Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.17 - On Providence

"Whenever you find fault with providence, just give the matter some thought and you'll recognize that what came about was in accordance with reason" (v. 1, p. 174)

After Epictetus said this, the student's reaction was, "Yes, but someone who is unjust comes off better" (v. 2, p. 174).

This part of the dialogue sums up, in my opinion, the vast majority of conversations and misunderstandings about life and events in life.

In my review of Mormonism, Christianity and religion in general, over the past few years, I have lost count the number of times people who got upset because God did or didn't do something.

People will say God answered their prayer when:
- they found their lost keys
- their loved one was healed
- they financially prospered
- their home was protected from weather

People will say God cursed them when:
- they lost their stuff
- their loved one died or had cancer
- they lost money or were poor
- their property was damaged

Yet other people, in those same "unfortunate" circumstances will say that these are trials God has given them to strengthen their faith in God.  A subset of this group will have their faith strengthened if things indeed "turn around" while another subset of these people might exercise faith in God, pray, fast, etc. but when their desires to find something, or to have a loved one healed, aren't realized, they turn bitter.

I've also seen many people complain how God is in the details of our life and helps us find our lost keys, but then God totally ignores the massacred Jews in WWII, the Rwandans in 1994 or people who died in earthquakes or hurricanes or drought.  They say, "if God can intervene in someone's life on such a small scale of lost keys, why could He not intervene on a macro-level?  Is He only powerful on a small scale and powerless when it comes to large-scale events?"

The Stoic philosophy rises above these mis-guided arguments.  The Stoics accept that God/Zeus/Providence/the Universe will proceed the way it wants to proceed.  Try as we might, we humans will not have much of an impact on guiding Cosmic willpower.  Rather than focusing on something entirely out of your control, you ought to focus on what is in your control - which is your reaction to Providential events, while also recognizing that there is still a human element at play in this universe.

Always keep in mind what Marcus Aurelius said in Book 4.1:
Wherever it is in agreement with nature, the ruling power within us takes a flexible approach to circumstances, always adapting itself easily to both practicality and the given event. It has no favoured material for its work, but sets out on its objects in a conditional way, turning any obstacle into material for its own use
Rather than choosing to look at events with a "blessed/cursed" mindset, we ought to look at them, at all times, as opportunities to exercise some virtue.

Also, when someone "comes off better" you have to ask yourself what you are actually judging - what game is being played.  If the game is "win all the money" and someone sells their soul or body to gain money, then there will be plenty of people who are better at that game than you.

But if you are trying to judge the character of a person and you choose to be "trustworthy and honest," (see v. 3, p. 174) then the person who sold their soul or body for money is not better off than you who have not sold your soul or body for money.

To put a finer point on this, Stoic philosophy says "virtue is the sole good."  This means the only game that matters is: are you winning at exercising virtue (courage, justice, wisdom, temperance, etc).  Nothing else matters.

If you play this game, then wealth, health, prestige, honors, power will not matter to you.  If someone is better than you, then they will have more courage; they will be wiser and have more justice; they will be disciplined and self-controlled.  They will adhere to a moral and honest life, regardless of whether they are rich or poor, healthy or sick, maimed or strong, powerful or simple.

If you base your judgments about people and events on virtue, then you will see who the real winners and losers are.

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