What Changes, What Remains?
A pessimist may say that the well-being and peace of mind that we seek is in fact beyond our grasp, that the very nature of the world at large and of the human constitution make any deep and lasting tranquillity quite impossible to attain, not because we are weak or incapable of understanding and following spiritual instruction, but because of the way things are. Everything in the universe is transitory; even those things that for all intents and purposes we consider will last forever, are in fact temporary. The pyramids of Giza, for instance, which are already over four thousand years old (and which, no doubt, will endure for many more millennia) are destined to be lost eventually – to be robbed away by stonemasons, to be tipped up and scattered as a new mountain range rises up under them, to be buried under a massive tide of lava, or perhaps just washed away a few grains at a time by the rain. Even the earth upon which the pyramids rest will eventually be burned up and vaporised as the sun expands into a massive red giant star towards the end of its life five billion years from now.
What then of our own lives? Against this cosmic timescale they are mere flashes, of a sort, infinitesimally brief, that manifest for but a moment, that like the world we live on are destined for destruction and oblivion. And the things around us that we bother ourselves with, the possessions that we covet (sometimes obsessively), and the possessions that we actually come to own, are almost all of them even more temporary than our own bodies. The fruits of our projects, those projects that succeed, that is, are equally impermanent: whatever we make, whatever we contribute to or establish (a marriage, a school for philosophy, a new business, etc., etc.) will soon enough cease to exist. The universe itself is hostile to human endeavour.
The pessimist therefore claims that everything is ultimately futile, because all we do is doomed to decay and destruction, that a thousand years from now (and probably much sooner) it will be as if we had never lived at all. Maybe an unconscious fear of this cosmic truth explains a great deal about human culture. Most people pursue one temporary pleasure after the other, as if all that matters is gratification, for far from showing keen awareness of their eventual demise (in the face of which the maxim, ‘Enjoy what pleasures you can, while you can,’ may be a plausible and, perhaps, a defensible philosophy of life), most people seem to go about their business entirely ignoring – almost wilfully – the fact of personal annihilation. It is as if almost all of us were at a children’s party, where, like children, we are so absorbed in the games and the prizes and the delicious food that we have completely forgotten that before so very long the party will end and dissolve.
Maybe, for many, it is even best that they keep from their conscious thoughts all ideas about the infinitely vast stretch of future time during which they will have no existence. For many, undoubtedly, the universe is quite different from how they would ideally like it to be, and the gap between the truth and the ideal is so vast that we had best not remind them of it.
But for those of us who want to fully face the facts of impermanence and death, with the wish and the hope that we can live well and be fulfilled despite the nature of reality, we have already seen Stoic doctrines that will aid us. The virtues (meaning those dispositions of character by which we may live as rational and sentient creatures should) are the only good, and death and illness and the transient nature of things are indifferent, meaning not that we are indifferent towards them – for we prefer life to death, and health to sickness – but that we pursue our projects despite their outcomes being impermanent. We recognise that making things permanent is not in our power, and everything we do is done ‘with reservation’, which obviously must include our making and contributing to things that are destined for oblivion and decay, whether that be sooner or later.
The Stoic makes a commitment to face reality and to make the attempt to live well despite the discomfort, anxiety and even terror that anticipation of things ending and people dying can produce. It is better to embrace the truth, says the Stoic, than do what many people appear to do, which is to career headlong down a path of hedonistic pursuits, which will either prove such a satisfactory distraction that thoughts of transience and death will be effectively repressed, or that such thoughts as these that do arise will be quickly dismissed by the excitement of the next purchase, outing, relationship, vacation, or what have you.
Write in your journal. To what extent do you think that pursuing the usual sorts of pleasures (new clothes, use of intoxicating drugs – alcohol and nicotine, perhaps – holidays abroad, etc., etc.) has served to distract you from or mollify disturbing thoughts about impermanence and death (your own, and others’)? Do you think the pessimist is right, that the sort of world we live in makes human life fundamentally pointless and futile, that attempting to create things (buildings, institutions, works of art, etc.) is essentially an exercise in folly? If you have been a pessimist, has this course in Stoic philosophy made any difference to your outlook? If you have been an optimist, can you explain how your optimism has been sustained in the light of the points raised in this Paper so far? (Or is it a case pretty much of saying just, ‘I try not to think about that sort of thing’?) Can you remember your first bereavement? How did you react to it?
Marcus on change and transformation
In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius develops an outlook upon transience, saying that change and transformation are desirable and necessary, and that seeing this to be the case can promote (in part) the peace of mind that the Stoic sage claims to possess.
Clearly, if change and transformation did not occur, the world as a whole could not come about, and none of the things that populate the world could ever have come into being; for coming into being is itself a transformation of one thing (or many) into a new thing. We are of course ourselves the products of transformation. In the natural process of gestation, the cells that then comprised our bodies were transformed from a single-cell embryo into a human infant – and that process of transformation has gone on ever since, as our bodies convert the food we eat into new tissues, and by generating the electro-chemical energy that is required for movement, speech and thought. Indeed, ‘flux and transformation are forever renewing the world’ (6.15), and the uncomfortable fact of decay and death and of the ending of things must be viewed as the way in which the universe makes it possible for new things (including us) to arise and flourish.
