Thursday, October 09, 2014


The idea of Fate can seem like an affront to our self-respect as human beings, to the idea that we have Free Will, that we make our own choices in life. It can seem like a throw-back to primitive superstition.

And this polarity is understandable when you look at our religious background with its all-powerful, all-determining God. We want none of that, and rightly so.

Our destiny is no longer controlled by God but by ourselves, we have Free Will, and we are guided by reason.

It’s said that we become that which we oppose, and in our flight away from God and towards reason and science, we have created a determinism just as rigid: a universe governed by immutable physical laws, with human beings as just one more expression of those laws. And without even the divine element that God, for all his faults, brought.

But that determinism tends to be hidden because, at least in the West,  in our day-to-day lives we do have the freedom to choose (up to a point) and to have opinions. We don’t have to be on our guard, whatever people say about government snooping. Of course, we CAN be brainwashed by all sorts of factors, and many of us are in different ways, it seems to be part of how large societies work. But the point is we don’t have to be, we have the option of thinking and acting independently without being sent to prison or burnt or beheaded.

These sorts of contradictions fascinate me. And I think they often arise because we think in rigid, literal, black-and-white terms. Life, hopefully, teaches us not to think like that. Education should also teach us not to, but I don’t think it does, generally speaking, because it has its own agenda.

And so Fate and Free Will can appear as irreconcilable opposites. I don’t think I need to argue for Free Will, because it is self-evident. Or is it? In one sense it is self-evident, in that from moment to moment we choose our actions. The devil is in the word 'choose', and how much of ‘us’ is involved in that choice. We can truly and genuinely and sincerely think we are acting out of Free Will, and then one day we realise we’ve been living out a programme we were brought up to live, or reacting against it, which is sort of the same thing. And the programming may have been making the choices to a greater extent than the little bit of consciousness we called our own.

And that is Fate, a certain kind of Fate, masquerading as Free Will.

So it’s complicated.


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And often we wake up to Free Will through crises, which are Fate in a rather different sense. As an astrologer, one sees this kind of Fate all the time through the transits of the outer planets to the natal chart. A god enters the scene. He is wild and bad-mannered and can’t be locked in his room, and a few years down the line you find you are a different person, maybe aware of the real reasons you’ve been like you are all these years.

And these crises are, to a certain extent, predictable. They are writ, they are Fate. It’s part of the astrologer’s box of magic tricks: so what happened to you around 1992, what major life change did you go through? And out it all comes, usually. Not always, because astrology isn’t mechanical and people aren’t mechanical.

Or take the financial crisis, the mother of all meltdowns, that began in 2008. Any half-way literate astrologer could see that with Uranus coming up to square Pluto at a degree that significantly impacted the charts of all the major powers, some sort of big crisis was on the way. And astrologers were in fact talking about it years in advance.

We’d have probably all had different ideas as to the nature of this crisis, although Uranus-Pluto has a way of being economics, so that would have been a reasonable guess.

So you can see that the future was both writ and not writ on a collective scale.

It’s mysterious. What is the chart if not our Fate? But it is not set in stone. It is more like a set of stories that have their own flavours and lessons and turning points, and that can even to a great degree be predicted in advance. And these pre-writ stories are not a denial of our Free Will, but rather contain points at which events seem to have guided us to the possibility of an accession of Free Will.

The chart is not literal, it is a divinatory lens. It is objective, in that many astrologers would accurately see the same sort of meaning in a chart. It is not just a lens for the astrologer’s personal dialogue with the gods, though it is that as well, making every reading unique and particular.

Through feeling and reading the relationship between the earth and the sky, astrology has over the millennia built a divinatory sea that anyone can tap into, a sea that points to our origins, in fact to the origins of everything, as lying behind the apparent material universe. For how else could we possibly know these things about people and world events from the chart? Certainly not from any physical cause.

As Wordsworth says in Intimations of Immortality:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell'd in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream...

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar

So I think this is the sort of context in which the Fate element in astrology needs to be seen. Astrology gives us glimpses of the deeper stories behind our life, the intentions of the gods, if you like, the bigger cosmic picture behind who we think we are, that Aries has forgotten and that Pisces is privilege to, and that all the other signs are a progression towards.

