Seneca: on Providence

Juno as Providence, Louvre Museum

Time to tackle Seneca’s On Providence (the translation I used is by Aubrey Stewart, full text here), which he wrote shortly before he was “invited” to commit suicide by Nero. The six sections of the book deal with the issue of how to reconcile the Stoic idea of Providence with the observation of evil in the world — very much the same problem faced by Christians, though the metaphysical backgrounds, and to some extent the responses to the problem, are obviously different. Seneca basically says that adversity is to be taken as a way to sharpens one’s virtue (similar, but not quite the same motivation of the Christian God). For him, the wise person can tackle whatever the world throws at her with equanimity precisely because she understands how the universe works (contrast this to the Christian take, which relies on a fundamental mystery about God’s plans). Ultimately, the wise person already has the only thing that matters, her virtue (while the Christian is seeking what he lacks most and foremost and can be provided only by God: salvation).

The work is in the form of a letter, opens with Seneca addressing his friend Lucilius: “You have asked me, Lucilius, why, if the world be ruled by providence, so many evils befall good men?” — after which Seneca says that the gods must be responsible for holding together the cosmos, something that surely can’t be the result of mere matter moving at random (a clear dig at the Epicureans). [Throughout this there will be quite some talk of gods, but remember that the standard Stoic position regarding theology was that of pantheism, not anything like Abrahamic monotheism.]

Seneca then explains that there is a “friendship” between the gods and men, and it is because of this that the gods have set things up so that men could be tried, hardened, and made fit.

Section II begins with Seneca asking a rhetorical question about why bad things happen to good man. His answer is that there is no such thing as a bad thing for a truly good man: “the pressure of adversity does not affect the mind of a brave man; for the mind of a brave man maintains its balance and throws its own complexion over all that takes place, because it is more powerful than any external circumstances.” He then compares good men to athletes who strive to improve their skills: in order to do so, they don’t pick on weak and easily defeatible opponents; rather, they choose the most challenging antagonists, so that they can better and more surely improve. The wise person, then, ought to welcome adversity as a way to sharpen her ability to practice virtue: “it does not matter what you bear, but how you bear it.”

The next simile is with that of a fighter: “unbroken prosperity cannot bear a single blow; but he who has waged an unceasing strife with his misfortunes has gained a thicker skin by his sufferings, yields to no disaster, and even though he fall yet fights on his knee.”

But what if Fate is such that one simply cannot avoid defeat? Seneca has a ready answer there too: “what though all be fallen into one man’s power, though the land be guarded by his legions, the sea by his fleets, though Caesar’s soldiers beset the city gate? Cato has a way out of it: with one hand he will open a wide path to freedom,” a clear reference to Cato the Younger, one of the standard Stoic role models, often invoked by Seneca throughout his writings.

Part III presents Lucilius with yet another analogy, this time drawn from medical practice: “yet if you consider that some men, in order to be cured, have their bones scraped, and pieces of them extracted, that their veins are pulled out, and that some have limbs cut off, which could not remain in their place without ruin to the whole body, you will allow me to prove to you this also, that some misfortunes are for the good of those to whom they happen, just as much, by Hercules, as some things which are praised and sought after are harmful to those who enjoy them, like indigestions and drunkenness and other matters which kill us through pleasure.”

In part IV Seneca almost challenges his friend: “to be always prosperous, and to pass through life without a twinge of mental distress, is to remain ignorant of one half of nature. You are a great man; but how am I to know it, if fortune gives you no opportunity of showing your virtue?”

Now this may seem a bit hypocritical from someone famously as prosperous and influential as Seneca himself, but people tend to forget that Seneca had lost many of his possessions when he was sent into exile by Claudius, in his mid-forties; and that he was writing De Providentia when he had already fallen in disgrace with Nero. So it’s fair to say that he knew what he was talking about.

The theme continues with two more analogies: “you can judge of a pilot in a storm, of a soldier in a battle. How can I know with how great a spirit you could endure poverty, if you overflow with riches?”

And speaking of soldiers, at some point Seneca talks of god as if he were a general (notice, by the way, the back and forth between plural and singular when referring to the deity/deities): “Why does God afflict the best of men with ill-health, or sorrow, or other troubles? Because in the army the most hazardous services are assigned to the bravest soldiers … No one of these men says as he begins his march, ‘The general has dealt hardly with me,’ but ‘He has judged well of me.'”

In part V Seneca seems to return to a more classically Stoic concept of Fate understood as universal cause and effect: “The fates guide us, and the length of every man’s days is decided at the first hour of his birth: every cause depends upon some earlier cause: one long chain of destiny decides all things, public or private. Wherefore, everything must be patiently endured, because events do not fall in our way, as we imagine, but come by a regular law.”

Shortly thereafter there is a rather poetic articulation of the duty of the wise person and why it makes sense: “What is the duty of a good man? To submit himself to fate: it is a great consolation — to be swept away together with the entire universe.”

Here is one of the passages where the Stoic view of god-as-the-cosmos is more evident, again in contrast with the Christian view: “‘But why was God so unjust in His distribution of fate, as to assign poverty, wounds, and untimely deaths to good men?’ The workman cannot alter his materials: this is their nature. Some qualities cannot be separated from some others: they cling together; are indivisible.”

The picture of god that this comes closest to is that of Plato’s demiurge, who makes the universe with the materials and within the constraints that are already present and for which he is not responsible. But the Stoics went even further, since they didn’t think that god was outside the cosmos, working as a designer (Christianity) or artist (Platonism) to shape the world. He was the world, which shapes itself because of the natural regularities of cause and effect.

In the final section, Seneca gives some good ‘ol fashioned Stoic advice to his friend, uttering what he imagines to be god’s words to men: “Despise poverty; no man lives as poor as he was born: despise pain; either it will cease or you will cease: despise death; it either ends you or takes you elsewhere: despise fortune; I have given her no weapon that can reach the mind. Above all, I have taken care that no one should hold you captive against your will: the way of escape lies open before you: if you do not choose to fight, you may fly. For this reason, of all those matters which I have deemed essential for you, I have made nothing easier for you than to die … That very act which is called dying, by which the breath of life leaves the body, is too short for you to be able to estimate its quickness: whether a knot crushes the windpipe, or water stops your breathing: whether you fall headlong from a height and perish upon the hard ground below, or a mouthful of fire checks the drawing of your breath — whatever it is, it acts swiftly. Do you not blush to spend so long a time in dreading what takes so short a time to do?”

As Epictetus would later put it, the door is always open, if the room is too smoky, get out. If not, it means you can still breath and that it is worthwhile for you to keep doing so.

10 thoughts on “Seneca: on Providence

  1. Ali

    Massimo, I’m not really sure how to properly phrase my question but from this Stoic view of God being the world based on the cause and effect principle do you consider this concept provides ‘scientific’ evidence of the existence of said cosmos/God, i.e. the Logos, to the modern reader?


  2. labnut

    Massimo, this has an interesting connection with your last post, about cosmopolitanism.

    To put it simply: we ought to give a crap about everyone on earth, from our close kin and friends to complete strangers on the other side of the globe.

    I interpret that to mean that meaning and purpose lies in our duty to the common good of the fellow inhabitants of this planet. Our highest goal and our most noble goal is to advance this common good.

    But what of the problem of natural and moral evil? These are the obstacles raised by chance, environment and fellow beings to discharging our duty to our fellow beings on the planet. We have a duty to meet these obstacles with resilience, hardiness, persistence and endurance, because, all things considered, that is the best way of advancing this goal. Moreover they motivate others to emulate our example so that even when we fail, the way we meet failure strengthens the resolve of others.

    A culture of persistence, resilience, hardiness and endurance is the best means of advancing the common good in the face of the challenges posed by natural and moral evil, and therefore we should cultivate it, even if it requires that we sacrifice ourselves and even when it seems that we fail.


  3. Massimo Post author


    No, I don’t think science can actually tell the difference among a godless cosmos, the pantheistic one, or the theistic one. Science does not need to postulate any deity, but that doesn’t imply any positive statement about the existence or not of said deity (pace the new atheists…). Then again, my point has been for some time that it doesn’t matter for the purposes of Stoic ethics. See here:


    Yes, for the Stoics we have a duty to advance the common good, but this includes also advancing one’s own good, as the latter depends on the former. It’s a kind of enlightened self-interest, if you will. And it comes from the Stoic understanding of human nature: that of a social animal capable of reason.

    The so-called problem of natural/moral evil does not exist for the Stoics. The universe does what it does, it is not intrinsically good or evil (indeed, those metaphysical categories are alien to the Stoic), and it is up to us to decide how to handle whatever the universe throws us.

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  4. labnut

    No, I don’t think science can actually tell the difference among a godless cosmos, the pantheistic one, or the theistic one.

    Agreed. My fellow Catholics make much of the so-called proofs for God’s existence. I don’t agree that they are proofs. In fact I don’t think proofs are possible, neither of the philosophic nor scientific kind.

    that doesn’t imply any positive statement about the existence or not of said deity

    In general I agree with your statement but I think there is one way in which a God hypothesis could be falsified. That is if science could definitively show we lack any kind of free will. Having registered this point I don’t want to defend this assertion here. Doing so will require an extended comment that has nothing to do with Stoicism and it will take us too far from the subject of this post.

