"Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What's closer to nature's heart? Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed?
Can't you see? It's just the same with you - and just as vital to nature."
Meditations Book 7, Chapter 18
There's lots of talk about the unshakable mountain that is, "The Stoic." Yet change is closest to nature's heart, according both to Aurelius' line and to Stoic philosophy. And the Stoic, of course, follows nature. So how does one find solid ground in an ever-changing universe?
Hi, I'm Matt Van Natta and this is Good Fortune. I'm glad to be back. Since podcasts don't have to be listened to the day they're available, let me explain that this is the first episode after almost five month long break and also the first episode of 2016. I am grateful for the many requests to get this podcast going again. It's gratifying to know your listening.
Spring is upon us so I thought it only natural to start by talking about death. Ha-ha. I think it's time. We Stoics are famous for a fixation on mortality and, in my opinion, avoiding our philosophy's teachings concerning death denies us a rich vein of practical wisdom. In fact, I've been unable to address a variety of requested topics because, to cover the various losses in life (relationships, jobs, dignity, etc...) I need to be able to point back towards the Stoic approach to the loss OF life. So Death is coming, in Episode 13. First we lay the groundwork. Because before we can wrestle with that great, final change, we have to understand that in the Stoic universe, change is accepted as a constant.
- Exactly how close to nature's heart is change?
- So the ancient Stoics were really hung up on change, what's it matter?
- What are the benefits of perceiving and accepting that the universe is ever-changing?
Alright, let's get started.
Exactly how close to nature's heart is change?
In Book Seven of the Meditations, Aurelius reminds himself multiple times of the nature of the universe. In Chapter 23 he says, "Nature takes substance and makes a horse. Like a sculptor with wax. And then melts it down and uses the material for a tree. Then for a person. Then for something else. Each existing only briefly. It does the container no harm to be put together, and none to be taken apart." Just two thoughts latter, in Chapter 25, he notes that, "Before long, nature, which controls it all, will alter everything you see and use it as material for something else - over and over again. So that the world is continually renewed."
I can't say why the Emperor was so fixated on transformation during this time, but in Book 7, Chapter 18, (the quote I opened with) he asks himself if he is frightened of change. It's a serious question for a Stoic. The school's founder, Zeno, asked us to "live according to nature." For a pious Stoic like Aurelius, nature was not only the right path, but his god, Zeus. And the god of the universe, the god that WAS the universe, was the one described by Heraclitus.
Have you heard that you can never step twice into the same stream? That was Heraclitus, as quoted by Plato. Heraclitus played a profound role in describing the Stoics' universe. He claimed that, "everything changes and nothing stands still," also translated, "everything flows and nothing remains." The Stoics adopted Heralitus' flux and his ever flowing universe is at the core of the Stoic perception of the world.
For instance, listen to Meditations Book 10, Chapter 7, where Aurelius ponders a variety of possible universes,
"The whole is compounded by nature of individual parts, whose destruction is inevitable ("destruction" here means transformation). If the process is harmful to the parts and unavoidable, then it's hard to see how the whole can run smoothly, with parts of it passing from one state to another, all of them built only to be destroyed in different ways. Does nature set out to cause its components harm, and make them vulnerable to it - indeed, predestined to it? Or is it oblivious to what goes on? Neither one seems very plausible.
But suppose we throw out "nature" and explain these things through inherent properties. It would still be absurd to say that the individual things in the world are inherently prone to change, and at the same time be astonished at it or complain - on the grounds that it was happening "contrary to nature." And least of all when things return to the state from which they came. Because our elements are simply dispersed, or are subject to a kind of gravitation - the solid portions being pulled toward earth, and what is ethereal drawn into the air, until they're absorbed into the universal logos - which is subject to periodic conflagrations, or renewed through continual change.
And don't imagine either that those elements - the solid and the ethereal - are with us from our birth. Their influx took place yesterday, or the day before - from the food we ate, the air we breathed.
And that's what changes - not the person your mother gave birth to..."
