Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Week 2. Lipsius on Misfortune


Last time we saw that Lipsius’s De Constantia is structured by a series of four arguments directed against ‘public evils’ (mala publica) and designed to help us cultivate the virtue of constantia. Those four arguments were that public evils are i) imposed on us by God (1.14), ii) the product of necessity (1.15-22), iii) in fact profitable or good for us (2.6-17), and iv) neither particularly grievous or unusual. Last time we focused on material from the second of these arguments, concerning the nature of fate. This time our focus is on the third argument, and its claim that ‘public’ evils’ are in fact profitable for us.

Lipsius’s argument involves three main claims (outlined at 2.8), namely that ‘public evils’ benefit us as exercise (exercendi), chastisement (castigandi), and punishment (puniendi). (At 2.11 he adds a fourth point in their favour: they are required for the balance and harmony of the world.) Adverse situations exercise the virtues of the good, they chastise and encourage the weak-willed, and they punish the bad. In each case they offer a genuine good, even if at first glance they may appear bad. Although this looks like a fairly traditional response to the ‘problem of evil’, in fact it draws heavily on Stoicism, in two slightly different ways. 

Stoic ‘Indifferents’ 

Firstly it draws on the Stoic theory of value, which claims that external objects and events are strictly speaking value neutral, or ‘indifferents’. Only virtue, conceived as an excellent mental state, has genuine positive value, and only its opposite, vice conceived as an irrational, confused mental state has genuine negative value. Consequently so-called ‘public evils’ ought not to be thought of as evil at all, but rather a matter of indifference. They might be examples of what the Stoics call ‘non-preferred indifferents’, better avoided if possible, but not bringers of any genuine harm.

However Lipsius’s argument concerning the benefits of public evils goes further than that. Anything that enables us to improve our virtuous state of mind will surely be something preferable. It won’t be good itself, for only virtue is good, but if it promotes virtue then surely it must be choice worthy, that is, a preferred indifferent, to be chosen wherever possible. Or perhaps we ought to put it even more strongly than that, for preferred indifferents – things such as wealth or good health – are things we might pursue so long as their pursuit doesn’t conflict with the cultivation of virtue, but if some things actively contribute to the cultivation of virtue then they are surely more choice worthy than mere preferred indifferents. Choosing those things that help maintain our nature qua rational beings will be a ‘proper function’. Indeed choosing those things knowing that they will help improve one’s virtue will make these choices even better: ‘perfect proper functions’.

The Stoic background to Lipsius’s discussion might lead us not merely to deny that ‘public evils’ are really evils after all but to go further and to embrace these apparent evils as in fact giving real benefit, contributing to our cultivation of virtue. As Lipsius puts it in 2.6, they bear “an inward fruit and commodity” (interno fructu commodisque).

Seneca on Providence

All of this is wonderfully elaborated with the finest rhetoric by Lipsius’s beloved Seneca in the latter’s De Providentia, in which Seneca tries to answer the question why it is that good people suffer misfortunes in a supposedly providentially ordered world. As one would expect, Seneca challenges the assumption standing behind the question: “nothing bad can happen to a good man […] adversity’s onslaughts are powerless to affect the spirit of a brave man” (Prov. 2.1). It is noteworthy that here Seneca continues to refer to ‘adversity’, just as Lipsius continues to refer to ‘public evils’ (at 2.6 Lipsius is explicit that they are actually good), even though both want to present these as beneficial. Seneca goes on to argue that these adverse events not only don’t affect the virtuous but are also genuinely positive for the rest of us too. We should approach any adversity we encounter in our lives as a ‘training exercise’. Like wrestlers who welcome strong opponents, we too ought to welcome the challenges that life throws at us as opportunities to develop our character. What we might be inclined to think of as ‘bad luck’ should instead be embraced as valuable experience, as something not only positive but also deliberately sent by divine providence.

As Seneca develops his thoughts about the positive nature of what we might ordinarily call adversity he suggests that it can have two distinct positive roles: it can train virtue and it can test virtue. Those of us who are a long way from having an excellent mental state (and that’s almost all of us, according the Stoics) ought to welcome adverse events as a form of training. I mentioned Seneca’s use of an analogy with wrestling but now he uses use the more graphic image of medical cautery. Poverty, hunger, or bereavement are all painful but necessary cures that will toughen us up and make us better prepared to cope with these same things in the future.