Fate in this sense is not something that can easily be put in rational, logical terms. Even Free Will cannot very easily be expressed in those terms, not when you view it as the urge to enlarge consciousness.

We may not be able to explain Fate, but we ignore it at our peril. The ancient Greeks understood this well, though human rationality was given more power as time went on.

The ancient Greeks acknowledged the role of Fate as a reality outside the individual that shaped and determined human life. In modern times, the concept of Fate has developed the misty halo of romantic destiny, but for the ancient Greeks, Fate represented a terrifying, unstoppable force.

And they were right. Cataclysmic natural events apart (which nowadays we are largely shielded from, we forget the raw power of nature), you see the suffering people go through because they don’t know how to listen to themselves, the self being much larger than everyday consciousness and often how we have been taught to be. Life exacts its revenge, or tries to pressure us into submission. You get cancer, your wife leaves you, your kids disown you, you get fired, you lose your home, anything you try goes wrong, maybe you even die.

Sometimes a crow is just a crow, and sometimes it means something. Sometimes these things just happen. It is a basic mistake to think that outer events always mirror inner events. No, the whole point is that reading signs is an art, and knowing when a sign is a sign and when it isn’t, is part of that art, and part of astrology’s subtlety.

That larger self is just one way of putting it. It is the gods knocking at the door. It is life itself and its need to move on. It is the Unconscious trying to further the process of individuation.

Whatever it is, it is not necessarily ‘nice’. Astrology in this auguristic sense disrupts our domestic sanitisations, the habitual and the safe, by revealing the intentions of the gods.

So the ancient Greeks understood Fate to be a dark god when resisted. Even, at times, when not resisted. The concept of Fate brings us closer not to that which is ‘nice’ but to that which is real.

As science and its ordered universe has progressed and tightened over the last 200 years, so have the outer planets, reality as uncontrollable Fate, emerged.

Bernadette Brady, in her book Cosmos, Chaosmos and Astrology advances the notions of Cosmos and Chaosmos. Cosmos is the ordered universe. Chaosmos is that aspect of the universe – eg weather systems – that do not obey the laws of predictable cause and effect and that science has had to find other ways of describing. Hence Chaos theory, and the Chaosmos, to which she proposes that astrology essentially belongs.

You could say that Free Will belongs to Cosmos and Fate to Chaosmos. Not that it is a rigid distinction. And Chaos theory seems to me to contain an inherent contradiction, in that is attempting to describe in rational terms that which defeats rationality. But at least it constitutes some kind of acknowledgement by science that there are aspects to reality that will forever be beyond its grasp. Quantum reality has similar implications. Chaosmos, however, is not merely the special case that science can't reduce to an equation: it is the larger reality within which the very specialised methods of modern science take their place.

But people aren’t always interested in philosophy, and why should they be, so these kinds of implications don’t always filter through. All the same, Fate as that larger reality beyond human control that needs respecting seems to be implied by both Chaos Theory and Quantum Theory. And Chaosmos seems a very evocative term for it, that also has a measure of scientific respectability.

Free Will can to some extent be explained in rational terms. Scientists can do brain studies on how we make decisions, for example. Free Will is an idea. But Fate in its deeper sense of the gods barging through our front door cannot be explained, merely described and evoked.

In 1996 I encountered the Norns in a book called ‘The Wisdom of the Wyrd’. They are 3 women who live in a hall by a well at the foot of Yggdrassil, the World Tree of Norse Myth. They take care of Yggdrassil with water from the well and sand from around it. They and other Norns determine the destiny of new-born children.

The author, Professor Brian Bates, called the Norns ‘Daughters of the Night’. I knew nothing about these figures, yet the imagery stunned me. For weeks afterwards it was like I was left reeling whenever I thought of these Norns. Even now I sort of go weak at the knees :)

I responded so strongly partly because Germanic/Norse myth is in me and probably in all northern Europeans. That is the strange thing about myths: we may not have heard them, but we recognise them all the same. The Lord of the Rings has that sort of quality, and it would, for Tolkien was deeply versed in European mythology.

