Today’s Lunchtime Exercise: The View from Above
On our final day we turn to think about our place within Nature as a whole:
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 combination of opposites.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.48
The ‘View from Above’ is a guided visualization that is aimed at instilling a sense of the ‘bigger picture’, and of understanding your role in wider community of humankind. You can download a recording of the View from Above from the main Stoic Week 2013 page:
Anyone who reads the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is bound to notice a recurring theme that involves contemplating the vastness of the universe, of space and time, the multitude of stars, and also the smallness of life on Earth when viewed from above. The French scholar Pierre Hadot called the deliberate effort to mentally visualise human affairs from high overhead “The View from Above”, and he found references to it throughout ancient literature, particularly in Stoic writings.
In a sense, these passages invite us to think like an ancient natural philosopher and simply to contemplate cosmology, the nature of the universe as a whole, in a detached manner. However, the Stoics clearly believed that doing so had profound “therapeutic” value and, as Marcus put it, can purge us of our over-attachment to trivial things by expanding our minds beyond their habitual, narrow perspective. We’re less upset about things when we literally picture them as occurring in a tiny corner of the cosmos: as a grain of sand in cosmic space, and the mere turn of a screw in terms of cosmic time. Why should we picture things in this way? First of all, for the Stoics, totality is reality. It’s a form of self-deception to ignore the wider context and it helps create the illusion that the events we face are somehow more important than they actually are. Second, the ancient Stoics sought to emulate the divine, and the View from Above happens to be the perspective of Zeus. We can even think of it as the Olympian perspective, what Zeus might have been thought to see when looking down upon human affairs from high atop Mount Olympus. If that seems too mythological, then for a more philosophical theology, the perspective of Zeus was perhaps that of omniscience, contemplating the whole of space and time in a single timeless vision. Again, the Stoics and other ancient philosophers aspired to glimpse that vision, and thereby to step into the shoes of Zeus for a moment.
This exercise appears to weave together many different threads within Stoic philosophy. That’s something that may become clearer to you if you practice it regularly. You don’t need to listen to an elaborate guided meditation, though. Just reading the passages from Marcus Aurelius may be enough to inspire you to close your eyes and contemplate things from a more “cosmological” perspective, in this way. Don’t worry if you find it tricky to literally visualise the whole of space and time – that’s normal. Just picture things that evoke the concept for you symbolically. You could draw a circle on a piece of paper, symbolising the totality of space and time, and imagine your whole life as an infinitesimally tiny dot in the middle. The Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus, who was influenced by the Stoics to some extent, describes a contemplative exercise that involves visualising the whole of space and time as if encapsulated in a glass sphere, like a kind of cosmic snowglobe. Take your time. Allow these images to interact with your wider understanding of Stoic philosophy and practices. Try to take away some piece of learning or sense of change from each meditation of this kind.
Complete the Post-Week Questionnaires
As this is the final day, it is now time to complete the online scales that you filled in before the week, using the same name (email or pseudonym) as before. Visit the main Stoic Week 2103 page for the links: