Beyond Fate

by Margaret Visser
ISBN: 0887846793

Post Your Opinion
True Freedom According to Margaret Visser
by Sam Ajzenstat

Part-way through Beyond Fate, her contribution to the prestigious Massey Lectures, Margaret Visser tells the famous story of a French aristocratic who, when a beleaguered underling pleads "I have to live" replies "I don't see why" (p103). The message classic liberals draw from this story is that human nature so generally makes us put our own needs and ideas of justice above those of others, that transcendent visions of morality, though real, can't be counted on to bring about societies of even moderate freedom and equality. Mutual love can happen but mutual fear is more widespread and a more reliable basis for social co-operation. People respect other people's private space only in return for the protection of their own.
Visser, however, joins a current academic trend to think that mutual fear doesn't mitigate self-centredness but makes it worse. For her it is based on a dehumanising lie that we believe in only because capitalist manipulators brainwash us into thinking that we can only be free by being disconnected atoms doomed by their natures to mistrust and compete with each other. This lie is robbing us of our heritage of free, loving, social solidarity. In Beyond Fate, she challenges us to reclaim that heritage.
If Visser is right, neither human nature nor the necessities of circumstance limit our obligation never to deviate from absolute justice. If she's wrong, she's weakening our support for the political order, liberal democracy, whose willingness to compromise with necessity has produced an unprecedented though limited degree of the goods she herself values. This is a crucial debate. Visser brings to it an academic specialty in the classics, a concern for what Christianity has given our civilization, wide reading in modern social thought and, most conspicuously, a poet's eye for metaphor that sees deeper meanings in apparently innocuous social practices. But while good poets mix their metaphors to explore the many-sidedness of the world, Visser uses hers to box the world into a one-dimensional exemplification of her own rather paranoid presuppositions. We are left with a simplistically tendentious account that fails to do justice to the world around us.
Here's one of the many daisy chains of metaphor that Visser constructs. Enjoy playing Trivial Pursuit? Better watch out! In this game individual facts are seen as having nothing to do with each other, occurring by sheer chance. So for Visser, it is brainwashing us into seeing the universe as a mere collection of disconnected, chance events. Next link? In such a universe no action we perform could have any effect on anything else. Organized social action would be meaningless. So isn't it obvious that the power elite have given us Trivial Pursuit as the opiate of the masses? In case you think I'm satirizing Visser cruelly, here's how she puts it. "Trivialization, is, I believe, a deliberate social strategy in which facts are reduced to insignificance .... The game called Trivial Pursuit, for example, plays with artificially isolated facts as though they were counters" (p75).
Is it necessary to say that no Trivial Pursuit enthusiast, neo-con or leftie, has ever suffered this effect? One begins to wonder whether it isn't Visser who's doing the brainwashing. To what purpose, though? Let's look at the next link.
According to Visser, the powers that have foisted Trivial Pursuit on us want us to accept the proposition that capitalism is the only successful way of organizing a free, prosperous, democratic economy. It seems to me that the truth or falsity of that proposition is very likely something free-market and socialist economists will never stop arguing about. But Visser isn't interested in the arguments. Again, selectively chosen metaphors carry the day. "The Stock Exchange is itself a gambling casino (81)."
Well, sure. A slot machine is a case of betting your life on an uncertain proposition. But so is getting married, starting a business or any commitment to an incompletely predictable future. All are different, but all them at least partly depend on what is beyond our control, whether we call it fate, necessity or chance. They aren't obviously dehumanizing just on that account. Visser occasionally seems to admit this. But she can't let it mitigate her extreme moralism. For her, the belief that fate limits our freedom can be nothing but a ruse to allow us to wriggle off the moral hook and be less than our best selves.
