The lazy argument, determinism, and the concept of fate

LazinessThe 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.


14 thoughts on “The lazy argument, determinism, and the concept of fate

  1. danielpaulmarshall

    Massimo what would a Stoic have to say about dreaming something & then in the future it actual happening. i kept a dream journal for years. many years ago i worked in a restaurant & one day i walked into the cutlery cleaning section behind the bar & had deja vu that i had seen the girl in that light, polishing cutlery, her figure, hair everything. i went home flicked 4 months previously in my journal to the entry where i describe my movements & the girl, her clothes everything as i saw her. the oddest thing was that 4 month previous the restaurant wasn’t open, the girl i had never met, she came from another town & the owners too i didn’t know. i’ve never been able to explain this. such a mundane repeat but very affecting. what do you think?


  2. Massimo Post author


    Well, I’m not sure the Stoics would have anything specific to say about deja vu. So long as something is the result of the cosmic web of cause and effect, so be it. It has no direct bearing, as far as I could tell, with either the practice of virtue or the dichotomy of control.

    That said, as a scientist — and respecting of course your own experience — I tend to be skeptical. My take on it is pretty much this:

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Kenneth Sundby


    Althought you asked Massimo, but I have given myself permission to also add my thoughts about this;

    Personally I do not believe in fate or any such things, but I do however believe that if you somehow knew absolutely everything that is in the universe for even a moment (all matter, motivation, thought, feelings etc.) – even just for a microsecond – then it would be possible to predict the future, at least a small time forward.

    Continuing this thought I could perhaps also believe that your dreaming mind could tap into this.

    I am not really sure if I am willing to make that leap yet 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Julie Nantais (@jn_galaxynerd)

    A 21st Century remake of “The Time Machine” reminds me of the Stoic concept of Fate as described here. The main character builds a time machine to try to save his dead girlfriend in the past, only to find her death to be hard-fated “Oedipus Rex”-style: whatever he does to save her, something else comes along to kill her all over again. The past cannot be changed in any important way, probably because he needed her death to be inspired to invent the time machine in the first place – to make the present what it is. However, in his search for answers in the future, he eventually develops the insight that the future is co-fated with certain present moral actions, and so is able to save his new girlfriend and her family from the “default future” of being destroyed by a physically and morally distorted subspecies of humanity. So, the lesson is to appreciate how the past made the present possible, and appreciate our ability to influence the future, a lesson that I didn’t realize back then was Stoic.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. theprokopton

    Hi Massimo,

    Great post as usual. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts about the following article.

    They talk about the lazy argument as well, instead of going with the co-fated response they go with the Justice response, which is what comes to my mind first as well.

    Funny enough, I feel like I just had an epiphany as to why it is called the lazy argument. I always considered it “lazy” because I believe that it was not very well thought out, and was based on a superficial understanding of Stoic philosophy, as well as cause and effect. I now realize it could also be taken as calling the Stoic lazy from a fatalist perspective, since they will be moved to inaction.

    Anyways, back to the Dark Days article. I like that the authors seem to have gotten past the most common misunderstandings of Stoicism as a philosophy. My main issue is with the point toward the end of their article where they state:

    “So it seems that that Stoicism’s renaissance during these dark days is unlikely to do any good. In order for Stoicism to equip us to endure in bad times, we must adopt it when times are good. But, of course, when things are going well, who has time for such stark philosophy?”

    Perhaps they have a misunderstanding of preferred indifferents? Or maybe they think that simply because a Stoic does not consider something to be good, they are not allowed to enjoy it at all? I do not think that Stoicism is at all as stark as they believe. How would you respond here?


  6. Massimo Post author


    Right, I saw that article and pretty much reacted as you did. On the one hand, it was refreshing to see a decent criticism of Stoicism (as opposed to the recent ramblings of Sandy Grant: On the other hand it seems entirely a non sequitur to claim that a philosophy that is useful in dark times somehow is in trouble when the times are good.

    As you suggest, this may result from a misunderstanding of the preferred indifferents, ro from insufficient attention to the various passages (for instance in Seneca) where the Stoics very clearly state that there is nothing wrong not just with the avoidance of pain, but with the pursuit of pleasure — so long, of course, as it doesn’t get in the way of the practice of virtue.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Massimo Post author


    That’s one way to interpret the Logos, but I don’t see why it is the only one. Einstein’s “god” is another one, and it consists in nothing but the observation that nature is organized according to rationally intelligible principles. I don’t see any reason to go further than that.


  8. Bite-Size Dhamma

    I’m far from an expert in stoics, but as I understood it the stoics were not proponents of pre-determination, just determination. Believing things don’t arise in and of themselves, but of a determining cause. To me this is very different from what most modern people would think of when they hear the word ‘fate’. Sitting back and waiting suggests a belief in a pre-determined outcome, but I understand the stoics were believers of cause and effect and knowing they are one element in the ’cause’ and inherited part of the ‘effect’ I can’t imagine they would sit idly to await whatever befell them.

    Or have I understood it incorrectly? It’s quite possible.


  9. danielpaulmarshall

    Massimo: i am very skeptical myself, but i also cannot ignore the experience. i put it down to coincidence all the time, but the chances must be exceptionally slim for detail to align that exactingly. i’ll check out the link. thanks.


  10. danielpaulmarshall

    Kenneth: thanks for your thought. as i told Massimo i am very skeptical about the experience being anything more than a fluke of coincidence, but what a fluke. your ‘belief’ in an ultimate knowledge is intriguing, what could know everything? do you think a human being can achieve such a state?


  11. Massimo Post author


    There are other explanations for your experience. For instance that you retrofitted the experience of actually seeing the woman to your earlier description (I take it you didn’t have a photographic description of her). And of course what of all the times you did write down your dreams and nothing happened?

    The bottom line, for me, is the Humean one: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. That said, there are plenty of things we don’t understand about the universe, so…


  12. smithchuck

    I found this post (along with Bite Size Dhamma’s comment) really helped to clarify what is often (to me, anyway) a very murky topic. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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