The Discipline of Curiosity - [Cultivating the Garden]

On Cultivating the garden: A Case for Stoicism and what its perspective on wisdom can teach us about how to use our daily life, become better humans, and build a better world.

On Cultivating the garden: A Case for Stoicism and what its perspective on wisdom can teach us about how to use our daily life, become better humans, and build a better world.

Part One — A Stoic Root to Curiosity

How do you build the best world that is possible to build?

That is one of the central questions to the philosophy of Stoicism — which technically began around 300 BCE with Zeno who followed Crates in Athens and is commonly known from the likes of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca. Stoicism is known for several contributions and ideas on the world stage. Among them are:

  • Emotional restraint (though some interpretations of “being stoic” by being emotionally absent aren’t fully accurate),

  • The understanding of what you can and cannot control (which was popularized by Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer”),

  • An emphasis on non-desire (specifically what they called preferred and dis-preferred indifferents),

  • And even an unpopular opinion on suicide.

While those are all worthwhile topics of exploration, I want to focus on what may possibly be the core emphasis of Stoicism — virtue and wisdom — that emerges from one of the most common teachings you will see paraphrased in a variety of ways: That virtue is the only human good.

However, the question remains — why?

And, in conjunction, how do you pursue virtue?

We have Christianity to blame for Stoicism’s descent. Though this philosophy has made a comeback in modernism, it was when the Roman Empire instituted Christianity as the state religion under Constantine around 312 CE that Stoicism began its decline. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian closed the school of Stoicism in 529.

As someone who adheres to Christianity, this is disappointing to me — partly because I find almost nothing in Stoicism that is not incorporated in at least some part of Christian tradition, but also because Stoicism has much to offer in the larger existential and ethical metanarrative of what it means to be a human being.

Stoicism is primarily concerned with how we ought to live our lives. How do we become the best version of ourselves so that we might build the best world possible? They used the word ‘Oikeiosis’ which portrays the world as a house of which you are a member. You have a responsibility to familiarize other people’s concerns as if they were your own — it is a portrait of interdependency, that their health (everyone and everything) will reflect your own health. The Stoics also commonly used the word ‘Cosmopolitan’ to define themselves, not in the sense of the modern magazine, but by its literal definition — you are a citizen of the universe. Therefore, you ought to live accordingly.

I do believe Jesus said similar things.

If we look deeply at Stoicism, the result should not only be a state of mourning for its removal from a significant span of history, but we should also recognize that we have a profound source of wisdom on how to live as human beings — we have before us something that can speak to the wholesome trajectory that many traditions have been speaking to throughout the human journey.

That you are going to die — so what ought you do with your days that remain?

When you are buried, what of your soul will infiltrate the very fabric of the world?

Human beings have been considering this issue for most of our history. For millennia, the question, “How do you build the best world that is possible to build?” has been central to the majority of history’s wisdom traditions. I would not argue that all religions, philosophies, and ideologies are the same, but despite their vast differences in practice, culture, and ideas there does seem to be a common direction each is attempting to go. Whether you look at Judaism and their focus on shalom (which could be translated as universal flourishing), Buddhism and the attainment of Enlightenment, Islam and Ibadah, Christianity and the Kingdom of God, Confucianism and the proper attainment of wisdom for the ordering of society, the eastern religious perspective of transcendence, or even the modern Western perspective of humanism and “Self-Actualization” — being the best version of ourselves and creating the best possible version of the world is embedded into each tradition’s practice and thinking. Even the Wiccan Rede — “And harming none, do you what you will” — finds a place in this perspective.

For me, the most concrete example is, therefore, from this ancient Greek philosophy called Stoicism and its focus on how we live in response to our impending end. A term that comes to mind is eudaemonia, or, human flourishing. Many of the ancient philosophies grounded themselves on this term and you will see it translated a variety of ways — the most popular being “living the good life.” But Stoicism brought its own bend of interpretation. They emphasized how there is a way the world ought to be and to be human is to make the world look more like the best version of itself. It is the pursuit of the good life where “the good life” is defined as a meaningful life — one where you live in accordance with human nature for the betterment of society. 

Of course, in the frame of philosophy, we are now talking about ethics; which is what all of these vast traditions are attempting to land at — how, then, do we live?

In light of the world, its problems, and its mystery, there is a human propensity to understand the world with a resulting lived behavior — an ethic.

Specifically, the Stoics compared the human life as a garden and emphasized the necessity of constantly cultivating the garden to, therefore, become the best versions of ourselves which, in turn, builds the best world possible. 

