Responding to Providence
Of all the concepts from the ancient Stoic worldview, the idea of “providence” remains one of the most nebulous, ambiguous, and potentially problematic. The trouble can be chased down to about four main factors.
First and foremost, ancient Stoa (spanning early, middle, and late periods) extends over a 600+ year span, a time that witnessed significant drifts in underlying religious orientations. Animism, paganism, and polytheism increasingly, even if ambiguously, gave way to abstract forms of monotheism, pantheism, and deism. Consequently, varied notions of “the divine” appear throughout stoic writings: sometimes reference is made to “the gods,” or to “God,” sometimes to “Providence,” or “Nature,” sometimes to “Fate,” or “the fates,” or “Destiny,” or “Reason,” or even “the Highest Mind.” In all of these references, we find something like a divine order (a Universal Logos) which is beyond human control and around which, assuming we are reasonable and wish to minimize unnecessary suffering, we willingly align our lives.
Second, highly related to the many amorphous transitions toward abstract monotheism/deism, the so-called “problem of evil” became increasingly salient, and theodicy began to bloom. Seneca’s well known, “On Providence,” for example, offers an early account of how, if indeed there is providence, misfortune could befall good men. One reason theodicy came to a head at this point in history is, as already mentioned, because monotheism/deism coupled with belief in a fundamentally good Nature subtly undermined previous explanations for hardships and evil (e.g. where some gods were occasionally more cunning, potent, or resourceful than others in some regards). Another reason for the rise in theodicy is that the stoics only weakly, if at all, differentiated between natural occurrences, socio-historical intuitions, and others’ thoughts and actions.
Third, in conjunction with the two factors just mentioned, a most critical ambiguity stems from the fact that the doings of other people get lumped together with the events of nature. Said simply: both are equally outside of one’s control. But if Nature is pervaded by an orderly Logos and everything thereby unfolds according to Reason (and yet people can fail to be reasonable in ways that Nature itself cannot), should we not differentiate between tolerating the pain and hardship entailed by events of Nature (e.g. the ‘non-evil’ of tornado or earthquake) and acquiescing to pain and hardship because of traditional social practices and others’ impositions (e.g. the evil of slavery or physical abuse)? Cruelties and/or hardships that a neighbor willfully imposes on one’s self, children or spouse seem categorically different than genetic sicknesses or hardship brought about by blind happenstance, poor luck, or natural disaster. Granted, both set of occurrences may be equally out of my control and both may, equally, call for courage and justice rather than emotional reaction.
Fourth and finally, the stoics fundamentally wished students to understand themselves as parts within a larger whole. They committed themselves to cosmopolitanism and to serving the world broadly or even cosmically construed, and this despite the fact of many different and even conflicting practices, beliefs, philosophies, and religions.
When we add up all four factors, we can see the troubling ambiguity most clearly. Which wars, if any, are just? Which call for united action and which for protest? Which institutions and practices ought persons attempt to change and/or which ones ought they simply learn to accept? If someone takes another’s possessions, is justice best served by reminding the person whose items were stolen that possessions were never a good anyway and that the items were not, ultimately, his either? Are stoic sages to seek out such thieves and punish them? If so, how? If one’s children have been taken as hostages and criminals now demand a random, what line of action ought a stoic take in response.
The ambiguity grows more and more troubling where providence aligns to “predestination.” Indeed, how could any particular, concrete action be under human jurisdiction if absolutely everything was already sealed according to Destiny? But how, then, ought we understand the Stoic notion of providence?
With hindsight we now can see how these various stoic notions set the stage for Leibnitz’s idea of ‘the best of all possible worlds.’ Providence, viewed by these lights, does not refer to a “Divine Playwright” who, movement by moment, takes pleasure in all the factual details of one’s life, as if the particulars and minutiae of each person’s life need to fit within an overall Divine plan. The unfolding of the events, on the contrary, is not entirely fixed in a predetermined sequence, as if our only possible relation to the future is the temporal opposite to remembering, passive resignation. It seems that the countless particular facts of one’s quotidian life are not already pre-set, but rather, that certain parameters, certain checks and balances, have been prefigured by the cosmic order. For example, death and loss are not to be escaped, nor are the hardships and evil that come from human ignorance (one’s own or another’s).
Providence, therefore, might best summarized by suggesting that not everything that happens is necessarily good (e.g. ignorance), but rather that it is always good to begin by accepting whatever already has happened. The goodness of Nature is in its design or its orderliness, its overall logic, not necessarily in its particular outcomes for particular individuals. Humanity, emerging out from nature and resonating with it, is a place and moment of possible rational deliberation and moral self-consciousness. The only way Nature could be as it is was to include the possibility of humanly imposed stupidity and suffering, including injudicious reactions to both happenstances and natural events. But, just as equally, it had to be as it is so that certain kinds of dignified responses and reasonable self-legislation could come to fruition.
More about Corey: Corey Anton (Ph.D., Purdue University, 1998) is Professor of Communication Studies at Grand Valley State University. With wide research interests in communication theory, phenomenology, semiotics, media ecology, communicology, and stoicism, Anton is author of Selfhood and Authenticity (SUNY Press, 2001);Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism (Duquesne University Press, 2010); Communication Uncovered: General Semantics and Media Ecology (IGS Press, 2011); and editor of Valuation and Media Ecology: Ethics, Morals, and Laws (Hampton Press, 2010), and co-editor, along with Lance Strate, of Korzybski And… (IGS Press, 2012). A Fellow of the International Communicology Institute, he currently serves as the Vice-President of the Institute of General Semantics and as the President of the Media Ecology Association.
Corey has a great series of Youtube videos exploring Stoic philosophy too. You can see them here.
‘Responding to Providence’ is adapted from “Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism” (2010) by Corey Anton, copyright (©) Duquesne University Press.