I realize that some readers might think it futile to learn about Stoic physics. After all, over two thousand years later, don’t we know better? Isn’t it clear that the ancient Stoics were wrong? Why should we bother learning about obsolete theories? But I want to point out that this section of our studies isn’t intended to persuade us that the ancient Stoics were correct. This is not an attempt to “convert” anyone to pantheism, or to any sort of a belief in God. Rather, we must address the topic of Stoic physics because learning about the views of the ancient Stoics helps us to more fully understand the “workings” of Stoicism.
In today’s post, we’ll cover:
- Where does my own mind fit into the big picture of things?
- Why is the Universe giving me ______ to deal with?
- How should I regard my own fate?
- Why do bad things happen to good people?
Fragments of God
Live with the gods. A person who lives with the gods constantly shows that he is satisfied with his fate. He is obedient to the guardian-spirit, the portion of our own being, that God grants each of us to serve as our guide. This guardian-spirit is the mind and reason of each one of us.
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.27)
Remember in the last lesson that Marcus wrote about “one common intelligence” shared by God and humans? Here’s a refresher:
All things are interwoven, and the bond that unites them is sacred. Hardly anything is alien to any other thing, for they have been placed together and are jointly ordered to form a common Universe. For there is one Universe made up of all that is, and one God who pervades all things, and one substance and one law, and one reason common to all intelligent creatures, and one truth, if indeed there is one perfection for all creatures who are of the same stock and partake of the same reason.
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.9)
When we strive to live “according to Nature,” we’re actually contributing to the perfection of the entire Universe.
Marcus meant that our minds are literally fragments of God. Thus, when we strive to live “according to Nature,” we are not only striving to improve our intellect but, according to the ancient Stoics, we are actually contributing to the perfection of the Universe.
Consider these words from Plato, whose work inspired the early Stoics:
Let us persuade the young men by arguments that all things have been arranged by the Overseer of the Universe for the security and excellence of the whole; and the parts of the Universe each act or are acted upon appropriately according to their capacity. Each of these parts down to the smallest feature of its condition or activity is under the direction of ruling powers, which have perfected every tiniest detail. And you, you stubborn man, despite how small you are, are one of these parts which always contributes to the good of the whole. You have failed to see that every act of creation occurs for the sake of the Universe, that it may enjoy a life of well-being. Creation does not occur for your sake, but for the sake of the universe. …You are frustrated because you fail to realize how that which is best for you is best for both the Universe and yourself.
(Plato, Laws 903b-d)
Prescribed by the Universe
The Universe prescribes what is fitting for our own destiny.
Just as people say “Asclepius, the god of healing, has prescribed horse-riding for this person, or cold baths, or walking barefoot,” so we might say, “Universal Nature has prescribed sickness for this person, or disability, or loss, or something else of the kind.” Now in the first case, “prescribed” means something like “laid this down for him as appropriate for his health”; And in the case of Universal Nature, “prescribed” means that whatever “fits” each person has been laid down for him as being in some way appropriate to his destiny. For when we say that these things “fit” us, we talk like the masons when they say that squared blocks fit in walls or pyramids, because they fit in with one another in a particular structural arrangement. Now there is a single harmony that embraces all things, and just as all bodies combine together to make up this single great body of the Universe, so it is that all individual causes combine together to make up the single great cause known as destiny. Even completely uneducated people understand what I mean right now, for they even say, “Fate brought that on him.” For if it was brought on him, this means that it was prescribed for him. Therefore, let us accept what Fate prescribes just as we accept what the doctor prescribes for us. For certainly there are elements of these prescriptions that we do not enjoy, yet we welcome them in the hope of regaining our health.
We should welcome whatever comes to us because it contributes to the health of the Universe.
You should consider the realization and fulfillment of what seem good to Universal Nature in the same way that you consider securing good health. Therefore, we should welcome whatever happens to us, even if it appears unpleasant, because it is ultimately contributing to this great end, the health of the Universe and the well-being and well-doing of God. For God would not have brought this on anyone if it were not for the benefit of the whole. …
There are two reasons why you should be content with whatever happens to you:
First, this fate has come about specifically for you. It was prescribed for you and has a special relationship to you because it was woven into your destiny from the beginning and therefore originates from the most hallowed of Causes.
Whenever we are discontent with our lot in life, we are injuring the perfection of the Universe as a whole.
Second, for the power which governs the whole, everything that comes to each of us individually contributes to the governing power’s well-being, perfection, and continuance. The perfection of the whole suffers an injury if you cut off even the smallest piece from the coherence and continuity of its causes. And you are guilty of this whenever you are discontented; and in a certain sense, you destroy it.
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.8)
Love Your Fate
Love only that which happens to you and is spun as the thread of your destiny; for what could be better suited to you?
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.57)
Now Marcus is advising that we not only accept our lot in life, but that we love it! He’s telling us to embrace our fates, to actually be happy about them. Don’t be tempted to look at someone else’s life and wish that their fate was your own, because the Universe, in its perfect reasoning, did not prescribe that for you. To desire someone else’s lot in life would be like “smelling the color nine.” It just doesn’t make any sense for us to want any one else’s fate. Our own fates are perfect for ourselves, and so we should love them, as our own “personalized assignment” that contributes to the health of the Universe. Think of yourself as a contributor to a group project: you’ve been assigned an individual task that contributes to the project’s success. Take pride in your honorable assignment and complete it accordingly.
