Lady Fortune is the giver and taker of gifts. Prosperity is often viewed as the time when we receive gifts from her and adversity as the time when we lose them. Prosperous times can inflate us and make us feel as if we’re flying over the entire world. Adversity can deflate us and make us feel like the weight of the whole world is on our backs. Seneca, a Stoic philosopher, believes that this prosperity/adversity dichotomy is an illusion.
Prosperity isn’t always good. It can inflate you so much that, like Icarus, you fly too close to the sun and ultimately fall towards doom when your wings melt off. Adversity isn’t always bad. Carrying a little bit of weight can strengthen you and, like the Greek titan Atlas, you do a lot of good for others by bearing what they can’t. A little bit of prosperity can give way to adversity and a little adversity to prosperity. Seneca wants us to see the world more clearly. He wants us to overcome this illusion, and that begins by understanding the Stoic concepts of Nature, Fortune, and virtue. You can imagine the world as a giant organism called Nature which we’re all tiny pieces of. You’re simultaneously apart of Nature and apart from it—like a circle within a circle. There’s you and everything that’s not you.
You’re always in a negotiation with the rest of Nature: you both give and take from each other. You act on it, and it acts on you. Lady Fortune oversees the negotiation between the two of you. What she gives to you, she takes from the rest of Nature. What she takes from you, she gives back to the rest of Nature. Regardless of how we intend to act, the way our actions manifest themselves in the world is dependent on Fortune. We can aim our bow perfectly, but the wind can still blow our arrow away from the target. Even the fruits of our labor are subject to the winds of Fortune. Sometimes, they blow right past us into the hands of another. Fortune is chaotic, impulsive, and unpredictable. She brings things into and out of our lives, and often, we don’t know why. The Stoic realizes that anything that can be given or taken by Fortune was never theirs in the first place: it was merely rented out to them. If we get too attached to specific gifts that are given to us, we’ll feel poorer when she decides to take them back.
The Stoic must learn to be indifferent to the whims of Fortune and focus on what’s truly valuable: their relationship with the rest of Nature. Everywhere we go, the rest of the universe is there. Our relationship with Nature is constant but dynamic—like a marriage we can’t get out of. We always have the ability to take what we’ve been given to improve the world around us. And, as a citizen of the world, everything that’s truly good for it is also good for us. When we can’t improve the world, we’re challenged to improve ourselves. And, what truly benefits us also benefits the world. Remember, in the Stoic view, we’re all a part of a greater whole called Nature—we’re all interconnected. By making their relationship with Nature their highest value, the Stoic can actually overcome Fortune by seeing everything that she does as a gift. Even if she were to take a loved one or all of our wealth, a gift is still given: misery. Misery is a bitter medicine. It’s a violent surgery — an amputation — required to save the whole body. Misery can cure us of deceptive thoughts and incorrect ways of viewing the world. It’s a chance to rethink our core beliefs, approach life with a better perspective, and overcome ourselves. And, once we overcome our own misery, we may be able to help others do the same.
The Stoics encourage us not to place too much value on the gifts of Fortune: they’re always in flux. But, wherever you go, two things always remain: your character and the universe around you. You can always act on the world to improve it, and it can always act on you to improve you—if you let it. The person who can turn everything Fortune gives them, even when it’s misery, into a benefit for themselves, and the world around them, is virtuous. The virtuous person overcomes Fortune. No such thing as a loss can exist for them. Everything that they’ve been given becomes everything that they need to better themselves and the world around them. In a sense, the one who overcomes Fortune becomes Fortune and gains the ability to create their own good luck.