by Jay Hyun Kim
Divine intervention: some people see it as interference in their affairs, others as intercession on their behalf. Even a modern man unyielding in his rational perspective of the universe and dismissive of the irrationality of divinity in antiquity cannot ignore the perennial question that has always captivated mankind: the existence of god. The relationship between gods and men has defined what it means to be human. Every philosophy, religion or study of life has dealt with this issue in one way or another. In particular, Buddhism and Stoicism present not only a fascinating contrast but also a remarkable overlap in their respective approaches in reclaiming life. The Buddhists regard the so-called ‘fate’ as a common misconception of what is perfectly logical, the law of causality.Simply put, a cause brings about an effect; an action produces a reaction. Therefore, in actuality, we are in control of our lives. There is no need to fear unpredictable outcome based on divine intervention or capricious interference from fate. On the other hand, the Stoics acknowledge the presence of Fate or Fortune (Fortuna) in mortal lives. However, they teach the student how to overcome it through the power of philosophy.
The gift of human intellect to contemplate on the divine elements and extrapolate the meaning of human existence from them has been utilized by only a handful of men, most of them philosophers. This is precisely the reason why Cicero in his Tusculan Disputations cherishes the sublime experience of the one investigating the divine realm:
“To men immersed in day and night in these meditations comes understanding of the truth pronounced by the god at Delphi, that the mind should know itself; and there comes also the perception of its union with the divine mind, the source of its inexhaustible joy. For contemplation of the power and nature of the gods spontaneously kindles in human beings a passion to attain immortality like theirs; the soul, when it discerns how all things in the universe are linked one with another by a chain of interlocked destined causes, a process which is governed by reason and intelligence and renews itself to all eternity, begins to nourish the conviction that it could not be true that its own life is just limited to this brief span upon earth.”
One of the most pressing questions to philosophers from the antiquity was: “Are human affairs inherently subject to divine intervention?” By studying the universe and its operation under divine supervision, philosophers hoped to learn more about human nature grounded on a firm belief that human nature was a part of universe as a whole . Naturally, understanding the divine role in mortal lives is essential to happiness. People cannot predict whether the gods will be favorable to them or not. This uncertainty engenders a constant fear in their lives. As a result, countless cults and religious institutions were established in antiquity to provide some assurance to people that they can win divine favor, however whimsical it maybe .
On the other hand, various philosophers endeavored to liberate people from the fear of the unknown which is directly linked to the fear of death. This line of thought gradually leads to a psychological habit of mankind to attribute anything illogical or inexplicable to the divine sphere. In defining human life in the universal framework, men naturally give birth to the concept of Fate, a divine, mysterious force that shapes and determines the course of mortal lives.
Then, we blame all our undesirable events as ‘misfortunes’ dispensed by an evil and cruel God. Some of us fall into despair and surrender to this irresistible and unfathomable entity. But on the other hand, we have an unquenchable thirst for favorable divine intervention. We pray, we hope, we believe, and we expect that some supernatural force will mend things and bring us closer to ultimate happiness. To realize this sincere wish, we engage in various activities that occupy our lives (religion, philosophy, poetry, art, music, sports, love, friendship, family, wealth, honor, prestige, power, etc.) In the end, human happiness cannot be found without making sense of the divine intervention in human affairs.
The Buddhist understanding of life teaches us that the universal principle to which all living beings are subject can be most aptly described as the law of causality (karma). It explains that a cause simply brings about an effect, and this principle applies to all human affairs regardless of time and place. Therefore, what one has done brings about what one is now (past to present); what one does now brings about what one will be (present to future). Thus, so called ‘divine intervention’ or ‘Fate’ is simply a mechanism through which the law of causality operates. Buddhist thought admits that for most people it is difficult to trace this chain of events in their lives to understand the present, past, and future. Hence, such ignorance induces them to subscribe to the notion of divine intervention and suffering arises from the inescapable idea that human affairs are out of one’s control.