And my response was to an image of Fate. But also more than an image. These ‘images’ (which is what nowadays we reduce them to, like one more defined thing to have ideas about) are also beings, they are presences that we can experience. I have that with Pluto. I often feel his presence when I am writing.


And I don’t think that is just a ‘subjective’ thing. These beings are real, they can be met and talked to. Yet they are also elusive, they do not just come at our bidding. And that is how I feel about the Norns. They belong to what Patrick Harpur calls Daimonic Reality.

And if I were southern European I might well feel the same way about the Moirai, the Fates, the 3 women who in ancient Greece allotted the Fate of everyone at birth. They each have a different function: one spins the thread of life onto her spindle, the other measures it, and the other cuts it: Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos.

The Norns and the Moirai suggest to me that in ancient times Fate was understood and even feared as utterly real, yet it was not taken in the literal way that we think nowadays. For us, something is only real if it is literal, if it is ‘out there’ in a solid way and can be measured. From that point of view, Fate can seem like a product of primitive ignorance. The modern perspective can seem to be above and beyond all that has come before, but I think it is an anomaly, a peculiarity that will right itself - maybe not for a while yet - because human nature will inevitably also right itself.

 So I think the Norns and the Moirai, understood in a non-literal way, bring us a long way from Fate as a sort of primitive determinism, that we moderns with our understanding of the way the universe ‘really’ works can afford to look down on.

I don’t think the relationship between Fate and Free Will can ever be pinned down. It is a dichotomy that is there for us to reflect on, to muse on, and in so doing to reach down below the surface of life and observe consciousness in its mystery and elusiveness.


Palden Jenkins said...

I think fate has a strong connection with wealth - the ability to stave off circumstances by buying it off or mitigating it in some way. Individualism in the West has grown as our capacity to override natural constraining factors has grown through industrial and urban wealth-generation.

Though it's not just this simple. In Palestine, where I work with refugees and war-traumatised people, there are some who have what it takes psychologically to overcome their circumstances and improve themselves, and some whose psychological makeup has been weakened to a degree that they genuinely cannot - unless they get help which gives them some momentum to overcome other things. And there are others who cannot help themselves, because of disability or other constraints, many of them psychological and cultural (such as not wanting to let down the family by leaving and becoming more self-interested).

But even then there are amazing cases where people with ridiculous handicaps overcome their limitations by dint of a massive focus of willpower - so there are no simple rules to this.

"There's no right or wrong, there are simply outcomes" - and so much of our fate is a consequence of previous choices made, even if long before. Sometimes I find, when doing an astrologial session, that current hardships/problems aren't exactly connected with current astrological events-trends, but with big opportunities not taken earlier (say, when Ura-Nep affected major planets 20 years ago, prompting the need for, say, divorce or a change of circs, and such changes were not followed up, so the consequences unfold later - say, in the form of illness or loss of purpose).

I think a lot of free-will is connected with our responses to circumstances presented to us: we can respond to a rainy, cold day in a number of ways. So much of it concerns how we judge things too - as fortune and misfortune. Loss of job and income can be a problem or a gift, depending on your viewpoint. For me, times of poverty have sometimes been times of the greatest free-will, because of choices and psychological changes I've made as a result. For example, 'prosperity thinking' often hasn't improved my bank balance, but it has changed my self-esteem (I don't eat myself up about it so much).

But I think that, in the West and the modern world, much of what we believe to be free-will is actually connected with wealth - ability to buy off circumstances and thus avoid fundamental questions.

Anonymous said...

The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in "advanced" countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in "advanced" countries.

Rain-in-the-Face said...

"Jeremiah was a bullfrog, was a good friend of mine.
Never understood a single word he said, but I helped him drink his wine,"

Hercules meets Pholus and sez "Hand over the wine and nobody gets hurt".

Famous last words...

By the way, those who know are working the Kalevala and Bernadette Brady's theories are wearing a tired groove in a way old record.