Refuting Seneca’s Providence

Seneca’s ‘On Providence’ is a wonderful essay written towards the end of his eventful life. He answers an interesting question from his friend Lucilius — “Why bad things happen to good men?”. The essay, like most of Seneca’s writings, is full of quotable quotes.

But, are his arguments convincing? Lets examine them.

His essay is based on the assumption & acceptance of divine Providence, an unquestioned faith in God, his creation & management of this world. If there is a benign & powerful God, then why does evil exist, why do good people suffer, why disasters happen etc. — such eternal questions are explored by Seneca.

Seneca starts by ascribing the wonders of many natural phenomena like the orderly motions of heavenly bodies and even natural upheavals like volcanic eruptions to divine design, all of which, he says, happen for a reason.

Then, he jumps into his arguments

1. First argument — The Gods never harm good men

They inflict suffering as training so that good men achieve greatness, and perhaps, eventually, they themselves can become Gods. The truly good men understand this and sportively take on adversities & risk to toughen themselves. They welcome hardships. They don’t complain. They boldly face bad fate and change it into good. Gods, as benign fathers, give tough love to good men for their own betterment. Gods expect their creations to duel misfortunes. Seneca shares examples of great men like Cato who lived such lives.

2. Second Argument — The Gods give up on bad men

If some men seem to lead good & easy lives without much suffering, thats because the Gods have given up on them. They consider such men don’t deserve their tough love. Seneca cites examples of men who found glory through their many tortures. He says truly good men would wish such suffering upon themselves. Fortune & fate relish in battling only such strong good men. Bad men are forsaken. God hasn’t forgotten men who lead easy lives now. He indulges them at first, but will certainly take them to task later.

3. Third Argument — Sufferings are blessings in disguise

Not being challenged by sufferings & hardships is not a good life. The truly good & great men should fight & subjugate misfortunes. They should not wish to lead common worthless lives. If men don’t find opportunities to prove their mettle, they are pitiable. If they don’t face adversities, they can’t discover their true strengths & potential. They should even wantonly walk into hardships to demonstrate their virtues. When men suffer, its a sign that Gods favour them. Such men should grab the opportunity to train and gain glory.

4. Fourth Argument — Good men suffer, so others can learn

The Gods bless the bravest and the best of men with the gravest challenges. An excess of good fortune is never good for the body or mind. Men should flee from pleasures and good fortunes which enfeeble them. Good men will indeed suffer so they emerge stronger and shine as good examples. God may bestow wealth & other pleasures on bad men, but they are not blessings. God bestows suffering on good men, but they are not curses. And good men willingly take up the challenge.

5. Fifth Argument — Fate is pre-ordained for both men & Gods

We should agree with and abide by the divine law of fate which is fixed when we are born. No point being angry or sad when misfortunes hit us. Be joyous. Be courageous. Good men sail happily with their fates. The fate which binds men also binds the Gods. Even the Gods obey same laws as men. They have divined that good strong men deserve a stronger fate. Such good men will embrace such a fate.

6. Sixth Argument — Good men become Gods

In fact, God takes all bad things from good men, who don’t think wicked thoughts or do misdeeds. Good men are not troubled by lust, greed & envy. They scorn wealth. When they fashion themselves in such ways, can they complain when the Gods challenge them further, along the same path? The Gods delude the bad men with false goods. The bad men may look happy outside, but are indeed pitiable inside. The good men dazzle inside. They become as good as the Gods, when they bravely fight sufferings & hardships.

7. Seventh Argument — Die, if you don’t like it

If men don’t like this divine scheme of Providence, they can quit. They are free to flee through death. Death is easy and quick. It is not drawn out. It can be instantaneous if one wants it. Death is a divine exit designed to happen quickly. Good strong men never fear it.

To be fair, Seneca doesn’t categorise his arguments as above and many of his ideas overlap, repeat, and re-appear in different forms throughout the essay. He cites many examples of great men to support his reasoning.

Now, lets rebut him.

1. First Rebuttal

Why should benign and all-powerful Gods inflict suffering as training? They could avoid both and create happy men leading good lives. Further, do all good strong men happily embrace difficulties? God’s tough love is tough to accept.

2. Second Rebuttal

Do benign Gods give up on their creations(or children), whether good or bad? Why should fortune or fate battle with men at all? Why can’t everyone — Gods, fortune, fate, good men, bad men — co-exist peacefully? Is such a creation beyond the capability of Gods? Why should they create bad men and punish them later? What kind of cruel game is this?

3. Third Rebuttal

Why create such complexity — good life, bad life, suffering, worthless life, common life, great life, glories and so on? Why can’t it be simpler, easier & better? Why create roadblocks, and make men jump over them so they can discover their strengths? What kind of weird game is this? Why should benign Gods favour only those who suffer?

4. Fourth Rebuttal

The game gets weirder. Good men suffer so others can learn from them? Virtues, sins, blessings & curses? Come on!! We expect something better from all-powerful Gods.

5. Fifth Rebuttal

While its good to know that even the Gods cannot escape the fate they fashioned, that doesn’t make the game of life the paragon of great design. The Gods could have done better for themselves, and for poor men.

6. Sixth Rebuttal

Are there any perfectly good men who shun all evil? Do good & bad men who suffer really care about dazzling inside or outside? Does the prospect of becoming Gods, who face the same uncertainties of fate as men, justify suffering?

7. Seventh Rebuttal

Asking men to choose death if they can’t suffer divine Providence is irresponsible. And possibly, fate determines death and men cannot willingly choose it. Men suffer, whether they like it or not. Men die, whether they want to or not. Not fearing death may help, as it is inevitable. But, citing exit by death as an escape route smacks of poor taste.

No one can claim to understand the workings of Providence or the mind of God, including Seneca. His convoluted reasoning may appeal, but crumbles on closer examination.

But, does Seneca console?