What is the difference between “providence” and “fate,” according to Boethius? In a famous discussion he writes:
the whole progress of things subject to change and whatever moves in any way, receives their causes, their due order and their form from the unchanging mind of God. In the high citadel of its oneness, the mind of God has set up a plan for the multitude of events. When this plan is thought of as in the purity of God’s understanding, it is called Providence, and when it is thought of with reference to all things, whose motions and order it controls, it is called by the name the ancients gave it, Fate…. Providence is the divine reason itself… Fate, on the other hand, is the planned order inherent in things subject to change through the medium of which Providence binds everything in its own allotted place. Providence includes all things at the same time, however diverse or infinite, while Fate controls the motion of different individual things in different places and in different times. So this unfolding of the plan in time when brought together as a unified whole in the foresight of God’s mind is Providence; and the same unified whole when dissolved and unfolded in the course of time is Fate…. The order of Fate is derived from the simplicity of Providence. (Consolation of Philosophy 4.6, trans. Watts)
In summary, providence is God’s governing plan for creation as it exists in his own mind, whereas fate is God’s governing plan as it exists within creation; providence considers God’s plan from the perspective of the unity of the divine mind (providence is one), fate considers God’s plan from the perspective of the diversity of the physical world (fate is many); providence is general or universal, fate is specific or particular; providence is the divine plan, fate is the material outworking of that plan.
By comparison, in Tolkien’s creation-myth, the Ainulindalë, we might say that providence is Ilúvatar’s own, original, and overarching “theme,” whereas “fate” is identified with the Ainur’s Music “interpreting” and “adorning” that theme (meaning that, in Tolkien’s myth, fate itself has become a delegated responsibility and an object of sub-creation). For more on Tolkien and Boethius, the interested reader is referred to Kathleen Dubs’s “Providence, Fate, and Chance: Boethian Philosophy in The Lord of the Rings” (Twentieth Century Literature 27, no. 1, Spring, 1981: 34-42), and John Houghton and Neal K. Keesee, “Tolkien, King Alfred, and Boethius: Platonist Views of Evil in The Lord Of The Rings” (Tolkien Studies 2, 2005: 131-159).