The ancient Stoics were determinists, believing in universal cause and effect. Indeed, Chrysippus — we are told by Diogenes Laertius — wrote extensively about the concept of causality. In a sense, then, they also believed in “fate,” and in fact modern Stoics formulate the so-called reserve clause that accompanies any of their plans for the future with “fate permitting.” Some of their critics came out with something called “the lazy argument” to show that if things are fated then one doesn’t actually need to do anything other than sit around and wait for things to happen. The reason this is relevant to modern Stoicism is that, as we have seen even recently, part of the harsh criticism our philosophy is getting these days is based on the (fallacious) assumption that it leads one to disengage from social and political life. So, let’s see what exactly the lazy argument consists of, and how Chrysippus himself responded to it. I will then distinguish two senses of the word “fate,” only one of which would be recognized by the Stoics.

Here is a form of the argument, as presented by Origen, in Against Celsus (II.20):

“If it is fated that you will recover from this illness, then, regardless of whether you consult a doctor or you do not consult [a doctor] you will recover. But also: if it is fated that you won’t recover from this illness, then, regardless of whether you consult a doctor or you do not consult [a doctor] you won’t recover. But either it is fated that you will recover from this illness or it is fated that you won’t recover. Therefore it is futile to consult a doctor.”

You can see why it is called the “lazy” argument… Here, by contrast, is Chrysippus’ response, as reported by Eusebius, in his Praeparatio Evangelica (VI.8), though an earlier presentation of it is found in Cicero’s On Fate (28-29):

“The non-destruction of one’s coat is not fated simply, but co-fated with its being taken care of, and someone’s being saved from his enemies is co-fated with his fleeing those enemies; and having children is co-fated with being willing to lie with a woman. … For many things cannot occur without our being willing and indeed contributing a most strenuous eagerness and zeal for these things, since, he says, it was fated for these things to occur in conjunction with this personal effort. … But it will be in our power with what is in our power being included in fate.”

What Chrysippus is saying is that the lazy argument somehow focuses on the ultimate outcome of a series of actions, mistakenly attributing only the former, but somehow not the latter, to fate. But fate — in the sense of the universal web of cause and effect — acts all the times, everywhere, nothing excepted. So it makes no sense to say that my health will improve because it is “fated” to do so, regardless of whether I do or do not go to the doctor, follow her suggestions, take my medicines, and so forth.

The lazy argument reminds me of an Italian saying and an accompanying joke. The saying is “aiutati che Dio ti aiuta,” which translates to “help yourself, because God is helping you.” The joke is about this guy whose house gets flooded by a natural disaster. He climbs on the roof of the house and begins to pray to God to be saved. After a few minutes, a boat comes by and people shout to him to get on board. He refuses, saying that he has faith in God, who will save him. A few more minutes pass, and a helicopter nears the house. The man is once again offered help, and he once more refuses it, explaining that he has faith in God, who will save him. Naturally, the guy eventually drowns. He then goes to Heaven and, rather disturbed, asks God why He didn’t save him, despite his prayers and his faith. God looks at him and says: “well, first I sent a boat; then a helicopter; what else did you need?”

Another way to understand the difference between those supporting the lazy argument and those rejecting it is to consider the different ways in which they may be thinking of “fate.” As I’ve argued, for the Stoics the word refers simply to the natural and universal web of cause and effect. (Yes, the Stoics believed in Providence, but this was yet another name for whatever the universe = God would do. It is true, however, that especially in Epictetus there is a sense that the universe works in a way that is, broadly speaking, rational. That is not because it follows some kind of overall plan laid out by a creator God, but rather because the universe, for the Stoics, is a living being animated by the Logos. But that’s another story.)

A different way of conceiving of fate is implied in Sophocles’ famous tragedy, Oedipus Rex, first performed in 429 BCE. In the story, Oedipus is “fated” to kill his father, Laius, and marry his mother, Jocasta. Having been told of this in a prophecy, Oedipus actively tries to avoid his fate, but unwittingly ends up doing exactly what the prophecy predicted.

In Oedipus fate is portrayed as concerning only the ultimate outcome of a sequence of actions, regardless of the individual actions themselves. The tragic character is bound to end up killing his father and marrying his mother no matter what he does. But the Stoics — rightly, I think — thought that this concept of fate is incoherent, precisely because cause and effect relations have to work all the way through in order to provide any outcome whatsoever.

Indeed, Sophocles’ idea of fate seems to rely on a (malicious, in this case) plan of the gods, who arrange things in such a way that Oedipus will fulfill his preordained destiny regardless of his will to do so. He is deluded that he can avoid it, but in fact he is simply a puppet in the hands of larger forces that will inexorably destroy him.

For the Stoics, instead, we are in charge of what we do, not in the sense that somehow we can transcend cause and effect, but precisely because our decisions and actions are an integral part of the causal web. It is a remarkably sophisticated and modern view of human decision making and action