I wrote in my last post of humans’ attaining their true end by using their intellect to contemplate nature, thereby achieving greatness of soul. This takes a certain steeliness of mental faculties, and personally, in the guise of being a “realist” I have gotten into lazy, flaccid, un-steely mental habits. Despite being for the most part a rational thinker, I am plagued by certain thought patterns, to which I try to respond:
“Rationality has its limits; the world is not a rational place.”
Response: Fine, but why can’t I be rational? We don’t all need to sink to the lowest common denominator.
“There is a limit to what can be expressed in words. Language is unreliable and means different things for different people.”
Response: We still need to try as best we can to use language as precisely as possible, and if there are misunderstandings, then at least we tried to make ourselves clear, and it is beyond our control.
“It’s foolish to hold on to optimism when the world is clearly crumbling around us.”
Response: Well, this frame of mind is certainly tempting, but I would posit that it’s more foolish to stumble through life without finding a way to strengthen our souls and our resolve to live in this crazy world.
“Knowledge is relative; we really don’t know anything about who we are or why we are here.”
Response: Okay, but within the framework of our limited intellects, we should try to know as much as we can.
Every day I struggle against an undercurrent of thoughts of this nature. Even in my son’s (age 4) reading material I find more support for the absurd and for the seeming impossibility of using our intellects to grasp life’s meaning. He has a book called “There’s No Place Like Space!” (with the exclamation point, of course) that features trivia about the solar system. Something about the way it described the Earth spinning on its axis once every day, and us not getting dizzy because we’re spinning along with it, did in fact make me a little dizzy–mentally! We’re literally spinning in space, not stopping, and there are no other humans anywhere but on Earth, as far as we know. Does that make you feel like you know more, or less about things? It makes me want to sit still for hours and try to counteract the frenzied movement, and no, it doesn’t make me feel more knowledgeable about who we are, or where we are going, or why.
It is simply easier to believe that it is not possible to be rational, to communicate effectively, or to look for reasons to be optimistic–that way, I don’t need to try. This is wrong-headed. No point in being a gloom-and-doomer; in this sense the beasts, from which we are separated by our capacity for rational thought, have one up on us. I have never heard of a non-human animal losing the will to go on.
Following Epictetus’s advice, I have begun to contemplate nature, specifically the galaxy, as of late, if only so that I can talk about it with my son. I admit that it does fill me with wonder, and I have reminded myself to appreciate the fact that as a human I am able to grasp the concepts that astronomers have elucidated for the rest of us. A mere beast certainly does not have the capacity to understand gravitational waves or frozen lakes on Pluto. Not that I understand it, either, but at least I can chip away at the mysteries with the blunt force of my mind and start to get somewhere in my understanding. The more I learn, the more fascinating it is. If a goal of Stoicism is to enable us to lead the good life, then I would say that Epictetus is in fact helping me to dispel mental laziness and contemplate the mysteries of the universe, which in turn increases joy, while at the same time making earthly annoyances seem minuscule.