    The universe does what it does, it is not intrinsically good or evil

    Agreed. These are labels which do not describe the universe but instead describe our(non-Stoic) perceptions of certain events in the universe. I still think it is appropriate to call some kinds of behaviour ‘evil’. We reserve this term for actions or people which deserve the strongest form of censure. In fact we need this term. It is necessary that we have a term for extreme actions which are so far outside the pale of acceptable behaviour that they deserve universal condemnation of the strongest kind.

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  5. dsferrara

    The so-called proofs of the existence of God are not exactly proofs, but arguments in favor of a thesis. You adhere to them depending on your experience of life, your internal scale of values and, last but not least, your desire to belong to a tradition or community. In the end, everything rests upon the individual. Christianity knows that, since it insists on the necessity of faith, which is a sine qua non condition for salvation. Persuading oneself rationally of the existence of God is, in the Christian point of view, just a way of guaranteeing that reason will not undermine faith. Putting reason first is, in that same sense, always dangerous to faith.

    In this respect, I consider myself today a firm (not a stern nor a stubborn) agnostic. Since the existence of God is a thing I cannot be sure of, I try to concentrate on my tiny lot: my own actions. I may be wrong, of course, and review this momentary way of thinking during my lifetime.

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  6. Massimo Post author


    No, I don’t think that even a falsification of free will, if possible, would do it. Maybe that would get the Christian God into trouble (though theologians tend to be very creative…), but there are plenty of other options on the table. A pantheist, for instance, wouldn’t really care.


  7. labnut

    No, I don’t think that even a falsification of free will, if possible, would do it.

    I think I can make a strong case for my claim that demonstrating the absence of free will would falsify the hypothesis for the existence of God. But I really don’t want to derail the discussion about the Stoic concept of providence.

    …falsification of free will, if possible

    It is fashionable in neuroscience to claim that free will does not exist.To me, anyway, their claims look flimsy but they will continue to push the matter.

    though theologians tend to be very creative…

    Hard problems require creative thinking. More of the ‘same old, same old’ thinking will only confirm old problems. This is how science and philosophy move forward so, you should not deny theologians the same opportunity.


  8. labnut

    Seneca said
    it is not without some guardian that so great a work maintains its position, that the assemblage and movements of the stars do not depend upon accidental impulses, or that objects whose motion is regulated by chance often fall into confusion and soon stumble, whereas this swift and safe movement goes on, governed by eternal law

    Seneca confronts the essential problem of existence. Why is the universe so precisely ordered rather than a random, formless assemblage of particles? His answer was eternal law.

    For Seneca, then, providence is eternal law. This is a surprisingly modern statement, made 2,500 years ago, which could only be fully appreciated after the birth of science some 500 years ago. Science has essentially confirmed that ‘eternal law’ governs the universe, precisely, everywhere, all the time, without exception(and some randomness thrown in for good measure). We can of course quibble about the prescriptive and descriptive views of the laws of nature, but in my opinion, they amount to the same thing.

    Christianity confronted the same problem by postulating that God was the ground of being(Tillich). St. Paul: “[I]t is he who gives to everyone life and breath and everything…. In him we live and move and have our being,…“.

    Today we could interpret this in one of two ways. First God is the author of the laws of nature. Or secondly, that the laws of nature are the properties of God.

    Whether we adopt Seneca’s interpretation or either of the Christian interpretations, we are still confronted by the problem of how we deal with the ‘sea of troubles'(as Hamlet described them), that is the inevitable consequence of eternal law.

    Hamlet asked “Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune, Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,

    The Stoic answer is that nobility is found in suffering the slings and arrows of misfortune. The Stoic goal is nobility of the mind, found in suffering and the practice of the virtues. This is the greatest prize and it is tested, refined and strengthened by the manner we suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. This prize, nobility of the mind, is life’s reward, goal and hope.

    The Christian answer is the same but it adds an ultimate reward, goal and hope, that of life with God.

    Both traditions qualify this by adding a duty to the community. The Stoic duty to the community is enshrined in the virtue of justice and the practice of cosmopolitanism. The Christian qualification is love of fellow beings. Arguably, Christians place greater emphasis on this than Stoics do while Stoics place greater emphasis on nobility of the mind.

    Finally the two traditions have very different attitudes to providence. For the Stoic, providence is what it is, while for the Christian, providence is God. Thus the Stoic owes nothing to providence while the Christian owes love and obedience to God. The consequence is that the Stoic’s ultimate resource is himself. This inculcates a practice of strong self-sufficiency. The Christian’s ultimate resource is God and this is expressed in dependence on God through prayer, ritual and service.


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