Jos de Mul. Destiny Domesticated, or Five Not-So-Easy Ways to Tame Fate, in Frank van der Stok (ed.). Daan Paans: Letters of Utopia. Breda: The Eriskay Connection, 2013, 145-157.
Fate. Sooner or later it knocks at everyone’s door. In many different ways. It can enter our lives gradually in the guise of an incurable disease or spring on us suddenly in the guise of an unexpected oncoming car in our lane. It can befall us from the outside like a devastating tsunami, or loom up from within like an all-consuming jealousy. Fate can happen unintentionally, or be done to us – or another person – on purpose. It comes in the horrible guise of war and the intoxicating appeal of an addiction. It is painful when it happens to us, and often even more painful when it befalls someone we love. Without wanting it our frail happiness is continuously interrupted by fatal events. And even when we are lucky enough to avoid grand catastrophes in our lives, in the end we inevitably lose our loved ones and we, ourselves die. While fate inescapably befalls us we find it hard to bear that thought. It is a burden that we cannot carry, but that we also cannot shed.
Fate astounds us and raises many questions. What exactly is inevitable fate? Are we accidental victims of it or does our destiny have a reason? And if it does have a reason, then to whom or what do we owe that? And especially, how can we live with it? Many answers have been formulated to these questions throughout history, and oftentimes these were radically different. Moreover, numerous strategies have been developed to ‘tame’ fate. In a way we can even define human culture as an unremitting Domestication of Destiny.
In the history of Western culture, we can distinguish at least five strategies to tame fate. While the order in which these perspectives appear in history are not determined by some iron logic, it is not entirely random either: in some respects every later attempt is a response to and a transformation of the previous attitudes. We could label this as ‘discontinuous continuity’.
The tragic attitude towards fate, which dominated Greek culture in the fifth century BC, aims at taming (the terrifying fear of) fate by bearing it heroically. Oedipus, the prototype of the tragic hero, attempts to endure the literally disturbing alterity and exteriority of his fate by making himself fully responsible for killing his father, despite the curse on his family. In Nietzsche we find a more recent ardent defender of this heroic attitude:
My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that you don’t want anything to be different, not forwards, not backwards, not for all eternity. Not just to tolerate necessity, still less to conceal it – all idealism is hypocracy towards necessity -, but to love it.
However, Oedipus’ tragedy and the tragic ending of Nietzsche’s life show us that such a heroic acceptance of fate comes at a high price. Oedipus pokes out his eyes in desperation and Nietzsche loses himself in insanity. Many other tragic heroes also end their lives in despair or madness – Shakespeare’s King Lear is an example in case. Classic tragedies show us that even the most elevated heroes are incapable, or at least not always capable, of bearing their fate without collapsing under its weight.
It is not surprising, therefore, that already during the rationalist period of Greek philosophy, the tragic attitude was replaced by a fundamentally different one. According to Nietzsche the great reversal already took place in the fifth century BC, in the works of Plato. In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche writes that the Socratic man, the ideal presented by Plato, leaves the tragic attitude behind because he ‘believes in correcting the world through knowledge, in life led by science’. In The Fragility of Goodness Martha Nussbaum comes to a similar conclusion. According to Nussbaum Plato attempts to point the way out of the instability and contrariness of our everyday world. In fact, Nussbaum argues, he was looking for ‘goodness without fragility’. (Nussbaum 1986, 85f.) He attempts to control fate by approaching it in a strictly rational way. Tuchē (chance) should be kept in check with technē. This term is the forerunner of our concept of ‘technology’, but it has a broader meaning. It can also be translated with words such as ‘handicrafts’, ‘practical knowledge’ and ‘art’. It is used for such widely diverging capabilities as riding a horse, building houses, acting, and the art of medicine, meteorology and mathematics. In Plato’s age the word technē was even used regularly as a synonym for epistēmē, knowledge as such. For Aristotle, who had a medical background, this focus on practice is even stronger. Aristotle explains what requirements the technai should meet, if they are to fulfil their function. They should be universally applicable, they should be transferable to others, they should lend our actions precision (akribeia), and they should be based on explanations. With this practical approach Plato and Aristotle form the vanguard of the strategy that was developed in modern times. In the two intervening millennia, however, a different worldview takes centre stage, in which fate is approached in a fundamentally different way.