Therefore, Buddhist spiritual cultivation focuses on nurturing one’s ability to generate good karma through thought, speech, and action. Once the practitioner has purified his bad karma and is steadfast in performing good deeds, he contemplates on the universal truth that even the vicious cycle of suffering (samsara) can be transcended. The cycle of samsara is the ceaseless suffering one undergoes when he is still subject to the law of causality (karma). However, when he has fully realized through his non-dualistic lens that there is no discrimination between good and bad, he is freed from the cycle of samsara and thus is liberated from suffering.
Buddhism through logical reasoning demonstrates that what we in our ignorance see as fate or divine intervention is in reality a consequence of our own actions. Once we realize that our lives simply operate under the universal law of causality, we are resolved from the fear of death and no longer view ourselves as powerless in control of our lives. Instead, we become responsible for our own actions, and happiness becomes something that is a product of our own behavior.
In Stoic thought, human beings are integral members of the universe (cosmos), and human nature is a part of the nature of the universe. Furthermore, human happiness is living according to nature. Now , the most characteristic feature of human nature is virtue. It is the perfect quality of the mind. Since the mind perceives everything and its impression dictates all human emotions and opinions, the mind is the seat of human happiness. Virtue is the perfect quality of the mind. Philosophy is a cultivation of virtue.
Therefore, a man of virtue is happy. The Stoics also concede that many things which we pursue in life with passion are properties of Fortune. It also follows that they are subject to her whim, and therefore the Stoics label them as ‘preferred indifferences’ and instead focus on virtue which is the only true possession of men. The Stoic understanding of human nature is directly correlated to Stoic ethics which always encourages its students to strive for what is actually in their control. The Stoic sage is a truly happy man because he has withdrawn himself from all the distractions and indifferences which haunt other men and has cultivated virtue, the only prerequisite for happiness. Seneca, in his dialogue portraying the ideal Stoic sage, emphasizes the power of philosophy in making a firm stance against the ceaseless onslaughts of Fortune:
“The wise man is not subject to injury. Therefore, it does not matter how many weapons are thrown at him since none can pierce him. Just as certain stones are so hard they are impervious to iron, and adamant cannot be cut or split or worn away, but actually blunts whatever impinges on it; just as some things cannot be consumed by fire, but even when engulfed by flames retain their shape and hardness; just as certain cliffs, jutting into the sea, break the force of the waves, and though battered for untold ages show no signs of their fury; so the mind of the wise man is unyielding, and has acquired such a degree of power as to make it as safe from injury as the things I have mentioned.”
To the Stoics, Fortune (i.e. divine intervention) was not so much a perpetual enemy of mankind as a worthy opponent who puts the philosopher’s virtue and strength of character to test . The relationship between virtue and fortune in the Stoic system of thought reflects the conventional theology at the time in Greece and Rome where gods were worshipped based on the common belief that divine beings constantly intervened in human affairs.
In a way, the Stoics were trying to transcend the divine intervention and through philosophy transform themselves into gods. For , Seneca proudly proclaims that a true Stoic sage rivals the gods and differs from them only that he is limited in time. Stoicism, unlike Buddhism, recognizes the role of Fate (Fortuna) in human affairs but reminds us that we can overcome divine intervention through cultivation of virtue and ethical life style. Philosophy as a whole becomes the antidote for fear of death.
What is strikingly similar in these two schools of thought is the emphasis on mental fortitude in face of Fortune (i.e. divine intervention): the Buddhists call it spiritual cultivation, the Stoics call it virtue. Either way, only the true master of his mind can call himself happy. Of course, Buddhism and Stoicism are part of a perennial tradition of humanity that seeks an escape from divine intervention. Whether one spends his lifetime constructing a shelter from fate built on wealth, power, and prestige or cultivates invulnerability of the mind from the blows of fortune, he is a fugitive of fate.
Some have tried to win the favor of the gods through worship while others have tried to make a bold stance against them, but they both realize that human life is inevitably inseparable from the gods: our lives are defined by the relationship with the divine. With the divine looming in the background, we all seek refuge from suffering and search for a haven called happiness.