Clark on Stoic Determinism

For a Christian who wants to get really serious about understanding philosophy, I can think of no better start than Thales to Dewey by Gordon Clark.  Scanning through the table of contents, one might immediately see a drawback.  About half of the book concerns pre-middle-age ideas.  Hasn’t a lot been discovered since then?  No, actually, it hasn’t – at least in one sense.  All the basic problems in philosophy were discussed in ancient times, and Gordon Clark was uniquely qualified to write about these matters.  Many people do not know that Clark made a name for himself in secular philosophical circles before turning his pen to Christian Philosophy.  Clark was committed to proceeding from the simple to the complex.  Some philosophers construct beautiful philosophical systems, yet they cannot answer the simple questions which lay at the foundation of their system.  Clark was known for embarrassing such philosophers by asking simple foundational questions that they could not answer.  The ancients discuss the simpler problems in their most basic forms, therefore Clark spends most of his time on them.  This is not to say that the modern philosophers are just spinning their wheels.  Not at all.  By and large, modern philosophical research explores the implications of solutions to the basic problems in greater detail than the ancients could.  However, the basic problems and basic solutions generally remain the same, and if one does not learn the difference between nominalism and platonic realism, monism and dualism, simple unity and complex unity, empiricism and rationalism, relativism and universalism, and determinism and indeterminism, he cannot understand the presuppositions behind the writings of the modern philosophers.  He will be lost and discouraged with philosophy.  In Thales to Dewey, Clark expounds these basic ideas in the ancient philosophers and does a masterful job giving us arguments for and against each solution.

One such passage is found in his discussion of Stoic fatalism.  In the passage quoted below, Clark treats 4 objections to the Stoic doctrine that all events that will happen are fated to happen, and he treats them much the same way that the Stoics did.  A Calvinist who reads this will note that his Arminian brothers use some of the same objections to Calvin’s Biblical determinism.  Enjoy!

The logical force of the deterministic or fatalistic position and its further elucidation may be seen still more clearly in the Stoic replies to opponents’ objections. Four will be discussed. One, if all events are predetermined, then there is no use of a man’s exerting himself to accomplish an aim, for if the proposed event is predestined, it will happen anyway; and if it is not predestined, nothing the man does will bring it to pass. Two, it is simply untrue that external causes, like the atmosphere, account for human actions. Three, if Fate has decreed everything that happens, then Fate is blameworthy for all the evil in the world. And four, if the Universal Reason plans and executes all events, there could be no evil in the world; it would be impossible for man to disobey God’s decree; and this would erase the distinction between moral and immoral actions.

The first objection is called the lazy argument because it suggests that there is no use of doing anything, since all events are inevitable. If a student is fated to receive an A in a course, he need not study, for he will get an A anyhow; and similarly, there is no use to study if he is fated to receive an F. Unfortunately for student complacency, the contention is worthless. It assumes that the fated event occurs in isolation, outside a texture of causes and effects, just any how. But this is not the fatalistic theory. The student who has been fated to receive an A has been fated to receive an A by means of study. He does not receive his grade just any way, but only in one particular way, for the studying is fated as much as the A. The objection misrepresents fatalism by supposing that ends are fixed apart from means, but the Stoics insisted that ends and means together form an inviolable system. Strange to say, even twentieth-century opponents of determinism sometimes use this objection – a fact which is probably significant for assessing human psychology.

The second objection is also a misrepresentation. If Stoic fatalism had explained human action on the sole basis of external causes, and like modern mechanism had tried to bring conscious phenomena within the scope of physico-chemical law, the opponents could have made a good showing. But even though the Stoics were materialists, they were far removed from atomistic mechanism. Perhaps some of their more unguarded illustrations gave a wrong impression. Chrysippus is reported to have used the following: Suppose a dog to be tied to a wagon. If he wishes to follow, the wagon pulls him and he follows willingly, so that his own power unites with the force of necessity; but if he does not wish to follow, the wagon will drag him along against his will. So too mankind may follow the decrees of fate willingly or be forced to do so unwillingly. Although the illustration is picturesque, it is not too enlightening. Obviously, every man is dragged along by the wagon of history in directions he would rather not go; and even the Epicureans admitted that the future is not wholly in our power. More revealing is another of Chrysippus’ illustrations. It occurs as he discusses the force of sensory stimuli. Assent to impressions, by which we determine our conduct, cannot occur without a sense stimulus; but the sensation is not the sole cause of our action. The situation is like a cylinder and a cone that someone pushes down an inclined plane. The two bodies cannot begin to roll unless someone pushes them, and we cannot make a decision to act without assenting to a sensory impression. But having been pushed, the cylinder’s motion differs from that of the cone because of their different construction. Hence, with the external cause there is an internal cause that determines the nature of the motion. Application of the cylinder and cone was made to two men, both of whom were stimulated by the sight of a beautiful woman. One man’s character is unstable, and even though he had previously resolved to be continent, he assents to the temptation. The other man, though the same sensory excitations and incitements occur, has a disciplined reason, is confirmed in his resolve, and drives back the desire. Thus as the free swerving atoms of the Epicureans did not bring all things under man’s control, so Stoic fatalism does not remove all things from that control. Man is not at the mercy of external causes, though it might be said that he is at the mercy of himself, because his actions spring from his own character. No doubt his character has been formed by previous causes; his actions are predetermined, for he cannot violate his character, stable or unstable as the case may be; but the actions are still his, and he is continent or incontinent voluntarily.

