Here we are at last — the final day of Stoic Week 2014! The assigned theme for this last day is The View From Above (which I take to mean that we are now contemplating our place in the whole marvelous system of the universe and/or — as the organizers would have it — “in the wider community of humankind”).
It’s been an interesting week, although I haven’t always been especially good at living Stoically. One notable benefit I know I’ve gained from the attempt: While I do assign Epictetus in my introductory Ethics class, my ruminations of this week have made me realize now that I’ve never really spent enough time with my students on thinking through the implications of Stoic discipline and Stoic philosophical views for social justice work. I think there’s both risk and reward to be found here, and I’m going to have to spend some time figuring out some good ways to work on it in class.
The morning text for reflection today is relevant to that realization:
The works of the gods are full of providence, and the works of fortune are not separate from nature or the interweaving and intertwining of the things governed by providence. Everything flows from there. Further factors are necessity and the benefit of the whole universe, of which you are a part. What is brought by the nature of the whole and what maintains that nature is good for each part of nature. Just as the changes in the elements maintain the universe so too do the changes in the compounds. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.3)
One thing that fascinates me about this quotation is the material around it in Book 2 of the Meditations. Marucs Aurelius is here very clearly trying to remind himself of something. This passage, in context, is less a claim about the universe and more of an exhortation (for writer and for reader) to grasp the significance of one’s place as a component in a whole system.
While it is typically read as a reminder to expand our priorities beyond the merely individual, it may also be understood (for the social justice-minded Stoic-inclined person) as a reminder that one’s activism needn’t be grand in scale to be good. While a single person’s kindness may not, in itself, improve the entire system in which she exists, that kindness is nonetheless significant as a component of that system. One person’s refusal to be complicit in an injustice may not, in itself, eliminate that injustice — but it is still a point of relevant resistance. I cannot save the world, but this thing right here, this I can do (and this I ought to do).
If it is my rule to confine myself to the things that are within my power, that’s actually a very important thing. I cannot do everything, but I can do this thing.