Stoic Philosophy. Seneca, On Providence

Stoic Philosophy. Seneca, On Providence

by William C. Michael

In this lesson, we begin our study of Stoic Philosophy. We begin with the study of Seneca’s essay “On Providence”. To complete the objectives of this lesson:

- Study the lesson for mastery.
- Complete the lesson assessment.


You have asked me, Lucilius, why, if a Providence rules the world, it still happens that many evils befall good men. This would be more fittingly answered in a coherent work designed to prove that a Providence does preside over the universe, and that God concerns himself with us. But since it is your wish that a part be severed from the whole, and that I refute a single objection while the main question is left untouched, I shall do so; the task is not difficult. I shall be pleading the cause of the gods.

For the present purpose it is unnecessary to show that this mighty structure of the world does not endure without some one to guard it, and that the assembling and the separate flight of the stars above are not due to the workings of chance; that while bodies which owe their motion to accident often fall into disorder and quickly collide, this swift revolution of the heavens, being ruled by eternal law, goes on unhindered, producing so many things on land and sea, so many brilliant lights in the sky all shining in fixed array; that this regularity does not belong to matter moving at random, and that whatever combinations result from chance do not adjust themselves with that artistry whereby the earth, the heaviest in weight, abides immovable and beholds the flight of the sky as it whirls around it, and the seas, flooding a the valleys, soften the land, and feel no increase from the rivers, and whereby huge growths spring up from the tiniest seeds. Even the phenomena which seem irregular and undetermined — I mean showers and clouds, the stroke of crashing thunderbolts and the fires that belch from the riven peaks of mountains, tremors of the quaking ground, and the other disturbances which the turbulent element in nature sets in motion about the earth, these, no matter how suddenly they occur, do not happen without a reason; nay, they also are the result of special causes, and so, in like manner, are those things which seem miraculous by reason of the incongruous situations in which they are beheld, such as warm waters in the midst of the sea waves, and the expanses of new islands that spring up in the wide ocean. Moreover, if any one observes how the shore is laid bare as the sea withdraws into itself, and how within a short time the same stretch is covered over again, he will suppose that it is some blind fluctuation which causes the waves now to shrink and flow inwards, now to burst forth and in mighty sweep seek their former resting-place, whereas in fact they increase by degrees, and true to the hour and the day they approach in proportionately larger or smaller volume according as they are attracted by the star we call the moon, at whose bidding the ocean surges. But let such matters be kept for their fitting time, all the more so, indeed, because you do not lack faith in Providence, but complain of it. I shall reconcile you with the gods, who are ever best to those who are best. For Nature never permits good to be injured by good; between good men and the gods there exists a friendship brought about by virtue.

Friendship, do I say? Nay, rather there is a tie of relationship and a likeness, since, in truth, a good man differs from God in the element of time only; he is God’s pupil, his imitator, and true offspring, whom his all-glorious parent, being no mild taskmaster of virtues, rears, as strict fathers do, with much severity. And so, when you see that men who are good and acceptable to the gods labour and sweat and have a difficult road to climb, that the wicked, on the other hand, make merry and abound in pleasures, reflect that our children please us by their modesty, but slave-boys by their forwardness; that we hold in check the former by sterner discipline, while we encourage the latter to be bold. Be assured that the same is true of God. He does not make a spoiled pet of a good man; he tests him, hardens him, and fits him for his own service. You ask, “Why do many adversities come to good men?” 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. It always maintains its poise, and it gives its own colour to everything that happens; for it is mightier than all external things. And yet I do not mean to say that the brave man is insensible to these, but that he overcomes them, and being in all else unmoved and calm rises to meet whatever assails him. All his adversities he counts mere training. Who, moreover, if he is a man and intent upon the right, is not eager for reasonable toil and ready for duties accompanied by danger? To what energetic man is not idleness a punishment? Wrestlers, who make strength of body their chief concern, we see pitting themselves against none but the strongest, and they require of those who are preparing them for the arena that they use against them all their strength; they submit to blows and hurts, and if they do not find their match in single opponents, they engage with several at a time. Without an adversary, prowess shrivels. We see how great and how efficient it really is, only when it shows by endurance what it is capable of. Be assured that good men ought to act likewise; they 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.

