What is Important in Life – Day 2
What is most important? Raising your mind above the threats and promises of fortune, thinking that nothing is worth hoping for. For what have you to desire? Whenever you sink back from engagement with the divine to the human level, your sight will go dim, just like the eyes of those who return from bright sunlight to dense shadow. (NQ III, praef. 11)
Day 2 – The Cosmic Viewpoint
The cosmic viewpoint is a central theme of Stoicism in general and Seneca’s Natural Questions in particular. In it, Seneca “impels his reader to look upward, to transcend ordinary life at ground level, to reach for cosmic consciousness.” This viewpoint is frequently referred to as the “view from above” in Stoicism. From this viewpoint, events which might otherwise appear troublesome, or even tragic, lose their sting and can even take on a different meaning. Events which we may otherwise consider tragic become threads in a larger tapestry when we step back and see the whole picture. This cosmic viewpoint is part of Epictetus’ prescription for psychological resilience.
From everything that happens in the universe it is easy to praise providence, if one has within him two things: the faculty of taking a comprehensive view of the things that happen to each person and a sense of gratitude. (Discourses 1.6.1)
Pierre Hadot considers the cosmic viewpoint the beginning of Stoic practice. He writes,
Putting theory into practice begins with an exercise that consists in recognizing oneself as a part of the Whole, elevating oneself to cosmic consciousness, or immersing oneself within the totality of the cosmos. While meditating on Stoic physics, we are able to see all things within the perspective of universal Reason. To achieve this, we must practice imaginative exercise which consists in seeing all human things from above.
When confronted with something which might appear unsettling or disturbing, take a step back and try to envision the situation from the cosmic viewpoint. From the perspective of the Whole cosmos, does that inconsiderate driver who just cut you off look any different? If you discovered that inconsiderate driver was rushing to the emergency room to see a dying loved one, would that change your judgment about their behavior? Often, if we had all of the information about an event or a person’s behavior we would see things differently; we would change our opinion of things. There is a wonderful story, told by bestselling author Stephen Covey, about a subway ride in New York that highlights this truth:
Mr. Covey was in a quiet subway car when a father and several children boarded. The children were running wild, bothering passengers so much Mr. Covey asked the parent if he could rein them in.
“Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it,” the distraught father replied. “We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”
Covey said he had a paradigm shift—a different way of viewing things—at that moment. He suddenly viewed the behavior of the children and the father from a new perspective, and that made all the difference. I first heard Stephen Covey tell that story in the 1990s, long before I began practicing Stoicism. That story stuck with me, and it continues to inspire me to consider the fact that I don’t know what lies behind the apparent rude and inconsiderate behavior of others. If I did know, I might experience a paradigm shift. The practice of Stoicism involves a paradigm shift. The Stoics propose that we view events from the perspective of the cosmos rather than through the lens of our selfish desires. From the cosmic viewpoint, the Stoic can consider events within the context of the Whole. Marcus Aurelius describes this exercise as follows:
Watch the stars in their courses as though you were accompanying them on their way, and reflect perpetually on how the elements are constantly changing from one to another; for the thought of these things purifies us from the defilement of our earthly existence. 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. (Meditations 7.47-8)
The view from above results in a cosmic paradigm shift. This shift involves more than additional information that may change our opinion about an event. The cosmic viewpoint entails an entirely different way of thinking about events. It relies on bringing our rational faculty—that fragment of the logos we each possess—into congruence with universal Reason. Seneca warns,
Whenever you sink back from engagement with the divine to the human level, your sight will go dim, just like the eyes of those who return from bright sunlight to dense shadow. (NQ III, praef. 11)
In other words, our psychological angst is the result of seeing events from an earthbound perspective—the human level. Stoic practice teaches us to view events from the cosmic perspective—the divine level. As you go about your day, try applying the cosmic viewpoint by asking yourself the following questions:
- Are there any event(s) in the past, which seemed tragic at the time, that turned out to be for the best as time passed?
- What might this current troubling event look like if I had full knowledge of what is going on?
- Will I care about this event an hour, day, year or decade from now?
- Can I envision a way this event, which appears unfortunate, troublesome, or even tragic at this moment, might bring about a better outcome than I originally envisioned?
- If so, would it be prudent to for me to act, with a reserve clause, as if this apparently troubling event is directing me toward a new course of action?
- Did this slamming door reveal another previously unnoticed door I should explore?
Seneca challenges us to “look upward, to transcend ordinary life at ground level, to reach for cosmic consciousness.” Allow your soul to take flight, metaphorically of course, and envision the world and events around you as if from above. According to the Stoics, the perspective you achieve from that cosmic viewpoint will change your life.
 Williams, G. D. (2012). The cosmic viewpoint: A study of Seneca’s Natural questions. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 11
 Hadot, P. (2002) What is Ancient Philosophy? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 136
 Williams (2012). p. 11