When we take being liberated from enslavement by our emotions and desires as the first freedom Stoicism aims for, in letter 65 Seneca shows us how identifying with the Cosmos is a valuable pathway to this freedom.
“…take fresh courage by contemplating the universe…there it [our mind] has its liberty”1
If you’re exploring Stoicism as a philosophical base for your art of living, you may recognise this as the view from above spiritual exercise. That exercise was a common spiritual exercise in the ancient world. However, I agree with John Sellars, this is not what the Stoic exercise actually is.2 Cosmic consciousness is an all together different Stoic practice, and more in keeping with an art of living appropriate for the 2020’s.
The Stoic view of the cosmos
To the ancient Stoic’s the cosmos was a living thing, like an animal. Naturally they had a grand theory to justify that view. I don’t think the theory is as useful to think about as the idea. In the twenty-first century it has some resonance with the Gaia theory but otherwise, for most of us, thinking about the universe as a living thing is not what the contemporary physical sciences of our schooling has trained our imaginations to do.
What is contemplation
Contemplation is the action of thinking about something continuously. Seneca expects us to think about the universe in a scientific way. Like meditation, contemplation as a philosophical exercise is something done regularly before we can start to experience its benefits. In our English language, contemplation is akin to pondering, and something has to be significant in order to ponder upon it.
It is important to note that in Letter 65 Seneca makes the distinction between overthinking something in an academic or frivolous way, and the sort of contemplation he thought led to freedom. An example of this over thinking is Mr Ramsey in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. Mr Ramsey is a philosopher much concerned with his status in the profession. He thinks he has a splendid mind. If a minds range was like the alphabet, he thought his capable of to getting to Q. Which in the scheme of things was no mean feat, achieved by very few.
Unfortunately he becomes the sort of academic philosopher Seneca considered a waste of time because he is obsessed with getting to R. He will consider his life a failure if he does not get that far.3 Whereas Seneca would have considered Mr Ramsey’s life a failure because he was in the habit of sending his breakfast flying across the terrace if there was so much as an ear wig in his milk.4 To Seneca the aim of intellectual development is to calm the mind, to be free from enslavement from desires and emotions. How advanced your reflections are in relation to the rest of humanity is neither here nor there.
What are the exercises
The exercise is thinking of the universe in a scientific way. This helps us to stay free of the temptation to believe we actually understand nature in its essence. That childish tendency is a serious vice in an adult. Just as we do not understand how others are, we can never understand nature in its essence. Today when we contemplate something like the Andromeda galaxy, with its one trillion solar systems5, we have to confront the extent to which so much of nature is simply unknowable for us.
When we think about the galaxies far away we also gain a valuable understanding of nature that helps us understand the dynamics of climate change. With the aid of our telescopes humans have been able to observe galaxies that merged with other galaxies long ago. Just as the origin of the effects of climate change we are experiencing today, occurred decades ago. In the sky, what we see each night has its origin in very distant time. As an example, the light we see from the Andromeda galaxy tonight, has been traveling for 2,500,000 years to reach us.
The goal of the exercises
Brad Inwood thinks Seneca’s letter 65 is a way to freedom by identifying with the cosmos.6 I’m not so sure. It seems to me more likely that Seneca is showing us an exercise that aids us in overcoming the fantasy of individualism that sunders us from those around us. By meditating on life, and the life of the cosmos from the perspective of cosmic consciousness, we deepen our understanding that we are part of something wonderfully huge, together with everyone and everything else.
Which is unfortunately a dreamy sort of oneness that isn’t quite tenable. We are connected to all living things and the cosmos, but that is not in any viable sense, a oneness that the Stoics believed. Still better their sense of oneness than being a oneness like Epicurus and other Hellenistic philosophers. We see (in the way the letters constantly reiterate it) that Seneca believes we co-create each other, that no man or woman is or ever can be an island.
How can we use this without Stoicism
Contemplating something bigger than ourselves is always an exercise that will reduce our vulnerability to emotional turmoil from things that are simply trivial in the scheme of things.
The Stoic notion of god and the universe may appeal to those who have a god. For the rest of us we can think about Bateson’s view that the processes of living systems on this planet can be characterised as indications of the processes of mind. We can take two things from this. Firstly, Bateson was only referring to the systems on this planet because he was only interested in living things. What we know of the universe to date does not as yet contain more living things beyond what we are aware of on this planet.
However, given the vastness of the universe as we know it today the idea that there are no other living things in it is a vanishingly small possibility. Currently the Milky Way is thought to be a galaxy of 400, 000,000,000 stars.7 In our local universe the Milky Way is considered part of the Laniakea Supercluster of galaxies. This is a cluster of about 100,000 galaxies. Currently the universe is estimated to be populated with 100,000,000,000 surviving galaxies (and perhaps 2 trillion over the life of the universe to date). So if one galaxy, the Milky Way, is home to at least one planet with living things, it seems impossible that amongst these other 100,000,000,000 galaxies there would be no other planets with living things. Of course, the other thing we can grasp is that at this point in time, having discovered no other living things within our current understanding and exploration of the universe, life on this planet is unlikely to be unique but it must surely still be exceedingly rare. This gives rise to the second idea we can draw from Bateson.
Let’s say that the whole universe exhibits the processes of mind he articulates in Mind and nature a necessary unity. What are our responsibilities? In particular what are our responsibilities to the other living things on this planet?
In short, given the vastness of the universe, can we really continue to act in a way that is justified by a biblical notion that we have dominion over the animals and all other living things on this planet, and they are only here to serve our needs?
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1 Seneca Letters on Ethics 2015. Graver & Long (trans) p453 – 455
2 Sellars J. 2009. The Art of Living: the Stoics on the nature and function of philosophy 2nd Ed.
3 Woolf V. 1938 To the Lighthouse Dent & Sons. P38 – 41
4 Woolf V. 1938 To the Lighthouse Dent & Sons. P231
5 Eicher D.J. 2020. Galaxies
6 Inwood B. 2005 Reading Seneca Ch11 ‘Seneca on Freedom and Autonomy’
7All figures about galaxies come from Eicher’s very good book – Eicher D.J. 2020. Galaxies