Imperatrix Mundi: On Traditional Notion of Destiny pt. 1
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There is a peculiar discrepancy in the life of an average human being that rarely strikes an eye, even of the analytically inclined observer.
Astonishingly, the modern man seems to be able to, at the same time, be completely bereft of religion or indeed any kind of intent to transcend his secular existence, yet simultaneously he consults the popular oracles like horoscopes or fortune tellers, i.e. he is able to profess secularism and a peculiar form of bogus spirituality in one breath.
To say that those are remnants of ancient superstitions, still lingering about but just on their way out, is to completely miss the point. After all, modern and postmodern age yielded no results in eradicating the superstition from human life; and, moreover, ancient purpose of Astrology was completely different from what it is today. We are therefore dealing with essentially different and essentially modern/postmodern phenomenon.
The main reason for this is the absence of intent in modern thinkers to clarify the objects of intellectual analysis in respect to how they relate to man’s transcendent ends.
Moreover, nowadays man, supposedly, has no transcendent end, yet occultism and pop esoteria are perfectly rational for him to indulge.
Things which are lumped under parapsychology research and last pages of the daily newspaper, browsed by almost everyone, not so long ago used to be the objects of serious research. It was so, because they are important and present to everyone’s mind – if not to senses – and getting the right disposition towards them is essential for one’s well being. If life has a meaning, then getting the right attitude towards that meaning is of paramount importance and is not something that comes about of itself.
We are talking here about things that present a bond between seen and unseen that is ever present but very hard to pinpoint in words – manifested in the phenomena we call destiny, fortune and/or Providence.
In former times, as we shall see, there were strict definitions of these terms, but here we’ll provisionally lump them under the notion of meaningful events in the life of individual that are, however, not caused by his own conscious intention.
By meaningful we mean that these events contribute to one’s well being as if they were intentional but not by one’s own intention, because they are caused from “the outside”, i.e. by an unseen and unseen-able someone else.
For instance, a chance encounter in times of personal crisis yielding an important conversation/decision/chain of events that will completely resolve one’s life path cannot be deemed intentionally caused by the one who benefited from it, but has certainly the quality of intentionality because it appears to have occurred purposefully or meaningfully to aid him on his way.
Moreover, the dream of what will happen the other day – something that everyone experiences now and then – while not always specifically meaningful or important, obviously points out to some kind of preordained path we are walking in life.
To ignore these facts means to ignore the obvious and, paradoxically, it yields the peculiar inclination to superstition mixed with skepticism we just outlined above.
While any form of transcendent meaning in one’s life is a priori rejected, one nonetheless consults daily horoscope or some other microwave psychical nourishment, fulfilling his need for what he outright rejects.
Of course, we’ll set this approach aside and inquire properly, aided by Thomas Aquinas.
To begin from the end, let us take one quote from Summa Contra Gentiles chapters on the subject, where Aquinas criticizes what he dubs the Stoic doctrine of heimarmene, or fate, which destroys the possibility of freedom and, most importantly, effectiveness of human prayer.
The passage is in actual fact a summation of the subject we’ll treat in our analysis and it immediately offers the solution to the real problem contained therein:
“But, outside the order that embraces all things, it is not possible for anything to be indicated by means of which the order depending on universal cause might be changed. That is why the Stoics, who considered the reduction of the order of things to God to be a universal cause of all things, claimed that the order established by God could not be changed for any reason. But, again on this point, they departed from the consideration of universal order, because they claimed that prayers were of no use, as if they thought that the wills of men and their desires, from which prayers arise, are not included in the universal order.” (Aquinas, SCG, book III, part 2., ch. 96, pg 65)
What Aquinas describes here, in not so many words, is the major ailment of the philosophy of our age, obviously not absent in ancients too, that is: the artificial discrepancy between the subject and object.
In Stoics, he sees the botched attempt at solution to the problem of purpose and higher intent both in nature and in human life, where the ordering of the world is cut in two – on the one hand we have natural world, where nature is understood in a restricted sense of perceivable bodies guided as an organic whole by divine action, and, on the other, we have human soul endowed with an ability to think and deliberate but not to influence the outer “universal order”; this order has been understood as purely “outside” of what is purely “inside” – as something opposed to the disposition of our faculties that have intrinsic or intimate causes, i.e. intellect and will.
