Stoic Gratitude & Wonder
Introduction: Each essay at Mark Garvey’s blog, Old Answers, begins with a brief Q&A, in which an ancient philosopher responds to a query from a (typically vexed) modern-day seeker.
Q: “When I was young, I was interested in everything, and the world was full of wonder. But adulthood has worn me down. With each passing day I feel more like Oscar Wilde’s paradigmatic cynic: ‘A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.’ This change in attitude happened while I wasn’t looking, and I’m not happy about it. The only people I know who seem unjaded and reasonably content with their lot are religious believers, but the faith of my youth seems to have flown the coop. I’m bone-weary of the snark and cynicism that pass for social intercourse these days, especially on the internet. How can I take a step back, get a fresh view, and rekindle wonder in my life?”
A: “Any one thing in the creation is sufficient to demonstrate a Providence, to a humble and grateful mind. Not to instance great things, the mere possibility of producing milk from grass, cheese from milk, and wool from skins–who formed and planned this? No one, say you. O surprising irreverence and dullness!”
-Epictetus, AD c. 55 – 135, Discourses, Bk 1, ch 16
Epictetus raises so many currently unfashionable ideas here—God (Providence), humility, reverence—that it’s hard to know where to begin. For secular moderns, his expression of wonder at the seemingly miraculous origins of milk, cheese, and wool can easily provoke a smile of condescension, perhaps even a sneer. The primitive naïveté! What can such a man–bound by the limits of first-century cosmology, ignorant of today’s materialist, scientistic gospel and the “blind” inexorability of natural selection—have to offer that could be of any use to iPhone-Age Man?
We can’t read far in Epictetus without recognizing his belief in God. It’s also impossible to imagine a topic in current culture that has been so thoroughly mangled, misrepresented, and misunderstood. “The God question,” mankind’s inherent itch to grapple with the ultimate mystery of existence, has, in recent years, played out on the internet, and in the publishing world, with all the subtleness and intellectual acuity of a Three Stooges pie fight. In the process, humanity’s most complex, fertile, culture-shaping force—rich in wisdom traditions, creative arts, ethical thought, and psychological insight, and, for many, positively crackling with intimations of the transcendent—has been reduced to a tiresome shouting match, with doctrinaire literalists on one side and scorched-earth anti-theists on the other. To call this state of affairs regrettable doesn’t begin to cover it.
I’m happy with Epictetus’s theistic leanings. But whether or not we believe in God, it’s important to guard against the occasional impulse, when we’re sifting these ancient ideas, to toss out both baby and bathwater. History is replete with philosophies and belief systems that, despite arguable doctrinal details, have provided wisdom and ethical guidance to men and women in every era and culture and at
every point along the IQ bell curve. If you’re one who finds God talk troubling, all you need to muster, in order to benefit from Epictetus’s advice here, is some level of appreciation for finding yourself alive in a cosmos you did not create and in which you are given, along with your share of trouble and strife, bountiful opportunities for wonder and joy. If Epictetus, a crippled former slave who lived under some of Imperial Rome’s most treacherous rulers, found cause for, and wisdom in, adopting a fundamental position of humility and gratitude toward the universe, there is every chance that we, too, can benefit by embracing these attitudes.
Humility is a tricky subject, if only because it’s impossible not to sound laughably pompous when recommending it. Look here, you: Be humble! But that’s not it. We’re not talking about personal humility of the kind that can be so treacherous if pursued head-on, the sort that easily warps into conspicuous, Uriah Heepish self-abasement that’s the opposite of what it pretends to be. No, we’re after a broader, more foundational humility, a mindset that grasps our status as utterly dependent beings and that has absorbed, fully, the fact of our mortality. We want a humility not of groveling self-negation, but a clear-eyed recognition that every moment of our existence, as well as everything we have and are, is a gift. The mortality-humility connection is a natural one, and it is even reflected etymologically: Our word humility derives from the Latin humus, for soil or earth—that ground from which humankind arose, from which we draw our sustenance, and that will ultimately reclaim our bodies. We needn’t take it to morbid lengths, but occasional reflection on life’s contingency and brevity can provide a humbling perspective, one that can be both calming and a spur to greater engagement with life in the time left to us:
Pass then through this tiny span of time in accordance with Nature, and come to your journey’s end with a good grace, just as an olive falls when it is fully ripe, praising the earth that bore it and grateful to the tree that gave it growth.
-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.48. C. R. Haines, translator
Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.
-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.56. Gregory Hays, translator
Through humility then–the acceptance of life as an unearned gift–we arrive at gratitude. One of the simplest and most ready-to-hand balms for a muddled life is the age-old remedy of counting our blessings. Granted, life’s bright spots can sometimes be hard to recognize, obscured as they often are by our day-to-day difficulties, by the usual dire headlines, and by the ongoing challenge of keeping our minds clear and our thinking straight. But when we can manage it, when the clouds part long enough to give us an objective glimpse of all we have to be thankful for, our gratitude can prove a strong antidote to the corrosive effects of cynicism, anger, sadness, and life’s accruing jumble of petty disappointments. And by reminding us of the often-unrecognized abundance in our lives, it can help to temper the grasping acquisitiveness that sometimes seems to drive us, even against our will. Finally, as Epictetus suggests, gratitude can help us regain our lost sense of wonder.
