The Pitfall of Reliance on Providentialism

In a previous post, I mentioned that reliance on “providentialistic” views was one potential difficulty for present-day Stoics. Today I’ll explain this a bit.

When I say “providentialistic” or “providentialism,” I’m referring to what theoretical discourses term “divine providence,” or perhaps more accurately, a belief in divine providence. In short, belief in divine providence is the belief that everything which happens, happens in accordance with a plan that God, or the gods, have laid out, and thus happens for the best and ultimately is good. Here are a couple reliable articles if you would like to know more, a shorter and longer.

Providentialistic views, besides of course the belief in divine providence, would be any views which incorporate or rely on a belief in divine providence.

Stoicism, as it’s come down to us, tends strongly to rely on divine providence in at least a couple different ways. One is the view that the way the cosmos (the world or universe) is ordered is the very best possible arrangement for it.

Building on that, Stoicism likes to have one take the point of view of the universe itself, reather than the much more limited point of view of the individual human being. However, it also likes to go further and, building on taking the viewpoint of the universe, have one see the events and circumstances of one’s life, and in the world at large, as being all for the best, as the best possible arrangement, and thus as good. (This, by the way, is where the perspective and exercise has become providentialistic.) And on that basis one can accept and even affirm whatever happens to themself or to others as good.

It’s worth emphasizing this is not only theoretical or doctrinal. It belongs to philosophical practice. Many Stoic meditations and re-framings involved in training what we might call the will — certainly in training desire and aversion — rely on belief in divine providence.

Now on the one hand, if you currently find divine providence highly convincing, then there may be no immediate practical difficulty for you. On the other hand, if you do not find divine providence convincing, the Stoic reliance on providentialistic views may present real practical difficulties to your Stoic practice. Certainly many people are not convinced of divine providence, and I suspect a high proportion of individuals who are drawn to Stoic philosophy may be among these.

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5 thoughts on “The Pitfall of Reliance on Providentialism

  1. “have one see the events and circumstances of one’s life, and in the world at large, as being all for the best, as the best possible arrangement”

    I don’t get this sense very strongly from Stocism. Otherwise only theists could be Stoics. This attitude is often described as being “Panglossian.” Dr. Pangloss is a character in Candide, Voltaire’s greatest work. He believes and repeatedly states that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”

    The character is a parody of the German philosopher Leibniz, who indeed argued that this is the best of all possible worlds. If this were indeed the best of all possible worlds then there is no need for human action to improve it and no human action can degrade it. Such change is not even possible. Everything in the world is God’s will.

    Voltaire’s response to this is that one must tend to one’s garden. There is nothing good about a dead garden. Voltaire was an atheist and had little truck for theistic optimism. The world is an imperfect garden and we make it a better place or a worse place with our actions.

    From my POV, the world can be good and the world can suck. But given that we cannot change the past, it is always the only possible world. That makes it the best and the worst possible at the same time. I take the stoic message as being “It is what it is. Accept it without rancor.” To which I would add, “And tend to your garden. That helps shape your future.”

  2. I also thought of Voltaire in reading your message. Voltaire uses “the best of all possible worlds” as bitter satire. The heroine maintains an absurd optimism in the face of a series of awful events.

    Indeed, we don’t know that this is the only world, and frankly, I hope not, because that almost assures an end to the human race. If there is no alternative, when the sun dies, humans disappear. I don’t believe that humans necessarily originated on this planet and I hope this isn’t the final resting place.

  3. There is a similar resonance with Taoist thought in this area, but I find that the difference is very important and might be easier to digest for some who get caught up feeling like providentialism is unsatisfying. Taoism relates that everything which exists in our universe are manifestations of one single unifying energy. In reality there are no distinctions between you and I, or any other aspect of our world. The energy which makes us up flows and cycles and can create situations that are challenging for us or beneficial for us, but is always the same energy. Looking at the whole of existence we see that everything is always total and complete at all times. It is only the expression that changes. More accurately it is our perception of our relationship to the world around us that changes the most, and causes us joy and pain. In this sense the world is always total, complete and perfect. If we can have a correct understanding of our relationship to it then we will understand that it is not imperfection in the world, but imperfection of our understanding of how the world is, that causes us pain and suffering. The world is simply the way it is at all time, whole and perfect, the most perfect that it can be. There is no need for divine direction, and the onus remains on us to frame ourselves appropriately in order to develop perspective.

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