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Wisdom Wednesday #5: A Stoic Emperor on Viewing Things from a Distance

Welcome Back!

Thanks for checking out "Wisdom Wednesdays," the weekly series where I share a small nugget of wisdom from ancient philosophy and challenge you to apply it to your modern life.

Last week, we hung out in Ancient Greece and Rome for a bit longer to continue learning from the Stoics. We met Seneca, who taught us that it's often our minds, more than reality, that shape our emotional experiences. By changing how we think about things, we can, therefore, change how we feel about them to our advantage. The result? Greater serenity, resilience, and effectiveness in our day-to-day life.

I challenged you to reflect on your emotional responses to upsetting events and investigate how your interpretations of the situation might be contributing to your misfortune. How did your investigation go? Were you able to notice any things you were telling yourself about the situation that might not have been true? Were you able to reframe the situation in a more measured, realistic way? What was the result?

This Week's Wisdom

Today, we remain in Ancient Rome for one more week to learn yet another Stoic practice for living a more tranquil life. The idea is beautifully encapsulated by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, one of the most famous practitioners of Stoicism. In his diary, he wrote:

"Think of the whole universe of matter and how small your share. Think about the expanse of time and how brief—almost momentary—the part marked for you. Think of the workings of fate and how infinitesimal your role..." - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.24

Modern Stoic Massimo Pigliucci, a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, calls this Stoic practice of considering our place in the vast expanse of space or time as taking the "view from above." Donald Robertson and other modern cognitive-behavioral therapists call it "cognitive distancing." I like to think of it as zooming out. Whatever you call it, the practice can be immensely valuable for gaining perspective on the challenges we might be facing and placing less emphasis on things that, in the grand scheme of things, don't really matter...

About the Author

The above words of wisdom were written by Marcus Aurelius while he was on military campaign toward the end of his life. His writings would later be dubbed Meditations. Often remembered as the last of the Five Good Emperors, Aurelius reigned over the Roman Empire from AD 161 to 180. Born on April 26, AD 121, in Rome, he ascended to the throne in a period marked by military conflict and social upheaval.

Despite the challenges of his reign, including wars on the empire's frontiers and the Antonine Plague, which decimated the population, Aurelius remained committed to the principles of Stoic philosophy, which guided both his personal life and his duties as emperor.

Unlike other philosophical texts of the time, Meditations was not written for publication but as a personal diary of sorts, reflecting his inner thoughts and the philosophical exercises he practiced. The work is a cornerstone of Stoic philosophy, emphasizing virtue, reason, and the importance of understanding one's place in the cosmos.

Aurelius was not only a philosopher but also a statesman and a military leader. His reign is notable for its adherence to the idea of the philosopher-king, as espoused by Plato. He sought to govern wisely and justly, applying Stoic principles to the administration of the empire and his life. His Stoicism also informed his approach to governance and justice, emphasizing duty, rationality, and the common good over personal gain.

Despite his status as one of history's most powerful men, Aurelius' writings reveal a man grappling with his responsibilities and his mortality, striving to live according to nature and reason. His reflections on life, duty, and the nature of the universe continue to resonate with readers today, offering insights into managing adversity and living a meaningful life.

Marcus Aurelius' death in March of AD 180 marked the end of the Pax Romana, a period of relative peace and stability across the Roman Empire. His legacy, however, endures through Meditations, which remains a profound source of philosophical wisdom and a testament to the enduring relevance of Stoic thought.

Historical Context and Relevance

During his reign, Marcus Aurelius faced immense challenges, including wars and internal strife within the Roman Empire. His Meditations reveal a constant struggle to find personal meaning and understanding amidst these trials. Zooming out was a technique he employed to gain perspective, reminding himself of the vastness and interconnectedness of the world, and the smallness of individual concerns in the grand scheme of things.

Impact of This Idea Over Time

The idea of viewing life from a higher perspective has been a recurring theme in various wisdom traditions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and others. In Buddhist philosophy, particularly in Mahayana Buddhism, there's a concept of interconnectedness of all beings known as 'Indra's Net.' It posits that all phenomena are interdependent and interconnected like a vast, intricate net. This perspective encourages a view beyond individual ego and an understanding of the larger web of life.

