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The Decay of Words, Part 3:
Fate & Action

Engraving-of-Tyche [1]2,024 words

Part 3 of 3

Trans. G. A. Malvicini from L’Arco e la Clava [The Bow and the Club] (Milan: Scheiwiller, 1968)

We will end these observations by examining the original content of three ancient Roman notions, those of fatum, felicitas, and fortuna.

15. Fatum. According to the most common modern usage, “fate” is a blind power that hangs over men, which is imposed on them by making what they least of all desire come true, eventually pushing them towards tragedy and misfortune. Hence the term “fatalism,” the opposite of any attitude of free, effective initiative. According to the fatalistic worldview, the individual is nothing; his actions, despite an appearance of free will, are predestined or vain, and events follow each other in obedience to a law or a power that transcends him and that does not take him into any account whatsoever. “Fatal” is an adjective with prevalently negative connotations: “fatal” outcome, “fatal” accident, the “fatal hour of death,” and so on.

According to its ancient meaning, fatum instead corresponded essentially to the law of the continuous manifestation of the world; this law was not deemed blind, irrational, and automatic — “fatal” in the modern sense of the word — but full of meaning, and proceeding from an intelligent will, above all the will of the Olympian powers. The Roman fatum referred, like the Indo-European rta, to the notion of the world as a cosmos, as an order, and in particular to the concept of history as a development of causes and events that reflect a higher meaning. Even the Fates of Greek tradition, while presenting some evil and “infernal” aspects (due to the influence of pre-Hellenic and pre-Indo-European cults), often appear as personifications of the intelligent and just law that presides over the government of the universe, in certain of its manifestations.

However, it is above all in Rome that the idea of ​​fatum takes on particular importance. This was because Roman civilization was, of all traditional and sacred civilizations, the one that focused particularly on the plane of action and historical reality. For Rome, it was, therefore, less important to know the cosmic order as a supra-temporal and metaphysical law, than to know it as a force in action in reality, as a divine will ordering events. This was linked to fatum in the Roman sense. This expression comes from the verb fari, from which is also derived the word fas, right as divine law. Thus, Fatum refers to the “word” — meaning the revealed word, first and foremost that of the Olympian deities, which allows men to know the right norm (fas) and also announces what is going to occur. Regarding this second aspect, oracles — who through a special traditional art sought to discern, in a state of potentiality, that which corresponded to situations there were in the process of being realized — were also called fata; they were almost themselves the revealed word of the gods.

But to understand this matter, we must remember that in ancient Rome and in traditional civilizations in general, man’s relationship to the general order of the world was very different from the one that later came to predominate. The idea of ​​a universal law and a divine will did not cancel the notion of human freedom; the constant preoccupation of traditional man was to shape his life and actions so they would continue the cosmic order — so that they would represent, so to speak, an extension or further development of that order. Starting from pietas, that is to say, for a Roman, gratitude towards and veneration of the divine forces, he set himself the task of foreseeing the direction of these divine forces in history, so as to opportunely leave room for their action, so as to make them effective to the highest degree and full of meaning. Hence the important role played in the Roman world, even in the field of public affairs and military art, by oracles and soothsayers. Roman man was firmly convinced that the worst mishaps, including military defeats, depended less on human error, weakness, or deviancy, as from having neglected divine signs, that is to say, essentially to have acted in a disorderly and arbitrary way, following merely human criteria, severing one’s connections with the world above (for a Roman, this meant acting without religio, without “connecting”), without regard for “directions of efficacy” or for the “right moment,” which were indispensable conditions for “felicitous,” successful action. Note that fortuna and felicitas are often, in ancient Rome, only the other side of fatum, its univocally positive side. The man, the leader or the people who use their freedom to act in accord with the divine forces hidden in things are successful, they succeed, they triumph — and that meant, in antiquity, being “fortunate” and “happy.” A modern historian, Franz Altheim, believed he could discern in this attitude the effective cause of Rome’s greatness.

In order to further clarify the link between “fate” and human action, we can refer to modern technology. There are certain laws governing things and phenomena, which can be known or ignored, which we can take into account or neglect. In the face of these laws, man remains fundamentally free. He can even act in a manner contrary to what these laws advise, resulting in failure, or in the achievement of the goal only after an enormous waste of energy and every kind of difficulty. Modern technology corresponds to the opposite option: one seeks to know the laws of things so as to be able to make use of them, letting them show the path of least resistance and maximum efficiency in the achievement of a given objective.

