If an all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God exists, why does evil and suffering befall good men? This question has perplexed theologians and philosophers for centuries. Many have tried to solve this problem. Of the numerous proposed solutions, the Latin philosopher, Seneca, provides one of the best. He simply asserts that no evil ever befalls good men. In this video, we will discuss Seneca’s short essay titled, On Providence, in which he explains his unique solution to the problem of evil.
To solve the problem of evil, it is helpful to first define ‘evil’. According to Seneca, evil is “the commission of crime, scandalous wickedness, daring thoughts, grasping schemes, blind lusts, coveting the good of one’s neighbor, and avarice.” All men, therefore, are capable of avoiding evil because the acts enumerated by Seneca are within one’s control. Because the commission of crime is evil, choose to be virtuous. Because avarice is evil, choose to banish the desire for money and fame.
But some argue against Seneca’s definition of evil. They assert that evil consists of misfortunes – such as strenuous physical labor, bodily injury, loss of loved ones, and death. Seneca responds to these critics by proving that misfortunes are really advantages to those who experience them. Like muscles, a man must exercise his virtues to preserve and strengthen them. Misfortunes are the means by which men exercise their virtues. “God bears a fatherly mind towards good men, and loves them in a manly spirit. “Let them,” says He, “be exercised by labours, sufferings, and losses, so that they may gather true strength.” He who has waged an unceasing strife with his misfortunes has gained a thicker skin by his sufferings, yields to no disaster, and even though he falls, he continues to fight upon his knees.”
Besides preserving and strengthening virtue, misfortune also provides men with the means by which to demonstrate their virtue to the world and, most importantly, to themselves. “I think you unhappy because you have never been unhappy: you have passed through your life without meeting an antagonist: no one will know your powers, not even you yourself. For a man cannot know himself without a trial; no one ever learnt what he could do without putting himself to the test; for which reason many have of their own free will exposed themselves to misfortunes which no longer came in their way, and have sought for an opportunity of making their virtue, which otherwise would have been lost in darkness, shine before the world.” Indeed, we often admire those who bravely endure hardships. Socrates’ stoic acceptance of death and Jesus Christ’s crucifixion have inspired multitudes to nobly endure their own sufferings.
Having established the advantages of enduring misfortune, Seneca next discusses the disadvantages of never enduring misfortune. “Those who are surfeited with ease break down not only with labour, but with mere motion and by their own weight. Unbroken prosperity cannot bear a single blow. Misfortunes press hardest on those who are unacquainted with them: the yoke feels heavy to the tender neck.” In modern America, one often sees a child wail and moan in a grocery store because its parents refuse to buy a particular box of cereal. The child’s parents have cultivated this response by coddling the child while it was younger; and therefore, they have rendered the child unable to endure the slightest inconvenience.
Thus, Seneca’s sentiments still ring true today. So, the next time you encounter suffering in your life, remember that it is a blessing; it is an opportunity to strengthen your virtues; and it is a chance to inspire others to live noble lives.