Cleanthes, Prayer to Destiny

1 Introduction

Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoic school, was also something of a poet, and the present piece in Greek verse was one of the few pagan prayers that achieved fame.

It is cited no less than five times in Arrian’s collections of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus’ teachings (Discourses 2.23.42; 3.22.95; 4.1.131; 4.4.34; Enchiridion 53); twice by the astrologer Vettius Valens (who misattributes it to Euripides: p. 261; 271); once without attribution in an ancient commentary on Homer (Scholia on Iliad 18.115); and once, in an original Latin translation, by the Stoic Seneca (Moral Letters 107.11).

By Destiny, Cleanthes means the order or reason (lógos) of the cosmic god Zeus. The Stoics called this “unconquerable, unhinderable and unchangeable cause […] Fate (Heimarménē), Atropos (the Fate ‘Unchangeable’), Adrasteia (‘Inescapable’), Necessity (Anánkē) and Destiny (Peprōménē)” (Plutarch, On Stoic Self-Contradiction 1056c). Thus, Seneca does not violate the sense of Cleanthes when he conflates the original two addressees of the prayer into one. Indeed, Seneca makes the sense of the poem more transparent.

2 Translation of the Greek original

Ἄγου δέ μ‘, ὦ Ζεῦ, καὶ σύ γ‘ ἡ πεπρωμένη,
ὅποι ποθ‘ ὑμῖν εἰμὶ διατεταγμένος,
ὡς ἕψομαί γ‘ ἄοκνος· ἢν δὲ μὴ θέλω
κακὸς γενόμενος, οὐδὲν ἧττον ἕψομαι.

Lead me, o Zeus, and you, Destiny,
Whithersoever I am stationed by you,
That I may follow freely! Yet even if I will not,
If I am evil,* nevertheless I will follow.

(* In Stoic ethics, it is a vice not to be obedient to fate, not because one can actually overturn it, but because such disobedience is not “life in accordance with nature”.)

3 Translation of Seneca’s Latin version

Duc, o parens celsique dominator poli,
quocumque placuit: nulla parendi mora est;
adsum inpiger. Fac nolle, comitabor gemens
malusque patiar facere quod licuit bono.
Ducunt volentem fata, nolentem trahunt.

Lead, o parent and lord of high heaven,
Wheresover it please you! There is no delay in submitting;
I follow willingly. Make me unwilling, and I will follow moaning
And, being impious, will suffer to do what, if good, I would have done freely.
The fates lead the one who is willing; the one who is not, they drag.