Things are no different on a plane where it is no longer a question of the laws of matter, but of spiritual and “divine” forces. The man of ancient world thought it was essential to know, or at least sense these forces, in order to be able to form an idea of ​​the propitious conditions for a given action, and possibly an idea of ​​what he should or should not do. To him, challenging fate, rising against destiny, was not “Promethean” in the romantic sense glorified by the moderns; it was just foolish. Impiety (meaning the opposite of pietas, in other words, to be without religio, without “connection” or respectful comprehension of the cosmic order) was for the man of antiquity, more or less equivalent to stupidity, infantilism, fatuousness. The comparison with modern technology is flawed in one respect: the laws of historical reality did not present themselves as inanimately “objective” and completely detached from man and his goals. One might well say: beyond a certain limit, the objective, divine order connected with “fate” ceases to be decisive, and only inclines events (hence the well-known astrological formula: astra inclinant non determinant). This is the point where the human and historical world, properly speaking, begins. Normally, this world should be continuous with the previous one, the human will should carry the “divine” will further. Whether this occurs or not depends, essentially, on freedom: one must will it. If it does occur, that which was only potentiality is, through human action, realized. The human world will then manifest itself as a continuation of the divine order, and history will configure itself as a revelation and a “sacred history”; then, man will no longer have any value in himself, will no longer act for his own sake, but will be invested with divine dignity, and the whole human world acquires, in a certain way, a higher dimension.

We see, then, that there is no question here of “fatalism.” Just as acting in opposition to “fate” is foolish and irrational, so is an action harmonized with “fate” not only effective, but also transfiguring. Whoever fails to take fatum into account is almost always destined  to be passively carried along by events; he who knows fatum, makes it his own and grafts himself onto it, is instead guided to act in a way that realizes a higher order and totality, one that is enriched with a meaning that is no longer merely individual. This is the meaning of the ancient maxim that fatanolentem trahunt, volentem ducunt.”

In the ancient Roman world and in ancient Roman history, there are numerous episodes, situations and institutions that reveal the feeling of “fateful” encounters between the human world and the divine world, of forces from above that flow through history and manifest themselves in human actions. To limit ourselves to one example, we can recall that “the culmination of the Roman cult of Jupiter was an action in which the god manifests his victorious essence in a man, in the vir triumphalis. It is not that Jupiter is the sole cause of victory, but that he himself is the victor; the triumph is not celebrated in his honor, but he himself is the man of triumph. It is for this reason that the imperator wears the god’s insignia” (K. Kerényi, F. Altheim). To realize the divine — sometimes prudently, sometimes boldly — in action and existence was a guiding principle that ancient Rome also applied to the political order. This is why some authors have rightly pointed out the degree to which Rome lacked myths in the abstract and supra-historical sense prevalent in some other civilizations; in Rome, myth becomes history, just as history, in turn, takes on a “fateful” aspect and becomes myth.

From this, an important consequence follows. In cases like the one mentioned, an identity is realized. It is no longer a matter of a divine word that can be either heard or not heard. This is a higher manifestation of forces, in which human will appears as identical with that of higher forces. Here we are in the presence of a very particular, objective, we would be tempted to say transcendental concept of freedom. By opposing fatum, I can of course lay claim to a free will, but it is a sterile freedom, a mere “gesture,” since it cannot have any deep effect on the fabric of reality. By contrast, when I act in such a way that my will continues a higher order, that is, when it becomes the instrument through which that order is realized in history, in such a state of coincidence or correspondence, what I will may possibly become a command addressed to objective forces that otherwise would not easily be dominated, or would have no regard for what human beings desire or hope for.

Now we may ask: how did we come to this modern notion of fate as a obscure and blind force? Like so many others, such a shift in meaning is far from being a matter of chance. It reflects an inner change in level in and can essentially be explained by the rise of individualism and “humanism” understood in a general sense, that is to say, in relation to a civilization and worldview based solely on what is human and earthly. It is obvious that — once this break occurred — instead of an intelligible order of the world, only the power of something obscure and alien could be felt in its place. “Fate” then became the general symbol of all the deeper forces at work in the face of which man, despite his mastery of the physical world, is powerless, since he no longer understands them and has cut himself off from them; it also symbolizes forces that man, through his own attitude, has liberated and made sovereign in certain domains of existence.

With this study of the ancient and the modern notions of fatum, we end our series of examples. It should already give an idea of ​​the interest and importance which an enlightened philology would have, since, as has been stated, words have a soul and life, and a return to origins can often open up surprising perspectives. This work, however, would be even more fruitful if it did not content itself with going back from the modern “Romance” languages to Latin, but from Latin itself to the much broader, common family of Indo-European languages, of ​​which Latin was, in its fundamental elements, a differentiation.