It might be objected here that if adversities such as poverty, hunger, and bereavement are not really bad at all, then why do we need to be trained to endure them? Surely we shouldn’t be thinking of these things as needing to be endured at all, if they cause us no genuine harm. That would certainly be true if we had mastered virtue, but while we are still imperfect, these sorts of events will continue to feel unwelcome for some time to come, and the sceptic will of course say that they will always feel unwelcome because they are genuine evils. But note that if one were to follow that sceptical line of thought then Seneca still has something useful to say: such adversities may well be genuine evils but if that is the case then all the more reason to train oneself to be able to bear them more effectively. The only serious training available is to suffer them first hand, so suffering them does have its benefits. This line of thought also features heavily in Lipsius.

As well as training the imperfect, these adverse events also test the perfect. Seneca quotes the Cynic philosopher Demetrius: “nothing seems to me more unhappy than the man who has no experience of adversity”, to which Seneca adds “for he has not been allowed to put himself to the test” (Prov. 3.3). (Lipsius borrows this quotation from Seneca in 2.8.) We only find out who we are and what we are made of when we are put to this sort of test. If we were never to experience any kind of bad luck in our lives then we would never know how we would respond. Only when faced with a real challenge do we find out who we really are, and that may be someone quite different from who we thought we were. In any case such adversities are an inevitable part of life. Given this, the real choice left to us is to decide whether to learn from such experiences or simply moan about them, Seneca suggests. As he puts it, “disaster is virtue’s opportunity” (Prov. 4.6: calamitas virtutis occasio est). As for those who have never faced disaster, “no one will know what you were capable of, not even you yourself” (Prov. 4.3).

So, Seneca suggests that truly great people will delight in adversity, treating it as both further training and an opportunity to show their true worth. If one is minded to believe in divine providence then, given these benefits of adversity, one might even see bad luck as a gift or blessing from the gods. We should think of such tests as compliments, a bit like the soldier who is selected by his commander for an especially difficult mission.

If this sounds a bit extreme, Seneca goes even further. Not only should we welcome what we might ordinarily call bad luck; we should also shun what we usually think of as good luck: “the greatest danger comes from excessive good fortune” (Prov. 4.10). The worst thing that can happen to us is to be blessed with a life of unending luxury, comfort, and wealth, for such a life would make one weak and lazy. But worst of all, the longer we experience a comfortable and easy life, the harder it will hit us when our luck finally changes, as it surely one day will.

In the light of this, the truly unlucky are those that have never experienced adversity. We ought not only to welcome what we ordinarily call bad luck but also be very wary of good luck. The traditional problem of evil that opens Seneca’s essay – why bad things happen if the universe is providentially ordered – simply vanishes, for those supposedly bad things are in fact of great service to us.

Lipsius on Misfortune

The discussion that Lipsius gives us in De Constantia clearly draws very heavily on Seneca here. (Note that the central problematic passage in Lipsius’s discussion of Stoic fate also comes from De Providentia, 5.8.) After outlining his three claims about the profitability of public evils (as exercise, chastisement, punishment), he adds a fourth at 2.11: that they are necessary to the harmony and balance of the world. Stepping behind the various examples, one of the underlying points that seems to be here is that destruction is the inevitable counterpart to generation. There is also a point about perspectivism here as well: one person’s crushing defeat is another’s glorious victory.

After these four points Lipsius turns to further objections: that events brought by providence often appear be unfair punishments (2.12-17). We have just seen that we ought not to think of these as punishments at all, but even so he continues to address the questions of i) why bad actions are not punished (immediately), ii) why the (apparently) innocent are sometimes punished, and iii) why punishments sometimes appear to be transferred (from one generation to the next; from one member of a group to the whole group). Although Lipsius offers various responses to these objections, the general thrust in this latter part of the discussion is that trying to grasp the details of the way in which events are providentially ordered is simply beyond us, and something we must accept on faith. But as I have already noted, if the arguments in the earlier part stand then this later discussion becomes superfluous, for adverse events are benefits, not punishments.

(Some of the comments on Seneca here are borrowed from an earlier short piece published in The Philosophers Magazine, called ‘Tough Luck’.)