Our own sense of self-importance is our undoing.
We often feel as if it is our importance that brings our possessions and relationships into an orbit around us. Being “self-centred” isn’t necessarily about being selfish, it can be about feeling self-worth from the things and people around you.
As much as we marvel at them, we also fear losing them. TVs, phones, cars, homes, partners, friends, pets and jewellery help us validate ourselves, but are at the mercy of fate.
Marcus Aurelius became the most powerful man on the planet when his co-emperor, Lucius Verus died in 169 AD. Everything in the Roman world came into his orbit. Armies, cities, ports, palaces, vast estates.
Many would get drunk on that kind of power. The emperors Caligula, Nero, and Domitian before him met early deaths for their mania for more.
But Marcus counselled himself in his writings that all that surrounded him was little more than a wisp of smoke in the grand scheme of the universe.
The Stoic emperor was challenged in many ways. From the rivals in his own court, to the encroachments of Rome’s enemies at its borders, there were innumerable reasons for Marcus to feel inner turmoil. He found freedom from worries not in his possessions but in his own mind.
One of the exercises the philosopher-king used to gain a perspective on things was to take an elevated and distant view of the world, as if from among the stars. The idea occurs again and again in his journals, published after his death as The Meditations.
This is all put to the purpose of achieving what the ancient Greeks called apatheia, a tranquil state of mind unperturbed by the distractions of life around us.
To imagine the world around us from high above is to see how inconsequential the things around us are. This kind of “distancing” is a common technique in modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to quell over-thinking.
Thanks to technology, we now have a better idea of how big the universe is. The distances we now perceive are unimaginably vast. Our galaxy is among a huge cloud of millions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars like our sun. There are trillions and trillions of planets like our Earth in this vast cloud of galaxies.
It’s a cliche to be told that in the grand scheme of things you are insignificant. The earth is a molecule in a vast galaxy, itself a mere mote of dust in an inconceivably huge universe.
But the Stoics believed that we are part of the divine oneness of God. The universe is God and all things within it are part of God — part of the order of the cosmos. Of course the universe is massive, they would say. God is perfect, therefore the cosmos is infinite. The breath of life (pneuma) that makes up each human soul is itself a fragment of God’s soul.
For the Stoics the view from above was an exercise of spiritual contemplation as well as a meditation to find calm in the storm of life around them. This meditation allowed them to understand what is significant and what is not significant.
Marcus wrote in his journal: “It is high time now for you to understand the universe of which you are a part, and the governor of that universe of which you constitute an emanation.”
When we contemplate from the stars, we can realise that our material desires and insecurities are insignificant not because of the sheer size of the universe, but because we ourselves are part of that vast glittering whole. We are significant insomuch that we are part of the unity of the whole, the whole does not exist for our benefit.
Marcus wasn’t the first Roman philosopher to contemplate from the view from above. In the famous sixth chapter of his Republic, Cicero writes of a fictitious dream of the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus. The dream allows Cicero to expound a Roman conception of the universe and how it relates to Stoic virtues.
In Scipio’s dream, he is taken by his deceased grandfather, Scipio Africanus, a hero of the Second Punic War, up into a “shining circle” that the Greeks christened as the Milky Way.
Everything appears beautiful from this perspective, which Africanus explains is reserved for the deceased that have lived virtuously.
Scipio was taken aback at seeing the Earth,
“[W]hich at that distance appeared so exceedingly small, that I could not but be sensibly affected on seeing our whole empire no larger than if we touched the earth with a point.”
The account continues,
“as long as I continued to observe the earth with great attention, ‘How long, I pray you,’ said Africanus, ‘will your mind be fixed on that object; why don’t you rather take a view of the magnificent temples among which you have arrived?’”
The entire Roman Empire was just a tiny “point” on the Earth, itself a tiny point: a floating speck in the grand temple of the universe. What matters is not your daily life on Earth, replete with its yearnings for wealth, sex and fame, Cicero’s Africanus is saying, but your place in the universe. This is the basis of thinking and acting virtuously.
“Observe the movement of the stars as if you were running their courses with them, and let your mind constantly dwell on the changes of the elements into each other. Such imaginings will wash away the filth of life on the ground […] View earthly things as if looking down on them from a high point above.”
Amidst this “filth” is dirty politics and competition for fame and fortune. The craving for fame and wealth in the circus of Roman politics would have been immense. Marcus was likely surrounded by sycophants and rivals hoping to make their reputation or fortune in the Empire.
The view from above would have grounded Marcus and everything around him in the realisation that fame is nothing. He wrote:
“Consider too the lives once lived by others long before you, the lives that will be lived after you, the lives lived now among foreign tribes; and how many have never even heard your name, how many will soon forget it, how many praise you but quickly turn to blame. Reflect that neither memory nor fame, nor anything else at all, has any importance worth thinking of.”
Anicius Boethius, a Roman magistrate and philosopher, echoed this sentiment in The Consolation of Philosophy, a text he wrote while waiting to be executed in 524 AD. Fame is “puny and insubstantial”, he wrote, when you realise that the earth “may be thought of as having no extent at all” when compared with the heavens.
If that doesn’t sound small enough, only a small amount of the surface of the earth is inhabited. The civilised world is “the tiny point within a point… in which you think of spreading your fame and extending your renown, as if a glory constricted within such tight and narrow confines could have any breadth or splendour.”
In the heavens, we can see constancy and real beauty. The celestial spheres burn with splendour. In the heavens above we see a pure order of nature.
“The Pythagoreans say, ‘Look at the sky at dawn’ — to remind ourselves of the constancy of those heavenly bodies, their perpetual round of their own duty, their order, their purity, and their nakedness. No star wears a veil.”
Some of us find meaning in our careers, some in devotion to their football team. We devote ourselves to our public image, we veil ourselves with conceits. But devotion to things out of our ultimate control put your emotions — and even your sanity — at the mercy of their fortunes.
Instead, see the meaning in the constancy of the heavens. The rhythms of the earth are a faint echo of the vast cycles of the universe. The ancient astronomers observed a precision in the celestial motions and so it’s no surprise that these motions inspired thoughts of constancy and order within.
The Stoics believed that virtue lies in living in accordance with nature. Human orientation (oikeiôsis) is to reason. Cicero observed that the best among us transfer the order and beauty of the universe to ensure that they are preserved in our actions.
Whatever you believe, you have an undeniable part to play in the universe. The significance of your longings and cravings is no match for the turning kaleidoscope of which you are a part. Invest your passions into being part of the whole, and when you feel you’re at the mercy of fate, rise above it all.
Thank you for reading. I hope you learned something new.
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