What it Means to Live in Harmony

Photo by Yvette de Wit on Unsplash

“Harmony” is a word used most commonly today by musicians. They use it to describe the beautiful order that results when each instrument is playing in sync. However, the concept of harmony goes far beyond musical application. In fact, one could argue that ancient philosophy, especially Stoicism, is all based on the concept of harmony. At the same time music is a great way to explain the concept of harmony and how living in harmony through philosophy should feel, but first, what does the word really mean?

What Harmony Means

The Roots of Harmony

When I interviewed David Fideler, author of Breakfast with Seneca, on my podcast, we had a brief discussion on harmony. The English word stems from the Greek word harmonia, which means “to fit together”. Its Indo-European root word “ar-” means the same thing, along with a plethora of other terms such as rhyme, joint, fitting, ritual, number, ratio, order, best, and art.

Harmony in Stoicism

Stoicism is built upon the concept of the cosmos (developed by Plato), which means “beautiful order”, which is essentially the same idea of harmony (and ar-). They also believed in Universal Reason (or logos), which is thought, word, reason, logic, order, etc. As it relates to their pantheistic god, the Stoics believed that god was everything — Mother Nature herself, we could say. It was Universal Reason that created the Universe itself. As human beings and members of the cosmos, we all share in the divine as well; we all have a piece of Universal Reason within us.

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The maxim “live according to nature” causes much confusion around Stoicism. One could read that in English and assume that Stoicism is all about living in nature, away from major cities (which, of course, is incorrect)! However, this concept means something entirely different. Living according to nature can be dissected down into “living according to your personal nature”, “living according to human nature”, and “living according to Mother Nature”. In other words, we must live in harmony with our own nature, human nature, and truth.

Combining the concepts above in plain English, we might say that Stoicism is a philosophy that aims to create a life in which you fit in beautifully and orderly with the world around you. That can mean that sometimes events that are best for the cosmos are not the best for you individually. It also means that we all need to get along with each other (yes, even with the rude and ungrateful among us).

Achieving Harmony Through Music

I mentioned above that music is a great way to understand the concept of harmony. Let’s go through a typical band: there’s a lead guitarist, a rhythm guitarist, a singer, a bass player, a drummer, and perhaps a piano. Each instrument plays together in sync with the beat provided by the drum player. The players all know their roles and they all change chords at the same time. The singer, lead guitarist, and perhaps the piano offer melody which lays atop the chords. However, the melody isn’t free to be anything! There are limitations to which notes actually work with the key of the song.

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If we zoom in even further to the guitar player we can see a micro harmony within a macro harmony. The rhythm guitarist plays guitar chords, but the chords are not all one note! A “G” chord is not 6 strings of the note “G”. Rather, it’s a harmony of notes, mainly G, B, and D. If the player were to accidentally hit the wrong string, it wouldn’t sound right. It wouldn’t be harmony.

As a human being, it is your role to live in harmony with the world. What this means is that you must play your note in a way that is beautiful and orderly with everyone and everything else. What that feels like is very similar to what listening to a great song feels like — a sort of euphoria, an out-of-body experience, a feeling of deep meaning where the suffering that is life ceases to be relevant.

But What If You’re Not Perfect?

It can be intimidating to consider that we are all called upon to play our notes. What if we make a mistake? What if we can’t hit the note perfectly? What if we are not “whole” enough to play our part perfectly?

Photo by Yvette de Wit on Unsplash

It is a genuine concern, but one of my favourite musicians, Sean McCann, put it beautifully. I had the privilege of seeing him live once at a small and intimate event. He was encouraging everyone to sing along with him, to share the moment, to share in harmony. He said the following:

“I know that everyone isn’t the best singer and you may be shy, but something magical happens when enough imperfect singers sing together — harmony is created.”

Sean McCann (paraphrased)

If you’ve ever been at a concert, you understand exactly what he’s talking about. If thousands of people offer their imperfect voices, beautiful order is created regardless of the individual imperfections, and that is exactly how our society and world are run. We are all just a bunch of imperfect people waking up to play a role in society. However, you don’t need to be perfect to live harmoniously and to play a part in the world; you just need to be willing to sing as best as you can.

Thanks for reading. If you’re interested in learning more, listen to similar reflections on The Strong Stoic Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts.

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