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Beyond Fate

by Margaret Visser

Margaret Visser writes playful books about serious subjects. Whether it’s table manners (Much Depends on Dinner) or our behaviour in church (The Geometry of Love), she unearths the hidden motivations that underlie our most common and apparently thoughtless gestures, idioms, and habits.

Written for the ongoing Massey Lectures Series, Visser’s newest book, Beyond Fate, takes on that hoariest of human conundrums, the fate-versus-free-will debate. But her attempts to wrestle the topic to the ground leave her thrashing and entangled, just like the victims of the ancient Greek Furies she delights in describing.

Visser’s essential thesis, if I can extricate it from the thicket of cultural observation, wordplay, and visual metaphor that surrounds it, seems to be this: Western civilization, which began its life deeply in thrall to the idea of fate in the Greco-Roman period, went on a long arc of free will – or transcendence, as she calls it – during the rule and sway of Christianity, only to find itself “falling back into fate” at the beginning of the 21st century. She names a whole slew of reasons for this shift: too much dependence on both law and science to do our ethical thinking for us; the stupor of modern celebrity and consumer culture; the decline of education; and the competing claims and curses of globalization and cultural relativism.

This is a huge subject for a series of short lectures, and Visser gets off on the wrong foot by insisting on viewing it through a complicated metaphorical lens that forces the reader to visualize a series of abstract diagrams. These imaginary drawings are more confusing than helpful, but she returns to them over and over.

But the book does have its strengths. Her careful descriptions of the fatalistic societies of the ancient Greeks and Romans lay out in detail the motivations of cultures that are based on honour and shame. This is highly useful information today, because although Visser does not name any of them, we know through the media of many countries and cultures that still run themselves this way.

When Saddam Hussein challenges George W. Bush to a duel to settle their differences, he is acting in accord with the same notions of honour and fate that forced Hector to meet Achilles outside the walls of Troy. And the unbearably harsh
reatment of sexually “polluted” women in certain countries today follows the same deadly logic. We may abhor such behaviour, but it is better to understand it than to be mystified by it.

The other strength of Beyond Fate is Visser’s gleeful acquaintance with the Furies, that charming trio of ladies who patrolled the psychic boundaries of the ancient Greeks. They had “snaky hair and bloody eyes, iron feet and snatching hands.” When someone broke an oath or shattered the taboos against incest or kin murder, for example, the Furies would either tie him up with a web of ropes from which no escape was possible (sounds a little like the Internet), or drive him beyond the city walls into the meaningless darkness of the surrounding plains (sounds a little like globalization).

Christianity, says Visser, changed all this by replacing the straitjacket of honour and shame with the revolutionary notions of guilt and forgiveness. You were no longer permanently diminished if someone did you harm: you had the choice of forgiving him and moving on. And if you were the wrong-doer, you could ask forgiveness (of God, at least, if not of your victim) and it would be granted. The other big new idea of the Christian faith was love, especially love of people you were not related to. In order for the individualism we prize not to become a prison of solitary confinement, we need the “transcendence” that love of others provides, and that expresses itself, among other ways, in democracy.

Large claims for the wonders of Christianity, unfortunately, always end up stubbing their toe on the historical record. Although Visser, like every other Christian apologist, stresses that we must measure Christianity by its ideals, not its failures, it is extremely difficult to overlook the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, and the modern epidemic of ecclesiastical pedophilia, to name but a few of the church’s darkest chapters.

Nevertheless, Visser is right to emphasize that the evolution away from honour and shame as controlling principles has given the citizens of the Western world, as it were, more oxygen to breathe, more freedom to swing their arms and flex their brains. Although, as she notes, it was perhaps the founding Jewish myth of the Exodus, and not Christianity after all, that metaphorically demonstrated the way a people could escape from the inexorable bonds of fate.