This is what’s under my Christmas tree as of today. At first glance, you wouldn’t think such a materialistic tradition would deserve mention in a blog about Stoicism. But there is a lesson here that reflects Stoic principles; a lesson I’m glad to be learning from my 5-year-old daughter.
I should mention my wife LOVES Christmas. Even in a 1-bedroom apartment, she used 7 storage boxes of decorations to celebrate the season. I’ve never really cared for Christmas, so I didn’t understand or appreciate my wife’s exuberance. But I went along with my wife’s wish to make the season special for our daughter. It was hard to justify not making Christmas a great season to be a kid. All of the early presents in the picture above are for our daughter to open before Christmas eve.
The funny thing is, almost none of those packages contains something new, and my daughter knows it. The bulk of them are books she already has, many handed down in one side of the family or the other over the years. She gets to open one of those every night between the beginning of December and Christmas Eve. The few packages that do contain something new are little crafts or seasonal knickknacks that my wife bought at post-Christmas clearance sales last year (usually at several for a dollar or two). She gets to open and complete one of those crafts or play with one of those knickknacks a few nights each week in the 25 days leading up to Christmas. She’s always so excited to tear into and read, build, or play with each one.
My daughter’s reaction to all of these gifts is complete joy. Whether it is a book I’ve read her a dozen times, a plastic baggie of pom poms, pipe cleaners, and googly eyes, or a cheap windup Santa Claus, she responds to each gift with happiness and gratitude. When I remarked to my wife that I found it so remarkable that my daughter could respond that way to these little things, it hit me–it shouldn’t be remarkable, it should be natural. None of these things make her happy by themselves. Instead, it is her attitude toward them that helps her maintain her happiness. And that is a perfectly Stoic insight.
A Stoic understands that belongings cannot create happiness. Only virtue can create happiness; all other things are indifferent. In addition, none of those other things are our own. As Epictetus is reported to have said, “nothing is your own that it does not rest with you to procure or to keep when you will.” Discourses, Book IV. And elsewhere, Epictetus likened all externals, whether belongings or loved ones, to a pretty shell examined by a sailor on shore leave; something temporary and to be cast aside at the bidding of the Captain.
But Stoics are not Cynics, they do not cast aside externals or disregard them entirely. Preferred indifferents are to be appreciated for what they are. They are not sought, but should be appreciated for the temporary benefits they provide. Seneca referred to continued life, one of these preferred indifferents, as something to be regarded as a “windfall” each morning. Epictetus continually reminded his students to live with gratitude, coining aphorisms such as “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”
So I want to take this lesson from my daughter. A Stoic should respond to all of the preferred indifferents with the same kind of joy and vigor that she takes to those presents. Whether it is waking up in the morning, heading out to represent my clients, or opening an almost-expired pint of half & half to pour a splash in my tea, I want to have that attitude of gratitude and joy she displays over rediscovering her old belongings. None of those things are guaranteed to me, I control none of them. And while they cannot contribute to happiness in lieu of virtue, by responding to them virtuously, I can grow closer to real happiness.
Stoic Week 2013 ends tonight. It has been an excellent exercise for me, and I hope my posts this week have added to your enjoyment and given you wholesome food for thought. I’ve certainly appreciated the new “likes” and followers StoicLawyer has gained this past week. They have made my return to blogging much easier.
Days Six and Seven of Stoic Week were focused on two exercises that demonstrate what I interpret as the Stoic Perspective. The first is the exercise of “philanthropy” or “love of mankind.” In one version of that exercise, the practitioner considers the people of the world as being contained in a series of concentric circles, like so:
The goal of that exercise is to “draw the circles somehow toward the centre” to increase the feeling of connectedness with others. This is intimately related to what is commonly called the Doctrine of Appropriation (oikeiosis), which is the Stoic doctrine holding that the first impulse of all creatures is self-love or self-preservation. Through the exercise of philanthropy, the Stoic learns to extend that first impulse to include the whole family of humankind.
The second exercise is called the “View from Above.” In that exercise, the practitioner attempts to consider his or her place in the cosmos in a detached manner. There are two reasons for this exercise: to perceive the world accurately and to foster tranquility. By placing events in the context of the entire cosmos, rather than in the smaller view of how important they are in the present moment, Stoics believe we will be less upset or aroused by them.
Another aspect of adopting the View from Above ties together the exercises from days Six and Seven (as well as many other aspects of Stoicism). Both exercises attempt to coax the practitioner to abandon a self-centered point of view and adopt a broader perspective. In the first, the Stoic must learn to see others in the same light as him- or herself. In the second, the Stoic must take a view of the entire cosmos in which he or she is but a tiny part, like a grain of sand swirling in the tide. In a sense, both exercises seek the same thing; the Stoic must learn to take the perspective of the Logos (seen as God by theist Stoics, Reason by atheist Stoics). From that perspective, one person is substantially the same as all of humankind and no one atom in the universe is more or less significant than any other, but all are moving parts of a whole.
These exercises and this change in perspective cut to one of the core beliefs in Stoic thought. That belief is that human beings are (uniquely?) able to exercise the power of Reason to align their thoughts with the reality of the Logos. By doing so, the practitioner is able to attain true understanding and peace. In that alignment, nothing is passion-inducing, nothing creates fear or worry. Instead, the Stoic (who I submit will have obtained the status of a Sage) will see each event or object as it relates to all other events and objects. In that view, nothing can be distressing or arousing because all things simply are as they must be. By obtaining and holding the perspective and understanding of the Logos, the Stoic can embrace the reality of living in the best of all possible (because the only possible) worlds.
Interestingly, that view seems to me to be similar to some religious understandings. It parallels those religious expressions in which the appropriate resolution to a conflict is seen as taking the perspective of a greater being or a higher understanding. Some notable examples are:
- Jesus’ prayer at Gethesmane : not as I will, but as You will (Matthew 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42);
- The root meaning of Islam “surrender” or “to give in” to the will of God;
- The Buddhist belief that suffering is caused by ignorance (and resulting attachment/aversion to occurrences), but can be relieved (in part) by Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration
In addition, that view seems to me to be most in line with scientific objectivity. Good science (in the sense that it is developed following appropriate procedures for measurement, review, repetition, etc.), requires that experimenting and reviewing scientists eliminate (as far as is possible) the effects of personal biases, emotional involvement, other commitments, and anything else that would interfere with an accurate understanding of how the universe functions. Good science has no room for emotionally-driven or interested disagreement with the rules by which the cosmos operates.