From Divine Nature to Lady Fortune

It’s interesting to think about the shift, in late Stoicism, from the worship of Divine Nature to the cursing of Lady Fortune. I’m thinking particularly of Seneca’s consolatory letter to Marcia, where he writes this extraordinary passage:

We have come into the realm of Fortune, and harsh and invincible is her power; things deserved and undeserved must we suffer just as she wills.  With violence, insult, and cruelty she will maltreat our bodies.  Some she will burn with fire, applied, it may be, to punish, it may be, to heal; some she will bind with chains, committing the power now to an enemy, now to a fellow-countryman; some she will toss naked upon the fickle sea, and, when their struggle with the waves is over, she will not even cast them up on the sand or the shore, but will hide them away in the maw of some huge monster; others, when she has worn them down with divers diseases, she will long keep suspended between life and death.  Like a mistress that is changeable and passionate and neglectful of her slaves, she will be capricious in both her rewards and her punishments. What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.

Now, in other essays Seneca talks explicitly about Providence and Nature, and praises both. But he also often talks about Fortune, and the pitilessness we can expect at Her hands (it is usually anthropomorphized as a Her). There seems to me a tension there, an ambiguity about the forces that rule the universe. Are we the children of the Logos, a wise and benevolent god or goddess who orders all things to perfection, or are we under the sovereignty of Lady Fortune, a cruel and merciless bitch? Or possibly both?

Lady Philosophy leads Boethius up into heaven

One finds a similar ambiguity in Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy, in which the narrator meets two goddesses – Lady Fortune, who is an evil seductress, and Lady Philosophy, who will help free the narrator from the wiles and devices of Lady Fortune. I haven’t read Boethius’ great work for a few years, and I’m no academic expert on either him or Seneca, but I wonder if there is a shift in late Stoicism towards more of a Christian or Gnostic view of Nature, in which it’s possible that external reality is under the sovereignty of an evil agency – Lady Fortune, similar to the Gnostic demiurge or the Christian idea of Satan – while there is a higher agency who is trying to free us from imprisonment by this lower malevolent deity.

Demeter was both cruel and loving – she could be placated by the Eleusinian Mysteries

Before Stoicism, of course, the Greeks got round this problem by characterizing Demeter, goddess of Nature, as both evil pitiless bitch and all-loving benevolent mother. Nature could be vicious and cruel to humanity, as personified by Demeter Erinys, Black Demeter, the grieving, venguful mother of Persephone. But she could also be placated, through the Eleusinian Mysteries, and humanity could come back into a more harmonious relationship with Her.

After the Socratic revolution, humans weren’t quite sure which aspect of Nature to see, either the loving benevolent face of Demeter the harvest goddess, or the vicious and vengeful face of Demeter Erinys. It’s like the famous optical illusion of the old hag / beautiful young girl. And that ambiguity, that optical illusion, is apparent in Seneca’s switching between Providence and Fortune. So it seems to me, anyway. I wrote about this in the past for a Stoicism blog series I did for the New Statesman, here.

1 thought on “From Divine Nature to Lady Fortune”

  1. Very stimulating. I must follow these Stoic messages more closely. I’m not a student of Stoicism. (Being from Texas, perhaps I am a Stoic.) With an interest in theology, I was reading Pelikan’s “The Eternal Feminine,” in which Pelikan looks at Dante for three views of the feminine. The first view is the use of Boethius in “The Consolations of Philosophy,” in which Lady Philosophy is also called Nutrix (nurse) and Magesteria (teacher?). Anyway, a male Texan interested in wholeness has to look into these things. As an amateur theologian I’m certainly interested in the relationship between grace and nature, and it appears that Stoicism has much to say about this. Perhaps I should continue to look more closely into Stoicism. Thank you for your message.

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