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.