Could a 2,000 year old philosophy be relevant for the space age?
For most of its existence humanity has looked up to the stars, the sun and the moon. Unable to reach these distant bodies we dreamt up tall tales starring gods and goddesses: mighty myths of creation and destruction.
The idea of a human being ever actually walking the surface of another planet must have been as fantastic to the ancients as to us their stories of magical hammers and cosmic conflagrations.
To leave the earth behind and set foot on the moon — that was just an impossibility — until suddenly it wasn’t.
While we seemingly haven’t made much progress since those first fateful steps of Neil Armstrong in 1969, at least not when it comes to sending human beings to other planets, technology has been developing at a rapid pace.
On board of Apollo 11 for example was the latest state-of-the art computing technology of its times, The Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) which could store 32,768 bits of temporary memory (RAM). The device on which you’re reading this right now is more than a million times more powerful! (e.g. an iPhone 11 has 4GB RAM, which is 1,048,576 bits)
Also in other departments there have been advancements, perhaps most notably the development of reusable rockets which reduces one of the biggest hurdles of space travel: cost.
In other words, while some people may sneer at future plans to send human beings to Mars or even colonize it, also this will only seem impossible until suddenly it isn’t.
So, let’s put our clocks on fast forward and skip ahead a bit. Let’s say, we’ve solved the bulk of problems still separating us from routine trips to Moon, Mars and beyond. Let’s say, we’re already there and humanity has become a truly space-faring species.
How will we think about Earth when it’s just one of many planets we’ll live on? How are we going to conceptualize things such as gender, race or nations in an interstellar society? And what will it mean to be human in this vast empty universe?
Marcus Aurelius was Roman emperor from 161 to 180 AD, absolute ruler over an area stretching from the Iberian Peninsula in the West to the Red Sea in the East.
He was the last of the rulers known as the Five Good Emperors, keeping political peace and domestic stability despite constant war with Germanic tribes in the North and the Antonine Plague spreading across the empire’s roads like wildfire.
And as if that wasn’t enough of a legacy, he’s also an important source for our understanding of ancient philosophy, his famous Meditations, writings “to himself”, which were never intended for publication, still being read for centuries after his passing until this very day.
The “philosopher king” Aurelius subscribed to the ancient philosophical school of Stoicism, founded around 300 BC in Hellenistic Athens by Zeno of Citium.
Stoicism has influenced Western society at least as much as the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, but it was only within the last few decades that academics began to research it with renewed interest, realizing that what was long thought to be an intellectually inferior school that dealt mostly with practical Ethics (i.e. “how to live”) was actually a fully fleshed out philosophy including advanced logic and physics (literally: “knowledge of nature”).
Many of the original Greek writings have been lost, so much of what is known about Stoicism today had to be painstakingly reconstructed from fragments and reports by other (often critical) sources. The main texts that survived are by later Roman Stoics (Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius) and while they all do exhibit an emphasis on practical ethical conduct, one has to see these texts in the context of a larger overarching thought system.
Not only in academia has Stoicism experienced a revival, also in psychology and self-help culture new books are being published almost daily. Is this just a fad or does Stoicism maybe really provide us with answers in these unstable times? And will these ideas be useful for the future?
Finding Meaning Among Atoms And Providence
Will there be churches in our Mars colonies? What about synagogues or mosques? How will our understanding of creation myths of Earth change, when it isn’t our primary dwelling anymore?
Which religion will become dominant on space ships and habitats? All of them? None of them?
Marcus Aurelius, who admittedly was a theist and believed in “the gods”, in a pantheistic sense (like many other Stoics), wrote:
“Whether there are Atoms or [Divine] Nature, the first postulate must be: ‘I am part of the Whole which is governed by Nature’; the second: ‘I am allied in some way to the parts that are of the same kind with me.’ “ — x, 6
In other words, whether you believe that the universe is just a random swirl of atoms or if you see a guiding hand in all of this, we all still have to follow the same laws of nature, regardless how you define its origins. Gravity, for example, is not something you can argue with. It affects everyone and everything in the same way. The same is true for biological, chemical or even psychological dynamics.
Similarly he states:
“Either there is a fatal necessity and invincible order, or a kind providence, or a confusion without a purpose and without a director. If then there is an invincible necessity, why dost thou resist? But if there is a providence which allows itself to be propitiated, make thyself worthy of the help of the divinity. But if there is a confusion without a governor, be content that in such a tempest thou hast in thyself a certain ruling intelligence.” — xii, 14
Instead of falling into the fruitless debate of “believers vs. non-believers” which has affected Monotheistic culture for centuries, and is still fought out with often dire consequences until today, Aurelius suggests that believers (like himself) should find solace in providence, whereas skeptics or agnostics can still derive an equally powerful meaning from the “ruling intelligence” (hegemonikon) of their own rational nature.
