“Arrival” and Cosmopolitan Movie Trailers

This guest post by my sister, Teryl Yogeeswaran, offers an interesting case study in cosmopolitan perspective.

I am a polyglot language teacher, and a total sci-fi nerd, so I was really looking forward to the film Arrival.  I’m also an ex-pat, and aware of the subtle differences between my view of America, and the view I might have had if I had remained with most of my friends and family within it’s borders.  I am absolutely fascinated by the different nuances between the American and the International trailers for this film. At least on Youtube one trailer is labeled “official” and one is labeled “International”. The clips they chose to include, and the order they chose to present them in, say loads about Hollywood’s sense of America as seen from within and from without.

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A Modern Stoic Reflection on Tradition and Identity

The more I read of ancient philosophy, the more impressed I become at the general tendency that societies have to make extended literary use of story, verse, and references to well-known aspects of their own culture’s literary canon.

  • Confucius, Mozi, and Xunzi never stop talking about the three sovereigns and five emperors of ancient Chinese mythology, and quoting poetry from the Odes and anecdotes from the Book of Documents.
  • Greek-speaking philosophers from Socrates to Marcus Aurelius constantly quote the verses Homer, Euripides, etc, and reference the famous heroes of Greek mythology.
  • Roman authors, not to be out-done, add reverent lines from Virgil and numerous anecdotes to semi-mythic heroes from their own city’s history.
  • Paul’s letters and Jesus’ sermons are peppered with quotes from the Psalms and prophets of the Hebrew canon, and references to Abraham and other characters.
  • Greek orthodox tradition doubtless treats the Greek fathers similarly, and north and south Indian literature each have their own canons, and so on.

The culture of reference has its obvious pros and cons, and every one of these cultures has simultaneously produced lovers and haters of their own canons. But there is something beautiful and powerful about these social behemoths, which I can’t quite put my finger on, but which never ceases to challenge my prejudices and show me that I have more to learn about the wonders of our human Cosmopolis!

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What does it mean to ‘Follow Nature?’

If you know three or four things about Stoicism, one of them might be that all of Stoic ethics is supposed to be summed up in a simple slogan: follow nature.

The obvious problem here is that “follow nature” is an incredibly vague maxim.   Ask a group of people what they think it means, and you’ll get a dizzying array of answers:  Are we talking about following divine Providence—a cosmic plan?  Or a Walden-like retreat into the forest?  Is “nature” here something like the pattern of Yin and Yang in Eastern Philosophy?  Or perhaps the “inaction” of Zhaungzi?  Or does “following nature” mean strict gender roles and conservative social institutions?  Or perhaps a heavy investment in the scientific method?

I want to propose to you that the Stoic answer is far more simple than any of that: following nature means loving fate and pursuing virtue.

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Fire in Tennessee, Fire in Lyons

My thoughts have been with the people of Eastern Tennessee this week, as they process the aftermath of the terrifying fire that tore through Gatlinburg.  You may have seen this horrifying video of two men who narrowly escaped the hellscape with their lives:

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As often happens after disasters of this kind, some Tennessee natives appeared in the online Stoic community asking if the ancients might have had anything specific to say that could be helpful in times like this.  It just so turns out that they did:

Our friend Liberalis is now downcast; for he has just heard of the fire which has wiped out the colony of Lyons. Such a calamity might upset anyone at all, not to speak of a man who dearly loves his country. But this incident has served to make him inquire about the strength of his own character, which he has trained, I suppose, just to meet situations that he thought might cause him fear. I do not wonder, however, that he was free from apprehension touching an evil so unexpected and practically unheard of as this, since it is without precedent. For fire has damaged many a city, but has annihilated none. Even when fire has been hurled against the walls by the hand of a foe, the flame dies out in many places, and although continually renewed, rarely devours so wholly as to leave nothing for the sword. Even an earthquake has scarcely ever been so violent and destructive as to overthrow whole cities. Finally, no conflagration has ever before blazed forth so savagely in any town that nothing was left for a second. So many beautiful buildings, any single one of which would make a single town famous, were wrecked in one night. In time of such deep peace an event has taken place worse than men can possibly fear even in time of war. Who can believe it? When weapons are everywhere at rest and when peace prevails throughout the world, Lyons, the pride of Gaul, is missing!

—Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, 91.

You can read the rest of the letter here.