I should begin by saying that it’s an honour to be writing to you all at the kind invitation of Harald Kavli and Gregory B. Sadler of the Modern Stoicism organisation. I have immense respect for both of these gentlemen, for I have been given the good fortune to have interviewed each of them on multiple occasions, and our conversations have always been profitable.
I’ve spent a good deal of time considering the topic that I should wrestle with in this first letter to you all, for an invitation like this is a rare treat, and one should therefore meet it with great discernment. As such, I shall endeavour to do as my teacher has often instructed me: I shall offer you goods from my own storehouse, and I shall seek to realign what is human in me with what is divine about us all; our common spark that, if fuelled appropriately, might become as a burning beacon for all mankind. And if I should aim to speak in the same spirit as the wise teachers of our past, and not merely with the same words, I must first call upon poetic insight, and say;
I. Friends, gather ‘round,
There’re stories to tell,
And lest ye now hear me,
We’ll all go to hell.
II. So sit ‘round this fire
That I’ll light with my flame,
And let us seek Heaven’s True
Riches and fame.
III. And to those who are cautious,
Or wary of style,
Gather in all the nearer—
Take heed for a while.
IV. And to those who judge harshly,
I welcome thy wrath,
For I, too, am a sick man
Seeking cure on my path.
V. And to those who judge lightly,
Now wake from thy dream!
Great treasures now lie
At the bed of this stream!
VI. So to those who now hear me
I pray for thy souls,
That we all may soon rise,
Singing praise to the Whole.
VII. And if it should be
That we all close our eyes,
And block up our ears,
And dress in disguise;
VIII. And if it should happen that
None will be saved,
And that none shall awaken
From this dream of our days;
IX. Then this fate I’ll except—
Men go down with their ships—
And we’ll all sink together
Till the spirit of our God-forsaken culture flips.
It is precisely here where I’d like to tarry awhile, for I wish to speak freely about the ailments that so fiercely beset our collective soul, or our common human culture—whichever you please.
Throughout the most recent months, I’ve spent considerable time discussing cultural matters with Sharon Lebell and Kai Whiting; two individuals who are, in my estimation, either wise or at the very least far less prone to folly than I. I feel incredibly grateful that I have this opportunity to be moulded by two individuals such as these, for they seem to complement each other in the most fantastic ways.
Sharon, on the one hand, sees beauty wherever she looks, and her capacity to deliver deep wisdom at the right moment and in the right tone never ceases to inspire me. She, more than anyone I know, understands the necessity of the unknown element, the mystery, and the adventure. In short, she is a true artist, and her canvas is life itself, and I am but a lucky portion of that canvas upon which she now paints.
Kai, on the other hand, offers an altogether more academic element to this meeting of the minds. He is rigorous in his study of Stoicism, relentless in his efforts to lift those around him who he deems to be on the right path, and courageous enough to point out folly where and when he sees it—this I have learned from bitter-sweet experience.
But what impresses me most about these two glowing souls is their shared desire to not simply regurgitate the wisdom of our ancestors, but rather to be practitioners of this wisdom. In our most recent conversation, for example, Sharon, Kai, Toma (a fellow seeker in our community) and I discussed a passage written by Ralph Waldo Emerson at the beginning of his essay Nature. Here, Emerson revealed the spirit of his time by writing;
Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?
Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?
In the conversation that followed from our having inspected this passage, we all agreed that this philosophical landscape that Emerson spoke of was not merely a time in our distant past, but is rather a recurring pattern that reveals itself in the records of culture. After all, we find echoes of this same message within the tradition of our own school. Seneca, for example, was clearly aware of the human vulnerability toward philosophical regurgitation disorder (consider that term coined);
“This is what Zeno said.” But what have you yourself said? “This is the opinion of Cleanthes.” But what is your own opinion? How long shall you march under another man’s orders? Take command, and utter some word which posterity will remember. Put forth something from your own stock.
Now before you catch me out, I should note that I’m fully aware of the inherent irony in my having just quoted Seneca telling us to say something for ourselves, but nonetheless, the point stands firm: the human condition is such that we are at all times liable to become mere readers, but never knowers; seekers, but never finders; listeners, but never hearers; lookers, but never seers. For this reason, I am now compelled to turn my gaze to our own time and place, and to ask you; do we not live in a time such as that which Emerson wrote of? And are we—students of Stoicism—not guilty of the same vice that Seneca warned us of? Look around you, my friends! We have inherited a tradition and philosophy that suggests a path to personal flourishing, or by a more popular term, enlightenment! But who among us has planted their flag at the top of this mountain? Who has known virtue? Who has communed with the gods? Who now lives in agreement with his nature, and even the nature of the Whole? Who has laid hold of their own personal freedom? Good heavens, my friends, who among us can see that we are all taking part in a metaphysical gold rush? I say, “take your pans and sift through the mud, for that which is most precious is always found in the murkiest depths!”
If my own assessment of the state of our modern philosophising is not enough to stir you to your senses, then simply take a look around you and see what has become of our human culture over the past two years. My brothers and sisters, can any of us truly say that we were surprised to see how quickly the masses could be led into the darkness? Come now, let us reason together! Was this not foretold? Did not our distant ancestors teach us that we must anticipate even the unimaginable? Did they not plant seeds of wisdom within our hearts, even that we might see clearly the path before us? My friends, our ancestors are nearer to us than we imagine, for they saw these cosmic patterns, and they communed with God, and they sought eternal knowledge, which is, in my estimation, more than one could say of us.
