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