Academic journal article Philosophy Today


Academic journal article Philosophy Today


Article excerpt

Hochster Fatalismus doch identisch mit dem Zufalle und dem Schopferischen.1

The highest fatalism, yet identical with chance and the creative.

This Nachlass fragment of Nietzsche's asserting the identity of chance, fate (or fatalism), and the creative is by no means an isolated instance of a highly paradoxical assertion. Normally we tend to conceive of fate or fatalism as determinism and of chance as sheer accident or caprice. Yet Nietzsche's conception of chance (Zufall) appears to be quite unique in the history of philosophy, nor does his understanding of fate coincide with what is generally understood by that term.

The most extensive ancient treatment of chance can be found in Aristotle's Physics.2 Following his analysis of the four causes, Aristotle seems to feel that he has not fully exhausted the matter and cites chance and spontaneity as incidental causes. He criticizes his predecessors for not having dealt seriously with chance and then proceeds to define chance as an accidental cause in the sphere of those actions done for the sake of something that involve purpose. Further distinguishing between chance and spontaneity, Aristotle states that spontaneity is the wider term whose scope includes inanimate things and lower animals incapable of deliberate intention. He gives the example of a stone falling and striking a man. Since the stone itself is not capable of deliberate intention, this incident must be said to be spontaneous, not by chance. Aristotle's example for chance, slightly updated, is that of a man going to a football game and accidentally running into someone who owed him money and actually paid him. The man had an intention in going to the football game, but it was not in order to collect the money. Thus the fact that he was paid the money was by chance.

If we look for a moment at the etymology of the English "chance," we find that it is related to cadere, to fall, whence also come the words accident, decadence, cadence, casualty. This corresponds quite precisely to the German Zufall, literally to fall to. Thus chance for Nietzsche initially has the quite neutral meaning of what falls to us, what befalls us.

Chance not only has the meaning of what we cannot calculate or anticipate, but also of opportunity. For example, this is your chance to show what you can do. This meaning of chance is close to that of "fortune," whose Latin root is fors, chance, as in fortuitous. Fortuna is the goddess of chance, especially of lucky chance. The context in which Nietzsche discusses chance is not the Aristotelian one of causality. In fact, it is difficult to ascertain what the context is. However, in keeping with his pronouncement of the death of God, the jurisdiction of chance or fortune shifts from that of a transcendent being to that of human being. It is Nietzsche's hope that human being will not remain trapped in its previous stage of human all too human, but will be able to overcome itself and attain a dimension of transhuman being (Ubermensch). With this hope he is not making the absurd claim that human beings are privy to some kind of omnipotence, but rather that much of what happens to them is, so to speak, largely "up to them." We have power not literally over the events that occur in our lives; what we do have power over, or at least the opportunity to develop such power, is our attitude, our stance in the face of what occurs.

Not only the reason of millennia, but their madness too, breaks out in us. It is dangerous to be an heir. Still we fight step by step with the giant, accident; and over the whole of humanity there has ruled so far nonsense-no sense.3

If what has ruled so far over the whole of humanity has been nonsense (Unsinn) and no sense (Ohne-Sinn), our battle with the giant accident or chance must strive for sense and meaning. And as the theologian Paul Tillich pointed out, it was Nietzsche who prophesied that the threat of his, and our, time would be meaninglessness, threatening to culminate in nihilism, the "uncanny guest at the door. …

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