Do you not see how fathers show their love in one way, and mothers in another? The father orders his children to be aroused from sleep in order that they may start early upon their pursuits, even on holidays he does not permit them to be idle, and he draws from them sweat and sometimes tears. But the mother fondles them in her lap, wishes to keep them out of the sun, wishes them never to be unhappy, never to cry, never to toil. Toward good men God has the mind of a father, he cherishes for them a manly love, and he says, “Let them be harassed by toil, by suffering, by losses, in order that they may gather true strength.” Bodies grown fat through sloth are weak, and not only labour, but even movement and their very weight cause them to break down. Unimpaired prosperity cannot withstand a single blow; but he who has struggled constantly with his ills becomes hardened through suffering; and yields to no misfortune; nay, even if he falls, he still fights upon his knees. Do you wonder if that God, who most dearly loves the good, who wishes them to become supremely good and virtuous, allots to them a fortune that will make them struggle? For my part, I do not wonder if sometimes the gods are moved by the desire to behold great men wrestle with some calamity. We men at times are stirred with pleasure if a youth of steady courage meets with his spear an onrushing wild beast, if unterrified he sustains the charge of a lion. And the more honourable the youth who does this, the more pleasing this spectacle becomes. But these are not the things to draw down the gaze of the gods upon us — they are childish, the pas-times of man’s frivolity. But lo! here is a spectacle worthy of the regard of God as he contemplates his work; lo! here a contest worthy of God, — a brave man matched against ill-fortune, and doubly so if his also was the challenge. I do not know, I say, what nobler sight the Lord of Heaven could find on earth, should he wish to turn his attention there, than the spectacle of Cato, after his cause had already been shattered more than once, nevertheless standing erect amid the ruins of the commonwealth. “Although,” said he, “all the world has fallen under one man’s sway, although Caesar’s legions guard the land, his fleets the sea, and Caesar’s troops beset the city gates, yet Cato has a way of escape; with one single hand he will open a wide path to freedom. This sword, unstained and blameless even in civil war, shall at last do good and noble service: the freedom which it could not give to his country it shall give to Cato! Essay, my soul, the task long planned; deliver yourself from human affairs. Already Petreius and Juba have met and lie fallen, each slain by the other’s hand. Their compact with Fate was brave and noble, but for my greatness such would be unfit. For Cato it were as ignoble to beg death from any man as to beg life.” I am sure that the gods looked on with exceeding joy while that hero, most ruthless in avenging himself, took thought for the safety of others and arranged the escape of his departing followers; while even on his last night he pursued his studies; while he drove the sword into his sacred breast; while he scattered his vitals, and drew forth by his hand that holiest spirit, too noble to be defiled by the steel. I should like to believe that this is why the wound was not well-aimed and efficacious it was not enough for the immortal gods to look but once on Cato. His virtue was held in check and called back that it might display itself in a harder role; for to seek death needs not so great a soul as to re-seek it. Surely the gods looked with pleasure upon their pupil as he made his escape by so glorious and memorable an end! Death consecrates those whose end even those who fear must praise. But as the discussion progresses, I shall show how the things that seem to be evils are not really so. This much I now say that those things which you call hardships, which you call adversities and accursed, are, in the first place, for the good of the persons themselves to whom they come; in the second place, that they are for the good of the whole human family, for which the gods have a greater concern than for single persons; again, I say that good men are willing that these things should happen and, if they are unwilling, that they deserve misfortune. I shall add, further, that these things happen thus by destiny, and that they rightly befall good men by the same law which makes them good. I shall induce you, in fine, never to commiserate a good man. For he can be called miserable, but he cannot be so.

