Stoicism, Providence and Modern Unbelief

The philosophy of Stoicism argues that humans ought to only concern themselves with things that are under their control. In the Stoic tradition the things that are considered to be under our control are actions, dispositions, and feelings. Similarly, for the Stoic, what makes human beings distinct from other animals, and somewhat like God is their ability to control their actions, dispositions and feelings. Consequently, for the Stoic , the good life is not one that is comfortable or pleasant, but one in which the agent takes care to properly order his feelings, dispositions and actions.

While Stoicism can seem rather antiquated as its greatest defenders were either Ancient Greeks or Romans (ie Zeno, Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius), Stoicism remains attractive to many inhabitants of modernity; in fact I find myself attracted to Stoicism.  Similarly, Stoicism has been deeply influential on Kant and Descartes, has had a significant influence on modern psychological therapeutic techniques.

Part of the attraction of Stoicism seems to at least partially lie in the fact that it enables us to insulate our lives from the terrible things that happen that are outside of our control. Reading the Stoics can help us to recognize that worrying about what others think about us or other things that are outside of our control is pointless as it is not in our power to control these sorts of things.

While Stoicism remains attractive in many ways in the modern era there is at least one set of issues that make it difficult for modern nonbelievers, in particular, to buy into this philosophy.  This set of issues is our fundamental attitude towards the events that occur in the universe. The Stoics believed in a providential God that ensured that events unfolded as they ought to. This belief in providence is deeply related to their ability to be indifferent towards things not under their control, whereas the tendency of modern unbelievers to see events as the result of mere mechanical causation makes it far more difficult to just accept the flows of events, especially as humanity seems to possess more and more technological power over nature. Consequently, while Stoicism may remain attractive to modern unbelievers a different reason other than providence will have to be found to show why we ought to accept the flow of events rather than trying to conquer or control them. I will examine the human relationship to death and aging to highlight the difference in outlook between the Stoics and modern unbelievers and suggest that while we can learn from the Stoics the Stoics seem simply wrong to suggest that the only good worth pursuing is the good of proper self-control.

From the Stoic perspective aging and death are just natural elements of life that need not be resisted. The key is to respond to aging and death not by being distraught by the inevitability of death and aging, but by accepting that these are two elements of life that we cannot escape and must just accept. For example in discussing his process of aging Seneca notes that

“Only my vices and their accessories have decayed: the spirit is full of life and delighted to only having limited dealings with the body. It has thrown off a great part of its burden. It’s full of vigour and carrying on an argument with me on the subject of old age, maintaining that these are its finest years. Let’s accept what it says and make the most of its blessings…Moving to one’s end through nature’s own gentle process of dissolution—is there a better way of leaving life than that? Not because there is anything wrong with a sudden, violent departure but because this gradual withdrawal is an easy route.” (Letter XXVI)

Here Seneca notes the inevitability of aging and death and the fact that it must be accepted, rather than something that we ought to try to escape.

On the contrary within the world of modern unbelief it seems as though we are attempting to at least prolong the inevitability of death and aging, if not trying to escape from these seeming inevitabilities entirely. This is made evident by the amount of energy and resources that are allocated to prevent death and disease and to ensure that people are able to look and “feel” younger for longer.  A large part of this resistance to aging and death lies in the fact that we have uncovered that we have the ability to prolong life and delay aging, in conjunction with the fact that we fetishize youth, and bodily goods, but it is beyond the scope of this entry to fully uncover all that underlies the modern tendency to see aging and death as a mere curse.

To return to the topic at hand, if, as modern unbelievers, we do not believe in providence why would we believe that we ought to accept death and aging and not to try to resist them with all of our might? One possible reason why we might think that there is something contemptible about the person who tries to transcend their biological limits. In relation to this we might say that part of what being a good human being means is that one recognizes that one is not a God, and as a result one should accept one’s impermanence with quiet dignity.

This picture of the good is perfectly coherent, but it is not clear why modern unbelievers ought to accept it. Given that we praise people who have overcome their limitations to do great things it seems odd to say that good human beings ought to not transcend their biological limits.  Furthermore, if we accept that our biological constitution is just a brute fact, rather than something that sets out limits for our action it seems that there is little reason to see our constitution as something that sets normative limits for us in general.

Consequently, it seems that while modern unbelievers can learn from the Stoic tradition there is a large, and perhaps, unbridgeable gap between the outlook of the Stoics and between modern unbelievers. When providence is dropped from the picture and the development of technology and science has allowed us to more adeptly conquer nature it is hard to see why we ought to see goodness as lying in only properly ordering one’s feelings, dispositions and actions, rather than trying to control nature to ensure that more people encounter more goods.