What does it mean to be human in a largely empty universe? So far at least we’re the only creature capable of thought that we know of. What is our purpose here and how should we live?
In an interstellar society composed of people who undoubtedly will all bring remnants of their original traditions and customs into the future with them, these questions won’t just go away, but perhaps even become more important.
We’re going to need a new worldview which will help us contextualize all of this, allowing us to form a general consensus without encroaching upon anyone’s freedom of belief, which also implies the freedom of disbelief.
Surely we can’t keep fighting about the existence of God when we need to work together to survive in the extreme environment of space. Or can we?
Interestingly, many astronauts have reported a change to their own consciousness and as a result their notions of nationality and individuality when looking back at the earth for the first time, in what is commonly known as the “overview effect”.
So perhaps in the end our shared humanity will become much more important than the differences in our upbringings and belief systems. The rational “ruling intelligence” Aurelius and the Stoics speak of may actually be a great starting point to start forming a future-proof understanding of humanity which still leaves room for various individual beliefs.
When humans beings travel together through other space, will it still matter what skin color we have? What is the meaning of nation borders when we can spin around the whole planet within a few minutes? When faced with the vast lethal nothingness of space, won’t it be natural to feel connected, regardless which longitudes and latitudes our ancestors called home?
“If mind is common to us all, then also the reason, whereby we are rational beings, is common. If this be so, then also the reason which enjoins what is to be done or left undone is common. If this be so, law also is common; if this be so, we are citizens; and if this be so, we are partakers in one constitution; if this be so, the Universe is a kind of Commonwealth. For in what other common government can we say that the whole race of men partakes? And thence, from this common City, is derived our mind itself, our reason and our sense of law, or from what else?” — iv, 4
In line with other Stoic philosophers who conceived the universe and our ultimate human nature as an expression of and shaped by (“divine”) reason (logos), Marcus Aurelius here invokes a kind of Rational Cosmopolitanism.
Instead of being mainly Africans, Asians or Europeans we could see ourselves primarily as humans or Earthlings, in short, beings with capacity for reason.
Many astronauts have reported that such a more inclusive perspective arose naturally when looking at planet earth from space, realizing its beauty and fragility. Anousheh Ansari, the first space tourist, for example reported:
It sort of reduces things to a size that you think everything is manageable … All these things that may seem big and impossible … We can do this. Peace on Earth — No problem.
Traversing Light Years, One Moment At A Time
“Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away.” — iv, 43
Interstellar space travel will confront us with our own mortality like never before. First of all our bodies aren’t built to withstand life in space or on other planets. Our skeletons, muscles and bones were molded by and shaped for the particular gravity of Earth. Whether artificial gravity, oxygen or protection from radiation, we’ll need a lot of technical contraptions just to survive. And even the smallest of failures will be fatal.
Lethal dangers of space and hostile environments aside, the problem of long travel times also poses a real problem. If you travel to Mars for example, which is relatively close at just 55 million km, the trip will still take around 7 months, at least until we come up with a much faster way to travel.
That’s a lot of time of playing road trip games. But seriously, how are we going to deal with aging? Even if we figure out cryogenesis on long journeys and manage to somehow delay the decay of our biomatter, time will still continue and while we slumber in some egg-like pod, our friends and relatives will continue to age at their normal rate.
All of this will mean finding new ways to think about, prepare for and deal with death. Meditations on mortality have been common among ancient contemplative traditions in general and Stoicism in particular. Marcus Aurelius writes:
“Even if you’re going to live three thousand more years, or ten times that, remember: you cannot lose another life than the one you’re living now, or live another one than the one you’re losing. The longest amounts to the same as the shortest. The present is the same for everyone; its loss is the same for everyone; and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. For you can’t lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don’t have?” — ii, 14
Death, the truly final frontier always awaits us. Marcus Aurelius reminds himself in this passage that even if you could artificially stretch your life to add thousands of years (think advanced nano-medicine), it’s still the same life, which you can only live (or lose) one moment at a time.
Despite our constant worries about the future and ruminations about the past, we don’t exist anywhere else but right here, right now.
And in that sense the existential quality of this moment is always the same, whether you’re standing on the forum in ancient Rome or hurtling through outer space.