Providence in Hebraic Stoicism

Providence in Hebraic Stoicism
James Scott Trimm

In his foundational book On Creation, the first Century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, concludes that a created universe, leads to the the corollary of the concept of “providence”. Philo writes:

And those who describe it [the universe] as being uncreated, do, without being aware of it, cut off the most useful and necessary of all the qualities which tend to produce piety, namely, providence: (10) for reason proves that the father and creator has a care for that which has been created; for a father is anxious for the life of his children, and a workman aims at the duration of his works, and employs every device imaginable to ward off everything that is pernicious or injurious, and is desirous by every means in his power to provide everything which is useful or profitable for them. But with regard to that which has not been created, there is no feeling of interest as if it were his own in the breast of him who has not created it. (11) It is then a pernicious doctrine, and one for which no one should contend, to establish a system in this world, such as anarchy is in a city, so that it should have no superintendant, or regulator, or judge, by whom everything must be managed and governed.
(Philo; On Creation 9b-11)

And later Philo concludes:

The fifth lesson that Moses teaches us is, that God exerts his providence for the benefit of the world. For it follows of necessity that the Creator must always care for that which he has created, just as parents do also care for their children.
(Philo; On Creation 171b-172a)

By “providence” Philo means that the Creator has a plan. Providence, in this sense, is closely tied to the concepts of natural law and the logos, about which I have previously blogged. Providence, is the idea that there is a rational mind, and therefor a plan, that is permeating the universe.


This brings us to the Hebraic Stoic understanding of Genesis 2:7, which I also blogged about recently.

And YHWH Elohim formed (YETZER) man of the dust of the ground,
and breathed into his nostrils the breath (NISH’MAT) of life;
and man became a living soul (NEFESH).
(Gen. 2:7)

The Wisdom of Ben Sira says of this verse:

It was He who created man in the beginning.
And He left him in the power of his own freewill (Heb: YETZER).
If you will, you can keep the commandments,

and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
He has placed before you fire and water:
Stretch out your hand for whichever you wish.
 (Sira 15:14-16)

In the ancient Hebraic Stoic work, 4Maccabees (also known as On the Supremacy of Reason) we read concerning this verse:

21 Now when Elohim fashioned man, he planted in him emotions and inclinations,
22 but at the same time he enthroned the mind among the senses as a sacred governor over them all.
23 To the mind he gave the Torah; and one who lives subject to this will rule a kingdom that is temperate, just, good, and courageous.
(4Macc. 2:21-23)

And as Philo of Alexandria concluded:

“For these passions are the causes of all good and of all evil; of good when they submit to the authority of dominant reason, and of evil when they break out of bounds and scorn all government and restraint.”
(Life of Moses 1; VI, 26)

The neshoma that Elohim breathed into us, is a spark of the Logos. As Philo wrote:

There are two several parts of which we consist, the soul and the body; now the body is made of earth, but the soul consists of air, being a fragment of the Divinity, for “God breathed into man’s face the breath of life, and man became a living Soul.”(Gen. 2:7) It is therefore quite consistent with reason to say that the body which was fashioned out of the earth has nourishment which the earth gives forth akin to the matter of which it is composed; but the soul, inasmuch as it is a portion of the ethereal nature, is supported by nourishment which is ethereal and divine, for it is nourished on knowledge, and not on meat or drink, which the body requires. (Allegorical Interpretation, III, 161)

He does well here to attribute the flow of blood to the mass of flesh, combining two things appropriate to one another; but the essence of the mind he has not made to depend on any created thing, but has represented it as breathed into man by God from above. For, says Moses, “The Creator of the universe breathed into his face the breath of life, and man became a living Soul,” (Gen. 2:7) who also, it is recorded, was fashioned after the image of the Creator. (Who is the Heir of Divine Things? 56)

For among created things, the heaven is holy in the world, in accordance with which body, the imperishable and indestructible natures revolve; and in man the mind is holy, being a sort of fragment of the Deity, and especially according to the statement of Moses, who says, “God breathed into his face the breath of life, and man became a living Soul.”(Gen. 2:7). (On Dreams 1, 34)

The Hebraic Stoics understood this to mean that man had a “freewill” (yetzer) in that he can choose either to be guided by his emotions or to be guided by his rational mind, the fragment of the logos within him.

In other words, the only thing a man truly controls, is what he thinks, and how he chooses to feel. We cannot control what happens in the universe, we can only control what we choose to think about it.