Just like Plato, the Christian attitude towards fate also rejects the tragic one. However, the Christian attitude is different from the Platonic one. It does not focus on controlling contingent fate so much, but rather should be understood as the negation of its existence, or at least of its contingent character. Christian teaching of providence leaves no room for chance. Everything that happens, including things that, at face value, appear to be the result of fateful chance, have a purpose in God’s predetermined plan and are therefore meaningful. This idea increases the believer’s capacity to carry his fate, particularly when eternal salvation is promised as a consolation. Whereas the Platonic strategy attempts to control fate, the Christian attitude remains closer to the tragic one in the sense that it, too, aims at accepting fate, with this difference: in this case there is no heroic, but rather a humble acceptance of fate.
It is evident that this Christian strategy might offer more consolation than the tragic attitude, although it also asks a lot from suffering man. This is all the more true for adherents to the teachings of predestination, in which believers take into account that some people are doomed to eternal damnation. Moreover, providence only offers consolation as long as there are no alternatives to choose from and it remains the only remedy against fateful chance. In the long period of the Middle Ages there simply was no other remedy but a certain kind of acceptance to protect oneself from the overwhelming forces of fate – one need only think of the massive deaths resulting from famines, epidemics and violence. Only with the rise of modern natural sciences and in the wake of modern technology were instruments developed that enabled man to no longer accept the inevitability of fateful chance.
With the rise of modern natural sciences and technology, and the ‘mechanization of the world picture’ that accompanied it, the modern attitude towards fate emerges. This attitude differs fundamentally from the tragic and the Christian one, because it does not aim at accepting fate, but rather firmly defends itself against it. Modern man aims at actively controlling fate. Modern technology offers unrivalled opportunities for this goal. He who uncovers the universal laws that govern the universe, cannot only explain events from the past and predict events in the future, but can also control these events. Diseases that were incurable before can now be cured, the growth of crops can be controlled, and the immense powers of nature can be used to satisfy our needs – possibilities that Prometheus did not even dream of.
However, in the sixteenth century, philosopher Francis Bacon did dream about these possibilities. In The New Atlantis, in which he presents his utopian vision of the future, he calls upon his contemporaries to ‘put nature on the rack’ in order to control her and make her serviceable for mankind. The (unfinished) book also contains a list of ‘Magnalia Naturae’, which can be labelled a blueprint of the age of modern technology.
The prolongation of life. The restitution of youth in some degree. The retardation of age. The curing of diseases counted incurable. The mitigation of pain. More easy and less loathsome purgings. The increasing of strength and activity. The increasing of ability to suffer torture or pain. The altering of complexions, and fatness and leanness. The altering of statures. The altering of features. The increasing and exalting of the intellectual parts. Versions of bodies into other bodies. Making of new species. Transplantating of one species into another. Instruments of destruction, as of war and poison. Exhilaration of the spirits, and putting them in good disposition. Force of the imagination, either upon another body, or upon the body itself. Acceleration of time in maturations. Acceleration of time in clarifications. Acceleration of putrefaction. Acceleration of decoction. Acceleration of germination. Making rich composts for the earth. Impressions of the air, and raising of tempests. Great alteriation; as in induration, emollition, &c. Turning crude and watery substances into oily and unctuous substances. Drawing of new food out of substances not now in use. Making new threads for apparel; and new stuffs; such as paper, glass, &c. Natural divinations. Deceptions of the senses. Greater pleasure of the senses. Artificial minerals and cements.
What is interesting is that many of the things mentioned by Bacon have actually been realized or are the subject of scientific research to this day. What is missing is immortality, but today it is the transhumanists who provide us with ideas on that subject, in their belief that this divine characteristic has come within our reach thanks to biotechnology (cloning) and information technology (downloading the human mind into the machine).