Here Marcus pits his favored view of the universe, as providential and purposeful, against a universe of unthinking atoms. It's a fascinating discussion, but what I want to point out is that the fundamental nature of both worldviews is change. Providence and atoms are contested, but the flow is not. For the Stoic, change is a given. And as such, it becomes unreasonable to complain about change as if it were unexpected. As the Emperor says elsewhere, "How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life."
I also want to focus in on those final thoughts of Book 10 Chapter 7. "And don't imagine either that those elements - the solid and the ethereal - are with us from our birth. Their influx took place yesterday, or the day before - from the food we ate, the air we breathed. And that's what changes - not the person your mother gave birth to." Stoic change goes further than the eventual death of a horse, or felling of a tree. We are transformed daily. The child my mother gave birth to nearly forty years ago has already left the world, even though I happen to be here. Yes, Stoics are expecting and accepting the great changes of life, but our perception is supposed to go further; towards a realization that nothing is ever still. A certain stretch of river may be slow, but it's ever and always flowing.
So the ancient Stoics were really hung up on change, what's it matter?
If we never come to terms with change, we'll never gain the benefits that Stoicism can provide. Chapter 2 of the Enchiridion begins, "Remember that the promise of desire is the attainment of what you desire, that of aversion is not to fall into what is avoided, and that he who fails in his desire is unfortunate, while he who falls into what he would avoid experiences misfortune. If then, you avoid only what is unnatural among those things which are under your control, you will fall into none of the things which you avoid; but if you try to avoid disease, or death, or poverty, you will experience misfortune."
A similar sentiment is found in Chapter 31 of the Enchiridion, where Epictetus speaks of piety towards the gods.
Piety is a term you won't find me addressing very often. First, because I try to develop Good Fortune in a way that speaks to as diverse a group of listeners as possible. Second, because my personal approach to Stoicism is non-theistic in nature. However, Epictetus, Aurelius, Musonius Rufus, these were pious men; true followers of Zeus as they understood him. Their god was quite different than the sort of god I was raised with, and even different than many of their contemporaries might have accepted. As the ancient historian Diogenes Laertius put it, "They also say that God is an animal, immortal, rational, perfect in happiness, immune to all evil, providentially taking care of the world and of all that is in the world, but he is not of human shape. He is the creator of the universe, and as it were, the Father of all things in common, and that a part of him pervades everything, which is called by different names, according to its powers..." This Zeus, this animal that is the whole universe, is ever changing, growing, expressing new things. To live wisely, rationally, is to understand his self-expression and to accept it no matter what.
Enchiridion, Chapter 31: "In piety toward the gods, I would have you know, the chief element is this, to have right opinions about them - as existing and as administering the universe well and justly - and to have set yourself to obey them and submit to everything that happens, and to follow it voluntarily, in the belief that it is being fulfilled by the highest intelligence. For if you act in this way, you will never blame the gods, nor find fault with them for neglecting you. But this result cannot be secured in any other way than by withdrawing your idea of the good and evil from the things which are not under our control, and in placing it in those which are under our control, and in those alone. Because, if you think any of those former things to be good or evil, then, when you fail to get what you want and fall into what you do not want, it is altogether inevitable that you will blame and hate those who are responsible for the results. For this is the nature of every living creature, to flee from and turn aside from the things that appear harmful, and all that produces them. Therefore, it is impossible for a man who thinks he is being hurt to take pleasure in that which he thinks is hurting him, just as it is impossible to take pleasure in the hurt itself. Hence it follows that even a father is reviled by a son when he does not give his child some share in the things that seem to be good...That is why the farmer reviles the merchant, and those who have lost their wives and their children. For where a man's interest lies, there is also his piety..."
Epictetus' claim is that the universe is guided by a great intelligence therefore to be angry at the unfolding of that universe is to be angry at the gods. My opinion is closer to Marcus Aurelius' second possible world from Book 10, Chapter 7, that if I accept that the universe is bound by its own laws to play out as it does, then it is irrational to be angry at the outcome. I can scold myself for stubbing my toe, but yelling at the chair is foolish.
