'The Grey Garden: On the Stoic Use of Material Goods' by Sherman J. Clark

The Grey Garden: On the Stoic Use of Material Goods

by Sherman J. Clark

As here. Sourced here.
Sourced here.

Imagine that you live with many others in a dreary grey garden surrounded by a high stone wall. You and the others live there permanently. This is your world. You know or suspect that there is larger world outside your wall; but since you can never leave the garden, pragmatic members of your community do not give it much thought.

Fortunately, the drab dullness of your world is relieved by the presence of many brightly-painted wooded boxes. Some are blue, some red, some with elaborate multi-colored patterns. Naturally, these bright boxes have become objects of desire in the grey garden. People compete for them, display them, measure status by their accumulation, and become experts on the relative aesthetic merits of differently-colored boxes.

You do not have much interest in brightly-colored boxes, really; but since they seem to be the best or only thing going, you stave off melancholy by trying to get in the spirit. Why be a wet blanket? Perhaps you call them “preferred indifferents” and try to take whatever pale hollow pleasure can come from bright empty things. Besides, that is how people reckon success in your world; and no one wants to be a failure. Perhaps you are able even to develop or display some worthwhile virtues through how carefully or cleverly you collect and arrange your boxes—much as Epictetus suggested one can make use of an otherwise-pointless game of ball. You remain aware, however, that they are still just empty boxes; and you wish there were something more. Your grim and walled-in world seems to you “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable.” But you are a modern Stoic pragmatist, not a moody Danish prince; so you carry on, finding what meaning and pleasure you can in your grey garden and its bright boxes.

Then you discover something. If you carry two or three boxes—any two or three—over by the garden wall and stack them on each other, you can stand on them. And if you stand on them, you can see over the wall. And what you see there takes your breath away.

Much more beautiful. Sourced here.
Sourced here.

Over the wall you see an astonishing world of rich complexity and beauty, next to which your painted boxes pale in comparison. The sight of that remarkable larger world fills you with the deep and deeply-human pleasure of awareness and understanding. New and wonderful things are revealed to you every day, offering a rich and never-ending spectacle of layered depth and order. And you begin to appreciate as well how your small grey garden fits into the larger world and is part of an exquisite pattern—beyond your ken, but beautiful. You know you will never see or comprehend all of it—and that you will thus never grow weary of what you see.

You no longer need to stave off melancholy. And you certainly no longer care about or even give a thought to the rewards or honors that your world offers to those who collect the most or brightest boxes. All you want or need are a few sturdy ones, any color will do, because you now know what they are good for—what even empty things can sometimes help you see.

Sherman J. Clark is a Professor of Law at The University of Michigan Law School

7 thoughts on “'The Grey Garden: On the Stoic Use of Material Goods' by Sherman J. Clark”

  1. Thank you for a beautiful piece. For me it represents the ability we have within ourselves to transcend our sometimes mundane and possibly painful lives by reaching upwards to a higher level. I see the beautiful garden as not being beyond the wall next door to my grey garden, but on the top storey of my psyche, a spiritual place where seeds of truth and beauty grow and bloom. So perhaps I am thinking in a similar way to you Sayalee.

  2. This is a beautiful allegory. I’m not feeling particularly bright this morning, so I want to break this down: the way I see it, the grey garden could be our homes, or cities, or our planet, basically any place or situation, we can’t see a way out of. This could also be a marriage that one perceives as being dull and boring, or a job that is perhaps not very thrilling. The colored boxes are all the commonly desired things, such as an attractive and suitable spouse, money (of course!), trophy kids, cars, country houses and so on. Basically, all of those things we pursue to keep up with the Joneses. But in the end, the things that are to bring us deep satisfaction lie beyond the acquisition of these material goods, beyond merely stacking up the colored boxes. So far, so good.

    What troubles is the location of the ‘astonishing world of rich complexity and beauty’. I don’t like that it is lies some place beyond the grey garden. I like to think that there is a deep well of happiness within us, and we need to look inside to find it. If we search long and hard enough, we will being to find joy in the day-to-day, in the people who are around to be loved, no matter how imperfect they might be. I feel this is the goal. Gazing out into a far away ideal might cause us to divest from our little grey garden; to me the goal is to turn our grey gardens into places of rich diversity and happiness.

    I would love to hear different interpretations from other readers.

    1. Good point Sayalee. Very thoughtful observation.

      My little parable might suggest that we must turn our backs on our world, perhaps even on our friends and neighbors, in order to see and appreciate the deep beauty. But perhaps it would be better if we could find this beauty in our own world—perhaps in even the smallest things (Blake’s grain of sand), or (as you so nicely put it) in the people who are here to be loved.

      Beyond that, of course, you might challenge the premise—the idea that deep human thriving lies largely in seeing and appreciating beauty and order, wherever one might look for it. Instead, you might say that eudaimonia consists rather in loving and being loved.

      What do you think? Is our best and truest human function to learn and appreciate the beauty and order of the world? Or is it to experience love and friendship?

      How about both? Maybe the two necessarily go together? In which case perhaps the best and happiest and most authentically-human way to live—and thus the best way to use otherwise-meaningless material stuff—would be to use it learning together with friends.

      I think Socrates would be OK with that.

      1. Thanks very much for your reply. I agree with you that “deep human thriving lies largely in seeing and appreciating beauty and order” but I would also extend that to people. And perhaps, searching for and finding beauty in people who we encounter in our lives is not very different from loving them.

        Thus, eudaimonia, to me, is to find and appreciate beauty, in both ideas and people.

        For instance, I am a PhD student and I find I keep having to “fall in love” with my topic, over and over again, so that it doesn’t become stale and boring. I also find I have to do the same thing with the people in my life. I could change my topic (or my friends), but I know I will encounter the same problem, so might as well stick with this one and improve my ability to fall in love. This seems, to me, to be a more reliable method of feeling happiness.

        The colored boxes are the real problem. They are shiny and they distract you and tempt you. You end up chasing them and find out that they aren’t that beautiful after all, and haven’t really made you happy. Sometimes it is hard to even identify them!

  3. This post encompasses the need to accept whatever life throws at us. It is up to use to decide on how we judge external events. Happiness is a choice. We can remain positive in the face of adversity.

    EyjĂłlfur K. Emilsson said, “a life, once happy, does not become any happier by lasting longer”.

    In other words: we don’t need long or indefinite lives to be content.

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