This is not just Epictetus’s idea. Gratitude is a virtue that enjoys high standing among the Stoics generally. Seneca, in On Benefits, says, “He who receives a benefit with gratitude repays the first installment on his debt.” The first book of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is a poignant and grateful accounting of his indebtedness to family, friends, teachers, and others. Cicero called gratitude the greatest of the virtues, and “the mother of all the others” (Pro Plancio).
If you’re like the rest of us, bringing gratitude to the fore in your life will likely require a conscious effort. If you regularly pray, meditate, or practice some form of reflection focused on self-improvement, an easy step might be to add a minute or two to explicitly acknowledge those things, people, and events from your day for which you are particularly thankful. It’s not difficult, and once you get started, the number of good things happening in your life, even within the space of a single unremarkable day, may surprise you; they will certainly encourage you. In addition to recalling specific moments–the pleasant encounter with the shop clerk, the encouraging email from a friend, the old car that started and ran smoothly despite the bad weather–you might also remember those broader circumstances of your life that apply:
- the presence, or the happy memory, of loved ones
- a rational nature, a mind built for learning
- the ability, and the will, to rise above challenging circumstances
- good health
- meaningful work
- kindness from unexpected quarters
- a capacity for doing good
- nature: its power, beauty, and endless variety
- …and so on
Regular practice with this exercise can grow on you. If you’re the journaling type, you can keep a written record of your reflections. You might even choose to follow the example of Marcus Aurelius and write about the people in your life to whom you are most grateful for help in shaping your character, providing for your education, and encouraging your spiritual/philosophical growth. Keep these notes and reflections to yourself, though; blasting them out to the world via social networking can be a species of ego-stroking and will only sap their power. Marcus’s Meditations were not written for publication; they were a tool for self-improvement and a form of spiritual exercise.
Once you’re established on the gratitude wavelength, you can begin to notice its impact on your daily life–lengthening your patience, recalling your attention to life’s smaller pleasures, and generally improving your resilience in challenging times. Humility and gratitude may or may not lead us to faith in God, but they can go a long way toward reawakening wonder and hope in even the most jaded adult.
Copyright 2014, Mark Garvey.
More about the author: Mark Garvey is the author of Stylized (2009, Simon & Schuster), Come Together (2006, Thomson), and Searching for Mary (1998, Penguin). His articles and essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Oxford American, Writer’s Digest, and elsewhere. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and blogs at OldAnswers.com.
Now this is more like it. This is part of what Stoicism has to offer over and above a few ‘practices’ that are taken out of context. To benefit from Stoicism seek out the whole sphere of Stoic teachings.
I appreciate Mark’s distinguishing between personal humility and a more foundational humility, including the origin of the word.
Also, he makes very seamless transitions between the three areas of most controversy or pointedness in Epictetus’ answer. I especially appreciate the move, the relatedness, from humility to gratitude. It’s all connected, apparent once again.
in San Jose, California
I so agree with Rob and Nigel – this is really good stuff.
In the Question at the start of the blog the Questioner states that “The only people I know who seem unjaded and reasonably content with their lot are religious believers” – It is such a shame these days that we have to always follow the secular “No mention of God under any circumstances stance”. As you say Epictetus clearly believed in God and his teachings have provided wisdom and ethical guidance to men and women in every era and culture. As a child growing up in a Christian Family I was taught to “Count my Blessings” at the end of each day and to ask for help from “God” to help me overcome my failings to live a happy productive life. During my teenage years this habit stopped but once I had children of my own we came together at bedtime to reflect on the day what had been good and what had been bad and why. To review the good things in our lives and pray for our family and friends. Again when the children grew up and flew the nest this nightly reflection ceased.
Over the past few years I have had many challenges and I have practiced meditation & reflection to help self-improvement. I have found the Modern Stoicism week and the course earlier in the year really helpful along with many of the blogs published by Patrick each week and find they dovetail brilliantly with the Ignation Spiritual Exercises and the Benedictine Rule which have helped me so much throughout my life. I laughed whilst listening to John Sellers “Overview of Stoic Ethics” Audio when he was forced due to the “No Mention of God of Spirituality” to change the name of the Spiritual Exercises to “Theraputic Practices”. Morning and Evening Reflections!
Thank you for your kind and interesting thoughts. I am–yes–grateful.
Angela, like you I am not distressed by the more spiritual aspects of some of our favorite old philosophers–Stoics and others. A lot of it jibes with my experience and inclinations as well.
I, too, liked this essay very much. I’m going to save it to read now and then. Like the other commenters, I like how the author defines humility, distinguishing it from false modesty. It made me think of what C.S. Lewis said, that “true humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”
I do wonder if maybe I have Mr. Garvey on Facebook and didn’t realize it, and he is talking to me when he says we shouldn’t blast our meditations out on social networks. 😉 I’m guilty of occasionally doing that! I hadn’t thought of it as a form of ego-stroking but I think he is right. Better the Marcus Aurelius way.
“Better the Marcus Aurelius way.”
All is as it should be
It always was and always will be
Everything’s a gift
To be gratefully received