The Stoics enjoined their pupils to live according to nature. The dictum, in essence, says that metaphysics is the way of ethics. If my way of my life is not in harmony with the way of the world, then I shall be overcome with strife, believing either in the power of my will to crush and bend back, in the crushing power of nature to lash and destroy, or in the demonic mystery of all things unintelligible to the last. For the Stoics, by contrast, an ever-present awareness that reality was fated to be as it was and could not be otherwise entailed what Nietzsche would later call amor fati.
I must love fate, thought the Stoics, for when I do so then I am free. To illustrate this conception of freedom, they related the story of two men. One man, seeking to pull himself away, gets dragged along by fate. The other man, because he follows the way of fate, is tranquil. But how could this be? It is because he desires nothing except what comes to pass. The thought, which owes to Epictetus, is even more rigorous. It is that for the one who desires that which comes to pass that it come to pass, for him there comes freedom.
For us, this fatalistic metaphysical vision is not reconcilable with the structure and frame of the modern world. As a result, ethics and metaphysics, the way of the self and the way of the world, have become severed, with the result that how I lead my life seems to bear no relation to however reality is cut up. For how could reality being made up of atoms or DNA or whatever figure into my understanding of myself in anything more than a highly intellectualist manner? It would seem that reality is whatever the best science says it is and that ethics is either the maximization of my preferences (utilitarianism), the fulfillment of my duties (Kantian deontology), or the satisfaction of my desires (hedonism).
This could be no more wrong. As it happens, the results of my life being understood in one set of terms and ultimate reality being rendered in some other set of terms displays a strong “vitalist” recoil and bears profound marks on our practices. In the rawest existential sense, on the coldest days I may feel quite alone and unable to find anything I can lean on. For me, life seems without ultimate support, akin to floating or falling, an experience one philosopher named “metaphysical horror.” Yet might we make amends? If so, how would we compensate for this cosmic cleavage?
One approach would be to elucidate a conception of a “lived logic.” One on level, we might imagine an individual’s life unfolding according to the trying out of an array of background options given to him. Suppose, for example, that P comes from a well-to-do family in which being a banker, a lawyer, or a doctor is immediately given as a final end. Then, attending an elite college is also a given, as is attending elite K-12 schools, and so on. Of course, it it up to P to perform well on the tests placed before him; of course, P’s parents will arrange to have the best test prep tutors, and of course there will be any number of scenarios from which P can select as his life unfolds. And yet, unless P becomes a wanton or a prodigal, a peddler or a pimp–ideas that, on P’s understanding, are scarcely conceivable, “options” that have been ruled out from the start–there will remain a basic sense in which P’s life is also structured according to a lived logic. Relative to this lived logic, anything else is unthinkable and doubtless unendurable.
Suppose, years later, P has indeed become a banker. It would be quite natural for us, who have, all the while, been looking on like gods watching a comedy of errors, to show P how it came to pass that becoming a banker was “in the cards.” It is only now that P is ready for philosophy, only now is he prepared to see that he may not be satisfied with the shape of his life. From one vantage point, in any case, it could be said that P chose to become a banker, and that might not be entirely untrue. From another vantage point, however, there is a lucid logic–one stepping stone here leading to another one there, a kind of following the way set out before him that would have required dragging his heels like a dog to avoid–that is visible as the way of working within the institutional realities given to him. From the outset, P’s life had the “mark” of near inevitability.
Once we have told him this story, the first lesson in P’s path to self-understanding would be to say to himself, “Ah, of course. Now I can see how my life would have unfolded in this way and not in some other. Given X, Y would likely follow. Given Y, then Z. Thank you, good philosopher. For now I can make much more sense of my life. It is as if the whole thing had been fated, as if my life were a drama many of whose roles I once played to the best of my ability.”
P’s education is not quite over since the first lesson would have to be supplemented by a second, an even more abstract one at that. For here we would want to show P that the history of western civilization (and we may be more modest, not wishing to go back too far depending on any number of factors) led to the birth of modern institutions, that these institutions are working just so well, that they define us in manifold ways, and that they too develop and help us flourish or degrade and diminish us according to a lived logic. That is not to say, as the Stoics would, that institutions could not have been built otherwise; clearly they could have. But it is to say that they too “opted,” as it were, under the constraints given them to follow certain paths. And we are the products of those paths.
For the those of us who have understood these two lessons, there comes self-understanding of the kind that puts us back into nature, broadly understood. Behind our backs, as it were, we have lived according to nature. Recognizing that our lives unfolded as if they could not have, so far, been otherwise is thereby freeing. It is a gift which, supposing it could speak, would say, “Knowing thyself is, once again, in line with knowing the modern world. You see both at once, you see yourself in and through all this at once. Be grateful. Be humble and grateful.”
With these two lessons, both of which are at the heart of my way of practicing philosophy, I am doing no more than explicating the good book of Hegel:
Hegel thought [I wrote elsewhere] that in order to know ourselves we had to learn how we fit into the order of things. The story of a individual’s life, he says, is the story of a civilization. But you can’t just skip to the ending even though most of your life has been and may well be spent out of sorts. Have patience. Keep going. Because your story and mine are one, because yours and mine are ours. But to see this, you’ll have to live the whole story through but then once you’ve done this you’ll find yourself at home with yourself, with me, and with all that is and was.
These are not the final lessons, only the first two. Let’s sit and be patient, for we have much to learn. For now, let’s listen to the birdsong and sing the morning hymn.
Thanks to Allie Stewart who, during a recent conversation, said that her perspective on life shifted once she changed the question from “What’s wrong with P?” to “What’s wrong with the world?” I would only modify the latter slightly to read: “What’s wrong with the world is reflected in what’s wrong with P, and vice versa.” Thanks also to Antonio Dias for a lovely conversation yesterday whose leitmotiv was the symmetry of self-integration and world-integration. And thanks finally to many conversation partners in my philosophy practice without whom I would not have been able to work out my current understanding of “lived logic.” Thinking well together is the blessing of friendship and a reminder of wholeness.