The concept of 'Dharma' in Hindu philosophy, which refers to the cosmic law underlying right behavior and social order, encourages adherents to consider their actions in the context of a larger cosmic order. The Bhagavad Gita, a key Hindu text, presents the idea of seeing one's self as part of a larger, divine play or cosmic order, promoting a detached engagement in life's duties.

Taoist philosophy, particularly in texts like the Tao Te Ching, written by Laozi, emphasizes harmony with the Tao, or the fundamental principle underlying the universe. This perspective advocates for seeing life from a broader view of natural processes and cycles, encouraging a deep alignment with the natural world and the larger flow of life.

In Stoicism, this perspective serves as a powerful tool for gaining insight into the transient nature of human affairs and the interconnectedness of all things. It encourages a detachment from the minutiae of daily life and fosters a broader understanding of our place in the world.

Modern Relevance

In our fast-paced, hyper-connected world, the Stoic "view from above" is more relevant than ever. The practice can offer us a way to gain clarity and calmness amidst the chaos of modern life. It can help us put our personal struggles into a wider context, reducing their weight and allowing us to focus on what truly matters.

In a world increasingly connected by technology yet often divided by ideologies, politics, and cultural differences, the "view from above" also serves to encourage a sense of global unity. By seeing humanity as a collective whole, it fosters greater compassion and empathy, urging us to transcend parochial concerns and work towards common global objectives, such as addressing climate change, poverty, and inequality.

A Literal View from Above

One notable example of an astronaut who experienced a shift in perspective akin to the Stoic "view from above" is Edgar Mitchell, an Apollo 14 astronaut and the sixth person to walk on the Moon. During his return journey to Earth in 1971, Mitchell had a profound experience that closely resembles the Stoic practice of contemplating the world from a higher vantage point.

As Mitchell gazed at the Earth from the spacecraft's window, he was struck by the interconnectedness of all life and the fragility of our planet. He described feeling an overwhelming sense of universal connectedness, an epiphany about the nature of existence that transcended traditional definitions and boundaries. This experience, often referred to as the "Overview Effect," dramatically altered his perspective, making him feel a deep sense of unity with the people and the planet below.

Mitchell's experience didn't just mirror the Stoic view in terms of gaining a broader perspective but also in its transformative impact on his life. Following his space mission, he devoted himself to exploring the nature of consciousness and founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences, an organization that aims to explore the intersection of science and inner experience. His shift in perspective led to a lifelong pursuit of understanding and exploring the deeper aspects of human existence and consciousness.

This profound experience shared by many astronauts, including Mitchell, underscores the power of the Stoic "view from above" as a means to gain a deeper understanding of our place in the world and to foster a sense of global unity and responsibility.

Personal Reflection

In my own life, practicing the "view from above" has been a source of solace and perspective. It has helped me to navigate personal and professional challenges with a greater sense of calm, understanding that many of my daily concerns—a poor night's sleep, a quarrel with a loved one, a pressing work deadline— are small when seen from a higher vantage point.

When stressed out by something, I will sometimes remind myself things like:

  • The universe is ~14 billion years old and I will live to be 100 tops. Will this really matter in the end?

  • In the grand scheme of the universe, is this important?

  • How many other humans are going through something far worse right now?

Questions like these have been especially helpful for bringing a sense of humor to life, reminding me not to take things so seriously and just enjoy the moment.

Relevance to You

Practicing the Stoic "view from above" can provide us all a refreshing shift in perspective. It can help you to transcend the immediacy of personal problems, to see life’s challenges as part of a larger, more interconnected whole. It can foster a sense of humility, compassion, and a deeper appreciation for the vast tapestry of human experience.

This Week's Challenge:

This week, I encourage you to practice the Stoic "view from above." When feeling overwhelmed, take a moment to visualize your situation from a higher, broader perspective.

Imagine yourself:

  • Zooming out from Earth, viewing all human concerns from the standpoint of the universe.

  • Traveling through time across thousands, millions, or even billions of years.

  • As just one of the billions of humans currently existing or that have existed before.

Then, ask yourself:

  • How big is this issue in the grand scheme of things?

  • How much does this really matter in the long arc of my life? Human history? The universe?

  • How many other human beings have faced this problem or something similar throughout history?

Reflect on how this view changes your perception of the problem. Is this really the end of the world?

Further Exploration

To aid you in practicing the View from Above:

To further deepen your exploration of Marcus Aurelius and Stoic philosophy:

Thank you for joining this week's "Wisdom Wednesdays." See you next week!

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