Competing Determinisms: Boethius, Kant, and Schelling on the Relation between Fate and Providence

Reading through Kant’s excellent 1795 political essay “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch” last night, I happened across and interesting passage regarding the relation between Fate and Providence. Since this is a topic I became interested in through Schelling’s discussion of it in his 1802 Philosophy of Art, it captured my attention with exceptional force. It runs as follows:

The mechanical process of nature visibly exhibits the purposive plan of producing concord among men, even against their will and indeed by means of their very discord. This design, if we regard it as a compelling cause whose laws of operation are unknown to us, is called fate. But if we consider its purposive function within the world’s development, whereby it appears as the underlying wisdom of a higher cause, showing the way towards the objective goal of the human race and predetermining the world’s evolution, we call it providence.[1]

The italicized words are his own, so let it not be thought that I am reading any undue emphasis into his meaning. And, while its mention must be regarded as transitional, a remark made in passim, so to speak, it nonetheless reveals an interesting philosophical tradition underlying the distinction between the two forms of determinism. According to this tradition, Fate operates efficiently/ætiologically (as a causa efficiens), while Providence functions purposively/teleologically (as a causa finalis). This difference was first introduced to discursive prominence by the sixth-century philosopher Boethius, who in his masterpiece The Consolation of Philosophy writes that

[t]he generation of all things, and the whole course of mutable natures and of whatever is in any way subject to change, take their causes, order, and forms from the unchanging mind of God. This divine mind established the manifold rules by which all things are governed while it remained in the secure castle of its own simplicity. When this government is regarded as belonging to the purity of the divine mind, it is called Providence; but when it is considered with reference to the things which it moves and governs, it has from very early times been called Fate.[2]

In other words, viewing the determination of objects and persons, from the standpoint of Fate, their sequence seems wholly natural, impersonal. Conversely, its interpretation as an effect of Providence would have the succession proceed in a spiritual, personal manner.

An important reminder must be issued in reference to one of the greater subtleties of this distinction, however. This concerns the recognizability of the legal character by which Fate impersonally operates. I raised this issue in my essay on Schelling’s notion of the tragically sublime. For Fate’s compulsions do not appear to us as following from a uniform pattern of causal laws, by which we could sensibly establish its character as a law of nature. Rather, it is intelligible only as a regulative causa noumenon (Providence would also have to be regarded in this manner), the constitution of which we can form no positive judgment. This is perhaps the reason underlying the ancients’ common description of Fate as “blind” and “capricious.” Obviously, this has implications within Kant’s philosophy, in which the division between phenomena and noumena is foundational. Schelling, who along with the other post-Kantian idealists would reject this separation, would simply describe the phenomenal character of empirical laws of nature as “relative” or “conditioned” and the noumenal character fatal/providential laws as “absolute” or “unconditioned.”

This brings us to our final point of consideration. It offers an interesting resolution to a rather obscure remark of Schelling’s in his Philosophy of Art — that “[f]ate…is a form of providence, except that it is intuited within the real, just as providence is fate intuited in the ideal.”[3] Aligning the apparent antinomy of the real and the ideal as corresponding to the opposition of nature and spirit, the reason behind Schelling’s reciprocal inversion becomes clear. Fate and providence are indeed two sides of the same coin, and each compliments its other by providing its negative definition. Fate is determination according to the purely efficient rules of nature, however inscrutable its ordinances might appear. It thus manifests itself cyclically. Providence, on the other hand, is determination according to divinely purposive plan of the supreme Spirit (the archetypal intellect, or intellectus archetypus, as Kant would have it). It delineates itself historically. Schelling sought to use this distinction to explain an overarching distinction he makes in his philosophy of history. He contended that the understanding of transcendent determination as Fate is a defining feature of antiquity (the Greek epoch), while its conception as Providence is characteristic of modernity (the Christian era and beyond). On the correctness of this point I can make no judgment. Nevertheless, I hope to have shown that he had ample ground for drawing this distinction in the long tradition of philosophy, and not least in the thought of his immediate predecessor, Kant.

[1] Immanuel Kant. “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch.” From Kant’s Political Writings. Translated by H.B. Nisbet; edited, introduced, and annotated by Hans Reiss. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 1979). Pg. 108.

[2] Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated, introduced, and annotated by Richard Green. (The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. New York, NY: 1962). Pg. 91.

[3] Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling. Philosophy of Art. Translated, edited, and introduced by Douglas W. Stott, with a foreword by David Simpson. (University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis, MN: 1989). Pg. 61.

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