BMCR 2022.09.32

The Stoic doctrine of providence: a study of its development and of some of its major issues

, The Stoic doctrine of providence: a study of its development and of some of its major issues. Issues in ancient philosophy. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2021. Pp. xvi, 369. ISBN 9781138125162. $128.00.


Providence is an important idea in Stoicism, but modern scholarship overlooks this topic because of its historical association with theology. The modern scholarly debate focuses more on fate because of its relevance in philosophical debate. Bernard Collette aims to study this important concept in Stoicism and argues the importance of providence for the Stoic philosophers since it is found in all three parts of Stoic philosophy: physics, logic, and ethics. The book may be divided into two parts. The author first provides a “general survey” (1) of the Stoic philosophers and their views on providence. This comprises Chapters 1 through 8. This first part surveys in chronological order the main figures of Stoicism: Zeno, Cleanthes, Chrysippus, Panaetius, Posidonius, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. After this survey, Collette analyses two further notions in Chapters 9 and 10. Chapter 9 addresses oikeiosis and self-preservation, and Chapter 10 oikeiosis in relation to individual providence.

The author starts his survey with the founder of the Stoa, Zeno of Citium. Like all the early Stoic philosophers, his works are “very partially reconstructed” (18). The author tries to reconstruct the thoughts of Zeno with later primary sources such as Stobaeus, Cicero, Alexander of Aphrodisias, and others. Providence was already an important topic for Zeno. Right from the beginning, the author tells us that the distinction between fate and providence leads to “a number of philosophical problems” and that not all Stoic philosophers accepted this approach – and this important problem will be treated in many chapters. Providence implies a will of God (dei uoluntas), and fate implies a series of causes (series causarum) (19). The author then establishes the two consequences of this distinction. First, everything that happens according to providence also happens according to fate. The second is that everything that happens according to fate also happens according to providence. He then proceeds to explain the relationship between providence and nature and describes the ideas of Zeno on ‘craftsmanlike fire’. He finishes his survey of Zeno with the relation between divination and providence. Unlike his pupils, providence in Zeno’s work is embedded in the study of physics; later on, the other Stoics will discuss the problem of providence in ethics.

Chapter 2 discusses Cleanthes, the leader of the Stoa who replaced Zeno. According to the author, his task was to defend Zeno’s cosmology. He explains that Cleanthes had to defend Zeno’s views against the atomists, but that the chief opponent was not Epicurus, but Democritus (38). Democritus’ system was materialist, leaving no place for the teleological account of the world found in Stoicism (and Platonism). Because of this, it would make sense that Cleanthes had to refute the system of Democritus. However, the author uses, as a source, the De Natura Deorum of Cicero. It is true that Democritus is mentioned here and there in this dialogue (he is mentioned in the testimony used in this chapter). However, the whole dialogue is mainly directed against Epicurus, not Democritus. The atomism described in it, which speaks of the weight of the atoms (2.93) and of the swerve (2. 81), expresses the view of Epicurus. Therefore, it does not seem convincing to use Cicero, who was trying to refute Epicureanism, to argue that the testimony for Cleanthes found in the ND shows that he intended to refute Democritus. Another problem is the relation of Stoic philosophers to Heraclitus. When looking at the Hymn to Zeus, the author argues that, although it may resemble the thought of Heraclitus at first, the Hymn bears also the influence of Plato. The author also addresses the idea of fire in the thought of Cleanthes and again, as was the case in the Hymn to Zeus, downplays the role of Heraclitus. The author does not mention the role of Heraclitus for this or for the craftsmanlike fire of Zeno, even though he uses the De Natura Deorum 2.23-24 as a testimony, a statement that is interpreted by Cotta in De Natura Deorum 3.35 as having been derived from Heraclitus. The admiration of Stoic philosophers for Heraclitus has been mentioned from antiquity to modernity. Here, this relation is missing. On the other hand, the author makes minute comparisons between Zeno and Cleanthes on many topics throughout this chapter. He suggests that they may be closer regarding cosmology than initially thought (49), but explains their disagreement over theodicy (52).

In the next chapter, on Chrysippus, the author proposes to place the fragments of On Providence in an order that reflects the original work and provides an outline of the work. Of the five original books of On Providence, the author presents successively Book 1, on the world as a rational being, Book 4, on theodicy, and 5, on fate and moral responsibility. Throughout the exposition of each book, the author underlines what is distinctive about Chrysippus in comparison to Zeno and Cleanthes.

In the chapter on Panaetius, the author underlines the less severe approach of this Stoic. Influenced by Plato and Aristotle, Panaetius abandons the idea of conflagration in favor of the indestructibility of the world. The author explains this new approach as an effort to better defend providence. Indeed, the destruction of the world seemed to be at odds with divine providence. The author then presents the rejection of astrology by Panaetius. He states that Panaetius was the first Stoic philosopher to reject it (112). Of course, astrology is related to providence and it is an important topic, but, unfortunately, the previous chapters do not cover this topic, so that it is more difficult to see what is distinctive about Panaetius. The author then presents the relation between the human telos and providence; here, he shows the influence of Plato on Panaetius. In the last subheading, the author addresses the topic of wisdom and politics. He uses passages from the De Officiis of Cicero; however, these passages refer to Stoicism in general – Cicero, twice in one passage, seems to set out his own view when he says “In my view…” and “But the wisdom that I declare to be…” (118-119). The author admits that this may seem like the view of Cicero and that it could refer to Stoicism in general. Nonetheless, he says that “We have solid ground for thinking that Cicero… is reporting a Stoic view, most probably Panaetius’ views” (120). However, he never sets out this “solid ground.”

