Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
Providence Lost
Providence Lost
Genevieve Lloyd
Harvard University Press, 2008
384 pp., 46.0

Buy Now

Reviewed by Stephen H. Webb


Freedom, necessity, and God.

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.

For the Stoics, fate, nature, and providence run together, along the lines of a physics of preordained arrangements. People are free, since atoms can swerve in indeterminable ways, but our freedom is so limited that it is best exercised in calming our emotions. The Stoics are known for advocating an indifference to the ups and downs of life, but that sells their wisdom short. Stoic providence is not just an iron law of necessity. They understood that necessity without purpose or design is indistinguishable from chance. The laws of nature, the Stoics argued, have an ethical force because they are directed toward our most basic needs. It is the job of the philosopher to demonstrate that our needs, not our desires, are in harmony with the restraints of nature. We have to learn to want what the world wants for us.

One Stoic image of providence says it all. A dog tied to a cart can resist being pulled along, if it does not mind being dragged through the dirt. But if it submits, its spontaneous action will coincide with necessity. It can even be happy if it runs fast enough to keep up with the cart! This sounds depressing to our ears—why not chew through the rope and make a run for freedom?—but the Stoics found a satisfying sense of release in the idea that there is more necessity than contingency in the world. Epictetus, one of the greatest Stoics, had been a slave, and he thought freedom and slavery were completely compatible.

It has often been said that Augustine is the first modern man, and this is certainly true when he is compared to the Stoics. For modern tastes, the Stoics are a bit too interested in being calm. Not even the death of a loved one was allowed to upset their emotional equilibrium. Augustine's heart, by contrast, was restless even after he found rest in God. Perhaps because his theological investigations were so unremitting, he tended to think of God as ceaselessly laboring to order the world. What really set Augustine apart from all of the Greek philosophers was his deep confrontation with evil. Of course, Augustine was certain that God is completely in control of the world, but still, his sensitivity to evil lent his doctrine of providence a dynamic character.

For Augustine, God is busy combating evil by making the best of it, but that does not mean that evil is really good (a risk the Stoics took by suggesting that nothing is evil to the wise man who exercises diligent indifference to his fate). The sheer weight Augustine gave evil led him to overhaul the Stoic notion of order. God is able to fulfill the divine plan even though the world goes awry at every step of the way. Central to the divine plan is the role of human freedom. Our freedom makes many events seem contingent to us, but they are still necessary to God, because God exists outside of time and thus knows the future even better than we know the present or the past. Augustine's understanding of freedom is thus much more complex than the Stoic defense of detachment.

Lloyd is alert to how Augustine challenges the way the Stoics take refuge in necessity, but she misses the way providence for Augustine is much more than a tool for categorizing events as either necessary or contingent. Lloyd places Augustine in continuity with the ancient Greek quest to balance the necessary and the contingent. But for Augustine, God orders the world in order to honor our freedom, so that events which are planned can also be genuinely surprising. Our fallen wills want to control what happens to us, but faith permits us to act freely while trusting that God is in control. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, we might say that Niebuhr's famous prayer is thus providentially misleading, and my friend Jim's dilemma is moot. Wisdom comes not in discerning which events are necessary and which are contingent but in recognizing that all events are both, simultaneously.

Because Lloyd does not fully recognize the significance of Augustine's breakthrough on providence, she does not portray him as the hero of her narrative. Nonetheless, she does show how, after Augustine, contingency and necessity fell apart, and the best philosophical minds were not able to put them back together again. Descartes, in his quest for certainty, inadvertently sets humanity down the path of separating mind from matter, pitting our will in an interminable and ultimately futile battle against nature. Spinoza went in the opposite direction, arguing that everything is foreordained. Imagine, Spinoza suggests, that a stone is rolling down a hill, but at some point it becomes conscious of its movement. It will think that it is causing its own motion, when of course nothing of the sort is happening.

To be modern is to be torn in two. We celebrate freedom as if we can do anything we want, if we put our minds to it. At the same time, we bemoan the way our genes, our childhood, and social forces determine everything we do. When we grow bald, lose our temper, or get laid off, experts tell us that we really have no choice in the matter. Life is preordained by factors that outflank our feeble will. Yet at the same time we celebrate will power as if everything is contingent and subject to our control. The decline of providence has left us intellectually schizophrenic. We define freedom as the opposite of submission and obedience but end up feeling hardly free at all.

How do we submit to necessity with gratitude and joy, rather than stubbornness and resentment? How do we accept the contingent and accidental in our lives with courage and patience? To return to my friend Jim, we have to act surprised by what happens to us, even though we know that somebody else has already made the plan. We need to live as if every day were full of surprises—surprises that nonetheless follow a tight script, written by someone who guarantees that, no matter what, the ending will be a happy one. In more technical terms, we have to face every event as if it were contingent (and thus dependent on our free will) while recognizing that we are not in charge (and thus are freed from the burden of control). In a word, we have to be Augustinian.

That is my conclusion, not Lloyd's. She is content to tell the story of the loss of providence, and she does not think it is possible to return to Augustine. "Little in his argument," she writes about Augustine, "could persuade a nonbeliever; in the end it depends on the appeal to a shared faith in God, as a being already assumed to care about human well-being." Lloyd has persuaded me that even if Christianity were not true, Augustine's version of providence would be superior to all the alternatives, but her book also demonstrates that from the shadows it is hard to see the light.

Stephen H. Webb is professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College. He is currently working on a book about creation and evolution, entitled The Dome of Eden.

Most ReadMost Shared