The distinction between external and internal causes, in particular the Stoic insistence on the role of the will, introduces the reply to the third objection; and here too Stoicism escapes the accusation by its thoroughgoing consistency. Against an inconsistent determinism the objections might be devastating. The third objection was that Fate or God would be blameworthy if all events, some of which are evil, had been decreed from eternity. Or, to put it conversely, in order for man to be subject to moral blame, there can be no original plan or ultimate cause of the universe. Now, it must be noted that fate, determinism, or predestination does not deny the occurrence of voluntary actions. The proponents of free will, the Epicureans for instance, argue as if there could be no will unless it is free. But the point at issue is not the existence of will, but whether the will is free or determined. The previous illustration contrasted the voluntary act of an unstable character with the voluntary act of a man of good character. In each case, the will was the cause of the act. Breathing and digestion, and being run over by a four-horse chariot, are not voluntary acts, and in such cases there is neither praise nor blame; but resisting temptation or succumbing to it is a voluntary act, and therefore praise or blame must attach to the immediate cause of the act, namely, the will, the character, the man himself.

If the third objection complained about the evil in the world, the fourth contradicts it by denying the existence of evil: Since all events occur precisely as God has ordered them, nothing is inconsistent with his decree, and therefore everything is good. But again, this objection is based on a fallacy and a confusion. Consider insanity as an example. Every case of insanity occurs through natural laws and is in this sense rational. But insanity is not the natural condition of mankind, nor does it become desirable just because it occurs naturally. One must distinguish between the universal laws of nature and the nature of man. What is natural in the first context (and everything is), may be unnatural and evil in the second. In the first sense it is no doubt true that everything is good: God has planned, foresees, and does all things well. Even insanity contributes to the perfection of the whole. On this point the Stoics were very careful to reply to the Epicurean contention that the great amount of imperfection in nature disproves the doctrine of providence. But while immorality as well as insanity occurs by the plan of God, it does not follow that moral acts and immoral acts are indistinguishable. A horse and a lion both exist by the decree of fate, but this does not make the horse a lion. Nor, when the horse eats corn and the lion eats flesh, can it be said that God is eating. These acts are theirs, not his. Similarly, a bad man exists as God has planned, but this does not make him any the less bad. He and not God commits evil acts; these are the opposites of good acts; and as he is their cause, they must be referred to him, i.e., he is to blame for them.

One might pause here critically to consider whether or not the Stoics were entirely consistent in their replies to these objections. Since there are several forms of determinism, the possibility must be faced that one form might, while another might not, provide satisfactory replies. If the objections had been squarely based on the pantheism of the Stoics, perhaps it would have been more difficult to maintain a real distinction between good and evil actions. Epictetus says that nature never gives us any but good inclinations and that we are fragments of God. On such a premise it might well follow that all our inclinations are good rather than evil, and that, since we are parts of God, our actions are immediately actions of part of God. Now if right is defined as that which God does, then on this pantheistic basis our actions would be Logos right, and there would be no evil in the universe. Pantheism like every form of substantial monism faces difficulties in maintaining the reality of distinct things. But however it may be with pantheism and monism, teleological determinism, if combined with some sort of pluralistic existences, more easily escapes these criticisms. It is also a curious and, to the free-will Epicurean, an inexplicable fact of history that determinism, at least teleological determinism, is regularly associated with a strict and vigorous morality, while the exponents of freedom have tended to a free and easy mode of life. Certain it is that this is the contrast in antiquity.

Gordon H. Clark (2014-10-09T04:00:00+00:00). Thales to Dewey: A History of Philosophy (Kindle Locations 2890-2898). The Trinity Foundation. Kindle Edition.

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