Yes, it is true; the masses now wander over desert sands, and we have been exiled from the luscious gardens we once tended in our souls, and we have fallen out of alignment, and this sickly state has been born of our own ignorance, and our own pride, and our own affinity for vice, and our own foolish desires that lead us only into pain, confusion, and division, both internally as well as in our families, communities, and nations. Make no mistake; the foundations of our human culture have for some time now been revealing fissures and cracks, and this foundation is now being pushed to the breaking point, and it is beginning to crumble beneath our feet amid the weight of our technological advancements and our moral failings. My friends, no matter how far our intelligence takes us, it will all have been for naught if we cannot match this intelligence with an equal or greater portion of moral wisdom.
Some of you may say, “Who are you to play the judge of our culture? Are you so sound of mind and clear of sight as to know good from evil, or right from wrong?” To this, I say first that in taking aim at the larger, I’m also taking aim at the lesser, for a culture, or a god, is, if anything, an organ in the body of THE ONE, and the cultural organ is made of people just like you and me. Therefore, we must penetrate first our own hearts, even that we might be stirred to good health, and even that our own perfecting souls might send ripples into the upper realms.
Let me reason with you again, asking, is this not the precise time and circumstance for which we have been preparing in these past years, and decades, and centuries, and millennia? Has it not been the single task of all great philosophers and theologians to discover the truth of their age, and even the truth of all ages, even that the future generations might have a rope to hold onto when the foundations beneath them turn to rubble? I beg those of you who have eyes to see, and ears to hear:
Nurture these seeds,
All ye who seek wisdom for thy harvest,
And it will be given to you,
And thou shalt pile it up in thine storehouse,
Even until it floweth over for the whole village
To partake of thy bounty.
So, brothers and sisters, it is my hope and claim that we now live in a time of providential revelation to mankind, and that this has always been the case, though we have often been blind to this fact. If as much is true, then the song I shall sing is one which calls us all to arms in the service of what is holy, what is sacred, what is good, what is pure, and what is divine. Yay, let those who seek true knowledge, even oikeiôsis, and even eudaimonia, step forward and love this fate which we have all been dealt, for the salvation mankind is in need of will not be given to thee by the gods ye now worship, and nor will it be found by the distracted traveler, and nor the prideful student.
Lo, the path to Heaven is narrow, straight, and readily accessible, but men do not perceive it, for they are cursed with wandering hearts and wayward desires, and if I were to be bold, I would even go as far as to suppose that if the Sage were to reveal the Universal Way, it would be a miracle beyond measure if we fools could see that path which the Sage revealed. This, in my estimation, is all the more reason to pursue such a knowledge.
To those who have courage, walk now with me to the frontline. But bring not thine earthly weapons, for the battle we now prepare to fight will not be fought on land, but in the heavens, and within the heart of each individual who seeks victory. Bring rather with thee the strength of thy mind, and the pow’r of thy heart, and the song of thy soul, for such weapons need not draw blood to win the most important battles.
Therefore, let us waste no more time in this vague sleepfulness that we now find ourselves in, and let us rise above these human challenges we now face, employing wisdom against folly, and virtue against vice, even that we might be listed among the heroes of our day, if not in the records of mankind, at least in the lists of the gods. When others seek division, let us seek unity of purpose and value. When others are motivated by hatred and anger, let us respond with humility and love. When others fear death and cling to their vices, let us fear folly, and let us cling to the sure path of Virtue. To those who have attained Knowledge, suffer well the fools among us who still seek, and employ tact when ye teach, for there is nothing a fool loves more than to deny truth in service of his pride, but as Marcus Aurelius showed us by example, it is the task of the teacher to find a path to the heart of the fool. And most of all, let all of our hearts set sail in the direction of Seneca’s harbour, for it is here where our exile comes to an end, and it is here where we may rest on the calm waters of eternal knowledge, inner peace, and the oneness of all wisdom.
So now, let me offer one last call to arms in this divine battle, speaking in the language that comes most naturally to the forefront of my lips, and to the tip of my pen:
I. In times of tribulation,
When the dragon’s at the gate,
When great men fall ill with folly,
And the masses are full of hate,
II. The wisest fool seeks wisdom,
And he searches high and low,
And he looks in every cave or forest
In the great below.
III. And as he nears the highest peak
Of the mountain in the centre,
The masses see him shining
As, the heavens, he doth enter.
IV. My friends, it is true
That I came for the show,
And I came for the praise,
And I came to be known.
V. But lo and behold,
Something precious I’ve found,
Hidden down deep in the
Cold winter ground,
VI. And I’ve dug, and I’ve dug
‘Till my hands start to ache,
And I’ve gathered this treasure,
An idol to make.
VII. But this idol is sacred,
For it oft points the way
T’ward the Sun, shining brightly,
At the peak of God’s day.
VIII. So seek ye this Wisdom,
And join the wise fools
Who persist in their folly
‘Till God gives them jewels.
IX. And if it should be
That Great Wisdom ye find,
Then return to this village
And share the luscious gardens of thy mind.
Simon Drew is a poet, musician, philosophical mentor, and co-host of The Walled Garden Podcast (previously The Practical Stoic). He is the author of The Poet & The Sage: A Journey Beyond the Distant Hills, and he recently launched The Walled Garden Community with Sharon Lebell and Kai Whiting.