whom we have reason to think entirely free from all trouble themselves, and who do not impose any troubles on others. We pay our adoration, indeed, with piety and reverence to that essence which is above all excellence and perfection. Cicero – On the Nature of the Gods

  • Further, the forecasts some give based on the the conduct of certain animals arise from a fortuitous combination of circumstances, for there is no necessary connection between certain animals and winter. These animals do not produce winter, nor is there any divine being sitting aloft watching the exits of these animals and then fulfilling signs of this kind. No folly such as this would occur to any being who is even moderately comfortable, much less to a god who is possessed of perfect happiness.  Epicurus’ Letter to Pythocles
  • Happy was he who was able to know the causes of things, and who trampled beneath his feet all fears, inexorable Fate, and the roar of devouring Acheron. (Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas atque metus omnes et inexorabile fatum subjecit pedibus strepitumque Acherontis.)  VirgilGeorgics, Book II

To close this post with another quote from Terminator 2 which might well have been spoken by Lucretius or any other Epicurean:

Come with me if you want to live.

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