Stoic Lessons from the Lower Wisconsin River by Charles Rathmann and Kai Whiting

Stoicism’s founder, Zeno of Citium, called us to living according to nature, that is to say in harmony with ourselves and the world around us. Stoic philosopher Posidonius was a polymath and scientist who taught that a study of the natural world helps us understand the Divine Logos—the unitary harmonious force of reason that the ancient Stoics believed governed our lives. He noted that Divine essence is apparent in every blade of grass, the notes a bird sings and movement of the celestial bodies. It is the same essence that provides adult humans with the capacity for reason, causes us to have an affinity for virtue and recoil from vice (see Arius Didymus Epitome of Stoic Ethics, 5d).

While Posodonius was certainly an academic, a great deal of his study was spent out in nature observing the world around him, as Kai and his co-author Leonidas Konstantakos state in Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In.

His thirst for knowledge led him to search far and wide for answers. Posidonius’ desire to intimately understand God’s essence launched him on a trailblazing journey that left no stone unturned. During one fact-finding mission, the people of Gaul gave him detailed insights into the movements of the celestial bodies and the tides. They also shared with him their beautiful recitals and introduced him to their priestly caste, the Druids, who enjoyed discussing investigations into natural causes, physical phenomena, and the makings of the soul.

A River Teaches Virtue

Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic philosopher, who greatly influenced Stoicism, wrote that we never step in the same river twice. In Being Better, Kai and Leonidas explain this in the following manner:

When you first step into a river, you are confronted with flowing waters. This means that when you stop into the river a second time, the waters you meet are entirely different, and therefore you are not, in fact, stepping into the same river. This is true even if you stand in the same spot.

As an ardent outdoorsman, living on the banks of the Lower Wisconsin River, I can certainly see why Heraclitus wrote what he did and why Posidonius dedicated a great deal of his life to studying nature, in order that he might progress towards virtue. The 92 miles of the wild Lower Wisconsin river offer me a path to eudaimonia and impart daily instruction in the Stoic virtues of wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. The river gives me an opportunity to progress towards virtue every time I venture out to pursue channel catfish, smallmouth, sturgeon, and its tributaries do the same as I traverse them after German brown trout.

On the Lower Wisconsin, more than the water changes from one day to the next. The river bottom changes daily, as the current pushes the sand bottom into sand bars that appear, disappear and move constantly. Water levels and flow rates also fluctuate. If water is low, you run the risk of being stranded on a sand bar miles from help. If water is high, you are subject to powerful currents that can overpower a watercraft or threaten the life of anyone who falls in. By virtue of its uncontrolled nature, the river offers lessons in the virtues of wisdom and moderation. If I overestimate my abilities in high water, I could, for example, find myself unable to hold anchor or be struck by floating or submerged debris which can damage or capsize my boat.  In low water, my ability to read the water for the breakline between navigable water and a sandbar may prove inadequate, leaving me stuck in an inch of water. Sometimes, wisdom dictates that I don’t go fishing. It’s not courageous to run unnecessary risks, particularly those that could be avoided by recognizing the limits of one’s abilities. As Seneca wrote in On Tranquility of Mind, 5.2:

Above all, it is necessary for a person to have a true self-estimate, for we commonly think we can do more than we really can.

In this way, like a mountain or the ocean, the river tests our skill, our prudence, and our resolve in ways an environment made for human convenience, like a river that is dammed and dredged for navigation, will not.  Even in ideal conditions for instance, the lower Wisconsin river will punish the self-indulgent speedster. Hitting a submerged stump or other hard obstruction at high speed will throw the occupants from a boat. Prudence dictates that we proceed with respectful caution. Of course, anyone attempting to run a power boat at full throttle on the river may briefly enjoy the pleasure of wind in their hair, but may soon wish they had recalled the words of Seneca in Letter 83:

Pleasures, when they go beyond a certain limit, are but punishments.

A Lesson in Prudence

The Lower Wisconsin taught me the value of prudence on one warm summer night when I was fishing on my 16-foot aluminum powerboat. As the sun set, I was anchored over a deep hole when I hooked a large channel catfish. In the failing light, I felt the line snag on something, so I jiggled and pulled until I was able to free the line and net the fish. For a brief moment, I was rather pleased with myself. However, I wasn’t aware until I pulled the anchor and attempted to head home that I realized my line had been caught on my oil dipstick, which I had unwittingly dislodged. This mistake caused my engine oil to drain out into the river and the engine became inoperable! I thought I was prepared as I had a back-up system, so I smugly lowered my electric trolling motor into the water.

Foolishly, I had underestimated the river’s strength and over-estimated my degree of control over the situation. The trolling motor was nowhere near powerful enough to cut upstream or even across stream. In the end, even though I could see the lights of my house, I had to call the emergency services and wait in the dark for the rescue boat to come tow me in. More experienced people later told me that they would never have attempted to navigate the river at night. In ignorance, I had put myself in danger, and caused the rescue personnel to launch and navigate through treacherous waters. Pleasure should never outweigh prudence.

Prudence, or practical wisdom, is a critical virtue at all times, but in a man-made environment guardrails, safety covers on machinery crosswalks and other contrivances prevent our foolishness from hurting us. The river, however, requires wisdom.

And wisdom, in turn, has been granted to us for the examination of what? Of what is good, and what is bad, and what is neither the one nor the other. What is wisdom itself, then? A good thing. And foolishness? A bad thing. You can thus see that wisdom can necessarily take itself, and likewise its opposite, as an object of examination. For that reason, the most important task of a philosopher, and his first task, is to test out impressions and distinguish between them, and not to accept any impression unless it has been duly tested. Epictetus, Discourses, 1.20.6-7.

