Fate and Destiny: Some Historical Distinctions between the Concepts Richard W. Bargdill Saint Francis University Abstract There has been a great deal of attention given to the “free will versus determinism” debate. However, little attention has been paid to the most common expressions from this controversy—people’s everyday experience of fate and destiny. In fact, fate and destiny are terms that are often used as synonyms as if there were no differences between the two words. This paper distinguishes the two concepts by reviewing some historical distinctions made by a variety of philosophers, psychologists and scientists. The paper also discusses some of our contemporary understandings of destiny and concludes that an individual’s stance toward fate and destiny significantly affects one’s sense of life-authorship and vitality. It is common to hear the outcome of events being described as being the result of fate, destiny or sometimes a result of both. But fate and destiny are not just concepts with an entertainment value, these ideas point to serious issues of great interest in a number of important areas such as: philosophy, theology, physics, psychology, and, of course, biology. This paper will concentrate on some of the historical thinkers who have contrasted fate and destiny as well as point out some of the important issues implied by those thinkers. But first, the definitions of both terms will be evaluated. According to an online Greek translation service (Craine, 2004), fate and destiny in ancient Greek came from exactly the same word: moira. This may suggest that the ancients saw little or no difference between the terms in their own times. In Latin, the word for fate is fatum and derives from the verb meaning “to speak.” Bollas (1989) notes that a fatum is a prophecy and that a fatus is an oracle. This definition centers on the fact that most knowledge of one’s fate came through a verbal statement or riddle. Destiny comes from the Latin word Destinare and means “to fasten down, secure or make firm” (Bollas, 1989). Rollo May (1981) states that destiny means “to ordain, to devote, to consecrate” and is connected to the word destination, suggesting that destiny
Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psy. Vol. 26, 2006
includes both a direction and a plan (p. 89). Bollas states that “[D]estiny is linked to actions rather than words. If fate emerges from the word of the gods, than destiny is a preordained path that man can fulfill” (p. 32). In English, fate and destiny are often used as synonyms and each term is frequently included in the definition of the other. Doob (1988) and Bollas (1989) suggest that, in general, fate has a negative connotation, meaning that people use the word when the result of events is personally disadvantageous. The authors believe that destiny has a positive connotation so people generally use it when they receive a desired result. May (1981) on the other hand, suggests that destiny is often associated with “catastrophe, secret doom and irrevocable ruin” (p. 89). In support of his own position, Doob (1988) reviewed the famous statements in Bartlett’s Quotations that dealt with either fate or destiny. Doob found that 16/19 quotes about fate were negative, whereas the other three were neutral. 15/23 quotes about destiny were positive, 6/23 quotes were neutral and two were negative. Doob speculates that the reason for the negative connotation for fate is its relationship to words like fatal, fateful, and fatalism, all of which resonate unpleasant events or dispositions. To understand more about the meaning of these terms, we will turn to origins of these terms in Greek mythology and then review some of the long history of philosophical contemplation about them. Greek Mythology The ancient Greeks had a...