By choosing to be guided by the rational mind rather than the emotions, a man is choosing to live in harmony with nature, the logos which guides nature and in harmony with providence which results from the logos guiding nature. This is why Philo writes:

the law corresponds to the world and the world to the law, and that a man who is obedient to the law, being, by so doing, a citizen of the world, arranges his actions with reference to the intention of nature, in harmony with which the whole universal world is regulated. (Philo; On Creation 3)

Or as he states elsewhere:

… the man who adhered to these laws, and clung closely to a connection with and obedience to nature, would live in a manner corresponding to the arrangement of the universe with a perfect harmony and union, between his words and his actions and between his actions and his words.
(On the Life of Moses 2, 48)

We can either live in harmony with providence, choosing to be guided by our rational minds, the fragment of the logos within us, or we can choose to be resist providence by being guided by our emotions. Neither choice will change those things which we cannot control, but the other path will lead to a peace of mind and happiness, even in the worst of circumstances. (This does not mean that we cannot, within the bounds of providence, potentially influence external events by our actions, but that is not actual control. In much the same way, one can influence an election thru campaign work and voting, but cannot control the ultimate outcome of the election.)

Life isn’t Fair

So how do we reconcile providence with the common observation that “life is not fair”?

Philo wrote three books on the effects of providence. The first has not survived, but was titled “Every Wicked Man is a Slave” while the second, which has survived, is titled “Every Good Man is Free.” The Third is simply titled “On Providence” (which survives in Greek in Fragment I and Fragment II and is complete only in an Armenian translation).

In these works, Philo frequently references gentile sources, following the addage articulated by Ben Zoma “Who is wise? He who can learn from any man.” (m.Avot 4:1) (Which will be the subject of a blog in the near future).

In his work On Providence, Philo argues that Providence works for the benefit of the majority, not necessarily that of the individual:

God causes the violent storms of wind and rain which we see, not for the injury of those who traverse the sea, as you fancied, or of those who till the earth, but for the general benefit of the whole of the human race, for with his water he cleanses the earth, and with his breezes he purifies all the regions beneath the moon, and by the united influence of both he nourishes and promotes the growth and brings to perfection both animals and plants. (44) And if at times these things do injure those who put to sea or who till the land at unseasonable moments, it is not to be wondered at, for these men are but a small portion of the human race, and the care of God is exerted for the benefit of all mankind.
(Philo; On Providence Fragment II 42-44a)

Philo also addresses the idea that it “often happens that men of the highest virtue have fallen into unexpected misfortunes” (All Good Men are Free 18)

Philo argues that the man who lives according to virtue (i.e. whose rational mind controls his emotions) is free, while the wicked man (i.e. whose allows himself to be controlled by his emotions) is actually a slave to his inclinations. In other words, paradoxically, the man who lives in harmony with providence is free, while the man who resists providence is not free. Philo writes:

(17) Slavery, then, is of two kinds; slavery of the soul and slavery of the body. Now, of our bodies, men are masters; but over our souls, wickedness and the passions have the dominion. And we may speak of freedom in the same manner. For one kind of freedom gives fearlessness of body in respect of any dangers which can come upon it from men of still more powerful body; while the other produces peace to the mind, by putting a check upon the authority of the passions. (18) Now, about the former kind, scarcely any one ever raises any question; for the chances of fortune which happen to men are infinite in number, and it often happens that men of the highest virtue have fallen into unexpected misfortunes, and so have lost the freedom which belonged to them through their birth. But there is room for inquiry about those manners which neither desires, nor fears, nor pleasures, nor pains, have ever brought under the yoke, as if they had come forth out of confinement, and as if the chains by which they had been bound were now loosened. (19) Therefore, discarding all mention of those kinds of freedom which are only a pretence, and of all those names also which are quite unconnected with nature, but which owe their existence only to opinion, such as slaves born in the house, slaves purchased with money, slaves taken in war, let us now investigate the character of the man who is truly free, who is alone possessed of independence, even if ten thousand men set themselves down as his masters; for he will quote that line of Sophocles, which differs in no respect from the doctrines of the Pythagoreans– “God is my ruler, and no mortal Man.” [it is not known from what play this line comes; it is placed among the Incerta Fragments, No. 89, by Brunck. ] (20) For, in real truth, that man alone is free who has God for his leader; indeed, in my opinion, that man is even the ruler of all others, and has all the affairs of the earth committed to him, being, as it were, the viceroy of a great king, the mortal lieutenant of an immortal sovereign. However, this assertion of the actual authority of the wise man may be postponed to a more suitable opportunity. We must at present examine minutely the question of his perfect freedom. (21) If now any one advancing deeply into the matter should choose to investigate it closely, he will see clearly that there is no one thing so nearly related to another as independence of action. On which account there are a great many things which stand in the way of the liberty of a wicked man; covetousness of money, the desire of glory, the love of pleasure, and so on. But the virtuous man has absolutely no obstacle at all since he rises up against, and resists, and overthrows, and tramples on love, and fear, and cowardice, and pain, and all things of that kind, as if they were rivals defeated by him in the public games. (22) For he has learnt to disregard all the commands which those most unlawful masters of the soul seek to imposed upon him, out of his admiration and desire for freedom, of which independence and spontaneousness of action are the most especial and inalienable inheritance; and by some persons the poet is praised who composed this iambic– “No man’s a slave who does not fear to Die,” [this line is from an unknown tragedy by Euripides. Fragmenta Incerta, 348.] as having had an accurate idea of the consequences of such courage; for he conceived that nothing is so calculated to enslave the mind as a fear of death, arising from an excessive desire of living.

