“Stoicism is the refuge for the individual in an indifferent or hostile world too big for him…”
In 1927 T. S. Eliot sought in an essay to explain the connection between Shakespeare and the Roman playwright and man of letters Seneca. Or rather, by pre-empting the idea that Shakespeare could be explained by Seneca, Eliot mocks the growing number of voices in literary history seeking to explain Shakespeare’s thought in terms of one thinker or another. (Recent attempts had been made to explain him in terms of Montaigne and Machiavelli).
In the midst of the essay Eliot passingly defines stoicism:
“Stoicism is the refuge for the individual in an indifferent or hostile world too big for him; it is the permanent substratum of a number of versions of cheering oneself up. Nietzsche is the most conspicuous modern instance of cheering oneself up. The stoical attitude is the reverse of Christian humility.”
“I think it quite unlikely that Shakespeare knew anything of that extraordinarily dull and uninteresting body of Seneca’s prose, which was translated by Loge and printed in 1612.”
“This is not something, however, to which mere surroundings are conducive, unless the mind is at its own disposal, able at will to provide its own seclusion even in crowded moments.”
— Seneca, Letter CIV of Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium
When our lives aren’t in order it’s very tempting to look for external explanations and external fixes.
For instance, so many of us today have the sense that we are too busy, too distracted, too rushed and hurried. We wake up feeling that way and the day only makes it worse. We can’t think properly, we can’t read properly. There’s always a demand on our time to distract us from what’s important.
So when we come across a solution we’re likely to grab at it. For instance:
An image like this makes a promise, and embedded within that promise is a cause and effect.
It says: if you have an uncluttered physical space, your mind will be uncluttered too. Or, the reverse: your mind is cluttered because your surroundings are cluttered.
Solutions like this are so compelling because they tell us directly what we should do, and promise salvation. Just declutter your house, and you’ll declutter your mind!
They’re also compelling because of their aestheticism. We are wired to enjoy and to seek beauty in our lives, and we are naturally drawn to certain aesthetics.
There is a link between our lives and our desire for a certain aesthetic—but unfortunately it may not be the link we hoped for.
We are drawn to a minimalist aesthetic because of the clutteredness of our minds. Our desire for this aesthetic is a response to dissatisfaction with our lives.
But we cannot rely upon a minimalist aesthetic to solve the problems inside our minds. The problems are internal not external. As the quote from Seneca above shows, it’s an age-old temptation to look to external solutions for internal problems (he wrote around two thousand years ago).
At best the aesthetic is a kind of band-aid. It distracts us from our problems. Ironic, since it is meant to clear our lives of distraction.
Band-aids help. So too might a minimalist aesthetic in our lives. But let’s not expect it to solve our problems.
An internal problem requires internal solutions. (I know in saying that that I’ll lose most readers right there. It’s not the “change your life right here and right now!” advice that most blogs give).
An uncluttered mind will take uncluttering our minds, not just our houses. It’s not easy. It takes practise. It might just take a lifetime.