However, if we are to talk about the real, then we must not dig such a precipice between two halves of it; the fact that intellect, will and some other modes of being are not perceivable by senses and, moreover, are to be understood as essentially inner or intrinsic, as opposed to the activities of perceivable bodies, does not make what is inner any less real than what is outer.
This error rules the modern and postmodern thought as an ever-present underlying assumption and those few thinkers who treated the subject of destiny or meaningful connections in human life, from 19th Century onwards, were not able to avoid it.
We’ll go a bit ahead of ourselves and posit that these “secret deliberations of pure mind” (Kant) comprise the substance of both skepticism and superstition that, curiously enough, seem to go hand in hand, all appearances to the contrary.
Aquinas, however, overrules it with almost casual simplicity. He simply states the truth that inner causes of human actions are also part of the universal order and cannot be thought of in isolation from the “outside world”; the being is, to paraphrase Aristotle, “said in manifold ways”, but always “on the grounds of one primary, communal, instance”, that provides reality to every is we correctly predicate: if emotion, volition or thought are then they do belong to universal order, i.e. they are endowed with being.
Having this in mind, the problems of meaningful events in human life are open for rational discussion, free from both strange bedfellows of skepticism and superstition. Let us make a mental note of this, because it has important implications for understanding the modern mindset, or that which underlies its surface of faux rationality.
Aquinas begins his inquiry with the question, what it means to be “favored by fortune” and whether celestial bodies can influence human will and intellect, i.e. the intrinsically caused faculties of, what he calls “intellectual substances” and subsumes under them not only humans, but also – very importantly – angels.
By things influenced by celestial bodies, to be more exact: their movements, Aquinas means natural world of generation and corruption, that is the outer world of corporeal beings; so the astrological principle of heavenly causation in facts sums up the system of extrinsic causes of processes in corporeal nature as well as in the nature caused by physiological principles, i.e. animal passions of attraction, rejection, fear, etc.
“Indeed (…) the order of divine Providence requires the lower things to be ruled and moved by higher ones. But the understanding surpasses all bodies in order of nature (…). So it is impossible for celestial bodies to act directly on the intellect. Therefore, they cannot be the direct cause of things that pertain to understanding.” (SCG, ch. 84, pg. 13)
One thing is immediately of note. While modern critic of Astrology will, obviously, go about denouncing the idea that there is such thing as influence of heavenly bodies’ relations and movements on Earth, save the obvious ones, he will not criticize the most important thing: the idolatry and fatalism underlying this practice.
Modern people are interested in Astrology on the basis of their desires and the wish to have them fulfilled with no effort of their own. So, what Aquinas calls “fortuitous” has little to do with “destiny” people like to have divined for them: whereas the first term indicates something that will affect the will and/or intellect, the second is related to fulfillment of more or less complex affects.
“Whom will I marry? Will I get that job? Is money finally coming into my life?”
Those are, more or less, typical questions provoked by affects or passions. They are caused extrinsically because passions are, despite their sometimes deceptive variety and complexity, physiologically based and primarily have to do with corporeal ends. However, they cannot cause intrinsic effects, i.e. initiate the acts of will and intellect.
This does not mean that activities (or as Aquinas calls them: operations) of these powers peculiar to immaterial beings are free from them – passions are expression of the disposition of the given subject; this means that everybody has some kind of natural predisposition to certain acts or passions. Someone is prone to eating too much, i.e. he has a natural disposition to being fat, etc. Although his will, guided by intellect, will try to change or transform this disposition habituating different behavior it may prove difficult because their operation will go contrary to deep character flaws that are caused extrinsically and leave strong impressions on the senses.
This is in a nutshell description of moral predicament of human condition, where one has to fight his own self – the veritable god of modernity, let us note – in order to achieve freedom of action for his highest faculties.
It works both ways, however, as everything in nature, because our hedonist can tend to posses a disposition of calmness which prevents erratic decisions and behavior, etc.
