Fate is making a comeback. The idea that a human being’s fortunes are shaped by forces beyond his control is returning, zombie-like, from the graveyard of bad historical ideas. The notion that a man’s character and destiny are determined for him rather than by him is back in fashion, after 500-odd years of having been criticised and ridiculed by humanist thinkers.
Of course, we’re far too sophisticated these days actually to use the f-word, fate. We don’t talk about a god called Fortuna, as the Romans did, believing that this blind, mysterious creature decided people’s fates with the spin of a wheel. Unlike long-gone Norse communities we don’t believe in goddesses called Norns, who would attend the birth of every child to determine his or her future. No, today we use scientific terms to argue that people’s fortunes are determined by higher powers than their little, insignificant selves.
We use and abuse neuroscience to claim certain people are ‘born this way’. We claim evolutionary psychology explains why people behave and think the way they do. We use phrases like ‘weather of mass destruction’, in place of ‘gods’, to push the idea that mankind is a little thing battered by awesome, destiny-determining forces. Fate has been brought back from the dead and she’s been dolled up in pseudoscientific rags.
The intellectual challenge to the idea of fate was one of the most significant things about the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. There had always been an inkling of a belief within mankind that it was possible for individuals to at least influence their destiny, if not actually shape it. The Romans, for example, believed Fortuna would be kinder to brave, virtuous men. If you did good and took risks you had a better chance of being smiled upon by Fortuna. ‘Fortune favours the brave.’ But it wasn’t until the Renaissance that the idea that men could make their own fortunes really took hold. It’s then we see the emergence of the belief that by exercising his free will, a man can become master of his fate.
The earliest texts in Renaissance Italy devoted themselves to questioning the idea that man is the prisoner of a preordained destiny. Francesco Petrarch was one of the first humanists. His 1366 book Remedies For Fortune Fair and Foul argued that, alone among God’s creatures, mankind has the ability to control his destiny. Giannozzo Manetti, in his 1452 book On the Dignity and Excellence of Man, said men could shape their own fates by ‘the many operations of intelligence and will’. Also in the 1400s, the Italian scholar Leon Alberti said it was possible for individuals to reach ‘the highest pinnacle of glory’, even though, as he put it, ‘invidious Fortune opposes us’.