IV. (23) But we must consider that not only is the man who feels no anxiety to avoid death incapable of being made a slave, but the same privilege belongs to those who are indifferent to poverty, and want of reputation, and pain, and all those other things which the generality of men look upon as evils, being themselves but evil judges of things, since they pronounce a man a slave from a computation of what things he has need of, looking at the duties which he is compelled to perform, when they ought to look rather at his free and indomitable disposition; (24) for the man who out of a lowly and slavish spirit submits himself to lowly and slavish actions in spite of his deliberate judgment, is really and truly a slave; but he who adapts his circumstances and actions to the present occasion, and who voluntarily and in an enduring spirit bears up against the events of fortune, not looking at any thing of human affairs as extraordinary, but having by diligent consideration fully assured himself that all divine things are honoured by eternal order and happiness; and that all mortal things are tossed about in an everlasting storm and fluctuation of affairs so as to be subject to the greatest variety of changes and vicissitudes, and who, from those considerations, bears all that can befall him with a noble courage, is at once both a philosopher and a free man. (25) On which account he will neither obey every one who imposes a command upon him, not even if he threatens him with insults, and tortures, and even still more formidable evils; but he will bear a gallant spirit, and will cry out in reply to such menaces–

“Yes, burn and scorch my flesh, and glut your hate,
Drinking my life-warm blood; for heaven’s stars
Shall quit their place, and darken ‘neath the earth,
And earth rise up and take the place of heaven,
Before you wring from me a word of Flattery.”
[this is a fragment of Euripides from the Syleus. Fr. 2.]
(All Good Men are Free 17-25)

The Book of Job gives us an excellent example of a virtuous man who experiences great hardship in the world, but cannot, by it, be robbed of his inner peace. And 4th Maccabees demonstrates to us that the martyrs of 2Maccabees are excellent examples of persons of virtue who are tortured and even killed, but who not only endure their tortured, but do so with inner peace and happiness.

Philo then likens a virtuous man’s endurance of the hardships of the world to those of an athlete competing in the ancient sport of Pankration and enduring blows from his opponent. Philo argues that the man of virtue develops endurance from the hardships of the world:

V. (26) I have before now seen among the competitors in the pancratium, at the public games, one man inflicting all kinds of blows both with his hands and feet, all of them with great accuracy of aim and omitting nothing which could conduce to victory, and yet after at time fainting and desponding, and at last quitting the arena without the crown of victory; and the other who has received all his blows, being thoroughly hardened with great firmness of flesh, and being tough and unyielding, and filled with the true spirit of an athlete, and invigorated throughout his whole body, being like so much iron or stone, not at all yielding to the blows inflicted by the other, at last, by the endurance and resolution of his spirit, defeating the power of his adversary so as to obtain a complete victory. (27) And the condition of the virtuous man appears to me very much to resemble that of this person. For having thoroughly fortified his soul with strong and powerful reasoning, he so compels the man who is offering him violence to desist from weariness, before he himself can be compelled to do any thing contrary to his opinion of propriety. But perhaps this is incredible to those who do not know by experience that virtue is of the character that I have mentioned, just as that other case would be to those who have never seen the combatants in the pancratium; but nevertheless it is strictly true. (28) And it was from a regard to this fact that Antisthenes said that “the virtuous man was a burden hard to be borne.” For as folly is a light thing easily tossed about in every direction, so, on the contrary, wisdom is a well established and immovable thing of a weight which is not easily agitated. (29) Accordingly the lawgiver of the Jews [Gen. 16:9.] represents the hands of the wise man as a heavy, intimating by this figurative expression the gravity of his actions, which are supported in no superficial but in a solid manner by his inflexible mind. (All Good Men are Free 26-31)