Obviously, this kind of character dispositions is under the influence of the stars as well as other extrinsic causes. What is very hard to grasp for a modern reader is the reason why Aquinas gives it so little importance.
The self, whether we chose to define it as Nietzsche’s “wisdom of the body” or Jung’s “mysterium coniuctionis” is in the end nothing but the glorified, yet in itself quite banal, set of dispositions that form a character peculiar to the individual, very often correctly expressed in the nickname one acquires through life. The volumes have been written about it, from ruminations of the deepest thinkers of modernity, like Nietzsche, to self-help literature produced by truckloads.
Yet, among classical philosophers, of whom Aquinas is just one notable representative, there’s not even a hint of “deep psychology” of the self. Being fortuitous can be understood as related to it only in the sense of someone being well endowed for the kind of work he successfully performs or simply lucky. But this is not what brings purpose into human life and destiny and fortune in his view are primarily related to purpose of human life that is both universal and individuated in a peculiar and nuanced sense.
The reason is that both causes of meaningful connections in human life and the recipients of their effects are not corporeal.
Corporeality is far deeper and, at the same time, far more universal notion than materiality and Thomas is very careful to employ it in all the proper places. In essence, it qualifies something as capable exclusively of outer or extrinsic activity. This means that what makes the world “outer” to “us” would be the fact that we perceive, and are prone to falling into trap of understanding everything else in analogy to, primarily corporeal nature.
Intellectual nature, however, encompasses beings capable of intimacy in the ontological sense of having the autonomous principle that can put them in act by itself without being influenced or in any way acted upon from the outside.
In this sense, the world has both surface, depth and height – neither of these modes, or dimensions, of being are to be unrelated or divided by ontological abyss: corporeal nature is contained in the incorporeal nature, because only incorporeal can properly contain something in itself without losing it’s own identity. For this reason terms like soul, intellect, will, etc. are not understood as being in the body, as is customarily understood, but as bodies being contained in them.
Naturally, the problem emerges from our inborn propensity to rely on the senses when describing the world and this notion acquires a flavor of spatial metaphor. However it is not a metaphor, but the original meaning of being “outer” and “inner” – the terms that first and foremost denote the modes of causality, i.e. the ways things act on each other and constitute purposeful and/or meaningful relations.
For Aquinas, destiny, fortune and Providence are decidedly, in their essential cause, inner principles and activities of either intellectual or supra-intellectual nature and only by proxy activities of extrinsic, corporeal principles. Spiritual or intellectual beings are capable of receiving a variety of such acts and the sense that some things in our life were not accidental, although it comes from the outside, that is: it is caused by someone who is not us, is provoked by will and intellect being acted upon by the higher intelligent cause.
So for, instance, the case of being fortuitous for Aquinas would be allowing a more intelligent intelligence and more benevolent will to lead us on our way, because, “(…)it is impossible for the will to be moved by an extrinsic principle as by an agent; rather every movement of the will must proceed from within.” (SCG III, 34) The moment of allowing or letting the higher influence the lower is necessary because extrinsic influence on it would be coercion or violence: while extrinsic act causing corporeal thing – a stone, for example – to roll downhill is not violent because the nature of stone is such to be passive and not able to move itself by deliberation – not being alive, that is – moving the will to act by an outside action is violent; giving orders, for instance, is only a proxy cause of the act of will, because the one who was ordered around has to decide whether he’ll obey and evaluate whether it is good for him; the situation where will would be completely acted upon from the outside, and thus enslaved, is impossible because the only proper relatively outside act that moves the will is persuasion. This comes from the very nature of this incorporeal power of intellectual beings – it is so intimate, that is: so personal, that it can be directly moved only by ourselves or by something even more intimate to us then we ourselves are.
The way human events are traced back to higher causes is formulated in a simple truth:
“(…) everything that is multiform, mutable and capable of defect must be reducible to a source in something that is uniform, immutable, and capable of no defect. But all things that are within our power are found to be multiple, variable and defectible.”(SCG III, ch. 91, pg. 40)
So everything we understand and do is to a various degree imperfect and cannot be perfected by us in the final sense:
“(…) our understanding has the quality of multiplicity, since we gather, as it were, intelligible truth from many sense objects. It is also mutable, for it advances by discursive movement from one thing to another, proceeding from known things to unknown ones. It is, moreover, defectible because of the admixture of imagination with sensation, as the errors of mankind show.” (ibid.)
