Stoic Serenity 4.6: The Stoic Refiner’s Fire

While we’ve spent the last week learning that hardships and setbacks are part of the Universe’s nature, something that we just need to “deal with,” today we will take a quick look into Seneca’s essay On Providence in which he attempts to make an argument that hardships are beneficial for the wise person.

Among the many magnificent words of our friend Demetrius is the following saying […] it still echoes in my ears.

“In my opinion, no one is less happy than a person who has never met with adversity.”

The person who has never met with adversity has never had the privilege of testing himself. Everything has come to him easily, according to his wishes. Yet God’s judgement of him is unfavorable. For God did not consider him worthy of ever conquering Fortune, who shuns any cowardly rival, as if to say, “Why should I take on that kind of opponent? He would lay his weapons down immediately, and I would not even need to use my full strength against him. A simple threatening gesture is enough to throw him off; he can’t face my grim expression. I must look for someone else to match my strength against. I’m ashamed to fight a person who is ready to be beaten.”

…The great man has the privilege of triumphing over the disasters and terrors of mortal life. […] You might be a great man, but how would I ever know, if Fortune has never given you a chance to prove yourself? […] “I consider you unfortunate because you have never been unfortunate. You’ve passed through life without any opposition. No one knows your abilities and potential; not even you.” Testing is necessary if we are to learn about ourselves. No one can discover what he can do except by trying. […] I beg you, do not dread the things that God uses to prompt our souls. Disaster is an opportunity for Virtue. […] Cruelty presses hardest on the inexperienced […] God hardens and studies and exercises those whom He approves and loves. But those people whom God appears to indulge and spare?—He is only keeping them tender for disasters yet to come.

(Seneca, On Providence 3.3, 4.1-7)


Seneca is arguing for something similar to the Christian concept of God’s “Refiner’s Fire”—“I will refine them like silver and test them like gold.” — Zechariah 13:9

What do you think? Does Seneca have a point? I appreciate this turn of attitude. It felt like while we were learning about the nature of the Universe, it seemed like we were just told to “suck it up, shit happens, deal with it, that’s life, the end.” In this excerpt, Seneca isn’t changing his mind on this view, but he’s adding something to it: instead of this being an “ugly” world that we must simply “deal with,” Seneca is suggesting that our struggles and trials are actually something beautiful. They make us better people than if we had never experienced them.

Do you know someone who’s filthy rich? Or who just seems to be really lucky and have everything go their way? Maybe they secured the “competitive” position that you were hoping to get, but they only got the position because their family member works there. So they got the job they want. They have a nice car. Everything seems to be going their way.

Let me tell you, for the past year or so, I’ve been absolutely convinced that I’m a “bad luck charm.” I told my best friend, “If you ever want disaster to strike, just bring me along.” In the past year, I had to testify in court against my ex-boyfriend in a stalking case; my boss bullied me and I lost a job that I loved because I had to do some whistle-blowing, then she went on to bad-mouth me, preventing me from getting jobs that I was more than qualified for (I’m still unemployed); the person I wanted to marry decided he couldn’t leave his parents and siblings; my roommate moved out of state; I took a 3-month hiatus from life and moved back with my family for a while; my grandmother died; dealt with some drama from relatives after this; and then this week I got in a car accident. It’s too much, right? It’s funny, because when I look back to a time when only the first two had occurred, I thought that was a lot and that I’d never deal with it! But after the third event, I kept reminding myself that although these trials can hurt like hell, they really make us who we are. They shape our characters. Seneca’s words are so true:

We don’t know what we are capable of until we have been tested.

Am I jealous of the spoiled person who got the competitive job because of nepotism? Do I envy the filthy rich son who “lies awake at night worried about inheritance money” two days after his mother died, while the other half of the family is trying to support the widower and plan the memorial service?

I. don’t. envy. them. at. all. The Stoics say that life is full of ups and downs. That’s the nature of it. And if we are silly enough to wish for only the ups, then we’d only be experiencing half of life. Our strength wouldn’t be tested. So today, no matter what struggles you are going through, I want you to consider how you’ve become stronger because of them. Take a moment to consider not what your life would be like without your struggles, but what your character would be like if everything in life had been easy for you. When you see how important this is, seize that very moment and love your Fate. It has made you into the beautiful soul that you are today.

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