On Providence

De Providentia or “On Providence” is a philosophical masterpiece by Seneca the Younger about the problem of providence (divine intervention in the universe) in contrast to the suffering of good people. In this dialogue, Seneca writes to Lucilius explaining why good people suffer and why they are subjected to pain. It is beautifully inspired and comforting in an unexpected way.

Seneca acknowledges that his friend believes in providence, meaning the existence of God or a divine power that is capable of intervening in universal events. Seneca briefly questions the existence of providence, but ultimately confirms its existence, citing the laws that keep the stars in place:

“At the present time it is superfluous to point out that it is not without some guardian that so great a work maintains its position, that the assemblage and movements of the stars do not depend upon accidental impulses, or that objects whose motion is regulated by chance often fall into confusion and soon stumble, whereas this swift and safe movement goes on, governed by eternal law”.

Seneca, On Providence

He goes on to explain that providence and perceived suffering are not contradictory. Without suffering and adversaries, courage faints. That is how Seneca explains the suffering of the good under the governance of providence. Suffering is the only way to test those who consider themselves to be good in order to know if they truly are good. 

Seneca compares this divine behavior to fatherhood. He claims that we are sometimes tough to our kids and let them suffer slightly in order to develop them into good and honorable people – that is exactly what God does.

The Suffering of Good People

Can good people suffer? Or is it only the bad ones who are subjected to suffering? Those are questions Seneca tried to answer. He remarked that it is almost impossible to find someone who had never suffered. He decided the good suffer as much as the bad, sometimes even more, but a good man faces it honorably, with serenity and calm.

According to Seneca, God does not spoil the good men; He prepares them and He makes them stronger. Suffering is not designed to put us down; it shows that we are capable of overcoming it. Seneca urges us not to fear difficulties, nor curse fate, because whatever happens to us must be taken as a good thing. It is not about what we endure; it is about how we endure it.

How is God Good?

Seneca’s beliefs are comparable to an old tale of a ruthless king who did not believe in God. The King had a servant who would always tell him: “Your Highness, God is always good.” One day, when hunting, the King was attacked by a beast. He fought it and survived, but he lost a finger.

The King then asked his servant: “How is God good? Look what happened to me!” To which the servant replied: “Your Highness, trust me, it is for your best.” The king felt so outraged he had the servant beaten and locked in a tower.

A few days later, the King went hunting again and this time he was surprised by a group of natives. They attacked him and captured him to offer as a human sacrifice. But when their leader took a better look at the King, he released him and said: “this man is crippled, he lacks a finger, he is not worthy of our Gods.”

The King returned to his castle, where he released the servant and told him what happened. The King could now see how God had been good to him, but what about the servant who he had beaten and locked up? That’s when the servant replied: “if I was not locked up, I would have gone with you, and I lack no limb. I would have been sacrificed, but God protected me.”

Experiencing Suffering

It is important to remember that, for Stoics, suffering is nothing more than a perspective we have on the challenges that are presented to us. Suffering only occurs when a person is unable to see beyond their immediate situation, or when they are not patient enough to endure their experience to understand the beneficial outcome.

We tend to settle in life. We settle on a job; we settle on our relationships; we settle on a house. We develop beliefs that subsidise this behavior and then we use them as excuses. I have always wanted to open my own business, but my job is good; it pays well and my colleagues are nice. Who would argue with that?

The sad thing is that we also settle on bad things too. I have an abusive spouse, but I already have two kids with them. How am I meant to start over? We settle because we are afraid of suffering. But the only way to know our limitations is by putting them to the test. We have to risk suffering as a possible consequence if we want to test ourselves and improve our lives. 

You have to accept the unknown and trust that the best is yet to come. Open yourself to the experience of suffering and know that, for a good person, suffering only serves to better our character and strengthen our resolve.