The Stoics and other reflective people remind themselves that we are not here for very long, and that we must not allow the fact of impermanence to depress us. No sooner have we lost our heart to a little sparrow flitting by than it has passed out of sight (6.15). We should be wary of concluding that ‘losing our hearts’ over anything is therefore undesirable. Epictetus reminds us that what is created by transformation is eventually ‘unmade’, so to speak, by transformation, but that using expressions such as ‘loss’ and ‘death’ misrepresents this process:
Marcus’ notion of a cosmic perspective
Adopting a ‘cosmic perspective’ is an important aspect of Marcus’ philosophy. In ordinary life, it is both natural and inevitable that we should be concerned about our own affairs and about the things, people and events that have a direct bearing on our projects. But Marcus suggests that we should place these concerns in a wider context, for when we do so, the way that we relate to those concerns subtly alters.
When we recognise the rapidity with which things come into being only to be swept away into oblivion, and appreciate how tiny our own lives are in comparison with the thousands of years that comprise human history, or with the millions of years that comprise the history of life on earth (12.32), we begin to get a sense of how foolish we make ourselves by getting so deeply concerned about the ups and downs of daily life, as if our ‘troubles would endure for any great while’ (5.23).
If we adopt a cosmic perspective and look down on human affairs from a ‘point far above’ (7.48; 9.30) we can see everything going on at once, and the actions and concerns of any one person (who may be us) look, if not wholly trivial, then of no great importance. What would we say to the ant in the midst of a scurrying column of millions who looked up at us and declared: ‘Woe am I! My little bit of leaf has fallen in the mud and is lost forever!’? If we could answer, we would want to say that that sentiment has somehow missed the true significance of what is really going on. So the next time we drop our eggs outside the supermarket, break a plate, or suffer a breakin, we should recall the talking ant, and realise that what has happened has essentially no significance whatever.
No wonder the Stoics were accused of offering a harsh philosophy, for they say that all our misfortunes should be regarded like the ant’s little bit of leaf being lost in the mud. But the Stoics are right to point out that we bewail the ordinary and the common thing – whatever grieves us has happened to others millions of times, and we have known all along either that this very thing must eventually happen, or was more than likely to happen. The overall point of attempting to adopt the cosmic perspective is to gain confidence in seeing the world’s history, and our own affairs within that history, objectively.
The way we subjectively experience things happening as they inevitably must can be changed to one of calm acceptance through the mental exercise of adopting an objective, cosmic perspective. Logically, we do not need to employ this exercise, for we already know that the things that trouble us, even major catastrophes (personal or collective) are in fact indifferents that are ‘dispreferred’; to be sure, they disrupt our projects and are inconveniences for them, whereas we ourselves as agents who engage in those projects cannot be harmed. But the cosmic perspective exercise is useful because it helps us to challenge the values – that loss is truly bad, and death is supremely bad – instilled in us by society as we grew up, which, tragically and inevitably leads almost all people at one time or another into experiencing not only frustration and anxiety, but also abject misery and soul-destroying despair.
Read Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 12.27.
Seeing things as they truly are
Epictetus and Marcus encourage a further exercise for strengthening an objective viewpoint. They urge us to be strictly honest and accurate in the way we describe things.
If we practise this exercise of stopping to ‘see what sort of thing’ (8.21) we are dealing with, we should find it much more easy to ‘act with reservation’ and not be so easily surprised at the way things turn out. We can apply this exercise as much to people as to anything else: some people are selfish and act for themselves; others are kindly and considerate to others; some are timid and are uncomfortable with others, or in new situations; and some face a daily battle with anxiety even in a daily routine that is wholly familiar, in contrast with others who are always confident no matter what. We cannot expect anything other than that people will behave in accord with their temperaments, even if we have reasons to hope that they will not! With respect to the things around us and the events that occur as part of ordinary life, it is perhaps even easier for us to ‘see them as they truly are’ (6.13) and thereby stand a better chance of retaining our equanimity instead of falling into some unnecessary emotion such as rage or frustration, annoyance or disappointment.
If we drop and break something, well, this has happened because it is in the nature of the human constitution sometimes to be clumsy, and it is in the nature of the broken item to break. If we lose a gold ring, for example, we should say that it is a little piece of metal that we have lost, and well, it is in the nature of small things to be easily lost.
If someone tries to impress us with the size of their office or the size of their house, we should think only that they have a large carpet to pace up and down on, or that they have a large number of rooms they can look into. If they wear expensive clothes to show how better than us they are, we should think only that the cloth with which they cover their bodies has been charged at a higher price. If someone marvels at a tremendously expensive painting, say only that they marvel at a piece of canvas with some pigment daubed onto it, with a price tag having more zeros on it than others: whether the painting is competently made, well, that is another question.
Clearly, Epictetus is applying the same ‘see what sort of thing this is’ exercise as we have just been discussing and, equally clearly, many people would find his final sentence distasteful if not appalling. To lose someone we are close to is the worst possible of human misfortunes, and to suggest that we should adopt an outlook that will prevent us from being upset seems to be suggesting that we should strive to be less than human, for how can it be said that we really loved someone if we are not upset at losing them? The Stoic, as we know, would refute that charge, and claim, paradoxically, that it is people who get carried away by events and who get upset by losses who fall short of their potential humanity.
Our task here is to accept, if we can, that it is better not to be dominated by circumstances beyond our control, that it is undesirable that our emotions should be directed by the actions of others and by the unfolding of events generally, or, in particular, by life taking its own inevitable journey terminating in death.