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Review: Providence Lost by Genevieve Lloyd

lloydd2001Providence Lost by Genevieve Lloyd
(Harvard University Press)
£22.95/$29.95 (hb)
These days, talk of providence conjures up the notion of guidance by an all-powerful and loving God. When we think of providence, we think of divine providence. Genevieve Lloyd tells us that once upon a time there was another conception of providence: Providence as rational, necessary order built into the universe itself. Both conceptions of providence highlight the existence of factors beyond human control.

The former, more familiar understanding of providence sees the uncontrollable in human life as under the control of the divine will. On this view, there are things that no human person can control, but everything is ultimately under the control of some person. We may call this understanding of providence Personal Providence.

The other, less familiar understanding of providence sees the uncontrollable in human life as a consequence of impersonal necessity. It proposes “the idea of a world containing order that does not depend on the will of any orderer.” On this view, there are things that are not under the control of a person of any kind. We may call this understanding of providence Impersonal Providence.

Corresponding to these two views of providence are two very different views on freedom and the good life. Associated with Personal Providence is the view that the essence of freedom lies in the imitation of the unconstrained, undetermined divine will. The less constrained by external necessity our wills are, the freer we are – and the better our lives. Each of us is a little god squirming under necessity’s thumb; the route to freedom and happiness lies in the (always incomplete) escape from necessity. Associated with Impersonal Providence is the alternative view that freedom and happiness are to be found not in the escape from necessity but rather in happy submission to necessity, in “the joyful acceptance and appropriation of what must be.”

Providence Lost is, in large part, a marvellous history of these two conceptions of providence, freedom, and the good life in western thought. This history runs from Euripedes and the Pre-Socratics through Kant. Lloyd masterfully blends philosophical analysis with compelling biography. A particularly good example of this combination is “The Philosopher and the Princess.” In that chapter, Lloyd examines Descartes’s famous correspondence with Princess Elisabeth. Lloyd focuses on Descartes’s struggle to help Elisabeth gain control of her passions and achieve the good life. The failure of Descartes’s various proposed remedies leads to multiple revisions of his view, and so the fact that Elisabeth is “encumbered … by the restraints and demands of a bizarre court life” leaves a lasting mark on Cartesian philosophy.

At the book’s heart is the showdown between the Cartesian version of Personal Providence and the Spinozan version of Impersonal providence. Lloyd suggests that when Spinoza rejected providence, he rejected Personal Providence in favour of a kind of Impersonal Providence that has its roots in the thought of the Stoics.

In the final chapter, Lloyd moves to a discussion of the contemporary implications of the history of providence. She argues that the Cartesian view was triumphant over the Spinozan view. Unfortunately, the Cartesian view really only makes sense in a theistic context. The Cartesian view tells us: If each of us does our best, God will see to the rest. But without God, “we have no assurance that what does lie beyond our control is nonetheless accommodated to human needs and well-being.” Consequently, “the fate of the Cartesian will has been to outlive the model of providence that once made it emotionally viable.”

The final suggestion of Lloyd’s book is that we should try to recover, as much as we can, Spinoza’s alternative. Although “there can be no real going back … we might once again find delight in the mind’s recognition of its own movement in perceiving how things must be.” This discussion culminates in an examination of Euripides’s final play, Iphigenia at Aulis. Iphigenia, recognising the inevitability of her own death in order to free the becalmed Greek fleet, decides to accept and even welcome it by seeing it as a noble death undergone for the sake of the greater good.

Lloyd offers this example as an illustration of the Stoic/Spinozan approach to providence, suggesting that Iphigenia’s death “is a death that evokes the ancient Stoic image of the door that is always open – the free acceptance of ultimate necessity.” I wonder, however, whether this example does what Lloyd wants it to do. It strikes me that to the extent that Iphigenia finds delight or joy in her death, such emotions are due to her belief that her death contributes to a greater good. If it were necessarily true that she die a pointless and futile death, would joy in the recognition of the modal status of such a death be a suitable or even possible response?

Still, whatever the merits of the largely lost Stoic/Spinozan conception of providence, Lloyd’s book is a rich and rewarding read. Historians of philosophy and non-specialists alike will benefit from Lloyd’s fascinating discussion.

Erik J. Wielenberg is the author of Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe (Cambridge University Prerss)


2 comments for “Review: Providence Lost by Genevieve Lloyd”

  1. I find the conception of an “order that does not depend on the will of any orderer” to be incoherent. This does not entail that there must be a personal (transcendent) orderer, a conception which is in turn riddled with insuperable difficulties, but it suggests that intelligence (mind) is an original dimension of reality. That is why I see the current evolutionist-creationist controversy as wrong-headed on both sides. The evolutionists equate their position with outright materialism and the creationists commit themselves to transcendent theism. In my view both these positions fail to give us an intelligible reality. Although I say that only an ultimately intelligent reality is intelligible, yet, at variance with other idealists, I do not consider this position to be demonstrable. But it gives me a vision of reality that is intrinsically coherent, within which I find room for values and for a meaningful life.

    This position agrees with Spinoza except on the question of demonstrability. Spinoza, accepting without reserve Cartesian rationalism with its implication of stringent determinism left no room for free will. It is true that Spinoza’s conception of freedom as autonomy is superbly noble. But if we see determinism as an empirical hypothesis that works well in general and serves all our scientific purposes but does not rule out creative origination, we can have a broader conception of freedom – a freedom which is to be distinguished radically from choice. Freedom as creativity, I maintain, is a reality that we know immediately in the creativity of thought and the creativity of art – a reality that must be seen as more indubitable than all the empirical laws of natural science. This creative freedom of our inner reality Spinoza had to sacrifice because he needlessly accepted the shackles of Cartesian determinism. Kant moved in the right direction – but did not go the whole way – when he relegated causality to the phenomenal world and seated freedom in our inner subjective reality.

    D. R. Khashaba

    Posted by D. R. Khashaba | May 6, 2009, 11:13 am
  2. This brings to mind the Gilgamesh epic and how necessity took over there. Gilgamesh started out happily instinctive; then he went on a journey. On the way he lost his half-animal friend, a symbol of his instinctive nature. He thought he was now qualified to be a god but failed the test, as he could not stay awake - a requirement for god-like status. Returning home sobered and transformed, in contrast to his former self, he was confronted by a wall that was not there before. He could no longer be his former self. We can speculate on how the writer would have Gilgamesh deal with the necessity of his new situation.

    Gilgamesh could no longer go back and happily be a part of the somnolent intelligence; the negative energy of the goddess, nor was he qualified to participate in the wide-awake all-knowing, all-perceiving consciousness and immortality of the god. If the writer was to give him an epiphany, it might be that the necessity of his in-between status, similar to everything else in the world of relativity, is dual. While it was not in his power to change his relationship to the forces that designated his boundaries, he could steer a course between them, so that neither escaping from necessity nor succumbing to it was necessary.

    The analogy of the space station in the L zone, buffeted by gravitational forces while staying on course, signifies that the best way forward is the middle way between forces. In ancient philosophy this was understood.

    Posted by Anne | December 18, 2009, 10:59 pm