It’s so easy to be reactive these days. We are drowning in information from unlimited sources. Much of it is inaccurate, most of it is sensational. We’re told of crises and failures, we see the worst of our fellow humans, and rarely are we given the much needed context of how events fit in with the grand scheme of things… because that would render a great deal of it unworthy of coverage.
When the Stoics spoke of “wisdom” as a key virtue, a big part of that was perspective. Of the ability to zoom out and see where this or that fit in historically. We see Marcus Aurelius do this time and time again in Meditations, reminding himself that history is filled with all sorts of things that seemed insurmountable or significant at the time, but now feel like nothing. We also see him try to remember and empathize with the fact that people are people and always have been—which means mistakes, which means stupidity, which means selfishness, and sometimes evil.
Recently, the actor Hugh Jackman, who has called Marcus Aurelius “one of the great leaders of all time,” and Meditations one of “the greatest books on Stoicism and leadership, and humility and wisdom” explained why he is trying to get away from consuming breaking news. “I’m trying to get a wider view of life and what’s happening,” he said, “because once you get down, all these things seem really, really important. The other way I’m getting my news—and I highly recommend this—is me and my son are going through the whole Ken Burns catalog. We finished the whole Civil War thing, and now we’re just about to finish the Vietnam thing. Now that’s the way you should understand events and humanity—with that sort of 30,000-foot view that he has, and that sort of detail.”
That’s the view of the philosopher, and it’s one we need to be cultivating always (and building our media habits around). We need to understand humanity far more than we need the latest, fastest facts. We need to understand history so that we can learn from it, so we can see the true costs of arrogance, of appeasing evil, and taking shortcuts, as well as the glory of courage, justice, and temperance. We need to teach our kids to do the same.
It’s the only way we can improve the world. It’s the best way to know and do right.