[excerpt from To View from Eternity]
The neoplatonists urge us to see our troubled lives from the view of eternity. The world issues from the metaphysical character of the One, which means that the order of the planets and the balance of our seasons all result from an inviolable order, just as geometrical propositions are consequences of fixed axioms. For a short while, our bodies emerge from nature and are occupied with the pursuit of this or that, and the fear of that or this. From our perspectives, we see the things we desire as good and the things we fear as bad, but of course the One itself does not care about what we desire or fear. Our conflicts and squabbles are as predictable and senseless as battles among spiders or army ants. But unlike insects, we are capable at least sometimes of lifting our attention from our own perspective to a more philosophical one, from which we are able to see everything this paragraph is describing. We can place ourselves above our physical demands and see things from an untroubled intellect’s perspective. In this, we experience a unique species of joy: we experience relief, first of all, from whatever has been troubling us, but we also experience a positive joy from seeing how things must be, and from seeing the harmonious whole from which our lives derive. So long as we are able to stay true to this vision, we cease to be passive victims of our passions and circumstances, and we align our souls with the unchanging principles of the One.
The Stoics were another sect of philosophers, also inspired by Plato, who counseled humans to distance themselves emotionally from the particular fortunes of their own lives. Unlike the neoplatonists, their focus was more on practical therapy than on metaphysical pronouncements. One of the great stoic teachers was Epictetus (55 – 135 c.e.), whose life certainly knew misfortune. He was born a slave, and was crippled in one of his legs – perhaps as a result of his master breaking it. He eventually gained his freedom and set up his own school of philosophy, but then was forced to flee when the Emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from Rome. He wrote a little handbook, the Encheiridion, and taught his students that the key to living well is not to desire anything other than what life dishes out: “Do not seek to have events happen as you want them to, but instead want them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go well.” Every good thing in life should be seen simply as a loan from the universe at large:
Never say about anything, “I have lost it,” but instead, “I have given it back.” Did your child die? It was given back. Did your wife die? She was given back. “My hand was taken.” So this too was given back. “But the person who took it was bad!” How does the way the giver asked for it back concern you? As long as he gives it, take care of something that is not your own, just as travelers treat an inn.
No person, thing, or event is really ours – only our attitudes belong to us. To the extent that we invest ourselves in things outside of us, we will be victims of bad luck and misfortune. The person who builds up the discipline to rule over his or her attitudes will be able to face every turn with equanimity. The trick is to learn to see our lives as nothing more than accidental quirks of fate or chance, and so not to expect anything from them. The universe is large and complicated, and our lives are trivial and inevitable consequences of forces far beyond our control. Learn to live with that fact, and you will at least not be disappointed in whatever happens.
Epictetus’s philosophy proved to be exactly what Marcus Aurelius needed as he tried to negotiate his way through life. Without necessarily seeking the office, he found himself named Emperor of Rome in 161 c.e. This brought him every opportunity to fill his life with all manner of pleasurable extravagances, but chose instead to follow the precepts of Stoicism and live a life of simplicity, duty, and philosophical reflection. His Meditations consist in advice he continually gave himself to remember his place in the view of eternity:
The length of human life is but a speck, its substance is in flux, and its perceptions are dull. The whole body decays, the soul is a whirl, fortune is hard to see, and fame is meaningless. In a word, everything belonging to the body is a stream, and the soul is dream and vapor. Life is struggle, a stranger’s journey, and all fame is oblivion. What then can help us on our way? One thing only: the teachings of wisdom. This means keeping our hearts free from attack and unharmed, unmoved by pains and pleasures, acting always with purpose and never falsely or hypocritically, and not allowing other people’s actions to rule our own. It means accepting whatever happens, since all that happens comes from the same place as we do. And finally, it means facing death with a satisfied mind, since death is only returning to the universe what belonged to it in the first place. There’s nothing to fear when things naturally change into other things, so what is there to fear? Such change is only natural, and no natural change can be evil.
Stoic philosophy might be seen as applied neoplatonism. In it we find no studied reflections on the metaphysical nature of the One, or on the geometrical way in which all things flow from it. Stoics embrace the basic premise that life is beyond our control, and they recommend a practice of disciplining our thoughts and emotions so that we ourselves – our innermost characters – will never be scarred by even the most vicious twists of fate. It is just the sort of philosophical practice that would appeal to a soldier-emperor like Marcus Aurelius.
Both neoplatonism and stoicism subjugate human lives to reason. In stoicism, the subjugation is local: my reason masters my emotions, my fears and hopes, and ideally silences them. In neoplatonism, reason’s subjugation is cosmic: the universe itself is seen as proceeding from an eternal reason, and any emotion that does not cohere with this vision is set aside as (at best) a dim distortion of the underlying, deeper truth. Both philosophies share Plato’s disdain for the body and senses; both of them esteem the timeless over the timely. They both aspire to pull back to a frame of reference so wide that every spot of personal trouble becomes lost in a larger vision of forces and balances.
But here we might regret what is being lost. Plotinus, Hypatia, and Epictetus escape life’s troubles by escaping life itself, it seems. Grief, joy, rapture, and loss exist at the core of human experience, and a philosophy which seeks to diminish them can do so only by draining our lives of what makes them profoundly human. Moreover, we might ask whether such a cold and disciplined view of human fate satisfies the original yearning that raised the question why there is something rather than nothing. Perhaps, logically, it is the most satisfactory conclusion: what is, must be, and the human lot is to come to terms with that hard fact. But for better and worse, humans are not merely logical beings. We also harbor passions which drive us toward not only foolish endeavors but also transcendent poems, songs, and prayers. Perhaps our view of eternity must also reflect this side of our nature.