However, there’s a higher intelligence immediately above human on which it must rely, if it is to pursue the truth:
“On the other hand, the cognitive acts of the angels are uniform: for they receive the knowledge of truth from one fount of truth; namely, God. Their cognition is also immutable, because they see directly the pure truth about things by simple intuition, not by a discursive movement from effect to their causes or the reverse. It is even incapable of defect, since they directly intuit the very natures, or actual essences (quiddities), of things, and understanding cannot err in regard to such objects, just as sense cannot err in regard to proper sensibles. We, however, make guesses as to the actual essences of things from their accidents and effects. Therefore, our intellectual knowledge must be regulated by means of the angels’ knowledge.”
Knowledge is, primarily and essentially, a gift from the one who is higher to those who are lower, which is, just to mention in passing, an absolute anathema for modern thought, not only because modern philosophy claims that there is no higher intelligence – or even human intelligence as such – but because it sometimes tries to appropriate “simple intuition of actual essences” for itself: for example, phenomenological school of 20th Century and, curiously enough, the whole plethora of modern esoteric teachings took it, and are still taking it, to be a kind of distant, but attainable, holly grail.
However, for Thomas, as is customary in traditional thought, it is clear that man is just a participant in a greater whole and even the highest activities we can perform are influenced and caused by the activities of the same species but greater power performed by higher beings; the knowledge of angels can be imparted, or even infused, into human intellect but only on the grounds of it being ontologically above it and capable to impart a gift to lower being. There is no way man can attain it unaided.
The same applies to will:
“It is clear that our acts of choice have the character of multiplicity, since choices are made of different things, by different people, in different ways. They are also mutable, both because of the instability of the mind, which is not firmly fixed on the ultimate end (…) That they are defectible, of course the sins of men testify. But the divine will is uniform, because by willing one object it wills all else, and it is immutable and without defect (…). So, the movement of all wills and choices must be traced back to the divine will, and not to any other cause, for God alone is the cause of our acts of will and choice.” (ibid.)
The reason why God can directly act on will is the fact that He is essentially its ultimate object: the ultimate good is the substance of every conceivable end about which humans deliberate. Therefore, He can act on the will, which is by its nature bent towards Him, in order to perfect it and rectify its course and His letting humans take an ultimate decision in deliberating whether to turn to ultimate good or away from it is an act of freedom providing freedom to lower being.
So, how does this reflect on destiny or, as Aquinas would put it, how is man assisted by higher causes?
To be of “good fortune”, in the widest possible sense of the term, means to have something good befall man without him intending it. The reason of this can be chance or higher cause. Yet the key thing to understand here is what does it mean that something is good in eminent sense. While modern people, in context of the idea of destiny or fate, customarily take good to mean beneficial to their wishes and bad as the opposite, in Thomas’ mind being good is being ordered in a proper way in the context of greater whole, something that, if you ponder a bit about it, presupposes, and would be unthinkable without, the act of the higher intellect and will upon the lower in sorting out its life path and place in the world:
“So, since man is ordered in regard to his body under the celestial bodies, in regard of his intellect under the angels, and in regard to his will under the God – it is quite possible for something apart from man’s intention to happen, which is, however, in accord with the ordering of the celestial bodies, or with the control of the angels, or even of God. For, though God alone directly works on the choice made by man, the action of an angel does have some effect on man’s choice by way of persuasion, and the action of celestial body by way of disposition, in the sense that the corporeal impressions of celestial bodies on our bodies give a disposition to certain choices.” (SCG III, 2, ch. 92, pg. 42)
The first thing to point out is where focus lies: the question of destiny is the question of choice; somewhat paradoxically, for phenomena which could even be defined as a choice without choice, the destiny or fortune is all about the extent to which the higher causes can legitimately affect the deliberations of man whose freedom seems to be unaffected by it all.
