It’s Relationships All The Way Down


In the series of things those which follow are always aptly fitted to those which have gone before; for this series is not like a mere enumeration of disjointed things, which has only a necessary sequence, but it is a rational connection: and as all existing things are arranged together harmoniously, so the things which come into existence exhibit no mere succession, but a certain wonderful relationship.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.45

The Stoic Yin and Yang, though that’s not what any Stoic ever called it, is what this meditations is referring to; the great cosmic relationship of all things. It’s not that you came into being because your parents made you, it’s that you came into being because, in a relational framing, certain parts of the Universe fit together, in something that could appear as a design, in such a way that outcomes happen… but they aren’t outcomes, they’re steps in a dance, cogs in a machine, threads in a rope, they are all correlative—related not to a single sequence of events but to the whole of how the universe works.

We can see this in the development of the four Virtues. Early on in this podcast I described the Virtue Pavilion, as a practical way of thinking about the development of Virtue as a whole. I said that in order to have Virtue, the roof of your Virtue Pavilion, you had to first construct the pillars. I put it this way because, first I wasn’t far enough along in my Stoic education to put it more accurately but also because, knowing I was limited in my education at that point, I had to put it in a practical way that allowed it to be both easier communicated and more easily grasped by the listener, by you.

Virtue is a complicated concept, in general, but I think especially in Stoicism. We don’t necessarily create it in this directly relational way, where pillar A + pillar B + Pillar C + Pillar D = Virtue, that’s very much sequential, right? Like there are concrete steps to “building” Virtue—this isn’t how it works though.

In the book Intelligent Virtue by Julia Annas, we’re told (just as we are by Plato) that there’s a unification of foundational virtues that manifest Virtue. This is confusing because we’re using the word virtue in the definition of Virtue so I want to make it a little easier by redefining the language a little bit here.

Instead of calling them Cardinal Virtues (bravery, temperance, wisdom, and justice) let’s call them inherent reflexes.

According to Annas Virtue is the result of inherent motivations, which are the result of educations, which are the results of habituated dispositions such that when you work to habituate a disposition you naturally arrive at wanting to habituate (let’s say being charitable) you must educate that disposition such that you learn how to be charitable well, because it’s certainly possible to be charitable for the wrong reasons and to be charitable in an inappropriate way; such as being charitable for the sake of status or outward appearances. A person is not charitable just because they give, they are charitable because it is a part of their character that they are simply motivated, by that character, to give.

As you educate this disposition it becomes an inherent reflex such that you cannot help but be charitable when it is appropriate. So a disposition to be charitable, when educated with great care and intention, is transformed into a reflex that is only ever expressed as an appropriate reflex, so that it becomes impossible for you to be charitable in an inappropriate way.

Now imagine you have to do this for every inherent reflex and only after you have done that do you present, in all your actions, thoughts, and attitudes, as a Virtuous person… that’s the Sage.

And I can hear you saying “well, that seems pretty bottom up, Tanner! Seems like I just need to focus on each pillar and there we go, I’ll be a sage.”

I suppose you could still think of it that way but I think you’d be missing something that isn’t immediately obvious, and that I didn’t understand until I read Annas, let’s see if this blows your mind as much as it did mine:

Imagine you need to cross the street. You think, “that’s easy!” So you cross the street. But you don’t look both ways so you get hit by a bus. You wake up the next day, Groundhog’s Day style and try again. This time you look both ways and then cross the street, but someone is coming the opposite direction and you don’t know how to get out of their way so you bump right into them, stumble into the intersection, and THEN get hit by a bus. You wake up again and think, “I’ve got it this time for sure!” So you look both ways, start crossing the street, side shuffle to avoid other pedestrians in the walk way, and when you get to the other side you don’t know how to stop so you walk right into an hole in the ground where a construction crew is replacing part of the sidewalk, you land on a piece of rebar, impaling yourself.

You wake up again and think, “geez, there’s a lot more to crossing the street than I thought there was!”

There are some things we learn as skills, like walking, but it’s not like you learned how to walk forwards, sideways, and then how to stop in some order… and yet you can cross the street almost like a dance. You know to check for traffic, you know to move when there are other pedestrians, you know when to stop, and you know how not to get hit by a bus while executing this simple task. But how do you know it? Did someone teach you how to do all that? Could you even say you taught yourself?

In the same way as this ridiculous example, you cannot be brave if you’re not also just and wise, because you’d not be able to discern when bravery was the appropriate choice, and you wouldn’t know what was Just in the given situation; you have to execute all of the dispositions perfectly, at the same time, and in equal parts, to get it right; so developing Virtue isn’t a step one, step two, step three, type things, it’s an all steps at once sort of thing, and every step requires and relates to all other steps. There’s no sequence, there’s only concert, a great busy beautiful concert, and you are the conductor—or you try to be.

So when Marcus says,

“…this series is not like a mere enumeration of disjointed things, which has only a necessary sequence, but it is a rational connection: and as all existing things are arranged together harmoniously, so the things which come into existence exhibit no mere succession, but a certain wonderful relationship.”

He’s saying that there’s nothing that happens in life that isn’t harmoniously connected to all the things that are happening in life; that all if it is part of a whole complex system of wonderful relationships, all of it connected and you a sort of masterful dancer amidst it all, the central vector at which it all comes together and is expressed as a result of just how masterful you are in managing and moving within the web of these relationships.

About the author

Tanner Campbell

Hi, I'm Tanner. I spend most of my time writing in the philosophy space and I'm the host of the Practical Stoicism podcast. When I'm not writing, I'm reading or recording. In rare moments when I'm not writing, reading, or recording, I'm spending time with my partner and our dogs.

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