Monday, February 16, 2015


Pieter D'Hoine, Gerd Van Riel (ed.), Fate, Providence and Moral Responsibility in Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Thought. Studies in Honour of Carlos Steel. Ancient and Medieval Philosophy – Series 1. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2014. Pp. xiv, 786. ISBN 9789058679703. €140.00.

Reviewed by Peter Lautner, Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Piliscsaba-Budapest (

Version at BMCR home site


The book is a well-arranged collection of papers, many of which were delivered at a conference in November 2010 to mark the occasion of Carlos Steel's retirement. The 37 essays that make up the volume deserve much more scrutiny that can be provided in the present context. I will therefore confine myself to a quick survey, highlighting one or two aspects of some of the contributions dealing with ancient philosophy, and raising a few questions that might be worthy of further consideration.

Part 1 deals with theories in Plato and Aristotle, with Couloubaritsis' paper discussing the appearance of the notion of divine providence in Diogenes of Apollonia and the Derveni papyri. He concludes that Diogenes considers Intelligence the necessary condition for regularity in nature (with reference to fr. 6), and the papyri ascribe this role to Zeus, identified with the active forces in the universe, and emphasize the moral responsibility of the initiated.

Nowadays, the myth of Er is attracting more and more interpreters. Small wonder, then, that we find here two papers examining the moral of the story. Destrée concentrates on the apparent contradiction between Lachesis' speech emphasizing human responsibility and, on Proclus' reading (in Remp. II. 291.23-4), Thyestes' choice (619b), which seems to be determined. With reference to Timaeus 87b, Destrée points out that Plato opens the possibility that our reasoning faculty (λογιστικόν) may amend the initial disadvantages that are due to nature. True responsibility for choices can be ascribed only to those who exercise that faculty. The author also answers objections that can be raised against his restrictive interpretation. Dissenting from Destrée's approach on this point, Delcomminette focuses on the choice of character. He uses the distinction between freedom of choice and responsibility to show that the latter does not imply the former. Responsibility refers to the cause of an action, whereas liberty characterizes actions that we perform deliberately.1 Only actions are rewarded or punished. The choice of life-forms is free only if it is the choice of a philosopher whose soul is well-governed, autonomous and not driven by external forces.

The survival of the Platonic notion of providence in Aristotle is the subject of Dudley's paper. He traces elements of Plato's theory on the world-soul in Aristotle's notion of final causality and the unmoved mover, and argues for the existence of a soul-principle which pervades Aristotelian matter. J. Müller asks whether Aristotle was an ethical determinist. His answer is negative. After having distinguished various modes of ethical determinism, he points out that Aristotle refutes the Socratic thesis that our actions correspond to our practical knowledge, expresses serious reservations about the view that our moral character is not up to us but completely shaped by our inborn dispositions, and provides evidence against the doctrine that every event is causally necessitated by antecedent states and events and that only one future is possible at any moment.2

Part 2 is devoted to doctrines elaborated in the Hellenistic and early imperial period. De Haas compares the presuppositions for moral action in Aristotle and Alexander of Aphrodisias. He argues that the Alexander's innovations in moral theory are on a par with his more famous novelties in the theory of the soul, and that the innovations in the latter can be explained with reference to his concerns in ethics. Relying on Alexander's De anima 68.28-69.3, he claims that Alexander removes phantasia from any kind of physiological chain of causation and makes it an independent and autonomous power, which thus meets the basic condition of morality. Algra focuses on the reception of the Stoic theory of providence in Plutarch, especially in the De Stoicorum repugnantiis, which itself contains a striking discrepancy: on the one hand the text contains valuable quotations from Chrysippus which may help us reconstruct the Stoic position; on the other hand, however, Plutarch's paraphrases are fairly unreliable due to the fact that he saw these views through a Middle Platonic lens. Opsomer examines ps.-Plutarch's De fato with respect to the doctrine of conditional fate in Middle Platonism. According to Opsomer's reading, fate does not lose its law-like character, although the law it expresses is not the law of nature with its deterministic overtones but the law of the state, which is a prescription. Hence it may seem that fate also extends to individuals. However, the distinction between 'being in fate' (being in the range of fate) and 'according to fate' (being actually fated) explains why human conduct cannot be wholly predetermined. Fate determines physical events, while human choice may be outside of its range. Part 3 deals with Plotinus. Brisson discusses the status of evil in the world. With reference to Enn. III.2.18, he argues that providence can make use of evil without being responsible for it. Evil resides in negative causality; it is a form as λόγος that arranges matter, whereas matter exerts a counter-causality of form that weakens its power (II.8.8). As for the primordial weakness of the particular souls, Plotinus distinguishes tragic fault from original sin (III.2.10; IV.8.5) in order to show that that individual human soul is responsible not for its original weakness, but for insufficient effort to get rid of everything bodily.

The Timaeus is a basic text for all Platonists in antiquity, and Chiaradonna examines Plotinus' approach to it, concentrating on his account of the soul, mathematics and providence. Plotinus uses metaphorical solutions to explain away the contradiction between his own views and Plato's. For example, the Demiurge is presented as having λογισμός (Tim. 33a; 34b), but Plotinus rules out any rational planning or calculation at the level of intelligible principles. As he says (VI.7.1.28-32), the impression of planning is due to our perspective. In general, it is stressed that Plotinus employs hylemorphic notions in interpreting the Timaeus.