Of all the propositions which I have advanced, the most difficult seems to be the one stated first, that those things which we all shudder and tremble at are for the good of the persons themselves to whom they come. “Is it,” you ask, “for their own good that men are driven into exile, reduced to want, that they bear to the grave wife or children, that they suffer public disgrace, and are broken in health?” If you are surprised that these things are for any man’s good, you must also be surprised that by means of surgery and cautery, and also by fasting and thirst, the sick are sometimes made well. But if you will reflect that for the sake of being cured the sick sometimes have their bones scraped and removed, and their veins pulled out, and that sometimes members are amputated which could not be left without causing destruction to the whole body, you will allow yourself to be convinced of this as well, that ills are sometimes for the good of those to whom they come; just as much so, my word for it, as that things which are lauded and sought after are sometimes to the hurt of those who delight in them, being very much like over-eating, drunkenness, and the other indulgences which kill by giving pleasure. Among the many fine sayings of one friend Demetrius there is this one, which I have just heard; it still rings in my ears. “No man,” said he, “ seems to me more unhappy than one who has never met with adversity.” For such a man has never had an opportunity to test himself. Though all things have flowed to him according to his prayer, though even before his prayer, nevertheless the gods have passed an adverse judgement upon him. He was deemed unworthy ever to gain the victory over Fortune, who draws back from all cowards, as if she said, “Why should I choose that fellow as my adversary? He will straightway drop his weapons; against him I have no need of all my power; he will be routed by a paltry threat; he cannot bear even the sight of my face. Let me look around for another with whom to join in combat. I am ashamed to meet a man who is ready to be beaten.” A gladiator counts it a disgrace to be matched with an inferior, and knows that to win without danger is to win without glory. The same is true of Fortune. She seeks out the bravest men to match with her; some she passes by in disdain. Those that are most stubborn and unbending she assails, men against whom she may exert all her strength. Mucius she tries by fire, Fabricius by poverty, Rutilius by exile, Regulus by torture, Socrates by poison, Cato by death. It is only evil fortune that discovers a great exemplar.Is Mucius unfortunate because he grasps the flames of the enemy with his right hand and forces himself to pay the penalty of his mistake? because with his charred hand he routs the king whom with his armed hand he could not rout? Tell me, then, would he be happier if he were warming his hand in his mistress’s bosom?

Is Fabricius unfortunate because, whenever he has leisure from affairs of state, he tills his fields? because he wages war not less on riches than on Pyrrhus? because the roots and herbs on which he dines beside his hearth are those that he himself, an old man and honoured by a triumph, grubbed up in cleaning off his land? Tell me, then, would he be happier if he loaded his belly with fish from a distant shore and with birds from foreign parts? if he aroused the sluggishness of his loathing stomach with shell-fish from the eastern and the western sea? if he had game of the first order, which had been captured at the cost of many a hunter’s life, served with fruit piled high around?

