The Philosopher's Equanimity
In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI called upon Catholics to have “the courage to engage the whole breadth of reason.” His purpose, in keeping with St. John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio, was to stir up in Catholics a level of reflection that would respond adequately to the metaphysical demands of the Gospel. God revealed himself as “I AM” (Ex 3:14), and the Son of God declared, “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30). These precious unveilings of the inner life of God are gifts to us and should be the very meat and drink of our thoughts.
Provided, that is, we have the presence of mind to be thinking at all.
Not quite a year after Benedict XVI’s exhortation, the very first iPhone was put on sale. Today, more than two-thirds of adult Americans have smartphones and use them regularly; almost two-thirds of us visit social media sites daily. The results of this great cultural shift are inescapably apparent. One of them is that anxiety is on the rise. The American Psychological Association’s most recent annual study of stress in America—with a sample set of over 3,000 respondents—found a statistically significant rise in stress and associated it with our habits of using digital devices. This data cannot come as a surprise; it is easy enough for most of us to confirm the trend from our own personal experience.
The problem with anxiety, and with the distraction that is aiding and abetting it, is that it undermines our ability to calmly think through the challenges we face and poses serious obstacles to deeper reflection and prayer.
Thales, the father of philosophy, can come to our assistance with a lesson in equanimity.
It may seem paradoxical to associate Thales with this aspect of the virtue of courage. We might instead be inclined to think of him as a bold pioneer, recklessly speculating that all things come from water and that magnets are alive. Yet the various indications about his life that come down to us are susceptible of a different picture, and one that is surprisingly timely.
Like Sophocles and Socrates, who lived a century and a half later, Thales was a gentleman, and so necessarily involved in the defense of his homeland. Herodotus reports that during one episode of his military service, Thales helped his commander to navigate a tough patch of terrain by proposing that a deep river in their path be divided into two channels so that each of them could be forded. Less credibly, it seems, he was also said to have encouraged his own country’s army by successfully predicting a solar eclipse. And Aristotle tells the famous story of how Thales vindicated his practical wisdom by leasing all the olive presses in his neighborhood well in advance of a bumper crop of olives, which he had foreseen thanks to his botanical knowledge, thus proving that a philosopher could make himself rich.
Diogenes Laertius credited Thales with the authorship of the exhortation made famous by the Temple at Delphi: “know thyself.” Be that attribution as it may, it is consonant with what we can surmise about his character. To stand back from the heat of a battle and to propose a winning strategy requires great self-possession. The same constancy and perseverance are required by the study of nature and mathematics, especially when, as in Thales’s case, the ground was not only untilled, but largely uncleared. And to know oneself is an essential first step to knowing the world. After all, we come to know the world through our senses, but our senses, if undisciplined, merely agitate us rather than instruct us. If we would learn from our senses, we must first bridle them and lead them, gently but forthrightly, into the paths of knowing. Such self-possession is no accident. It must be intended, chosen, and gained by many small victories of self-command. For that work to go forward, we must first take stock of our sensory and cognitive habits and measure them against what wisdom and virtue require.
Diogenes related that when Thales was asked, “What is difficult?” he replied, “To know yourself.” His response was not only wise; it was candid. To admit the difficulty of self-knowledge is itself proof of self-knowledge. To bring discipline to our thoughts and to our senses requires arduous labor and considerable resolve. Just as “the man Moses was very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth” (Nm 12:3), so was Thales very self-possessed, perhaps more than any other in his day. The example of the philosopher’s equanimity is especially precious in this age of distraction and anxiety in which we now live.