Wednesday, April 21, 2010

(24) Attitude, Adversity, & Affirmation

Occasionally the question is asked as to why "bad things
happen to good people?" And usually accompanying this
question comes another: "How could a loving God" allow
such to happen? Theologians refer to this issue of evil in
our life as the Theodicy Problem.

There have always been answers, rarely good ones, to the
Theodicy Problem. Regardless, I thought I might present a
set of answers that may seem provocative--since they seem
so different from what we so oft hear.

I'll be quoting from the Stoic philosopher--Lucius Annaeus
Seneca (c. 4 b.c.e.-65 c.e): [God] "does not treat the good
man like a toy, but tries him, hardens him, and readies him
for himself."

"Adversity [does] not affect the spirit of a stalwart man. He
maintains his poise and assimilates all that falls to his lot to
his own complexion, for he is more potent than the world
without. I do not maintain that he is insensible to externals,
but that he overcomes them."

"Good men...must not shrink from hardship and difficulty or
complain of fate; they should take whatever befalls in good
part and turn it to advantage. The thing that matters is not
what you bear but how you bear it."

"No one is more unhappy, in my judgment, than a man who
has never met with adversity. He has never had the privilege
of testing himself."

"For self-knowledge, testing is necessary; no one can discover
what he can do except by trying..."

"Why do you wonder that good men are shaken to make them
strong? No tree stands firm and sturdy if it is not buffeted by
constant wind; the very stresses cause it to stiffen and fix its
roots firmly."

"Scorn poverty: no one is as poor as he was at birth. Scorn
pain: either it will go away or you will. Scorn death: either it
finishes you or it transforms you." [Above quotations derived
from the following book: THE STOIC PHILOSOPHY OF SENECA,
translated by Moses Hadas, W.W. Norton & Company, 1958,
pp. 29, 36-37, 40, and 44.]

Seneca's approach to the Theodicy Problem is really about
turning the bad into the good. It's about honing one's self.
Rather than just stressing the stiff upper lip, Seneca sees this
world and its challenge as a stage where we *learn* how to
act out the play. For Seneca, the Theodicy Problem is a
contingent of lessons that a good person will come to learn
in order to evolve and prepare himself spiritually.

But, as always, Seneca's answer to the Theodicy Problem is
commendable but incomplete--like all those, since, who have
also tried to answer such. Seneca talks of bravery, courage,
and maturity in meeting the challenge. But he does not broach
the loss of innocents to what we perceive as evil in this world.

Still, Seneca's explanation is perhaps to be admired. He does
not dally in victimization, but rather stresses courage, thinking,
cunning, and fortitude in the face of these as of yet unexplained
Forces of Nature. If a person has to go down, they should try to
go down well. Perhaps this is what some of the old monks meant
about the importance of "dying right?"

As that ancient Stoic philosopher discovered for himself--as do
we--this business of living and dying isn't simple. Seneca endured
years of Imperial-dictated exile on a stony, lonely island. Later, in
the end, he was ordered to die by suicide by the Emperor Nero.
In both situations, Seneca practiced what he preached bravely--
overcoming the adversity involved, but surely it wasn't a simple

Seneca and other Stoics, like Epictetus, talked about *attitude.*
No doubt all of us have practiced this--overcoming adversity
through our attitude.

But Epictetus warned that we must come to realize what we
"can and cannot control" in this world. To attempt to exercise
control where you really have none is truly vain and illusory,
but exercising right control when you have the capacity to do
so is a form of wisdom. The challenge is being able to discriminate
the difference. And I think this has real significance when it comes
to the Theodicy Problem--and our very own individual theodicy

Some respond to Seneca saying: "Simple isn't it? Yes, but....!"
Speaking out loud the ideas, how we can overcome the
adversities of life, is the simple part. Living out such isn't as
simple. According to Seneca there is a formula involved,
which is about the measure of our *greatness.* The great
souls somehow have learned how to "grow beyond" the
fear and chaos of adversity.

I should think this process is linked with coming to a greater
comprehension about that with which we are dealing in
adversity, and it's about coming to know inside *who we are.*
It's really somewhat akin to Carl Jung's idea of the "individuation
process." Not simple, but rather very, very challenging!

And, "Yes, but...! " There's the trap of the Theodicy Problem.
Perhaps Seneca was wise enough not even to allude to the
disasters and death perpetrated upon innocents. How can
one speak of attitude or challenge regarding such events as
tornadoes sweeping people to their death--or air disasters
that evaporate people in mid-air?

Perhaps the only attitude we can hold at this point, concerning
the innocents, is to try to understand better what has happened,
to not so quickly blame "God" or Nature and thus fall into the
"victim syndrome," but rather investigate the event(s) more
thoroughly for future prevention.