One thing is clear: in the Modern Age fate is replaced with the idea of – or perhaps better: the blind hope for – the malleability of fate. Marquard has pointedly phrased the creed of modern times: ‘Everything can be made, everything is at our disposal, everything can and must be changed, and change is always improvement.’
The modern attitude towards fate appears to reach back past the Middle Ages towards the Platonic strategy, which also aims at rational control. However, in some respects the modern attitude is also a continuation of the Christian tradition. Previously I referred to the religious origins of the deterministic perspective within the natural and social sciences. The Christian idea that the world history unfolds according to an all-encompassing plan was adopted in modern times, be it that the role of the Great Ruler was increasingly embraced by man himself. Whereas God hides himself (Deus absconditus), withdraws from ruling the world (Deus emeritus), or is declared dead by man (Nietzsche), the latter is forced, as it were, to take God’s role upon himself. The death of God invites people to take their fate into their own hands. As God created the forces of nature for his preordained plan of salvation, so modern man must use these forces to execute his own plan of salvation. Worldviews in various (idealist, positivist, scientist, Marxist and recently even ecological) styles have thrown themselves at this noble goal with fervour. And it has to be said: faith in the malleability of the world has changed much in the world over the last two centuries. Fate was confronted both boldly and briskly.
Looking at the four attitudes towards fate that we have just encountered, there appears to be an ever increasing degree of controlling fateful chance. According to Nietzsche, in our increasing control of contingency we have simultaneously lost our fear of chance to a similar degree:
Now the whole history of culture represents a waning of that fear of chance, of the uncertain, of the sudden. Culture precisely means learning to calculate, learning to think causally, learning to act preventively, learning to believe in necessity. As culture grows, man becomes able to dispense with that primitive form of subjugation to evil (known as religion or morality), that ‘justification of evil’. Now he wages war on ‘evil’ – he abolishes it.
The irony in Nietzsche’s words has only increased since the time they were written. When we look at the technological developments over the last century this irony need not surprise us. While our technological control over nature has led to some impressive successes, particularly in the twentieth century, it has also become abundantly clear that chance’s ‘evil’ is a lot harder to eradicate than we thought for a long time. Taking God’s place turned out to be less simple than we had hoped. Just like the previous attitudes towards fate, the modern one also turned out to have its downside. It soon became clear that total control over fate was a dangerous illusion. If we only look at the ecological disasters of the last century, then we realize the extent of both the unforeseen and unwanted consequences of our technical interventions in nature. Similarly, the colossal failures of fascist and communist societal experiments, which have cost the lives of millions of people, have made us thoroughly aware of the limits of political malleability.
With the rise of chaos theory, awareness has also grown within the natural sciences that the possibility of prediction, and the level of control that is based on it, is contained within strict limits. Even an ‘infinite intelligence’ is no longer believed capable of such control. And in 1793 Scottish sociologist Adam Ferguson already noted that society is ‘the result of human action, but not of human design’ (Ferguson 1966, 205). Planning, we have learned at our cost, often boils down to ‘a continuation of chaos by other means’. Fate, which was abolished by Christianity, appears to have re-entered world history through the back door. Or in the ironic words of Marquard:
In modern times, after the end of the God who was the end of fate, the official defatalization of the world is accompanied by its unofficial refatalization; or, putting it differently, the outcome of the modern disempowerment of divine omnipotence is not only the official triumph of human freedom but also the unofficial return of fate.
This unofficial return is also expressed in the emphasis that has been placed on contingent fate in contemporary philosophy. Foreshadowed by Montaigne, Dilthey, Nietzsche and Heidegger, in the works of twentieth century philosophers such as Derrida, Rorty, Nussbaum and Marquard, the contingent character of our existence is also fundamentally emphasized. While such voices cannot be called representative of our culture in general we may nevertheless conclude that the myth of malleability is losing strength of conviction and that it is increasingly viewed with scepticism and cynicism. In the past decades even the government, for the longest time a stronghold of belief in progress, has ‘receded’ and leaves more and more things to the social field of forces and the ‘free market’ – to the joy of liberals who still believe in Adam (Smith) and to the despair of the few socialists that are still left.
