The city of God

The City of God: Book 5: Chapters 7-9

Chapter 7

Why, then, should anyone put up with the pretense of the astrologers that fates are fixed to the days we choose for certain actions. Yet, I suppose, the philosopher who picked and chose the moment for cohabiting with his wife acted on the assumption that he was not himself well enough born to have a fine son, but the sort of person likely to beget a scatterbrain. He made for himself a destiny which he lacked, and from that moment something became fated which was not in his stars. A fine bit of folly! A day is chosen for marriage, on the ground, I suppose, that without such a choice the day might be inauspicious and he be unhappily married.

In that case, what becomes of what the stars determined at the moment of his birth? Can a man change, by the choice of a day, a fate already fixed for him? If so, why cannot the fate fixed by the choice of a day be changed by still some other power? And, if human beings alone are subject to the stars and not the rest of the things under the sun, why do men choose the days for planting vines or trees or hedges in one way, and the days for breaking in horses or bringing in the stallion or bull for breeding purposes, and so on, in some other way? If one imagines that the choosing of such days has any efficacy in these matters, on the ground that everything on earth, living and non-living, is determined by the position of the stars, then let the star-gazers recall the vast number of beings that begin or are born at any one moment of time, yet turn out very differently from one another, and he will realize how ridiculous even to a child such watching of the stars would be. On the other hand, no one is so senseless as to declare that every tree, plant, beast, serpent, bird, fish, and worm has each its own individual moment of coming to be.

Yet, there are people who, often enough, try out the skill of astrologers by bringing to them the horoscopes of dumb animals, the precise moment of whose birth they have noted with care. And, of course, those are ranked above the rest as astrologers who can tell from the inspection of a horoscope that it was that of a beast and not of a man. Some of them make bold to guess what kind of animal is in question, whether it is for wool-bearing or for cart-pulling or for the plow or for the guarding of the house. They try to tell the fortune of dogs, and their predictions are hailed with enthusiastic applause. Thus, people can be mad enough to believe that, when a human being is born, all other births come to such a standstill that not even a fly can be born in that neighborhood at that same moment. For, once they admit that flies can be born; they will be led little by little from flies to camels and elephants.

Such people fail to remark that, on the day chosen for sowing, innumerable seeds fall into the ground at the same moment and grow together and sprout and shoot, and the stalks grow and ripen and turn white at the same time; yet, of the ears which are, so to speak, cogerminal, some rot, others are eaten by birds, others are plucked by men. How can anyone pretend that for each of these different outcomes there must be assigned a different constellation?

You would think that the fatalists would repent of choosing days for dumb creatures, recognizing that they are not subject to the decrees of the sky. In that case, the only creatures left for them to subject to the stars would be the only creatures on earth to whom God has given free wills!

My conclusion from all this is that we are right in believing that when astrologers hit, as they often do, on some correct predictions, this is not the conclusion from some non-existent science of horoscope observation, but is done by the promptings of evil spirits, whose business it is to persuade men, and keep them persuaded, of the false and dangerous opinion that men’s destinies are settled by the stars.

Chapter 8

There are some, however, who define fate, not as the arrangement of stars at conception, birth, or other beginning-to-be, but as the total series of causes which brings about all that happens. With these, there is no need to enter into a lengthy debate on the use of words, since they attribute to the will and power of God the order and dependence of causes. They are perfectly right in believing that God allows nothing to remain unordered and that He knows all things before they come to pass. He is the Cause of all causes, although not of all choices.
It is easy to prove that by Fate they mean, primarily, the will of the supreme God whose power cannot be prevented from reaching everywhere. It was Annaeus Seneca, I think, who wrote in verse:

Lead where Thou wilt, Father and Lord of the world.
Mine to obey, boldly, without delay.
Should e’er my will resist the right and good,
I’ll take in tears whatever ill may come.
Fate leads or drags men—willy-nilly—on.

Obviously, in the last line he means by fate the will of the ‘Father and Lord’ mentioned in the first line. This will he is ready to obey—to be led willingly or, if need be, dragged reluctantly. The fact is that ‘Fate leads or drags men—willy-nilly—on.’
There is the same idea in some lines of Homer which Cicero, when he put them into Latin, took to mean:

Men’s minds are led by whatsoever rays
High Jove has cast upon their earthly ways.

Not, of course, that Cicero thought the poet’s opinion has any authority in such matters, but he notes that the Stoic philosophers used to cite these lines of Homer when they were defending the power of fate. Thus, there is question here, not of the opinion of the poet, but of the thought of the philosopher. It is clear from these verses, which they used in their discussions, that they meant by fate the supreme divinity, whom they called Jupiter, and from whom all destinies depend.

