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I am not a philosopher.  I admit I do not spend much time pondering contingency and necessity so my views below may be misguided.  As such, should anyone have any clarifying views or helpful comments, I gladly encourage them.  And with that disclaimer, reader beware…

C.S. Lewis

“It was necessary and the necessary was always possible.”  — C.S. Lewis in Out of the Silent Planet

In what sense is the necessary always possible?  Certainly there are instances in which what seems necessary or essential is not, by any stretch, possible.  Believing the necessary is always possible only makes one naively and hopelessly (foolishly) optimistic.  In such a world there would be no starvation, no wars over resources, and no jealousy; indeed it could never happen that one finds their car to be on “E” while driving on a deserted path with no gas station in sight.  In that case gasoline is necessary but not possible.  So what is Lewis referring to?  It seems that what is at the heart of the question is the definition of “necessary”.  When we think of what is necessary we automatically append qualifiers to make it mean more than it should.  So “necessary” may come to mean “necessary in order to maintain physical well being” or “necessary to ensure comfort”.  For example, in the gasoline example, the gas is necessary for the continued functionality of the vehicle and subsequently for our safe passage home; it isn’t necessary a se, rather it is a qualified necessity.  The qualifier describes a force outside ourselves, acting upon ourselves, to which we feel subjected and therefore to which we ascribe the power of ensuring our safety and comfort.  Having gas at that moment ensures our continued well being and therefore we see it as necessary.  But I think Lewis is referring to something far more foundational than our whimsies or our misled perspectives on the reality that surrounds us.  Put simply, if something is a se necessary, it is by definition possible, and distinguishable from anything contingent.  It depends on nothing and will come to exist absolutely, which adds a certain potency to its possibility, turning the possible into the probable and turning the probable into the definite.  Granted, to believe such a declaration seems to require the simultaneous belief in some higher omnipotent external force, albeit fate, destiny or God.  I can’t imagine a scientific naturalist being a strong proponent of this assertion unless it is being applied to the physical laws of nature.  Outside God (or whatever you call it), all is merely coincidence; all is subject to the chaos of the cosmos and nothing can be labeled as necessary even if much can still be hoped for as possible.  Outside God there is nothing but the possible.

The best approach to necessity, I think, is a Stoic one.  To be clear I’m referring to Stoicism and not stoicism as we have come to understand it in 21st century vernacular.  I’m referring to the Stoicism of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and others, the approach which, while perhaps sometimes going too far in their denial of situational influences, does accurately understand our role in mistakenly attaching undue significance to the external forces which act upon us.  A true Stoic would not be perplexed or vexed by running out of gas with no gas station in sight.  He would not see a supply of gasoline as necessary.  Indeed he would spurn such an occurrence if it inspired in him a desire to view the gasoline as anything more than what it actually is.  He would welcome the opportunity to affirm the idea that that which is is meant to be on a cosmic scale.  There is no point in letting one’s faculties rage against this force because true joy comes only in aligning oneself to this cosmic plan.  To the Stoic, then, what is necessary is a very short list because even death is seen not as something to be scorned but rather something to be welcomed with open arms for no other reason than it is the logical next step in the cosmic order of things.  Death is, in a word, necessary.  And if death is persistently necessary (which it is), then it is also persistently possible.  But this thought cannot trouble the Stoic and indeed should not even trouble the Hedonist or Epicurean.  Is it not the constant threat of death which inspires in us the drive to love each breath?  Lewis alludes to this in the same chapter as his previous statement on necessity: “I do not think the forest would be so bright, nor the water so warm, nor love so sweet, if there were no danger in the lakes.”  The sweetness of life depends upon (is contingent upon) the bitterness of death and the realization of its constant impending threat.

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