A case in point is mechanical neglect or human negligence
involved in aircraft disasters. More careful attention to one's
duty or more careful workmanship perhaps could prevent such
tragic disasters. As for the Forces of Nature, human efforts are
busy at work trying to learn the processes and course of these
forces--but long-range forecasting and alert still remain in its

Nonetheless, the above effort towards greater comprehension
and prevention falls into Seneca's idea about *attitude.* A
courageous and intelligent attitude can bring us a long way
towards comprehending and thus defeating both our individual
and our collective Theodicy Problem.

But it's not simple! Courage is required to maintain such a Stoic
attitude against adversity on the part of an individual.

Paul Tillich, the great theologian best known for his concept of
the "Ground of Being," takes this Stoic attitude a few steps further.
He shows the transformation from individual courage in the face
of adversity to an affirmative courage expressed at the cosmic
or "God" level. To quote:

"Stoic courage is neither atheistic nor theistic in the technical
sense of these words. The problem of how courage is related
to the idea of God is asked and answered by the Stoics...The
courage to be transcends the polytheistic power of fate. The
[Stoic's] second assertion is that the soul of the wise man is
similar to God [hence a microcosm]...who is indicated here
[as] the divine Logos in *unity* with whom the courage of
wisdom conquers fate..." [Paul Tillich, THE COURAGE TO BE,
Yale University Press, 1952, p. 15.]

"Seneca says that while God is *beyond* suffering the true
Stoic is *above* it. Suffering, this implies, contradicts the nature
of God. It is impossible for him to suffer, he is *beyond* it. The
Stoic as a human being is able to suffer. But he need not let
suffering conquer the center of his rational being. He can keep
himself *above* it." [Ibid, p. 16.]

But Tillich takes these steps into another place! "Courage of
wisdom and resignation [can] be replaced by the courage of
faith in salvation, that is by faith in a God who paradoxically
participates in human suffering. But [ancient] Stoicism itself
can never make this step." [Ibid, p. 16.]

And Tillich takes yet another step! Though Stoicism seemingly
disappeared by the 3rd Century c.e., there was a... "revival of the
ancient schools of thought at the beginning of the modern
period...not only a revival but also a *transformation.*" [Ibid, p. 18.]

"While the ancient world valued the individual not [just] as an
individual but as a representative of something universal, [e.g. a
microcosm, a virtue]...the rebirth of antiquity [especially during
the Renaissance period] saw the individual as a *unique
expression of the universe,* incomparable, irreplaceable, and
of infinite significance." [Ibid, p. 19.]

Later--in Neo-Stoicism, particularly as expressed by Spinoza,
'the courage to be is not one thing beside others. It is an
expression of the essential act of everything that participates
in being, namely self-affirmation." [Ibid, p. 20.]

"Virtue is the power of acting exclusively according to one's
true nature...Self-affirmation is, so to speak, virtue altogether.
But self-affirmation is affirmation of one's essential being, and
the knowledge of one's essential being is mediated through
reason, the power of the soul to have adequate ideas."
[Ibid, p. 21.]

And "self-affirmation, according to Spinoza, is participation
in the divine self-affirmation." [Ibid, p. 22.]

"If the soul recognizes recognizes its being in God...
Perfect self-affirmation is not an isolated act which originates
in the individual being, but is participation in the universal or
divine act of self-affirmation which is the originating power in
every individual act..." [Ibid, p. 23.]

Reading through this small section of Tillich's thought, he
illustrates the historical development of ideas about the
movement from just suffering and adversity to learning and
overcoming to self-affirmation. And as the human soul does,
so does "God." Echoing from the ancient world to our own
times, the microcosm and the macrocosm is all of the same
fabric: God is Kosmos!

This above idea that "God is Kosmos" permeated the ancient
world--and, today, this great consideration is returning to enrich
not only our concepts of relationship between our self and "God,"
but of our relationship with what we deem as Creation.

The original meaning of Kosmos was the patterned nature or
process of all domains of existence, from matter to math to theos,
and not merely the physical universe, which is usually what both
"cosmos" and "universe" has meant until recently.

The Kosmos contains the cosmos (or the physiosphere), the
bios (or biosphere), nous (the noosphere), and theos (the
theosphere or divine domain)--none of these separately
being foundational. This holistic view was held by the great
ancient philosophers right through to Hegel. And, happily,
work in Holistic Science and the new philosophical paradigm,
Deep Ecology, has led in part to systems thinking, to ecological
thinking, and to thinking directed towards a new organic

[This item was originally posted in my "Stoa del Sol" website.]