The Winds of Fortuna
The wise person is still not harmed by the storms of life— poverty, pain, and the rest. For not all his works are hindered but only those that pertain to others. He is himself, always, in his actions, and in the doing of them he is greatest when opposed by fortune. For it is then that he does the business of wisdom itself, which as we just said is his own good as well as that of others. (Letters 85.37)
Fortuna, for Seneca, is not an anthropomorphized divinity with malicious intentions. Instead, Fortuna (fortune) is a metaphor for those events in life which appear to hinder or help us achieve our desires and intentions. Fortuna is the slow driver in front of us, making us late for work or school. Fortuna is the overbearing boss; the unexpected bill; the life-threatening medical diagnosis; the termination letter from an employer; the breakup of a relationship, etc. Alternatively, as Seneca points out, Fortuna may appear as a beneficial external which tempts us to succumb to desires and aversions outside of our control. The appearance of good fortune may include lottery winnings, promotion, fifteen minutes of fame, a new lover, etc. As we can clearly see, Fortuna can present herself as either an apparent good or an apparent evil when, in fact, she is neither.
Fortuna is a metaphor for the externals which are outside of our control and serve as grist for the mill of our character. As such, those external circumstances, which Seneca labels Fortuna, are indifferents which have no inherent ability to affect our moral character. Nevertheless, they are the very things and events that challenge us and allow us to develop our moral character toward excellence (virtue). Without the challenges offered by Fortuna, we lack the means to develop our excellence of character fully. As Seneca points out:
In fair weather anyone can be a helmsman. (Letters 85.34)
Our character is not challenged and developed when the seas of life are smooth, and the winds are calm and steady, blowing in the direction of our desires. Instead, our virtue is tested, and can thereby develop our character most rapidly, at those times when the sea becomes turbulent. Ironically, the storms of life that threaten to drive the bow of our ship under are the events which serve to test and strengthen our character. In Seneca’s words:
To fashion a man [or woman] who can genuinely be called a [Stoic], a stronger fate is needed. For him, the way will not be flat: he must go up and down, he must be tossed by waves, and must guide his vessel on a stormy sea. He must hold his course against fortune. Many things will happen that are hard and rough—but things he can soften and smooth out himself. Fire proves gold; misery, brave men [and women]. (On Providence 5.9)
When Fortuna stirs up a storm in our life and appears intent on driving our ship onto the rocks or into the depths, we must keep this truth in mind: Fortuna is not our enemy; she is our teacher. We can choose to welcome her into our life and learn the lessons she offers, or we can ignore the lessons of Fortuna, resist fate, and suffer the psychological consequences. By learning to trust the benevolence of the providential cosmos and apply the dichotomy of control effectively, we learn that Fortuna is not an existential threat. Our battle with Fortuna, which Seneca writes about frequently, is not a fight against external circumstances. Instead, it is a battle with our internal desire for circumstances to be other than they are. Stoicism teaches us to look for the lesson in the storms of life. Fortuna may use a storm to redirect our ship toward a destination we did not originally intend. Alternatively, the squall we face today may prepare us for a larger, unforeseen storm just over the horizon. Fire proves gold, and Fortuna fans the flames of the refinery.
An important and frequently misunderstood aspect of Stoicism must be addressed here. Loving and following fate does not imply passivity. Quite the opposite; following the events of Nature closely, as Epictetus prescribes in Discourses 3.10.18, is an active rather than a passive approach to life. Following the events of Nature closely, as they occur, requires constant attention (prosoche), the ability to discern between what is ‘up to us’ and what is not, and a willingness to follow where fate leads with an attitude of gratitude toward a providential cosmos. Our intentions and actions must be in accord with the way things happen in Nature rather than in opposition to them. Therein lies our freedom and our opportunity to live in agreement with the way things happen in Nature. When we learn to live in agreement with Nature, we can look directly at Fortuna’s storm clouds and proclaim, as Marcus did:
Everything suits me that suits your designs, O my universe. Nothing is too early or too late for me that is in your own good time. (Meditations 4.23)
The winds of Fortuna touch us all. Stoicism teaches us the way we face those challenges makes all the difference in how our moral character develops. The storms we do not wish for simultaneously provide us with the greatest challenges and the largest opportunities for moral development. It is easy to allow the storms of life to make us bitter; Stoicism provides us with the tools that allow us to use those storms as opportunities for growth. Bitter or better? The choice is ours.