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What Is Important in Life? Day 2 – Episode 18


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The Cosmic Viewpoint What is most important? Raising your mind above the threats and promises of fortune, thinking that nothing is worth hoping for. For what have you to desire? Whenever you sink back from engagement with the divine to the human level, your sight will go dim, just like the eyes of those who return from bright sunlight to dense shadow. (Natural Questions III, praef. 11) The cosmic viewpoint is a central theme of Stoicism, and Seneca’s Natural Questions highlights that theme. In it, Seneca “impels his reader to look upward, to transcend ordinary life at ground level, to reach for cosmic consciousness.”[1] I covered the cosmic viewpoint in episode 5 on prosoche. Nevertheless, the cosmic viewpoint is a critically important topic in Stoic practice; it cannot be repeated too often. The cosmic viewpoint is often referred to as the “view from above.” This is the cosmic viewpoint, and it entails more than seeing the insignificance of life as if from afar. The cosmic viewpoint is more about attitude than altitude. Imagining that we are zooming away from the Earth may help distance us from the triviality of some troublesome events. However, that form of a “view from above” does not necessarily bring about the attitudinal change Stoicism prescribes. The ultimate goal of Stoic practice is not to distance ourselves from troublesome events or become indifferent to them. The goal is to learn to love those events as if we wished for them. Why? Because they are the events of Nature that have a purpose of their own, and, as Stoics, our aim is to live in agreement with that cosmic Nature. To do so requires more than a change in altitude; it requires a significant change in attitude. Stoic practice obliges us to develop an attitude of gratitude toward all events, even those we might otherwise consider troublesome, or tragic. As Epictetus taught: From everything that happens in the universe it is easy to praise providence, if one has within him two things: the faculty of taking a comprehensive view of the things that happen to each person and a sense of gratitude. (Discourses 1.6.1) Pierre Hadot considers the cosmic viewpoint the beginning of Stoic practice. He writes, Putting theory into practice begins with an exercise that consists in recognizing oneself as a part of the Whole, elevating oneself to cosmic consciousness, or immersing oneself within the totality of the cosmos. While meditating on Stoic physics, we are able to see all things within the perspective of universal Reason. To achieve this, we must practice the imaginative exercise which consists in seeing all human things from above.[2] When confronted with something which might appear unsettling or disturbing, we must take a step back and try to envision the situation from the perspective of the whole cosmos. It is reasonable to assume if we had all of the information about an event we would see things differently. To take on the perspective of the whole we must shed our personal desires, the desires of our immediate family and loved ones, and those of our local community or nation. That is a difficult thing to do; however, this paradigm shift is an essential part of Stoic practice. From the cosmic viewpoint, we can begin to see and love all events as parts of the Whole. Marcus Aurelius describes this exercise: Watch the stars in their courses as though you were accompanying them on their way, and reflect perpetually on how the elements are constantly changing from one to another; for the thought of these things purifies us from the defilement of our earthly existence. A fine reflection from Plato. One who would converse about human beings should look on all things earthly as though from some point far above, upon herds, armies, and agriculture, marriages and divorces, births and deaths, the clamour of law courts, deserted wastes, alien peoples of every kind, festivals, lamentations, and markets, this intermixture of everything and ordered combin...

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