It appears as though our culture is once again getting ready to say goodbye to a problematic attitude towards fateful chance. At the same time we can distinguish experiments – on theoretical, political, technical, religious and aesthetical levels – with alternative approaches to chance. Since we are still in the middle of the transition from our modern faith in control and these postmodern alternatives it is difficult to make firm assertions with regard to these developments. Particularly in light of chaos theory it is dangerous to make predictions regarding the outcome of these experiments. Against the background of the history of the domestication of destiny that I have sketched, we can, however, formulate some hypotheses.
First of all, it is likely that the postmodern attitude towards fate will remain dependent on the earlier attitudes that have developed throughout the course of European history, based on the fundamental finitude of human experience. Time and again these other attitudes relied on techniques that were developed. We may expect that now, once again, it will be a transformation of the previous attitudes, rather than the development of an entirely new or different attitude. However, a return to an attitude of the past, which is advocated by conservatives, does not appear to be a real option. Let me clarify this with respect to the tragic attitude to life.
We have seen that our attitude towards technology is not devoid of the tragic. We are responsible for development that we cannot foresee, or fully control, nor fully can control, in light of our finite existence. While the modern faith in malleability is resilient, many people have gradually become aware of the tragic dimension of our existence. I mentioned Nussbaum above, who claimed that within the field of ethics we should find a new openness towards the tragic dimension of our existence.
As noted it would be an illusion to think that we can return to the tragic worldview of the Greeks. Some critics of the modern strive for control, Nietzsche and Heidegger, for instance, appeared to be led at times by a certain nostalgia with respect to that worldview. The heroic attitude, which was almost an impossible assignment even for the Greeks, is most certainly impossible for modern man, who can choose to interfere technologically in areas that were completely ruled by fate for the Greeks. In this context Nietzsche’s madness may be understood as a symbol of modern man’s inability to once again assume the tragic attitude in the classical sense of the term. Such an attitude – and Nietzsche agrees with this – is only available for the Übermensch. And in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and other works, Nietzsche makes it abundantly clear that this role befits very few people. And in his writings after the Second World War, Heidegger also abandoned the heroic attitude towards fate, which he defends in his teachings on classical tragedy in the 1930s. In his later works he chooses the much more passive attitude of resignation (Gelassenheit), which reminds us of the Christian attitude of humble acceptance.
While there appears to be a resurrection of fundamentalist religion in Europe and the United States – partially, but not only because of the rise of Islam – in the age of technology both the traditional-religious worldview and the tragic worldview do not seem to be real alternatives to the modern worldview (despite the fact that a little more humbleness would certainly suit man). The rise of fundamentalism within certain circles of Muslims and Christians is, after all, predominantly a rearguard fight in a battle that has already, on many fronts, been decided by technological culture. The idea that we could distance ourselves from available technologies seems to be an illusion. He who believes in it ignores the fundamental limitedness of our human capacity and the resilience of our blind hope with respect to future happiness. On the other hand, it is clear that in some respects the modern belief in malleability has reached its endgame. Historical eras are finite, too, and it is our destiny to keep on developing new attitudes with respect to fate.
Whichever way this new attitude may turn out to be, giving up the modern illusion of complete malleability with respect to fate will undoubtedly be very painful. Maybe we can find some comfort in the fact that chance doesn’t merely affect our disasters, but also our happiness. The complete predictability of our existence in all likelihood would also lead to fundamental boredom. To cite Nietzsche once again: ‘Indeed, there may be a state of feeling secure, of believing in law and calculability, which enters consciousness as ennui – where pleasure in chance, in the uncertain and in the sudden becomes a stimulant.’ It seems clear to me that our lives would lose much of their attraction if chance were absent from them. This does not deny the fact that fateful chance events will also inevitably keep springing up, leaving us stunned and muted. In those cases all words fail and only silence is appropriate.
This text is an adaption of parts of the Prologue and Chapter 1 of Jos de Mul’s forthcoming book Destiny Domesticated. The Rebirth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Technology. Albany: State University of New York Press, Autumn 2013.