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?
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.
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.
In this Perspectives Article, John Sellars, Lecturer in Philosophy at Birkbeck College, London, discusses Philosophy as Medicine: Stoicism as Cognitive Psychotherapy.
“Distinct from philosophy of medicine is the idea of philosophy as medicine. Might philosophy itself have some therapeutic value? I want to explore this question by looking at the way in which ancient Stoic philosophy claimed to be a form of therapy and also the perhaps unexpected way in which a number of key figures in the development of modern cognitive psychotherapy have cited Stoicism as a key influence on their work. In short I shall try to show both that ancient Stoic philosophy is itself a form of cognitive psychotherapy and that it stands behind modern forms of cognitive psychotherapy as well…
This is a guest article, by Rohan Healey, author ofGreeks to Geeks: Practical Stoicism in the 21st Century. In this article, Rohan discusses the value of Stoic ideas for understanding the difference between making a ‘promise’, and making an ‘agreement’. Rohan also has a blog, which you can read here.
Why You Should Never Make a Promise
One of the most important aspects of the Stoic Philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome was the importance of distinguishing between what is within our power and what is not. And once distinguished, the idea is to concern ourselves only with what we do control and to stop worrying about what we don’t. However you do not need to be a philosophy professor to see the benefits of thinking this way, all you need is a little common sense. When we make a promise to another human being we are essentially saying that we can control that which is actually outside of our power to control. If I were to organise a date and I say “I’ll see you at 2pm on Tuesday, this time I promise!” I am telling you that I have the power to be there at that time regardless of outside circumstances, this of course is a lie. Now let’s say that Tuesday comes around, I’m on my way to the date but there is a traffic accident some way up the road and I get stuck in traffic while the emergency services do their thing.
NB: Your feedback is much appreciated, especially on whether the questions make sense to you, and whether you feel they adequately assess (self-rated) attitudes that would be consistent with a classical Stoic philosophy of life.
Introduction. This scale is still under development. The initial version is designed to help arrive at a consensus on items (questions/statements) that accurately and comprehensively define a classical Stoic philosophical outlook. There’s also a section for basic Stoic practices or cognitive and behavioural strategies. In some cases a balance has to be struck between fidelity to the ancient tradition and making the statements comprehensible to a modern research participant. This scale is initially being developed with a view to using it in correlational research to establish the extent to which existing Stoic attitudes, among students of Stoicism or the general population, correlate with established measures of psychological resilience, emotional wellbeing, etc. (There are currently no reverse-scored questions, although these may be incorporated at a later date.)
Rate how strongly you agree with each of the statements below using this scale: