Seneca’s “On Providence” attempts to address the question of why bad things happen to brave, virtuous people. While some aspects of the essay are problematic, he does make a strong case for turning to philosophy now to learn to withstand adversity when it inevitably comes.
Seneca highlights the basic Stoic precept that external events are indifferent, and rather than be concerned about why misfortune has come,
[G]ood men . . . should not shrink from hardships and difficulties, nor complain against fate; they should take in good part whatever happens, and should turn it to good. Not what you endure, but how you endure, is important.
He stresses that God does not, in fact, allow “evil” to strike good men, because that would entail “sin and crime, evil counsel and schemes for greed, blind lust and avarice intent upon another’s goods.” While misfortune, on the other hand, can and will befall a good man, “he despises externals”; his “good fortune is not to need good fortune” because God has
given [Fortune] no weapon with which she may strike [the good man’s] soul. . . . No evil can befall a good man; opposites do not mingle. Just as the countless rivers, the vast fall of rain from the sky, and the huge volume of mineral springs do not change the taste of the sea, do not even modify it, so the assaults of adversity do not weaken the spirit of a brave man.
If this is true–and it is plausible that a brave man indeed would not be weakened by adversity to the extent a more timorous man would–then one should begin pursuing the virtuous life as soon as possible, well before disaster should strike. And strike it will: “For you are wrong to suppose that any one is exempt from ill.”
Not only is the good man immune to bad luck, he is strengthened by it:
No tree becomes rooted and sturdy unless many a wind assails it. . . . the fragile trees are those that have grown in a sunny valley. It is, therefore, to the advantage even if good men, to the end that they may be unafraid, to live constantly amidst alarms and to bear with patience the happenings which are ills to him only who ill supports them.
There are echoes in this essay of the pragmatic emphasis on moral training in Epictetus and Musonius Rufus. Without opportunities to test our developing courage and wisdom, those qualities do not flourish as they otherwise could. Musonius Rufus writes in his sixth lecture:
Could we acquire courage by realizing that things which seem terrible to most people are not to be feared but without practicing being fearless towards them? Could we become wise by recognizing what things are truly good and what things are bad but without having been trained to look down on things which [merely] seem to be good?
In this vein, Seneca admiringly quotes Demetrius: “‘No man seems to me more unhappy that one who has never met with adversity.’ For such a man has never had an opportunity to test himself.” Seneca says he would tell someone who has always had good fortune in life, “I judge you unfortunate because you have never been unfortunate; you have passed through life without an antagonist; no one will know what you can do, not even yourself.”
There is a thread running through the essay that might be less convincing to an atheist nowadays than it would have been to a typical Roman contemporary of Seneca’s: Much of the essay imagines God or Fortune doling out misfortune to good men in order to strengthen their virtue–for example, when he says, “For my part, I do not wonder if sometimes the gods are moved by the desire to behold great men wrestle with some calamity” or “God hardens, reviews, and disciplines those whom he approves, whom he loves.”
As John Sellars notes in Stoicism, Seneca sidesteps the issue of whether God has ordered things in the best possible manner by emphasizing the positive benefits of negative events. Besides, how can there be one “best” when what serves one man is often at the expense of another? Fortune is at times a zero-sum game. For an atheist or agnostic Stoic, Seneca’s approach is more palatable than trying to reconcile notions of providence or God with the existence of suffering and evil in the world.
Sellars points out that Voltaire parodied the philosophy that this is the “best of all possible worlds” in Candide as the wide-eyed protagonists suffered every misfortune imaginable. As I originally read Candide without context, I was interested to learn that the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, in which tens of thousands of people died, had precipitated Voltaire’s sarcastic response (he also wrote a serious poem on the disaster), as certain contemporary thinkers were propounding a “philosophical optimism” that tried to reconcile a loving Christian God with the notion of evil.
Seneca glorifies violence, to others and to the self, which only the strongest stomachs can take literally today. If we are supposed to withstand adversity like a sturdy tree, how does he explain Cato’s suicide? He writes, “Surely the gods looked with pleasure upon their pupil as he made his escape by so glorious and memorable an end!” Quite a violent and bloody end, too, but I will spare you the details that you likely already know.
Moreover, I can possibly endure his denigration of “the mother [who] fondles [her children] in her lap, wishes them never to be unhappy, never to cry, never to toil” in favor of the father who–like God–says, “Let them be harassed by toil, by suffering, by losses, in order that they may gather true strength,” but are we really supposed to take it so far as to admire the Lacedaemonian fathers, as Seneca does, who “test [their children’s] mettle by lashing them in public” and “call upon them to endure bravely the blows of the whip, and ask them, though mangled and half-dead, to keep offering their wounded bodies to further wounds”? I suppose I am a poor Stoic, but I would rather cuddle with my son than whip him in public until he is half-dead (and I would hazard the opinion that my parenting style is more conducive to positive character development!).
Providence and God are present in “On Providence” as benevolent dispensers of misfortune to strengthen men’s virtue. Whether Seneca succeeds in explaining this thorny issue is debatable, but he certainly has fortifying words for those who have suffered misfortunes. In this sense Seneca’s argument is stronger from an ex post perspective, looking backward on misfortunes that have already transpired, than from an ex ante point of view. In other words, Seneca is not convincing that severe adversity is so strong an architect of character that one would voluntarily seek it out for no other reason than to become a stronger person. Reading “On Providence” after the fact, however, would mollify the spirit and make one feel as though one’s suffering has had noble benefits.