To give her account of the present an aura of long-term validity, Visser brings the same moralism to bear on the great moral traditions of the west, presenting them either as believing in fate and so missing genuine freedom or else affirming freedom and so rejecting fate. By so doing, she diverts us from the much richer and more ambiguous understanding of the interplay of fate and freedom that those traditions have given us. Here's the story as she tells it. Pre-biblical societies believed in fate. Lacking any understanding that human beings transcend the circumstances of mere survival, the Greeks had nothing but fear to ground their sense of morality, individuality, freedom, and even community. For Visser if one looks only to the nature of things for moral guidelines one can find nothing but social conformity. So their moral precepts must have been defined by the public honour or public shame of meeting or failing to meet the expectations of society. Only when Christianity rejected fate, she tells us, did a true grasp of moral freedom emerge. The result should have been a new liberatory politics that would free individuals from the prison-fortress of the self into the open air of mutual trust. But in the interests of building a global commercial empire of passive, mutually competing consumers that liberation was not to be allowed. Visser's metaphors all point her to one conclusion. We are being driven back to Greek fatalism and the loss of our spiritual heritage.
Nothing she says makes this widely accepted but one-dimensional stereotype plausible. Yes, the Greeks did believe that our natures put some things, including a degree of conflict and injustice, beyond our power to eradicate. Aristotle does say that the best society we can have is not the one "we would pray for." But to say that these beliefs must have destroyed the Greeks' sense of initiative or their understanding of the power of adversarial political institutions to mitigate these ills or the experience of a transcendent even if unreachable good beyond those institutions, is about as convincing as saying that playing Trivial Pursuit must destroy these things in us. And to see that in Christianity, too, freedom co-exists in complex, ambiguous ways with fate, we don't have to go deeper than the famous Congressional Prayer about the difference between the things we can change and the things we can't but must accept. Why does Visser find this view so threatening? The answer brings us back to her polemic against liberal democracy.
The main thing liberal democrats think we can't change is the conflict between those who believe certain changes are required by justice and those who believe those changes would violate justice. That conflict is as fated for liberal democrats as the conflict between the Antigones and the Kreons was for the Greeks. We may have better ways than they did of deciding these conflicts, but not a way that will satisfy everyone's idea of justice. So a degree of moral relativism combined with enough moral absolutism to make that relativism frustrating will permanently lurk under the surface of liberal democracy.
Instead of helping us cope with that frustration, Visser screws it to the breaking point by rooting it in a conspiracy rather than the nature of things. But she seems unaware how much such repudiation of natural limits undermines the things she cares about. She tells us, for example, how appalled she was when a speaker suggested destroying the moon to alleviate tidal damage (p135). She's right. Such arrogance is appalling. But should we put it down to too much submission to fate or too much trust in one's own moral transcendence? Wouldn't this speaker find inspiration in Visser's own frequent statement-strange for any Christian who believes that God made the world-that nature has no moral significance (p133) and that human freedom overrides natural necessity? Some would conclude that the modern disease lies in the radicalisation of freedom not the radicalisation of fate and that Visser-not to mention current liberation theologies-is collaborating with her own worst enemies.
Visser's answer would likely be that "truly" free people would never blow up the moon. But for one thing is there anything except sentimentality to make us believe that? For another, we know-or should know by now-the tyrannical results of the belief that no one is really and truly free unless their decisions are what Visser or some other moralist would like them to be.
On the evidence of Beyond Fate these tyrannical results are what Visser unknowingly promotes in the classroom. Visser is a teacher of literature who believes that stories reflect nothing but the author's whimsical control of the plot and so cannot teach us anything about the real world (p130). So when her students reject the idea of the Greek dramatists that there might be such a thing as fate, Visser simply agrees with them. Circumstances never, even a little, dictate how we must behave, and liberal democracy, a way of life that frankly admits that it is devoted not to the best imaginable regime but only to the best one possible under the circumstances of our ambiguous natures, can have no right to go on existing.
Visser's students have an excuse for believing these things; they are adolescents. As their teacher, her job was surely not to confirm them in their immature political absolutism but to help them grow beyond the belief that they can live up to all their ideals, towards an uncynical appreciation that we are equally subject to the the natural and the transcendent and are therefore fated to act in a compromised world. There could hardly be a better metaphor for the extent to which our universities have become instruments of infantilization, than the sponsorship of these lectures by Massey College.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us