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Bruce Bucknell

Former British Deputy High Commissioner Kolkata

Part of FCDO Outreach

17th January 2014

Readers’ questions: fate or free will – and the welfare of nations

What has more importance: the power of circumstance or the fortitude of a person? Which is more important for national welfare and humanity in general? Svetlana via Budzma website.

Dear Svetlana: Happy New Year to you and all other readers.

Thank you for these challenging questions – I’ve have simplified them for readers. I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer it, but let me set out a few thoughts that came to me over the holiday period.


Fate or free will

I think your question is the “fate versus free will” issue, which has long occupied philosophers. It seems to me the hub of the question is choice. What choices do we have in our lives? What are our possibilities, or what is the degree of choice available to us?

None of us have any choice as to where, when and to whom we were born. That choice was made by our parents. They pass on their genes, and within those genes may lie our fate of how long we might live and what we might die of.

If I was answering this question a century or so ago, I suspect that I would think that circumstances counted for most in life. Most of us would have followed our parents – living in much the same place, following much the same way of life, and making our living in much the same job.

That has changed because of what we have learnt about world and cosmos, and how we have harnessed the natural resources of our planet through industrialisation. Many people now earn their living differently from agrarian, pre-industrial societies, when most people on our planet earned their living “from the soil”. Only a very few had the fortune to follow different lives.

What we know about our universe is now widely disseminated in our societies through literacy, universal education, and mass communications. From medical research, we know more about our own bodies and how far we can exert them. Medical treatment has cut infant mortality to a fraction of what it was a century or so ago.
There are still many mysteries about our universe. Despite the great strides in knowledge, we still don’t really know about the size or origins of our universe, how our brains work, or what is smaller than the Higgs boson. We are constrained by the universe we live in.

So I understand the opinion that the choices we have provide an illusion of free will. But within our lives, I think we have more choice now, especially because of education. Many more people now have far wider horizons about what is possible in their lives.

The welfare of nations

I think your second question is even more difficult to answer. There is a problem of what you mean by welfare, or well-being, of a nation. Is it our material wealth? Or physical health? Or our spiritual health – how happy are the people?

And how do you assess it? There are various international indexes that compare income, life expectancy, public opinion and so on. They can be merged into a “quality of life” index. But the results will depend on how an index is weighted. What is more important: a clean environment, low level of crime, or access to education?

The indicators only show the outcomes for each country. They don’t in themselves tell us much about how a country achieved a high level of income, or why it has a lower suicide rate than another country, and so on.

Some factors cannot be changed. Geographical position and climate are perhaps the most obvious.
Then there is the culture of society. My Indian colleague and I have several times discussed our differences in thinking. He comes from a very different philosophical tradition, where people tend to have a different view of their place in the universe, and seem more accepting of their circumstances.

I am a product of the western tradition, stretching back to the classical civilisation of Ancient Greece. I take for granted the ideas that came down from Christianity, the Enlightenment and liberal thought. For me, freedom of choice and the enjoyment of certain rights as we know them in a democracy are central for the welfare of a society.

Within the western tradition, there are many different ideas about welfare. Perhaps the most British is the idea of utilitarianism, set out by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. This is the principle of acting to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people or a “sum of happiness”. From these ideas developed the indices on the quality of life.

The problem with the principle is that it depends on human beings. We are not always rational, and we can change our minds. And the principle in itself doesn’t guarantee that the political leaders act in the best interests of the majority.

There was a 19th century view that “history was but the biography of great men” as described by the British thinker Carlyle. Another thinker, Lord Acton, was far more sceptical about the “great men”, and noted that power tends to corrupt.

The “heroic” view of history was gradually subsumed by the idea that great leaders were largely the product of their societies. In the epilogue of “War and Peace”, Tolstoy wrote at some length how even Napoleon was driven on in his invasion of Russia by forces that he himself didn’t control.

Others suggested that societies developed along pre-determined lines, such as Marx. But those states that described themselves as Marxist didn’t come about as Marx had foreseen, that is: through the overthrow of capitalist bourgeois democracies. They tended to come about in less developed countries, where capitalism and industrialisation was less developed.

I could go on – there are so many facets to this subject. Let me focus on the ones I know better.
Diplomats assess the problems facing countries and their political leadership. We need to understand the constraints that decision-makers face in trying to follow a certain path. Sometimes leaders claim that domestic politics impede them from not doing something in the international sphere. Often these difficulties or decisions are taken for short term interest.

The success of a nation over the longer term seems to depend on how the population views itself, and is ready to be mobilised in a common cause and with common rules. This is less about fate or free will, and more about common identity and motivation.

It doesn’t necessarily need a great leader to mobilise a population. An invasion from foreigners (or threat of invasion) can be exceedingly effective in unifying and galvanising a nation. But war, thankfully, is now rare in Europe.

I fear I have only scratched the surface in this answer. I am sure that the future welfare of a nation depends in the long run on everyone having a voice in deciding the future.

You also asked if I had personal experience of someone who had overcome their circumstances.
I don’t have any particular examples to hand. However, I am always in awe of people whose circumstances were less favourable than mine – in terms of either health or material well being – yet who have prospered despite them. There are many people who have overcome their disabilities.

Your questions also bring to mind one political leader who has just recently died. Despite spending over 27 years of his life in prison and being released at the age of 71, Nelson Mandela was able to lead South Africa peacefully from apartheid to majority democratic rule.

Mandela himself had a favourite poem that he used to recite regularly while in prison. It was written in 1875 by the English poet William Ernest Henry, who was plagued by ill health all his life, and had a foot amputated because of a tubercular infection. It’s entitled “Invictus”:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

About Bruce Bucknell

Bruce was the British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata from 2016 to 2019. Previously he was Ambassador in Minsk from July 2012 to January 2016. Bruce grew up on a…

Bruce was the British Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata from 2016 to 2019. Previously he was Ambassador in Minsk from July 2012 to January 2016.

Bruce grew up on a farm in southern England and enjoys walking in the countryside and visiting wild places.

He studied modern history at Durham University, and takes a keen interest in the history of the places he visits.

Bruce used to play cricket when he could see the ball. Now he enjoys watching cricket and many other sports in his spare time.

He has had a varied career in the Foreign Office. Between his postings to Amman (1988-91), Milan (1995-9) and Madrid (2003-7), he has spent much of his career in London mostly dealing with Europe and Africa.

He is married with two grown up sons.