(Latin fatum, from fari, to tell or predict). This word is almost redundant in the vocabulary of a Catholic as such, for its meaning as the prime cause of events is better expressed by the term Divine Providence, while, as a constant force at work in the physical universe, it is nothing more nor less than natural law. Hence St. Augustine says (City of God I): "If anyone calls the influence or the power of God by the name of Fate, let him keep his opinion, but mend his speech." Fate, in its popular meaning, is something opposed to chance, in so far as the latter term implies a cause acting according to no fixed laws. The unseen power that rules the destinies of men was personified by the ancient Greeks under the name of Moira, or, more generally, as three sisters Moirai, or Fates, whose names were Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Sometimes fate is described as having unlimited sway over gods and men, while at other times the gods, especially Zeus, are described as the rulers of human destiny, or as having the power to change the course of fate. With the Moirai the Romans identified their own Parcæ or Fata.
The idea of fate as a power in the world came, as St. Thomas tells us (C.G., III, xciii), from the attempt to find a cause for events which appeared to follow no definite law and to be the result of mere chance. Many, who were not satisfied with the explanation of poets and mythologists, turned their thoughts to the heavenly bodies, which, acting according to definite and unchanging laws themselves, were supposed to impress their influence upon events in the lower world (see ASTROLOGY). St. Thomas, who was no believer in astrology, evidently supposes that, while Providence acts according to fixed laws in the sidereal system, there is no such uniformity in the case of natural phenomena on earth. These latter are therefore often the result of chance, as far as secondary causes are concerned, though not so in their relation to God's Providence.
The Greek Philosopher Diodorus of Iasus tried to prove the universality of fate by an argument from the truth of possibles (perì dunatô.) The contention was that no event can happen unless it was eternally true that it was going to happen. The truth of such a proposition cannot be changed, and therefore the event to which it refers must necessarily take place. It is something like the argument which St. Augustine employs to demonstrate the eternal intellect of God, but the fallacy of it as regards Fate is pointed out by Cicero (De Fato IX 18, 19), who shows that the truth of the proposition depends on the actuality of the event. The definition which Cicero puts into the mouth of his brother Quintus identifies Fate with the necessity of natural law (De Divinatione I, 55, par. 125). His words are: "Fatum autem id appello quod Græci heimarménen, id est, ordinem seriemque causarum, quum causa causæ nexa rem ex se gignat", or, as we should say, fate is the result of natural law in the physical world. Cicero himself, however, says further on (ibid., II, 3, par. 6), "What is the use of maintaining the existence of Fate when, without Fate, an explanation of everything may be found in Nature or Fortune?"
The doctrine of fate held an important position in the monistic system of the Stoics. Its universal existence was a logical consequence of their assumptions with regard to the physical universe, for they recognized nothing that was not ultimately reducible to matter and natural law. In their ethical system however, the problem of determinism presented greater difficulties; for their favourite commandment, of living according to nature, seemed to imply that "men at some time are masters of their fates", at least as regards the shaping of their souls to that conformity with Nature in which virtue was supposed to consist. The Epicureans stoutly denied the existence of fate, and the unaccountable "swerve" of the atoms, as postulated by the founder of their sect, was intended to preclude the law of necessity, not only in the case of the human will, but even in the elementary movements of primordial matter.
The idea of fate among orthodox Mohammedans is founded on the doctrine of God's absolute decree, and of predestination both for good and for evil. The prophet encouraged his followers to fight without fear, and even with desperation, by assuring them that no timidity or caution could save their lives in battle or avert their inevitable destiny. Disputes about this doctrine have given rise to various sects among the Mohammedans, some explaining away and others denying the absolute nature of the Divine Will. The Koran itself does not convey the impression that Mohammed's own views on the subject were either clear or consistent.
Though Free Will is not entirely ignored in Buddhism, it is, at any rate, practically suppressed. According to this system, "Man acts", says St-Hilaire, "during the whole of his life under the weight, not precisely of fatality, but of an incalculable series of former existences" (The Buddha and his Religion, v 126).
In the theory of those who provide a purely materialistic explanation of the universe and maintain that the human will is just as much subject to unchanging and necessary laws as are all other phenomena, the universal sovereignty of fate is implied in the absolute reign of physical law.
According to Catholic teaching, God, who is the Author of the universe, has made it subject to fixed and necessary laws so that, where our knowledge of these laws is complete, we are able to predict physical events with certainty. Moreover, God's absolute decree is irrevocable, but, as He cannot will that which is evil, the abuse of free will is in no case predetermined by Him. The physical accompaniments of the free act of the will as well as its consequences, are willed by God conditionally upon the positing of the act itself, and all alike are the object of His eternal foreknowledge. The nature of this foreknowledge is a matter still in dispute between the opposing schools of Bañez and Molina. Hence, though God knows from all eternity everything that is going to happen, He does not will everything. Sin He does not will in any sense; He only permits it. Certain things He wills absolutely and others conditionally, and His general supervision, whereby these decrees are carried out, is called Divine Providence. As God is a free agent, the order of nature is not necessary in the sense that it could not have been otherwise than it is. It is only necessary in so far as it works according to definite uniform laws and is predetermined by a decree which, though absolute, was nevertheless free.
Moreover, in the case of miracles, God interferes with the ordinary course of nature; and the supposition that, at certain periods of the world's evolution, such, for instance, as when man first appeared on the earth, there have been other providential interpositions involving new departures in the world-process, provides for certain facts in the region of organic life an explanation not less scientific than the opposite assumptions of the materialists. St. Thomas distinguishes fate from Providence, and calls it the order or disposition of secondary causes according to which they act in obedience to the First Cause.
It follows from what has been said that, in the Catholic view, the idea of fate--St. Thomas dislikes the word--must lack the note of absolute necessity, since God's decrees are free, while it preserves the character of relative necessity inasmuch as such decrees, when once passed, cannot be gainsaid. Moreover, God knows what is going to happen because it is going to happen, and not vice versa. Hence the futurity of an event is a logical, but not a physical, consequence of God's foreknowledge. See FREE WILL, GOD, MIRACLE, PROVIDENCE.
APA citation. (1909). Fate. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05793a.htm
MLA citation. "Fate." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05793a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Rick McCarty.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is feedback732 at newadvent.org. (To help fight spam, this address might change occasionally.) Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.