Chapter 9

Cicero attempts to refute these Stoics, but he can find no way of doing so without getting rid of divination; this he does by denying all knowledge of what is future. He makes every effort to prove that there can be no foreknowledge, whether in God or in man, and, therefore, no possibility of prediction. Thus, he denies the foreknowledge of God and seeks to get rid even of the clearest cases of prophecy by baseless arguments and by limiting himself to such oracles as are easy to refute. The fact is that he does not confute even these. However, he makes a masterly refutation of the conjectures of the astrologers—for the simple reason that their mutual contradictions are their best refutation.
Nevertheless, for all their sidereal fates, the astrologers are nearer the truth than Cicero with his denial of all knowledge of the future, for it is plain nonsense for a man to admit that God exists and then to deny that He can know the future. Cicero realized this, but was rash enough to fulfill the words of the Scripture: ‘The fool has said in his heart: There is no God.’ It is true, he does not do this in his own name. This, he knew, was too risky. Instead, in his work On the Nature of the Gods he lets Cotta play the role, in arguing against the Stoics, of denying the existence of any divine nature. Cicero chose to give his vote to Lucilius Balbus, who defended the Stoic position, but, in his work On Divination, Cicero openly and in his own name attacks all foreknowledge of the future.

It is true, he seems to do this only to save free will and to reject the necessity of fate. His point is that, once any knowledge of the future is admitted, it is logically impossible to deny fate.

But, be these tortuous strifes and disputations of the philosophers what they will, we who profess belief in the supreme and true God confess, likewise, His will, His supreme power, His foreknowledge. Nor are we dismayed by the difficulty that what we choose to do freely is done of necessity, because He whose foreknowledge cannot be deceived foreknew that we would choose to do it. This was the fear that made Cicero oppose foreknowledge. It was this fear, too, that led the Stoics to admit that not everything happened of necessity, even though they held that everything happens by fate.

Let us examine, then, this fear of foreknowledge which led Cicero to attempt to deny it in his detestable disputation. He argues thus. If all that is future is foreknown, each event will occur in the order in which it is foreknown that it will occur. But, if things happen in this order, the order of things is known for certain in the mind of God who foreknows them. But, if the order of events is known for certain, then the order of causes is known for certain—since nothing can happen without a preceding efficient cause. If, however, the order of causes, by which all that happens is known for certain, then, he says, all that happens happens by fate. But, if this is so, nothing is left to our own power and, therefore, there is no choice in our will. But, he goes on, once we admit this, all human life becomes topsy-turvy; laws are made in vain; there is no point in reproaches or in praise, in scolding or in exhortation; there is no ground in justice for rewarding the good or punishing the wicked.

Thus, his motive for rejecting foreknowledge of the future was to avoid unworthy, absurd and dangerous implications for human society. He narrows down the choices of a devout mind to one or other of these alternatives: either the power of choice or foreknowledge. It seemed to him impossible that both could exist. If one stands, the other falls. If we choose foreknowledge, we lose free choice; if we choose free choice, we must lose knowledge of the future.

Magnanimous and learned as he was, and with no thought but to save human nature as best he could, Cicero made his choice. He chose free choice. To make it certain, he denied foreknowledge. Thus, to make men free, he made them give up God.

A man of faith wants both. He professes both and with a devout faith he holds both firmly. But how, one asks? For, if there is foreknowledge of the future, logical step follows logical step until we reach a point where nothing is left in the will. On the other hand, if we start from power in the will, the steps lead in the opposite direction until we come to the conclusion that foreknowledge is non-existent. This is how the reverse argument runs. If there is free choice, not all is fixed by fate. If not all is fixed by fate, there is no certain order of all causes. If there is no certain order of causes, there is no certain order of events known in the mind of God, since events cannot happen without preceding and efficient causes. If the order of events is not certain in the foreknowledge of God, not all things happen as He foresaw they would happen. But, if all does not happen as He foresaw it would happen, then, Cicero argues, in God there is no foreknowledge of all that is to happen.

Our stand against such bold and impious attacks on God is to say that God knows all things before they happen; yet, we act by choice in all those things where we feel and know that we cannot act otherwise than willingly. And yet, so far from saying that everything happens by fate, we say that nothing happens by fate—for the simple reason that the word ‘fate’ means nothing. The word means nothing, since the only reality in the mind of those who use the word—namely, the arrangement of the stars at the moment of conception or birth—is, as we show, pure illusion.

