John Opsopaus’ Commentary Upon Georgios Gemistos Plethon’s Conception Of Fate
Medieval miniature of the philosopher and mystagogue George Gemistos Plethon.
Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA, is another excerpt from professor Opsopaus’ latest and much awaited work, ‘The Secret Texts of Hellenic Polytheism: A Practical Guide to the Restored Pagan Religion of George Gemistos Plethon‘, Llewellyn, May 2022. Here, his commentary upon Plethon’s conception of Fate. Pages 187, 188, 189, 190.
Plethon’s chapter ‘Fate'(II.6, Περι ειμαρνενης-peri heimarmenes) was in the midst of the block of chapters burned by Scholarios, but it survives, probably because Plethon previously had circulated copies of this one chapter, and Scholarios could not not destroy them all. Moreover, Plethon wrote about fate in his paper ‘On the differences of Plato from Aristotle’ and other places. …/…
Plethon takes a controversial stand on fate (ειμαρνενη, heirmamene), which takes some efforts to understand; it is essentially the Stoic position, with which many Platonists disagreed. His teachings about fate are based on two axioms. The first is that everything has a cause. The second is that a cause completely determines its effects. The second axiom implies that there is nothing random or indeterminate in the effect, since if there were, the random or indeterminate aspects would be causeless, contradicting the first axiom. The implication is that our cosmos is completely deterministic, all things following necessarily from the first cause, Zeus. You will wonder immediately if Plethon denies free will (he does not), but we will go to his explanation a little later.
Plethon also argues that if the cosmos were not deterministic, divination would be impossible, but reliable divination is possible, and so the future is predetermined. In addition, the gods sometimes give oracles concerning the future (the topic of one of the destroyed chapter of the ‘Book of Laws’), which they would not be able to do if it were not predetermined. Plethon observes that the future cannot be changed, even if it is known through divination or an oracle, but we will have to consider these matters more closely when we discuss free will.
We must remember that the gods exist outside of time, and so the entirety of the past, present, and future-which they cause!-lies before them in an eternal present. The gods have foreknowledge of everything that happens because they cause, directly and indirectly, everything that happens. The future established by Zeus is the best possible, according to Plethon, because he is himself the Good. (This does not imply, of course, that we always will experience circumstances as good for us as individuals. Gravity is necessary for the earth to exist, even though it means we can fall down.) Denying fate is tantamount to atheism, writes Plethon, for either it denies the gods’ ability to foresee the future, or it makes them the cause of what is worse, instead of what is best.
Now, we come to the complicated issue of ‘free will’, since many suppose that fate, a strict determinism such as Plethon describes, eliminates any possibility of moral responsibility. Moreover, it is supposed to lead to fatalism, a depressing and defeatist attitude that nothing we do matters, for the future is completely determined. In fact, it long has been recognized that robust notions of self-determination, autonomy, and moral responsibility are not inconsistent with strict determinism; this is a philosophical position called compatibilism (because free will is compatible with determinism). The compatibilist position has been discussed since ancient times, but it is subtle and still debated today. This is not the place for a thorough analysis, but I will address issues that are important for understanding Plethon’s ideas concerning moral responsibility in a deterministic universe.
To begin, it will be helpful to set aside the term ‘free will’ for the time being’ the ancients often put the question in terms of whether something is ‘up to us‘ (εφ ημιν, eph’ hemin), which is a more concrete and less loaded term. In ordinary language, a choice is up to us if we can make it on the basis of our own thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, desires, feelings, values, memories, knowledge, intuition, and so forth. One way a choice is not up to me is if it violates the laws of nature; I cannot choose to fly by flapping my arms. Moreover, if someone pushes me off a cliff, my leap was not up to me. On the other hand, if someone holds a gun to my head and tells me to jump, it is up to me whether I do so or not. There are complications, such as addictions, compulsions, and coercions, in which people make choices that are inconsistent with more deeply held beliefs, values, and intentions, but they do not change the basic explanation of ‘what is up to us’. If it arises from what is ours (beliefs, desires, intentions, etc.), then it is up to us.
From this perspective, even if these choices are a result of deterministic physical processes operating in my brain, the choices nevertheless depend on the beliefs, desires, intentions, and the like residing in my brain, and thus they are up to me. Again, the issues are complicated, but I hope I have at least made plausible the idea that some things are up to us, even in a completely deterministic universe.
Plethon considers how, if everything, including the gods, is subject to this fate (which is identical to Zeus), we can be considered masters of ourselves and free. The answer is that the highest part of our souls, which he calls the phronoun (φρονουν), the prudent, wise, or thinking part, has mastery over parts of our soul, such as the desires, appetites, will, impulses, and feelings. This higher part makes the choices that are up to us. But like the gods themselves, this part is subject to fate. The choices it makes depend on both its innate characteristics (received from the gods) and its education, for which it also must have an inclination, given to it by the gods. That is, its choices depend on both nature and nurture. Nevertheless, because it is my prudent part, with both its innate and learned characteristics, that makes these choices, they are up to me.
Moreover, I am responsible for the actions that are up to me, and I may suffer the consequences of my mistakes. Indeed Plethon tells us that there is a class of daimons who act as the gods’ agents and are responsible for correcting us. We should not think of these negative consequences as punishments for our (pre-determined) errors. They are more like bad grades on an exam, criticism from a coach, or painful medical procedures, all of which are intended to make us better. They are the gods; way of causing (predetermining) a future in which we make fewer mistakes, the gods’ means of improving us, of making us more godlike.
However, it may seem cruel to assume that calamities, illness, and suffering are a consequence of the sufferer’s errors; it seems like blaming the victim. Nevertheless, it is often worthwhile to consider this possibility, at least as an hypothesis. What lessons can I learn from this unfortunate situation? Can I find in these circumstances some good either for myself individually or for the world at large? Regardless of whether the gods are actually trying to correct us, it may be beneficial to consider that possibility and reap some good from bad situation.
Free will is much more of an issue in religion, such as Christianity, that believes in a vindictive god who will punish our mistakes, perhaps with eternal damnation. Such punishment would be cruel and unjust if we suppose we were forced to make those mistakes by that very same omnipotent god (or by other agents he has created, such as Satan). It is difficult in these religions to reconcile an omniscient god, who can see the future, with the ability of people to make free choices, for which they will be generously rewarded or horribly punished.
Many people reject the idea of predetermination because they cannot tolerate the idea that they are bound by an inexorable fate, that they have no true freedom. This feeling is misguided, as we’ve seen, for in fact a great deal is up to us, properly understood, in particular most of the choices to which we attach moral responsibility. We are truly free if things are up to us.
Moreover, Plethon argues, we have the only sort of freedom that is worth having, for everyone wants to do well and be happy and therefore to be free to pursue those goals. But since Zeus is the cause of the Good (that which anything acts to gain or keep), by conforming to the law of Zeus (which Plethon calls Justice), we will be living as well as we can. This is the only freedom worth having. We may go wrong, of course, mistaking some apparent good for the truly good, but then we may hope that the daimons will set us straight.
When all is said and done, you will have to make up your mind about whether the universe is completely predetermined. Contemporary physics teaches that there is an unavoidable element of chance (not subject to our personal choice, it should be noted). I don’t think it makes too much difference to the practice of Plethon’s religion whether every last detail is predetermined by Zeus or whether in this overall organization he has left some room for either chance or completely free choice. It should not affect our behavior much.