Harvard University Press, 2008
384 pp., 46.24
Reviewed by Stephen H. Webb
My friend Jim hates surprises. He loves order and works hard to keep a regular schedule. His wife recently threw him a surprise party for his fortieth birthday, and he happened to find out about it a few days early. (Someone at work asked him how to open the email "evite" without knowing the invitation requested secrecy.) He wanted to call it off, but I told him just to accept the inevitable. I watched him squirm for several days, nervously resisting the urge to control the situation. He actually wanted to turn the tables on his wife by surprising everyone himself. He thought he could sneak into the house and hide in the closet before the party started!
Life is full of surprises, occasions over which we have little if any control. Philosophers call these events "contingent" because they depend on multiple factors, each of which could be easily altered. The opposite of a contingent event is a necessary one, an event over which we have no control, but sometimes these two kinds of events are hard to tell apart. In Jim's case, the birthday party was necessary, because his wife planned on it for weeks, and she was not going to be denied. Jim, however, did not want to submit to the inevitable. He suffered during those few days before the party from what we could call "event anxiety." He did not know whether to treat the party as necessary or contingent—that is, to submit to it or alter it by pulling his own surprise.
And what is easier to accept—something over which we have no control or something that we can change? On the face of it, knowing that something is necessary should make us resigned and compliant, while having the power to change the course of events should make us active and optimistic. Right? Well, that's not always the case. Take two counterexamples. Example one: We all know that we are going to die someday, but it is still hard to face death on the day that it comes. Death is necessary, but that does not make it any easier. Example two: Not knowing what the future will bring can cause anxiety and even grave anguish. Who has not had a sleepless night worried about tomorrow? Wouldn't it be easier to get up in the morning if somebody else planned out our day?
I thought of Jim's situation when I read Genevieve Lloyd's interesting book, Providence Lost. She argues that the modern world has lost the sense of the providential ordering of all events, though we still live in providence's shadow. Figuring out which events are contingent and which are necessary, and how to react to both, is what she says the doctrine of providence is all about. In the words of one of the world's most famous prayers, the "Serenity Prayer" written by Reinhold Niebuhr, we need the tranquility to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. When that wisdom breaks down, suffering is certain to follow. Just ask my friend Jim.
Many people think of providence as a Christian monopoly, but it is one of the virtues of Lloyd's book to show that long before the advent of Christ, the ancient Greeks and Romans developed this concept with a rigor that would have impressed Calvin. People in every culture, I would argue, have a basic sense of the inevitable yet unpredictable nature of time, and it is the job of poets, philosophers, and theologians to give people the tools to find the right balance between these competing intuitions. Today we like to tilt that balance toward the unpredictable, since we value novelty above regularity, but the Greeks, like all ancient peoples, favored necessity as a refuge from time's vicissitudes. Our lives make better sense, they decided, if we think of them as being ordered by forces that we can understand but not control.
Lloyd focuses her discussion of the Greeks on Plato's Timaeus, an "audacious, exuberant, and beautiful" attempt to come to terms with the moral design woven into the fabric of the universe. The creation of the world, for Plato, is the collaborative work of mind and necessity. If purpose were not built into the world, how could we understand it? The very existence of philosophy suggested to Plato that God shaped the world into intelligible patterns. Morality too is dependent on providence, since we can give each thing its due only if the pieces of the world fit together in a harmonious whole.
Rationality and morality point to a divine designer, but Plato never really explains why God is so good to us. The Timaeus recounts the story of creation, but in a decidedly philosophical and not mythical key. Plato was more confident in reason than the gods, whose disruptive freedom struck the fancy of the poets but drove philosophers to despair. It was up to the Stoics to tame Zeus by transforming his thunderbolt from a symbol of zealous power to a sign of the universal law to which all people must submit.