05 May 2012

An egalitarian cosmopolitanism

One of the tragedies of humanity is that we very rarely have the ability to wholeheartedly and completely embrace our experiences.  This seems to be even more true when you think of travelling.  Experiencing new places and cultures should serve to broaden our views of ourselves and others, but they're all too often just used as a marketing tool.  They allow people to pare down their social interactions instead of expanding them.  They serve as a key to conversation for the children of the middle and upper middle class.  

No stories about your trip to Italy?  Please go sit at the poor kids' table.

The search for a good and simple life can't exist alongside those types of divides.  A simple exercise in logic by Epictetus in the Enchiridion highlights this:

"44. These reasonings are unconnected: "I am richer than you, therefore I am better"; "I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am better." The connection is rather this: "I am richer than you, therefore my property is greater than yours;" "I am more eloquent than you, therefore my style is better than yours." But you, after all, are neither property nor style. 

45. Does anyone bathe in a mighty little time? Don't say that he does it ill, but in a mighty little time. Does anyone drink a great quantity of wine? Don't say that he does ill, but that he drinks a great quantity. For, unless you perfectly understand the principle from which anyone acts, how should you know if he acts ill? Thus you will not run the hazard of assenting to any appearances but such as you fully comprehend."

The variety of human life and experience in one neighborhood can be as great as that experienced by an overly excited and highly guided tourist taking in the polished facsimiles of a street that locals do their best to avoid.  We reduce the value of that which is near to us, regardless of its values.  At the same time we inflate the value of that which is far away from us.  The human being, whether they be a Stoic, or Buddhist, or Christian or Muslim for that matter, who can't enjoy a walk in a neighborhood park is put into that situation because they have long ago closed their eyes to the world around them.

Cosmopolitanism in the Stoic sense is based upon that basic premise, that each place has its own nearly infinite series of attractions.  When we tune out to what is around us, we're left seeking novelty.  When we tune out to those around us, we're left judging them on superficial matters such as where they've been to.  As we come to appreciate ourselves and others for who they are, we find ourselves at home with all sorts of people, in all sorts of places.  Hundreds of thousands of frequent flier miles aren't cosmopolitan, being at home wherever you might find yourself is.


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