Friday, December 27, 2019

Notes and What I Learned From: Philosophy as a Way of Life - the essay "The View from Above"

The philosophical and spiritual exercise of "the View from Above" is one that places the proper perspective of the individual in time and space.  Whereas the last exercise discussed, intensely focuses on "the now", the "View from Above" opens up the rest of the cosmos to the individual and invites him to view his problems, stresses, fears, anxiety and desires in that grand, mind-numbing context.  When petty things are viewed in the context of the vastness of time and space, they seem insignificant and facilitate the proper response to these emotions, feelings and desires.

The View from Above is not necessarily linked to physical flight

This spiritual exercise firstly, was about the power of thought and imagination.  It is "a specific conception of the power of thought and the divine nature of the soul, which is able to raise itself above the categories of space and time" (p. 240).

The ancients also viewed this spiritual exercise under even more specific and intense circumstances.  "it was something that could only be experienced under extraordinary circumstances: in particular, it came about as a consequence of the separation of the soul from the body" (p. 240).

Hadot then discussed two circumstances where the soul and the body are separated.  In Plato's Phaedrus we learn "prior to [the soul's] incarnation in a terrestrial body, the soul is thus able to rise up to the outermost limits of the heavens, and follow the procession of the winged chariots of the gods" (p. 240).  Later, when the soul and body are separated from death, "the soul can contemplate the supracelestial world of eternal forms, as it did in its previous life, before its fall into the corporeal world" (p. 240).

"Plutarch, in his essay On the Delays of Divine Vengeance, recounts the experiences of a certain Thespesius of Soloi, who had also been left for dead:
He saw nothing like what he had seen before: the stars were enormously large, and immeasurably far from one another, and they shone forth with a light of great force and marvelous colours, so that the soul, gently and lightly transported by this light like a ship on a calm sea, could quickly move to wherever it wished. (p. 241)
As has been discussed before, philosophy is nothing other than training for death.  Plato, therefore states:
Shall we not say that purification occurs ... when man separates the soul as much as possible from the body, and accustoms it to gather itself together from every part of the body and concentrate itself until it is completely independent, and to have its dwelling, so far as it can, both now and in the future, alone and by itself, freed from the shackles of the body?
And in this process of gathering itself together, the soul looks down from above and "holds all this to be puny and meaningless, [and the soul] contemptuously wanders all over the place" (p. 241)

"In the Republic, Plato expresses the view that greatness of soul consists in precisely such an attitude: 'For smallness is particularly contrary to the soul which always strives after the complete and perfect, both divine and human.' Such a soul, capable of observing the totality of space and time, has no fear even of death" (p. 242).

The Goal of Practicing the View from Above

Hadot reiterates that the goal of this exercise - the View from Above - is "to help people free themselves from the desires and passions."  Furthermore, "the goal of philosophy was to eliminate them, so that the individual might come to see things as nature herself sees them, and consequently desire nothing other than that which is natural" (p. 242).  The exercise also attempts to "raise up mankind from individuality and particularity to universality and objectivity" (p. 242).

Let me restate that: the goal of practicing the View from Above is to help you eliminate desires and passions and to help you see things universally and to be objective in your assents.  Specifically for the Stoic, this exercise puts "oneself in accord with universal reason, the all-embracing Logos, both interior and exterior" (p. 242).

Consider this passage from Philo of Alexandria (p. 243-244):
As their goal is a life of peace and serenity, they contemplate nature and everything found within her: they attentively explore the earth, the sea, the air, the sky, and every nature found therein.  In thought, they accompany the moon, the sun, and the rotations of the other stars, whether fixed or wandering.  Their bodies remain on earth, but they give wings to their souls, so that, rising into the ether, they may observe the powers which dwell there, as is fitting for those who have truly become citizens of the world.
Marcus Aurelius similarly admonished himself to take the same flight: "Further, the rational soul traverses the whole universe and its surrounding void, explores the shape of it, stretches into the infinity of time, encompasses and comprehends the periodic regeneration of the Whole. It reflects that our successors will see nothing new, just as our predecessors saw nothing more than we do: such is the sameness of things, a man of forty with any understanding whatsoever has in a sense seen all the past and all the future." (Meditations 11.1.2)

And in another passage he wrote, "Observe the movement of the stars as if you were running their courses with them, and let your mind constantly dwell on the changes of the elements into each other. Such imaginings wash away the filth of life on the ground.  Further, when your talk is about mankind, view earthly things as if looking down on them from some point high above flocks, armies, farms, weddings, divorces, births, deaths, the hubbub of the law-courts, desert places, various foreign nations, festivals, funerals, markets; all the medley of the world and the ordered conjunction of opposites." (Meditations 7.47)

As stated in the previous passage from Marcus, this spiritual exercise also reminds us of the squalor of mankind; and the view invites us to rise above all this mess and to leave it behind.  "In Ovid's Metamorphoses, we find a Neo-Pythagorean version of the theme: 'It is a delight to travel along the starry firmament and, leaving the earth and its dull regions behind, to ride on the clouds, to stand upon stout Atlas' shoulders and see, far below, men wandering aimlessly, devoid of reason, anxious and in fear of the hereafter, thus to exhort them and unroll the book of fate!'" (p. 245).

Hadot states, "The view from above thus lead us to consider the whole of human reality, in all its social, geographical, and emotional aspects, as an anonymous swarming mass, and it teaches us to relocate human existence within the immeasurable dimensions of the cosmos.  Everything that does not depend on us, which the Stoics call indifferent - such as health, fame, wealth and even death - is reduced to its true dimensions when considered from the point of view of the nature of the all" (p. 245)

Hadot also quotes Lucian from his Charon, or the Inspectors.  "Charon remarks: 'If only humans could get it straight from the beginning: that they're going to die; that, after a brief stay in life, they have to depart from this life like a dream and leave everything on earth behind, then they'd live more wisely and die with fewer regrets.'" (p. 246)

Ad Astra

A popular film was released last year, starring Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones.  In Ad Astra, (spoiler alert), the protagonist played by Brad Pitt, is summoned to a mission to send a message to his father, played by Tommy Lee Jones.  Jones' character has been on a space voyage beyond Neptune, to discover life beyond our solar system.  But the space station has been sending electrical pulses back to earth, causing major electrical disruptions and death.  This is the catalyst to send Pitt's character to make contact with his father to fix the problem.  The theory is that the father has gone rogue.

We watch the journey of Pitt's character, as he leaves earth, to travel to the moon and then to Mars.  On his voyage, we learn he has experienced regret and he wonders if he is simply running from his problems on earth.  He notes that the same discord, jealousies and animosities on earth, have followed humankind to the moon and to Mars.

After some daring maneuvers, Pitt's character meets his father on the space station near Neptune.  It would seem his father too, has been running from internal problems, in his frantic search to discover life beyond the solar system.  But alas, after thousands of scans and pictures of exoplanets and systems, he's concluded there is no life beyond the stars.  His failure has exacerbated his internal, philosophical failures as well.

Pitt's character realizes that the most amazing journey in the universe is the one to be found internally and with other people on earth.  The ending scene is him meeting an estranged wife in a coffee shop.

I think the film is very fitting in the context of the spiritual exercise of the view from above.  We don't have to travel to Neptune to get away from our problems.  We can take a mental flight, to put our problems in context, but we can remain on earth to confront and deal with the now.  We have been equipped with all that we need to lead a life of equanimity.

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