Is Rutilius unfortunate because those who condemned him will have to plead their cause through all the ages? because he was more content to endure that his country should be robbed of him than that he should be robbed of exile? because he was the only one who refused anything to the dictator Sulla, and when recalled from exile all but drew back and fled farther away? “Let those,” says he, “whom your I ‘happy’ era/a has caught at Rome, behold it. Let them see the forum streaming with blood, and the heads of senators placed above the pool of Servilius, for there the victims of Sulla’s proscriptions are stripped, and bands of assassins roaming at large throughout the city, and many thousands of Roman citizens butchered in one spot after, nay, by reason of, a promise of security, let those who cannot go into exile behold these things!” Is Lucius Sulla happy because his way is cleared by the sword when he descends to the forum? because he suffers the heads of consulars to be shown him and has the treasurer pay the price of their assassination out of the public funds? And these all are the deeds of that man, that man who proposed the Cornelian Law! Let us come now to Regulus: what injury did Fortune do to him because she made him a pattern of loyalty, a pattern of endurance? Nails pierce his skin, and wherever he rests his wearied body he lies upon a wound; his eyes are stark in eternal sleeplessness. But the greater his torture is, the greater shall be his glory. Would you like to know how little he regrets that he rated virtue at such a price? Make him whole again and send him back to the senate; he will express the same opinion. Do you, then, think Maecenas a happier man, who, distressed by love and grieving over the daily repulses of his wayward wife, courted slumber by means of harmonious music, echoing faintly from a distance? Although he drugs himself with wine, and diverts his worried mind with the sound of rippling waters, and beguiles it with a thousand pleasures, yet he, upon his bed of down, will no more close his eyes than that other upon his cross. But while the one, consoled by the thought that he is suffering hardship for the sake of right, turns his eyes from his suffering to its cause, the other, jaded with pleasures and struggling with too much good fortune, is harassed less by what he suffers than by the reason for his suffering. Surely the human race has not come so completely under the sway of vice as to cause a doubt whether, if Fate should give the choice, more men would rather be born a Regulus than a Maecenas; or if there should be one bold enough to say that he would rather have been born a Maecenas than a Regulus, the fellow, although he may not admit it, would rather have been born a Terentia! Do you consider that Socrates was ill-used because he drank down that drought/b which the state had brewed as if it were an elixir of immortal life, and up to the point of death discoursed on death? Was he ill-treated because his blood grew cold, and, as the chill spread, gradually the beating of his pulses stopped? How much more should we envy him than those who are served in cups of precious stone, whose wine a catamite — a tool for anything, an unsexed or sexless creature — dilutes with snow held above in a golden vessel! They will measure out afresh all their drink in vomit, with wry faces tasting in its stead their own bile; but he will quaff the poison gladly and with good cheer. Touching Cato, enough has been said, and it will be granted by the consensus of mankind that that great man reached the pinnacle of happiness, he whom Nature chose to be the one with whom her dread power should clash. “The enmity of the powerful,” said she, “is a hardship; then let him match himself at one and the same time against Pompey, Caesar, and Crassus. It is a hardship to be outstripped by an inferior in the candidacy for office; then let him be defeated by Vatinius. It is a hardship to engage in civil war; then let him fight the whole world over for a just cause, ever with ill success but with equal stubbornness. It is a hardship to lay hand upon oneself then let him do it. And what shall I gain thereby that all may know that these things of which I have deemed Cato worthy are not real ills.”

Success comes to the common man, and even to commonplace ability; but to triumph over the calamities and terrors of mortal life is the part of a great man only. Truly, to be always happy and to pass through life without a mental pang is to be ignorant of one half of nature. You are a great man; but how do I know it if Fortune gives you no opportunity of showing your worth? You have entered as a contestant at the Olympic games, but none other besides you; you gain the crown, the victory you do not gain. You have my congratulations, not as a brave man, but as if you had obtained the consulship or praetorship; you have enhanced your prestige. In like manner, also, I may say to a good man, if no harder circumstance has given him the opportunity whereby alone he might show the strength of his mind, “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.” For if a man is to know himself, he must be tested; no one finds out what be can do except by trying, and so some men have presented themselves voluntarily to laggard misfortune, and have sought an opportunity to blazon forth their worth when it was but to pass into obscurity. Great men, I say, rejoice oft-times in adversity, as do brave soldiers in warfare. I once heard Triumphus, a gladiator in the time of Tiberius Caesar, complaining of the scarcity of shows. “How fair an age,” he said, “has passed away!”True worth is eager for danger and thinks rather of its goal than of what it may have to suffer, since even what it will have to suffer is a part of its glory.


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William C. Michael

Mr. William C. Michael is the founding headmaster of the <a href=”">Classical Liberal Arts Academy</a>. He graduated from Rutge