Because of the paucity of Posidonius’ fragments, the author relies, in this chapter, on Cleomedes and Seneca. The topics of the human telos and politics are addressed as was the case in the previous chapter. However, this discussion does not fully explain the link between providence and these topics. Of course, all the themes explored in this chapter – virtues, telos, philosopher-king, collaboration among citizens, etc. – are, according to the author, related to providence as “the singularity of philosophy… is itself the result of God’s providential care” (144). However, aside from this idea, this chapter does not fully engage in a discussion about providence. Nevertheless, the author shows, on one hand, that Panaetius was influential, and, on the other hand, that his view was distinct from that of Zeno in that there are two parts to the soul, one rational and divine, one irrational and godless, as well as many other disagreements with the previous Stoic philosophers.

In the chapter on Seneca, the author states that he will focus his attention on the many texts from Seneca containing information about providence. He also informs the reader that the treatise On Providence “does not deal with all aspects of providence, only the specific question of theodicy” (158), and that is the reason why he will use the other texts. However, the question of theodicy was already addressed in the previous chapters – the different approaches to this well-debated question were presented – and there is a need to compare the approach of Seneca to the thinkers of the earlier Stoa since it is an essential question in the debate on providence. Instead, the author chooses to continue on topics already addressed in the previous chapter, mainly the human telos, human knowledge, and politics. Providence is clearly more present in the sections on human telos and human knowledge in this chapter. There is a fine discussion of human freedom of action and the outcome of action in regards to the problem of the distinction between fate and providence (164). However, when the author enters into the topic of politics, it is rather to address the consequence of human telos and human knowledge than to present the problem of providence. The final section is related to Nero’s imperial administration. Again, aside from an analogy between Nero’s and God’s philanthropy, the author says very little about providence.

The survey of Epictetus focuses on “what Epictetus saw as obstacles for human beings to recognize the existence of providence” (192). As it is the case in other chapters, the author presents the human telos and the human condition according to Epictetus. He also addresses the problem of theodicy, claiming that Epictetus provides two answers: (1) that misfortunes are opportunities for humans to become more virtuous, and (2) that supposed misfortunes are merely external and indifferent. Even though this problem of theodicy is related to providence, this chapter focuses more on ideas related to human nature and the condition of humans, such as contemplation, humans as spectators, double ignorance, inner nobility, preconception, and the faculty of understanding, than on providence. However, this is necessary to explain Epictetus’ main point about providence: people who do not use the faculty of understanding or the preconception correctly fail to see this (the misfortunes are opportunities and external are indifferent) and they blame God for evil in the world; they do not understand the works of providence. The second part of this chapter presents the ideas of Epictetus on philostorgia.

The chapter on Marcus Aurelius starts with the question of providence and evil in the world; it deals with the difference between fate and providence as god’s will and the necessary consequence that follows from it, making evil a by-product of his will. The author presents the necessity of evil in nature and addresses the nature of providence “directed first and foremost at the world as a whole” (231). He then explores the ideas of Marcus Aurelius on free will and evil. On pages 234 and 235, the author shows the originality of Marcus Aurelius on this matter and compares it to the ideas of Justin Martyr; this comparison underlines the salient component of Marcus Aurelius’ thought. The chapter ends on providence and politics and addresses how Marcus Aurelius views political action.

The last two chapters constitute an original contribution to the question of providence in Stoicism. First, the author addresses the problem of self-preservation and providence, detailing the very different approaches of Stoicism and Epicureanism to this problem. The Epicureans held that the natural motivation for pleasure was the basis of self-preservation, but the Stoics disagreed because it was “insufficient for accounting for the conservation of all animal life” (277). The author mainly presents the arguments of Lucretius and Hierocles and underlines the difference between natural theology (Stoicism) and a chance-based account of nature (Epicureanism). Then, the final chapter turns to the problem of personal providence. There was a debate among philosophers as to whether providence was only concerned with the world as a whole or extended to human affairs or individuals. This chapter shows the various nuances in the Stoic philosophy regarding this question. It shows that, while providence is concerned with the world as a whole, it sometimes neglects small matters, although this does not mean that providence neglects individual human beings. On the contrary, the author reinterprets crucial sources to show that there is no contradiction between the concern for the whole world and providence toward the individual.

This book addresses an important issue in Stoicism. As it is not a monolithic school, the author shows the progression of issues related to providence and underlines the evolution of Stoicism. Stoic philosophy might seem at first to have many contradictions regarding this topic, but the survey puts the progression of the ideas in perspective. If it was, at first, a discussion that took place in physics, the survey clearly shows that this discussion tends over time to be more and more related to ethics. This survey also helps understand the distinctiveness of each philosopher. Even if topics related to providence are not treated equally in all chapters (for example, astrology and theodicy are not always treated) and the relations of some topics to providence are not always fully explained (involvement in politics), it is nevertheless an essential work for getting a better understanding of the important concept of providence, and there are many good developments in it. The book contains many useful notes provided at the end of each chapter. It also contains an index of sources at the end, a glossary of Latin terms, and one of Greek terms, both with references to the numbered excerpts in the book.