How small a fraction of infinite and unfathomable time has been assigned to each one of us. For all too swiftly it is swallowed up in eternity. How small a part of universal substance; how small a part of universal soul. And how small is this clod of earth that you are walking on, when set against the earth as a whole. Keeping all of this in mind, there is no greater moment than this for you to utilize and act as your own nature directs, and endure whatever Universal Nature brings.
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 12.32)
The main points from the beliefs of the ancient Stoics today are:
- We are part of the intelligence of the Universe; our minds are literally fragments of God.
- Our Fates are prescribed by the Universe; when we are discontent, we injure the perfection of the Universe, but when we are satisfied with our fates, we contribute to its perfection.
- Love your lot in life, as your “personalized assignment.”
- Our time is short in the span of eternity; we must use the tiny bit allotted to us to act according to our own nature and accept whatever the Universe hands us.
What if I can never reach that point?
This all sounds lovely on paper, but do you know how hard it is to “accept your fate,” let alone to LOVE your fate?? Don’t you understand how cruel Fate can be?
Keith Seddon writes that some individuals have reported a sort of personal epiphany that led them to this point. Although the numbers are few, there are certainly individuals who believe that everything we just talked about, that the Universe is connected, that Fate is prescribed, etc.—they believe that all this is completely true. And they’ve come to accept it and embrace it.
But for the rest of us that are struggling? We can certainly appreciate these concepts on an intellectual level, but how can we take it to heart? How can we pull out this strength in the times when we need it most? After all, accepting a principle on an intellectual basis simply won’t spare us the pain of living, distress, and anxiety.
We don’t know how much Marcus Aurelius was able to actually embrace the principles himself. Perhaps he was just writing to encourage himself to keep striving a goal that he never achieved. What if no one has ever actually accepted and loved their fate at the core of their being? What if we never really believe that human suffering is really just an illusion that we create for ourselves when we form incorrect impressions of events?
But Stoicism has never been a philosophy to focus on the final end product. (Remember “acting with reservation“?) Instead of focusing on “enlightenment” or some sort of “ultimate achievement,” Stoics focus on making progress. We persist in our efforts. We remind ourselves that we’ve been granted the faculty of reason that allows us to seek and value that which is truly good. Put simply, Stoics remind themselves that things just simply aren’t as bad as they appear, and that our abilities to deal with setbacks and misfortune are actually much stronger than we think they are.
Why do bad things happen to good people?
Seneca answers this question, quite eloquently as always, in his essay, On Providence. Pick out Seneca’s answer to this question. We’ll finish with this:
What is the duty of the good man? To offer himself to Fate. […] His path will not be level, but he must go uphill and down, he must be wave-tossed and steer his craft through troubled waters, he must maintain his course in the face of Fortune. Much that is hard and rough will befall him, but he will himself soften it and smooth it down.
(Seneca, On Providence 5.8-9)
But why does God allow evil to happen to good men? Actually, He doesn’t. He keeps every evil away from good men—sin, crime, wicked thoughts, greedy schemes, blind lust, and avarice which covets another’s property. It is the good man himself that God protects and defends. Are we now demanding that God should look after the good man’s baggage, too? Good men release God from this care, for good men themselves despise the externals. Democritus cast away his riches because he believed that they were a burden to a good mind. So why should you be surprised that God allows a good man to sometimes have a fate that a good man would choose for himself?
Good men lose their sons. Why not?—when they sometimes leave their country by their own choosing and never return again?
Good men are slain. Why not?—when they sometimes lay hands upon themselves?
Why do good men suffer certain hardships? To teach others how to endure them. Good men were born to serve as models.
Dr. Evil might have multiple secret lairs and demand billions and trillions in ransom, but that doesn’t mean we should envy his “success.” That’s just stupid.
Imagine that God said this: “What reason do you have to complain about me, you who have chosen righteousness? I’ve surrounded other people with artificial goods. I have amused their empty minds with a long and deceptive dream. I’ve adorned them with gold, silver, and ivory, but there is nothing good inside. The people that you consider to be “happy,” if only you could see beyond their outward appearance and actually see their inward nature, you would see that they are wretched, miserable, and mean. But to you I have given goods that are true and eternal, goods that maintain their value from every angle and get better with use. To you I have gifted your scorn for terrors and disdain for passions. Why do you not shine on the outside? Because all your goods are turned inward. […] I have bestowed your whole good within yourself: your good fortune is that you don’t need good fortune.
“But,” you object, “so many things that are sad and hard to bear continue to happen.” They happen because I cannot push you out of their path. But I have given your minds armor to withstand their assault. You can bear them with strength and courage. In this respect, you have actually surpassed God, for God is not subject to enduring evil, but you have both endured and risen superior to it. Don’t dread poverty: no one is as poor as they were when they are born. Don’t concern yourself with pain: either the pain will go away or you will. Stop troubling yourself with death: either death finishes you or it transforms you. Stop worrying about Fortune: I have not given her a single weapon that can strike your soul.
(Seneca, On Providence 6.1-6)