Epictetus says that in order to gain anything from Stoicism we have to withdraw our conception of good and evil from the ever-changing world and root it in ourselves. The good is found in interacting wisely with the world as it is, the evil; in reacting poorly to that same world. Why does acceptance of change matter? Anything less cuts us off from Stoic serenity and joy.
What are the benefits of perceiving and accepting that the universe is ever-changing?
"The wise will start each day with thought;Fortune gives us nothing which we can really own.
Nothing, whether public or private, is stable; the destines of men, no less than those of cities, are in a whirl.
Whatever structure has been reared by a long sequence of years, at the cost of great toil and through the great kindness of the gods, is scattered and dispersed in a single day. No, he who has said ‘a day’ has granted too long a postponement to swift misfortune; an hour, an instant of time, suffices for the overthrow of empires.
How often have cities in Asia, how often in Achaia, been laid low by a single shock of earthquake? How many towns in Syria, how many in Macedonia, have been swallowed up? How often has this kind of devastation laid Cyprus in ruins?
We live in the middle of things which have all been destined to die.
Mortal have you been born, to mortals have you given birth.
Reckon on everything, expect everything."
You may recognize Seneca's premeditation. I've mentioned it before. So Seneca backs up Aurelius and Epictetus. The wise will start each day dwelling on change. Why? To become fatalistic? Life will happen as life happens so accept it and carry on? NO. We acknowledge the instability of the world so that we remember to put our energy into building up what can be stable, the only thing that can be, ourselves.
I'm recording this episode while surrounded by favorite books, art pieces, and whiskey decanters. I'm very fortunate to be able to create a space that is particularly well suited to me. I'm amazingly fortunate to have a wife who encouraged me to do so! I can breath easy in this study. What if a thief breaks in tomorrow? What if a fire turns it all to ash? Would I still breath easy? Way back in episode two I shared a quote from Keith Seddon that I will repeat again, "We must invest our hopes not in the things that happen, but in our capacities to face them as human beings." I return to that quote regularly because it illuminates the heart of the Stoic worldview. The Stoic seeks to be virtuous no matter the circumstances of life. Just, always. Wise, always. Tempered, always. Courageous, always. The fruit of that virtue, serenity, is equally constant. In fact, Epictetus claims that, "no feature of serenity is so characteristic as continuity and freedom from hindrance." If we don't realize and internalize that the thing we're enjoying is impermanent by the very fact that it exists, then we will be disturbed the second it changes. I'm not trying to shame us because we aren't perfect unperturbed Sages. But if we seek our peace in the present environment instead of in spite of it, we're not even walking the Stoic path.
The benefit of orienting ourselves to the flux of the world is that we can learn to love it as it is. We can stop waiting for happiness in some imagined perfect future and start really living in this moment. How? Well, the ancient Stoics advised continuously wrestling with that most striking of changes, Death. But that's next episode.
Thank you for listening to episode twelve of Good Fortune. This was just laying groundwork for Episode 13, so stay tuned, Death is right around the corner!
Please let me know if your favorite podcatcher is still not updating with new Good Fortune episodes. The rss feed issue has been maddening (I'm kidding, I'm totally Stoic about it) and I do want it resolved.
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Good Fortune episodes come out on the 1st and 3rd Friday of the month, when possible. As always, visit ImmoderateStoic.com for this podcast and my writings. There is a comment section on every post if you have something to share. You can subscribe to Good Fortune on my website or through iTunes. If you listen through iTunes I greatly appreciate reviews. I'm @goodfortunecast on Twitter. And you can also hear me from time to time on the Stoic podcast, Painted Porch at PaintedPorch.org.
The music is by Tryad off of their album Public Domain.
And finally, Always remember, 'misfortune born nobly is good fortune.' And therefore, I wish you all good fortune until next time.