Seeing For The First Time

The essence of Stoic mindfulness, revisited

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share two emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

The Stoic philosopher, Seneca encouraged us to see things as if we were looking at them for the first time.

There’s a sense in which this captures the essence of Stoic mindfulness.

Forget your narratives, assumptions, and baggage. Look at things as they are.

Visiting a new place is often exhilarating. The new sights, sounds, and smells are seared into memory. After a few weeks, the place becomes familiar. As you extend your stay, it takes effort to recall the original wonder.

But what has changed? If the world is a joy to perceive, why does that joy fade? We experience the same process with desires. The objects and status we crave lose their enchanting power as soon as they are acquired. Once we get what we want, we want something else. Our expectations are reset.

There’s a natural tendency for humans to become unsatisfied with riches and bored with beauty. Resisting both of these dispositions requires something that only philosophy and art can provide.

I have a habit of spending a lot of time contemplating wisdom: I look at it with the same stupefaction with which, at other moments, I look at the world–this world that I have many times looked at as though I were seeing it for the first time.

Seneca, Moral Letters 64

When we shift to view reality as it is, we get a better sense of the detail of individual things and how they fit together as a whole. This is made clear in one of my favorite passages from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations:

In the process of baking bread, the loaf breaks open in some places, and although these cracks in a sense represent a failure of the baker’s art, they do somehow catch the eye and, in their own way, stimulate the desire to eat the bread.
Or again: when figs are fully ripe they split open, and in the case of ripe olives the very fact that they are on the verge of rotting gives the fruit a special kind of beauty. The same goes for ears of wheat bowing down to the ground, a lion’s wrinkled brow, a boar foaming at the mouth, and many other things.
They are hardly lovely if viewed in isolation, but they enhance the appeal of the natural phenomena of which they are concomitants, and so we find them attractive.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 3.2

Here, how things fit together reminds the Roman emperor and philosopher of their beauty. He reclaims this sense through careful contemplation of Nature.

We cannot look at the world like beginners every waking hour. But we can pay attention to it carefully. Learn about the world. Notice something new in the familiar. The world is incredibly detailed. Zoom into the details. Step back and look at how the whole fits together. Be present. See things, as they are.

🎯 Action

See one thing, as if you saw it for the first time today.

🔗 Resources

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

📗 Brittany Polat’s piece on Stoic Transcendence emphasizes the importance of perspective:

What I’ve found, in my personal efforts toward attaining virtue, is that true progress comes not from gaining more willpower, but from changing your perspective of the world. The French philosopher and historian of philosophy Pierre Hadot suggests—and my own experience agrees—that living philosophically does not merely entail a rational understanding of philosophical principles. Living philosophically also requires seeing the world in a different way. It is this new way of seeing, this inner transformation, that allows us to truly inhabit a philosophical way of life.

Brittany Polat

📚️ The translation of Marcus Aurelius used above is Robin Waterfield’s annotated edition of Meditations.

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