Of course a defender of Stoicism might say that appeals to providence are not necessary to justify as Stoicism as external goods like wealth, health and prosperity are not really goods and thus we should only focus on ordering our feelings, dispositions, and actions, rather than trying to pursue external goods. But the Stoic reasoning behind this has never been convincing to me. While wealth, health and prosperity may be less important goods than character or integrity it seems odd to say that a life of a fortunate affluent citizen of good character is no better than the life of an impoverished slave with equally good character.  External goods cannot be the foundation of a good life, but they can augment it, and it seems downright bizarre to say that a life of good character that involves luxurious aesthetic appreciation is no better than a life with equally good character that is barred from all aesthetic appreciation. The fallout of taking this position is that fortune will play a role in determining the goodness of lives, such that goodness is not simply the responsibility of the agent, but this seems to be a worthwhile cost to pay for a clearer picture of the nature of goodness.

Works Cited

Seneca. Letters from a Stoic. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. Print.


3 thoughts on “Stoicism, Providence and Modern Unbelief

  1. Accepting one’s fate means knowing what one’s range of control truly is. A difficult matter, but if it were possible, the philosophy would make sense, regardless of whether we live in a God-less universe. Why bang one’s head against the wall?

    But CAN we know our range? And doesn’t it seem we have to bang our heads against the wall at least a few times just to know it’s really there? 🙂

    Death is inevitable, certainly. But how one dies is still somewhat within our control. When one dies is somewhat within our control when we consider health technology and such. It seems the attitude towards the grey areas of death is not really given in the Stoic philosophy because there are no guidelines for how much we should fight to live, and it would be absurd to say we should never fight. Where does resignation begin? Where does “outside of our control” begin? How are these known except by testing our limits?

    None of this negates the Stoic ideas, it just complicates them.

    In your last paragraph you talk about worldly goods as being an augmentation of the good life. I think Stoics would (or at least, should) agree, so long as these things are obtainable without detracting from self-regulation. Back to the problem of knowing one’s limits, which I admit is a tricky matter.

    • Thanks for this really interesting comment.

      You are right that one huge issue that I did not explicitly talk about is what our range of control is and if we can know it. Another question would be if our range of control can be understood ahistorically or must be understood historically? For example, it is in the range of control of an affluent modern person to change their appearance through plastic surgery, but this was not an option in many early periods. So, has the human range of control changed, or have we just discovered that what previously appeared as limits were not really limits? If it is the latter we might become suspicious as I think most developed cultures have, of claims of limits to human power over nature. Of course there is a huge conflict here between individual and collective agency that I wanted to speak about, but was afraid to for fear of complicating the issue too much. As historically situated individuals our limits may be relatively clear, and we clearly have to accept that many things our out of control. But collectively it is not clear what the limits of control are for the human species. This raises the question of whether we should see ourselves as individuals acting within their particular limits, or as part of a broader collectivity that is trying to assert greater control over nature. Of course we can synthesize the two to some degree, but there does seem to be a tension present.

      I agree that getting rid of providence does not negate Stoic ideas, but rather complicates them. The issue for me is that part of the argumentative work in traditional Stoicism is done by the notion of providence in that if events go as they ought to then it makes sense to only focus on what is your power at this particular moment as what is outside of your power is being rationally guided. But without providence why would I accept my apparent limitations provided that I have an understanding of them? Reasons can be given for this that see something particularly contemptible about hubris, but these reasons are hardly decisive. Furthermore, why is it rational to accept apparent limits if it seems that human power continually shows these limits to be conquerable? Of course you can still be a Stoic even if our extent of control is far greater than it was in antiquity, but without a clear sense of what is in our control and providence Stoicism becomes a bit more difficult.

      At its simplest I am saying that Stoic philosophy reflects an attitude towards nature that tends not to seek conquest over it. This is as much a matter of Stoicism being premodern as the particular doctrine of Stoicism. Whereas modern unbelievers in particular tend to see nature as something that we can transform to make a beautiful new world. I don’t see this attitude when I read Epictetus and Seneca, so it raises the question of what to make of Stoicism if we accept the more modern orientation to nature.

      I really appreciate your comments. I feel like they have helped me better understand these topics. 🙂

      • I see room for a much more nuanced form of Stoicism, but yeah, that attitude of resignation is there. It would have to be addressed.

        As you say, there are culturally defined limits as well. It seems an ahistorical definition of limits would be desired, but I’m not sure how this could be done! It’s perplexing.

        It’s kind of like saying, “Be moderate” without defining what moderation is. The Stoic philosophy of independence and self-regulation seems fair enough, but somewhat empty without that knowledge of our limits. (Could still be true, though!)

        And I can see your point about the religious aspect of it. If I believe that the world is ordered, but may be too complex for my understanding, I’m still given a bit of comfort in that general belief that everything’s for the best. That comfort can help me in my inward turn.

        I’ve been enjoying your blog posts immensely! Thanks for the intellectual kick start to my day. 🙂

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