Fate, free choice, and divine providence from the Neoplatonists to John of Damascus

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INTRODUCTION: The history of the concepts of fate (/theia pronoia) between the fifth and the eighth centuries exemplifies the transition from late antiquity to the Middle Ages in intellectual terms. It was in this period that philosophy and theology developed durable models for the agency of divine providence and its concomitants, the problem of evil, free choice, predestination, justice, necessity, and divine foreknowledge. Both Platonists and Christians devised theodicies to safeguard the sovereignty of providence in response to the presence of evil and injustice, and were at pains to demonstrate the fundamental goodness that infused the universe. This ultimate optimism was tempered at times by difficult life circumstances and pervasive uncertainty. Such existential questions were not new but they appear prominently in the period under discussion. Plotinos in the third century summed up the concern when he observed in his discussion of free choice that we may fear we are nothing when crushed by adverse events (Enneads 6.8.1). In the Latin west, works were composed in response to the barbarian invasions that defended divine providence against accusations of desertion and abandonment. One has only to think of Augustine’s The City of God (his treatise On Providence and the Problem of Evil was an earlier work) and Salvian’s On the Governance of God to see that the Christian worldview was in need of intellectual support. Thus began an apologetic tradition that took the blame for the loss of empire away from God and placed it on the shoulders of disobedient and sinful Christians. It was a theme that was to reemerge in the wake of the Arab invasions of the seventh century, in such works as the Apocalypse of pseudo-Methodios. Before we delve into the texts that bridge the early and middle Byzantine periods, a survey of their antecedents is necessary. The question of divine providence was not fully explored by Plato himself, who contented himself with passing observations in the Laws (10: 902d-904c), Timaeus (30b-48a), and the myth of Er in the Republic (10: 613-620). Aristotle’s limited remarks were taken to imply that providence was not concerned with individuals and applied only to the celestial sphere (Metaphysics 12.7: 1072b).

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge intellectual history of Byzantium
EditorsAnthony Kaldellis, Niketas Siniossoglou
Place of PublicationCambridge, UK
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9781107300859
ISBN (Print)9781107041813
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • Byzantine literature history

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