Linguti argues that for Plotinus choice is only a preliminary and imperfect stage of freedom. Freedom is rooted in the association of rational self-determination and voluntary action, the only one which is truly up to us (III.1.9). The concept of 'what is up to us', however, refers exclusively to theoretical activity.

Part 4 is given over to the Neoplatonic commentators. Dillon asks if the gods of Neoplatonism really care. The answer requires an analysis of Plotinus III.3, V.5 and VI.7, as well as Iamblichus' De myst. I and his letters to Macedonius and Poemenius. The conclusion is that, even if the universe exhibits a teleological structure eternally arranged in a strictly impersonal way, at the level of religious discourse it allows for personalizing divine providence to whom we may pray. Van den Berg offers a comparative study on the notion of inherited guilt and postponed punishment in Plutarch and Proclus, the latter being very much indebted to Syrianus. On Proclus' threefold justification of inherited guilt (in Crat.): (1) as just souls we maybe punished for the deed of the unjust because there is a σύνταξις of souls; (2) we also have a share in the guilt of our predecessors since we originate from physically; and (3) the external goods we inherit may also come from the crime of our ancestors. It can be objected that we do not choose our family or character. Plutarch responds (De sera 559A-562D) that lack of choice does not imply that Providence can allow the situation to prevail, and hence our lack of choice does not licence us to blame external circumstances, whereas Proclus says (Dubitationes 59-61) that we are not born into that family without reason; we are punished because we committed crime in the previous life.3

Helmig and Vargas discuss theurgy, and focus on the connection between freedom and the highest rank of virtue, paradigmatic virtue. Appropriation of such virtue does not displace philosophy, rather it goes beyond it. At the end of the line, Olympiodorus comes to identify paradigmatic virtue with theurgical virtue (in Phd. 8.2), and we can see that theurgy plays a complementary role with regard to philosophy. Layne analyses Proclus' account in his in Alc. I of Socrates' association with Alcibiades. Proclus regards their affair as a perfect paradigm of the roles of providence and faith in human life: Socrates purified the boy from a life solely devoted to external goods, i.e. fate; but Alcibiades chose never to turn inward, to become philosopher; he could have done it because his soul became suited to the life of a philosopher. For this reason, he is to be blamed for that choice.

Lernould examines Proclus' interpretation of Timaeus 29e1-30c2 and his notion of the threefold structure of demiurgic causation: goodness, willing and providence. The structure exhibits relations of dependency insofar as will depends on goodness, just as providence depends on will (in Tim. I. 412). Goodness is the primary feature of the gods (i.e. divine henads), and the final principle of all that is. Goodness must characterize the philosopher if he wants to resemble the god as far as it is possible for human beings.

Roskam inquires into the structure of Hermias of Alexandria's views on Socrates' divine sign, and finds it fairly similar to Proclus' description in his in Alc. I. Through an explanation of in Phaedr. 69, which is on divine messages, he also shows that Hermias' interpretation is not fully thought-out, at least compared to Proclus' analysis.

Gabor compares Simplicius' discussion of 'what is up to us' to Epictetus' conception and connects it to the problem of how a philosopher may consult divination. He draws attention to Simplicius' limitation of divination to things that are not up to us, which contradicts not only Epictetus but also Proclus' proposal in De prov. 37.

Part 5 is devoted to Patristics and Byzantine philosophy. Moreschini discusses Gregory of Nyssa's polemics against determinism. Gregory stresses that free will depends on God's creation of man and sometimes, in Contra fatum, uses traditional pagan arguments. Macé offers a new edition of a fragment of a certain Against astronomers, attributed to Gregory of Nazianzus by the previous editor, Matthäi. The text connects the issue to the doctrine of four humors. Trizio examines the revival of the late antique dispute over matter as the principle of evil in John of Italus' Quaestio 92, where we find a wholesale dismissal of the various pagan views. Van Deun and Gielen also edit a text on predetermination written by the λογοθέτης Constantine († 1602/3) who heavily draws on Anastasius of Sinaita's Quaestiones et responsiones, especially on question 23a.

Part 6 is concerned with the Arabic tradition. De Smet discusses the notion of providence in the treatise Epistola ad animam de fuga attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, but preserved in Arabic, and he points out that the Muslim author follows Neoplatonic patterns. Janssens deals with Avicenna's notion of providence in the best of all possible worlds and compares it to Leibniz' views, insisting on important similarities. Providence, in Averroes this time, is discussed by Taylor as well, with the conclusion that this philosopher maintained the same doctrine throughout his works, although the Incoherence of Incoherence is more sensitive to religious concerns.

Parts 7 and 8 are about Medieval Latin philosophy and early modern thought respectively. Alas, it is beyond my competence to discuss the contributions in those parts appropriately.

To sum up, unlike many Festschriften, the volume is very well organized thematically. It also contains an extensive bibliography and two indices, of ancient and modern authors.


1.   The distinction is borrowed from Susanne Bobzien's Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy (Oxford UP, 1998); she applies it to conceptions in the Stoa and Middle Platonism.
2.   As for the question whether our moral character is up to us and, if it is, to what extent, one may draw attention to an alternative explanation stressing the degrees of responsibility. See P. Destrée, 'Aristotle on responsibility for one's character', in M. Pakaluk and G. Pearson (eds.), Moral Psychology and Human Action in Aristotle (Oxford UP, 2013), 285-318.
3.   It invites reference to the myth of Er, discussed by Proclus in the sixteenth essay of his in Remp., and questions about how far the choice for a new way life is conditioned by previous sojourns in this world and on the role of reward and punishment in the afterlife.

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