The View From Above: The Life-Changing and Humbling Exercise from Stoic Philosophy

This is a guest post by Professor Mark Ralkowski, editor behind the popular Louis C.K. and Philosophy: You Don’t Get to Be Bored

In the third chapter of his book Philosophy as a Way of Life, Pierre Hadot acknowledges that the term “spiritual exercise” makes a lot of us uncomfortable. But he also thinks it is needed because the alternatives—words like “psychological,” “moral,” “ethical,” “intellectual,” “of thought,” and “of the soul”—don’t really capture the phenomenon he is interested in, which involves a transformation in our vision of the world and of ourselves. As he says, “by means of [spiritual exercises], the individual raises himself up to the life of objective Spirit; that is to say, he re-places himself within the perspective of the Whole.” This change of perspective from the individual to “the Whole” has the capacity to change us in fundamental ways. When we take it seriously, it can turn “this human life of ours upside down” (as Plato says in his dialogue Gorgias, line 481c). The Stoics thought it could produce inner peace and freedom, and other traditions have had similar hopes for such practices, suggesting that they can teach us to replace anger and pain with compassion and love, even when we are most hurt.

This is the “spiritual exercise” that I find most helpful these days, especially since November 2016. From this perspective of the Whole, no human life is significant, not even the lives of the world’s most accomplished leaders. It’s the idea that Marcus Aurelius is getting at in these three passages from his Meditations:

Constantly reflect on how swiftly all that exists and is coming to be is swept past us and disappears from sight. For substance is like a river in perpetual flow, and its activities are ever changing, and its causes infinite in their variations, and hardly anything at all stands still; and ever at our side is the immeasurable span of the past and the yawning gulf of the future, into which all things vanish away. Then how is he not a fool who in the midst of all this is puffed up with pride, or tormented, or bewails his lot as though his troubles will endure for any great while? (5.23)

Think of substance in its entirety, of which you have the smallest of shares; and of time in its entirety, of which a brief and momentary span has been assigned to you; and of the works of destiny, and how very small is your part in them. (5.24)

For all things are swift to fade and become mere matter for tales, and swiftly too complete oblivion covers their every trace. And here I am speaking of those who shone forth with wonderful brightness; as for all the rest, the moment that they breathed their last, they were “out of sight, out of mind.” And what does it amount to, in any case, everlasting remembrance? Sheer vanity and nothing more. What, then, is worthy of our striving? This alone, a mind governed by justice, deeds directed to the common good, words that never lie, and a disposition that welcomes all that happens, as necessary, as familiar, as flowing from the same kind of origin and spring. (4.33)

One might wonder how this perspective of eternity could be beneficial for a person who takes it up. Why wouldn’t these thoughts make a person feel despair at the hopelessness of life? If we are all just momentary ripples in the “perpetual flow” of time and being; if “hardly anything at all stands still,” and if our short lives are lived between an infinite past and an infinite future, and we will all soon be “out of sight, out of mind,” what does it all mean? Why does anything matter at all? According to Aurelius, we ask questions like these because we are stuck in our finite, individual perspectives. If we could take up the viewpoint of eternity, we could see beauty in everything.

Bread, for instance, in the course of its baking, tends to crack open here and there, and yet these very cracks, which are, in a sense, offences against the baker’s art, somehow appeal to us and, in a curious way, promote our appetite for the food. And again figs, when fully ripe, tend to split open; and in olives which are ready to drop, the very fact of their impending decay lends a peculiar beauty to the fruit. Ears of corn bending towards the earth, the wrinkled brows of a lion … and many other things are far from beautiful if one views them in isolation, but nevertheless, the fact that they follow from natural processes gives them an added beauty and makes them attractive to us. So if a person is endowed with sensibility and has a deep enough insight into the workings of the universe…he will be able to see in an old woman or an old man a special kind of mature beauty. (3.2)

There is beauty in impermanence and the passage of time; there is beauty in human finitude and mortality. Aurelius thinks our lives lack cosmic significance, and that that is ok, because the cosmos itself is beautiful, and we are a part of it. We share in its order and divinity. It is humbling to look at the world from the cosmic point of view: even the most powerful people, and all of our most cherished accomplishments, seem trivial from this perspective. But this can also be a source of relief, especially during hard times. And it is always a healthy reality check, because it reminds us that we are making a contribution to something much larger than our individual lives and projects. Which is why people with the most “fevered egos” (to borrow a phrase from Bill Hicks) are the most pitiable; they are the most ignorant. They are the most out of touch with the way the world really is, and so they cannot recognize just how wondrous it is to be given the gift of life at all. Aurelius’ idea here is similar to the message of Carl Sagan’s famous talk about “The Pale Blue Dot”:

I have found this “spiritual exercise”—the act of reflecting on things from a larger perspective—to be incredibly cathartic and nourishing. The catharsis comes from seeing that things don’t matter as much as (or in the way that) we thought. The nourishment comes from the inculcation of humility and reverence. Earth is a beautiful and extraordinary place, and yet it is only a “fraction of a dot.”