We do not deny, of course, an order of causes in which the will of God is all-powerful. On the other hand, we do not give this order the name fate, except in a sense in which the word ‘fate’ is derived from fari, to speak. For, of course, we cannot reject what is written in Holy Scripture: ‘God hath spoken once, these two things have I heard, that power belongeth to God and mercy to Thee, O Lord, for Thou wilt render to everyone according to his works.’ The ‘once’ here means ‘once and for all.’ God spoke once and for all because He knows unalterably all that is to be, all that He is to do. In this way, we might use the word ‘fate’ to mean what God has ‘spoken’ [fatum], except that the meaning of the word has already taken a direction in which we do not want men’s minds to move.

However, our main point is that, from the fact that to God the order of all causes is certain, there is no logical deduction that there is no power in the choice of our will. The fact is that our choices fall within the order of the causes which is known for certain to God and is contained in His foreknowledge—for, human choices are the causes of human acts. It follows that He who foreknew the causes of all things could not be unaware that our choices were among those causes which were foreknown as the causes of our acts.

In this matter it is easy enough to refute Cicero by his own admission, namely, that nothing happens without a preceding efficient cause. It does not help him to admit that nothing happens without a cause and then to argue that not every cause is fated, since some causes are either fortuitous or natural or voluntary. He admits that nothing happens without a preceding cause; that is enough to refute him.

As for the causes which are called fortuitous—hence, the name of fortune—we do not say they are unreal. We say they are latent, in the sense that they are hidden in the will either of the true God or one of His spirits. And, of course, still less do we dissociate from the will of Him who is the Author and Builder of all nature, the causes which Cicero calls ‘natural.’ There remain the voluntary causes. They are the choices of God or of angels or of men or of certain animals—if, indeed we may call ‘choices’ the instinctive movements of irrational animals by which they seek or avoid what is good or bad for their nature. By the choices of angels I mean those of the good ones we call the angels of God or of the wicked ones we call demons or the angels of the Devil. So of men, there are the choices of good men and of bad men.

From this we conclude that the only efficient causes of all things are voluntary causes, that is to say, causes of the same nature as the spirit or breath of life. Of course, the air or wind can be said to breathe; but, being a body, it is not the breath or spirit of life. The Spirit of Life, which gives life to all and is the Creator of all matter and of every created spirit is God, a Spirit, indeed, but uncreated. In His will is the supreme power which helps the good choices of created spirits, judges the evil ones, and orders all of them, giving powers to some and not to others.
As He is the Creator of all natures, so is He the giver of all powers—though He is not the maker of all choices. Evil choices are not from Him, for they are contrary to the nature which is from Him. Thus, bodies are subject to wills. Some bodies are subject to our wills—to the wills of all mortal animals, but especially those of men rather than of beasts. Some bodies are subject to the wills of angels. And absolutely all bodies are subject to the will of God; as, indeed, are all wills, too, since they have no power save what He gave them.

Thus, God is the Cause of all things—a cause that makes but is not made. Other causes make, but they are themselves made—for example, all created spirits and, especially, rational spirits. Material causes which are rather passive than active are not to be included among efficient causes, for their power is limited to what the wills of spirits work through them.

It does not follow, therefore, that the order of causes, known for certain though it is in the foreknowing mind of God, brings it about that there is no power in our will, since our choices themselves have an important place in the order of causes.

And so, let Cicero argue with those who hold that this order of causes is fixed by fate, or, rather, is the reality they call fate. Our main objection is to the word fate, which is usually given a false sense. As for Cicero, we object to him even more than the Stoics do when he denies that the order of all causes is fixed and clearly known in the foreknowledge of God. Cicero must either deny that God exists—and this, in fact, is what he attempts to do in the name of Cotta in his work On the Nature of the Gods—or else, if he admits God’s existence while denying His foreknowledge, what he says amounts to nothing more than what ‘the fool hath said in his heart: There is no God.’ The fact is that one who does not foreknow the whole of the future is most certainly not God.

Our conclusion is that our wills have power to do all that God wanted them to do and foresaw they could do. Their power, such as it is, is a real power. What they are to do they themselves will most certainly do, because God foresaw both that they could do it and that they would do it and His knowledge cannot be mistaken. Thus, if I wanted to use the word ‘fate’ for anything at all, I should prefer to say that ‘fate’ is the action of a weak person, while ‘choice’ is the act of the stronger man who holds the weak man in his power, rather than to admit that the choice of our will is taken away by that order of causes which the Stoics arbitrarily call fate.

Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII

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