I’ve just finished re-reading Sean McMullen’s Greatwinter trilogy for the severalth time.
I feel like I can only describe so much without getting into spoiler territory. It’s the far future, and a psychic Call rolls over the land in periodic waves, forcing people to drop everything and walk mindlessly toward the sea, heedless of any dangers. Ancient, orbital artificial intelligences monitor and enforce bans on certain technologies. Wind-powered trains, coded messages from beacon towers, and human-powered computing are the height of Australian technology, where librarians with flintlock pistols rule. But in North America, warlords patrol their fiefdoms in diesel fighter planes tiny enough to be permitted.
So yeah, it’s a unique setting! And the characters are full of quirks, flaws, and brilliance, and the entire trilogy is full of both farce and pathos, intrigue and action and big ideas and absurd coincidences and people being both noble and grubby, often at the same time. I love it.
Reading some peoples’ reviews, it’s clear that some people don’t get it. I think it’s like people who hated The Fifth Element — they were expecting something else.
I’m sure I will revisit it in the future and like it just as much on the Nth+1 reading.
Now I’m reading The Little Book of Stoicism and finding it a good introduction to the subject. I’ve read a couple of brief internet articles that basically get across the point that it’s not about being tough and cold and emotionless, about suffering in silence or rejecting fun. This goes into considerably more detail.
I’m seeing a lot of parallels with Taoism, and in some sense, with ma’at from Kemetic Orthodoxy.
The book summarizes Stoicism with “the Stoic Happiness Triangle” with eudaimonia at the center — harmony with your “daimon.” Not to be confused with demon — a daimon in Greek myth was a noble guiding spirit, a divine spark; to the Stoics, it was like the modern idea of “your best self.” They also described it as “nature”, as in, the ideal of how things are meant to be. In modern psychology, it’s sort of an archetypal force of individuation, of self-fulfillment. Eudaimonia was said to be “a good flow of life.”
I’m seeing some parallels here to Taoism, and a bit to Ma’at in Kemetic Orthodoxy. I don’t want to try to claim that they’re identical concepts — there do seem to be different emphases and cultural perspectives, at the very least. But in essence: there is a way that things are and should be, and a human’s life is better when they follow it.
The first of three sides of this triangle is arete, which translates as something like excellence, virtue, fulfillment. This is perhaps the active effort of eudaimonia, of being your best. The example given is of a grape seed that grows up to be a grape vine, fulfilling its nature. Humans have things like desires and misunderstandings, and we make conscious choices — so we have to make virtuous conscious choices.
Those four virtues are wisdom, temperance/self-control, courage, and the most important, justice.
The second side is “focus on what you control,” and it’s pretty much exactly the Serenity Prayer, or the book F**k It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way. The example for this is an archer. The archer is responsible for the bow, arrows, grip, stance, drawing, aiming, breathing, releasing… but once the arrow flies, the archer gives up control. If a gust of wind could spoil the shot, frustration or sorrow aren’t going to help anything. A temper tantrum is not harmonious.
Many things in life just come down to luck — and luck to a Stoic is neither good nor bad, it just is. There is no doctrine of rewards for virtue and punishment for vice; the point of virtue is eudaimonia, and the point of eudaimonia is virtue.
The third side is “take responsibility for yourself.” The archer does have to maintain his gear, develop his skill, stay focused, and so on. Virtues don’t happen on their own, they must be cultivated and must be expressed at all times.
I’m only partway through the book so far, but I’m finding some wisdom and inspiration in it, and might actually read Epictetus and/or Marcus Aurelius afterward.
I’ve personally been thinking about entropy, about maintenance vs. procrastination. Perhaps some Stoic thought will help provide the motivation to take care of myself and my home a bit better than I have so these things worry me less.