This is referring to an account found in the Torah in Gen. 16:1-9:

[1] Now Sarai Abram’s wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar.
[2] And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai.
[3] And Sarai Abram’s wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife.
[4] And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes.
[5] And Sarai said unto Abram, My wrong be upon thee: I have given my maid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the LORD judge between me and thee.
[6] But Abram said unto Sarai, Behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee. And when Sarai dealt hardly with her, she fled from her face.
[7] And the angel of the LORD found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain in the way to Shur.
[8] And he said, Hagar, Sarai’s maid, whence camest thou? and whither wilt thou go? And she said, I flee from the face of my mistress Sarai.
[9] And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands.

This brings us to the Jerusalem Targum on Genesis 16:3 in reference to the Memra (Logos):

And Hagar praised and prayed in the name of the Word [Memra] Of YHWH who had revealed Himself to her…
(Jerusalem Targum Gen. 16:3)

Of this very incident Philo writes in another of his works:

But Hagar flees out of shame. And a proof of this is, that the angel, that is the WORD [Logos] of God, met her, with the intent to recommend her what she ought to do, and to guide her in her return to her mistress’s house. For he encouraged her, and said unto her: “The Lord has heard the cry of thy humiliation,” which you uttered, not out of fear, nor yet out of hatred. For the one is the feeling of an ignoble soul, and the other of one which loves contention, but under the influence of that copy of temperance and modesty, shame.
(On Flight and Finding (5))

Here Philo is also likening Hagar’s submission to the hardships under her mistress, to a man of virtue submitting to the Logos.

Returning to All Good Men are Free, Philo continues:

(30) Therefore, he is not under the compulsion of any thing, as being one who despises pains, and who looks with contempt on death, and who, by the law of nature, has all foolish men for his subjects. For in the same manner as goatherds, and cowherds, and shepherds lead their respective flocks of goats, and cattle, and sheep, but shepherds cannot manage a drove of oxen, so in the same manner the generality of men, being like so many cattle, stand in need of a guide and governor. And their proper governors are virtuous men, being placed in the position of shepherds to the multitude; (31) for Homer is constantly in the habit of calling kings shepherds of their People. [The Iliad 10:3.] But nature has appropriated this appellation as more peculiarly belonging to the good, since the wicked are rather tended by others than occupied in serving them; for they are led captive by strong wine, and by beauty, and by delicate eating, and sweetmeats, and by the arts of cooks and confectioners, to say nothing of the thirst of gold, and silver, and other things of a higher character. But men of the other class are not allured or led astray by any thing, but are rather inclined to admonish those whom they perceive to be caught in the toils of pleasure. (All Good Men are Free 26-31)

Philo’s point is, in his own words, that “no virtuous man is a slave, but all are free” (ibid 50) and that “it is not the case that ever any foolish or wicked men are free, but all are slaves” (ibid 52). And that while “men of the highest virtue have fallen into unexpected misfortunes” they are always free and never slaves.

As Philo states in his work On Providence (Fragment II):

(42) Therefore I have now, as I conceive, spoken at sufficient length on the present subject, namely, that no wicked man is happy, by which fact above all others it may be established that there is such a thing as providence; but if you are not thoroughly convinced, then tell me boldly what is the doubt which is still lurking in your mind, for then both of us by labouring together shall be able to see clearly what the real truth is.
(Philo; On Providence Fragment II 42)

So Philo argues that while providence works to the benefit of the universe, that at times the benefit of the many may outweigh the benefit of the few, and that while bad things may happen to good people, these hardships actually benefit the man of virtue by helping him test himself and develop endurance. Moreover, these external things are irrelevant to the man of virtue, who’s happiness is based not on things external to himself, but from within himself.

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