So the stellar influences are understood as bringing about bodily and, inclusively, affective disposition that can be well or ill disposed to certain choices, but they cannot essentially act upon the choice itself; the angel can effectuate choice by persuasion, coming from his superior knowledge, and only God can directly sway the choice because He is the underlying cause of each will as it’s proper object – the one good that is loved in all conceivable goods:
“(…) when as a result of influence of higher causes in the foregoing way a man is inclined towards certain choices that are beneficial to him, but whose benefit he does not know by his own reasoning, and when besides this his intellect is illuminated by the light of intellectual substances so that he may do these things, and when his will is inclined by divine working to choose something beneficial to him while he is ignorant of it’s nature he is said to be favored by fortune.” (ibid.)
The difference between destiny understood in this way and the fatalist notion pervading modern minds is glaringly obvious: for Aquinas here everything is about choice, not about what is going to happen. So what we would understand as destined is never brought about without our own free act. It is a common knowledge among people who have some higher interests in their lives than purely mundane ones, that the most important decisions they made – and decision in the full sense of the word is quite a rare occurrence in human life which averagely consists in being carried by the stream of every day living without giving it all much thought – were customarily based on rather vague insight into why of them; something, as it were, “felt like a right thing to do” and after some time, usually years, one perhaps realizes why he did it and how it benefited him. This applies to the most moral choices but is especially discernible in the case of fortuitous decisions that bring life changing effects and when one seems to find himself in the right place and at the right time because he made the decision without much conscious deliberation:
“Sometimes, a man’s understanding is enlightened by an angel to know only something is a good thing to be done, but it is not instructed as to the reason why it is good, since this reason is derived from the end. Thus, at times, a man thinks that something is a good thing to be done, but if he be asked why, he would answer that he does not know. Hence when he reaches a beneficial end, to which he has given no thought before, it will be fortuitous for him. But sometimes he is instructed by angelic illumination, both that this act is good and as to the reason why it is good, which depends on the end. And if this be so, when he reaches the end which he has thought about before, it will not be fortuitous.” (ibid.)
So destiny is much more dependent on us than we think, that is: it is dependent on our conscious receptivity of it; as it is not a blind fatum, fettering human being by mechanical causal chains, but activity of higher causes, it works in human life through ability of its recipient to conform himself to it. In this sense a fortuitous man would be the one who is well guarded or well governed, and not the one who is simply lucky.
One thing that seems to be essential for destiny to exist is time. As higher causes work from eternity, which is essentially different from time in the sense that time can only be understood as its effect and not conversely, the time is that mode of being that appears to be the most congenial to them and thus to be the most capable of disclosing them. Customarily, the modern superstition understands the transcendent as something that breaks into human life with violence or informs it by violence, i.e. as an ultimate outer “Other”; something, in fact, that is a polar opposite of how the higher causes and, ultimately, God should be thought of. Yet the influence is by its very definition subtle – being intrinsic – and man needs time, not only to comprehend it, which is not always possible, but even to notice it. Time is the medium in which meaning and purpose of human life explicate themselves and one could say that some of those rare moments when this becomes obvious are the closest we get in this life to comprehending what the eternity really is; it’s rather like we catch a breath of its odor.
As those events we can call destined are not caused extrinsically, yet they do display curious meaningful sequence even when observed from the outside, the whole plethora of misinterpretations is possible – from primitive fatalism Thomas ascribes to Stoics, and which is rather popular in modern Science Fiction – to simply rejecting the idea as a product of imagination or secularizing the whole the thing in Jung’s theory of synchronicity.
However, the real seat of the event is inside, not on the outside, and the real insight into it is deeply intimate. Thus, it is very hard to describe the sense of destiny in words, not because there are no words for it, but because words are not as intimate as movements in the inner being of man the realization of destiny brings about.
In the second part of this analysis, we’ll investigate how destiny relates to Providence, i.e. the wider context of Creation and what role it plays in it. Also we’ll demonstrate that out of such context, that is, out of idea that higher exists and influences the lower, destiny is unthinkable and attempts at trying to comprehend it from the purely non-metaphysical view leads to disaster, as it happened to Jung and Heidegger who both tried to tackle the problem with dubious success.
Read/listen to part 2
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