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.