Knowing how to navigate a river appropriately requires that we distinguish what is wise from what is foolish. A river imparts lessons whether we choose to heed them or not. Often the river will keep repeating the same lessons over and over again, so it is advantageous to pay attention and capture the tips we are offered. This is especially the case if we value getting things right, and, eventually, hope to achieve a level of mastery. Every time we are back on the river we are given the opportunity to test the accuracy of our impressions and sharpen our discernment as to what is good, what is bad, when we hit the mark and when we missed it.

As reflected upon in the opening stanzas of the Enchiridion by Epictetus, the river is not in our control but how we approach, respond and respect it is. While we are out on our boat, we become aware that there are aspects of the trip we control and aspects we do not. We cannot control how the boat responds to everything that it brushes past or rides over. For example, while the accidental beaching on a sandbar may be unavoidable, we can make sure we avoid unnecessary equipment, and consider the number of passengers carefully as a lighter boat is easier to push off a sandbar than a heavier one. Likewise, we may not be able to avoid losing our anchor to an underwater snag, but we can bring a spare anchor.

 

Lessons in Stoic Cosmopolitanism

The Lower Wisconsin river also provides me with regular opportunities to offer aid and assistance to others when they need it, especially during summer weekends when the river is teeming with humanity. On every such occasion I can take the advice of Hierocles, the Stoic philosopher who taught that we should seek to pull strangers, foreigners everyone, closer to us, in terms of the concern we have for their well-being. As Kai and Leonidas outline in Being Better:

Hierocles stressed the idea that we should aim to draw the circles of concern inward, thus bringing the whole of humanity closer to our sense of self until we are able to recognize ourselves in all of humanity and all of humanity in ourselves.

There are certainly a lot of people I end up caring for during the warmer Wisconsin months, which sees several large canoe and kayak liveries rent craft out to tourists taking day trips or camping overnight on the sandbar islands that dot the riverway. It is wonderful to share the river with them. However, at the same time, thousands of them are inexperienced paddlers who do not know the dangers of this deceptively difficult river. During the peak periods, my wife and I regularly check the local police scanner Facebook page to see if anyone is in trouble. We have helped those stranded by disabled craft. We have loaned our one canoe to strangers whose own canoe floated away as water levels rose overnight with our only assurance being that they promised to bring it back.

Of course, a cosmopolitan heart does not need an emergency to step up and help another. A month or so before the pandemic hit, I met Len Harris, a long-retired trout fishing guide and sheriff’s deputy. Retired or not, he has been delighted to share with me (and countless others in the community) fishing tips and techniques along with local knowledge. It is with a generous heart, rather than a guide’s fee, that he teaches me nuggets of wisdom like: “Remember—the wind is coming from your right, so cast a bit into it.” “Now right tight to the base of that bluff—yes—that cast will be a fish.” “See that little feeder creek? That sends warmer water into the stream and they will hang there.”

When others pull us closer into their circles, we are inspired to do the same. My experience with Len moved me to take others to special fishing spots and equip them with the techniques he has passed onto me. There is a joy that comes with sharing and in seeing the wonder on a novice’s face as they lower a trout they have caught gently back in the water, so it can continue to live according to its own nature. Whether we help each other in an emergency or through sharing the finer things, we do our part to create a world worth living in.

 

Connected to a Single Logos by Nature

The river expands our circles of concern not just to other humans but to the animals and plants that live alongside us. This is captured in the expansion of the Hierocles’ Circles of Concern published by Kai and Leonidas’ in Being Better. Their version adds the “environment”. Just as we are part of a whole community of humans, humans are a part of a whole biotic community. In turn, the people in our circles of concern are dependent on the environment, and we should recognize and behave in appreciation of this interdependence.

The lower Wisconsin river presents me with many opportunities to support it and the biotic communities it gives life to. One way that I give back to the river is by volunteering with the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway (FLOW). The FLOW science committee of retired fisheries biologists from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources works to mitigate environmental problems by identifying and seeking conservation easements to control polluted runoff issues. It has also completed a successful effort to protect the starhead topminnow from agricultural runoff and invasives.

As a FLOW volunteer, I have girdled invasive European poplar trees, brought by European settlers to plant as wind breaks, in the Blue River Sand Barrens State Natural Area. Our intervention gives the existing rare species like June grass, rough blazing-star, hoary puccoon, sand cress and prickly pear cactus, which would otherwise disappear from the landscape, a chance to thrive. We knock back the jack pines too, usually in the winter, and we are grateful for the warmth they provide from the burn pile as we work. With both initiatives, I am doing my part to mitigate humankind’s encroachment on the environment, and attempting to align myself with the Divine, something I believe is achieved when we are concerned about the health and stability of our biotic community and care for it rather than yield to greed or desires for comfort and convenience. As we experience an interconnectedness with the natural world around us, it has implications not just for our ethical decisions towards each other and the environment, but also helps us to better appreciate and understand our limited role in the cosmos. When I am standing on the banks of the lower Wisconsin river, I can hear the whispers of the logos that were echoed by Marcus Aurelius when he wrote:

Be mindful at all times of the following: the nature of the whole universe, the nature of the part that is me, the relation of the one to the other, the one so vast, the other so small. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.9

 

Charles Rathmann works in technology and industrial marketing for Oracle solutions provider Inoapps from his home on the Lower Wisconsin River. He serves on the Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway Board, reads and writes widely, plays guitar and explores the mysteries of his home watershed and its environs.

Kai Whiting is a co-author of Being Better: Stoicism for a World Worth Living In. He is a researcher and lecturer in sustainability and Stoicism based at UCLouvain, Belgium. He Tweets @kaiwhiting and blogs over at StoicKai.com

 

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