The question becomes:

What is the best way to cultivate the garden?

How do you enact shalom? How do you attain Enlightenment or Ibadah? How do you manifest the Kingdom of God or order society? How do we achieve a state of transcendence or the self-actualized life?

While all of these traditions have their own take, I believe it is Stoicism that provides a foundation, a rooted bass note, that leads to the unfolding of all of these goals.

It is the discipline of curiosity.

Part Two — Cultivating Virtue & Wisdom

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For the Stoics and for the majority of the ancient philosophies, the technical answer to these questions was wisdom — living life fully by understanding the world. Wisdom is not simply knowledge, it is the practical application of knowledge where your understanding is embedded into your flesh and incarnated through your being

Also, an important note for the Stoics is that virtue leads to wisdom. 

You become what you put into the garden — and this is enacted through practicing and pursuing virtue.

While Stoicism has several virtues and within ancient Greek philosophy alone, virtue is well-defined and explained with lots of different lists, the concept of a virtue was the equivalent of curating character. Life is about cultivating your character and the virtues are the roadmap. A brief aside to rant on a previous point — Christian virtues as we know them today were adapted from, you guessed it, Stoicism.

Back to the garden metaphor. If virtue is how a garden will thrive, the unfolding of virtue is made possible by wisdom. You will have to cultivate the best garden possible by understanding how a garden works. Therefore, you will live the best way possible by understanding how the world works. The more you understand the world, the better the choices you are able to make about how you live. Character development begins with understanding — the kind of understanding guided by virtue and nurtured by wisdom. Stoicism elaborates on how to do this with two levels of approach that are both necessary to fully manifest a healthy garden.

1 — Understand the Nature of the World.

From physics to biology and history to morality, we need to understand how the world works in order to best live in it. What is human nature and its limitations? How does the mind work? What are the optimal processes for making changes? What is a healthy ecosystem or organization or relationship? The more you understand about the nature of the world through science, humanities, experimentation, or general learning, the more you will be able to properly navigate the world.

The more we understand about the nature of the world and how it works, the more we can enact our place in it. 

2 — Understand the Nature of Humans.

From learning about yourself more intentionally to understanding the general composition of human beings and their behavior. In order to be your best self and have the most flourishing relational interdependence with others, we need to explore the nature of human beings. We need to know our shortcomings, how our minds work, and what is best for our physical, emotional, and mental health. We need to learn the best way for humans to be and to interact. 

How do human beings work and how does the world work? 

Imagine you put your entire life into a pie-chart. What all is involved? What do you do? What are the pieces? Where does your time and energy go? If we took a day or week or a year of your existence and charted out every detail of what was involved, how many items would you have? I’m guessing there would be a section for sleep. One for eating. Do you shower or brush your teeth or wash your hands? Do you relax a bit here or there? Or not? Maybe there is some form of work and other responsibilities. And how do you get places? That would be transportation. Do you participate in entertainment? What all is involved in that? I’m guessing you communicate during the day — so there’s another piece.

Eventually, you will realize that you are dealing with quite a lot — from plants to bodily functions, mechanical developments to social systems, there are so many parts of the world that inform, influence, or dictate the life you live. If your operating system is eudaimonia (or any of the previously mentioned perspectives), we have to see that we must take all of these various pieces seriously. If human fullness in a thriving world is your goal, your ideal, then all of these pieces will play a role. And if all of these pieces play a role, then you will want to align the current reality of all of these pieces with that ideal.

Which means you are going to need to take the time to understand all of these pieces as much as possible.

Slight problem, there is no absolute instruction manual that fell from the sky or is buried in the ground that provides the full answers listed in dictionary form.

The thrust of wisdom, therefore, is that we will continually learn, explore, and discover these answers as we go. We seek more and more coherent ways to understand ourselves and the world to make better and better choices about living life. We may not have the final answers, but we can pursue them. We can learn from those who came before us and add to human conversation for those who come after us. We can do the best we can with what we have and where we are in hopes that we will move a bit closer to that best version and make its fullness that much more possible for those yet to breathe life in this world.

Yet, even in its premature state, even with an unfinished map and an incomplete gardening handbook, we ought to begin the work; we can and we should embrace the fullness of what is currently possible.

Which begins with seeing the nature of the world and the nature of human beings to develop a character that pursues the best version of the world.

Study everything for its usefulness, cultivate the garden through virtue & wisdom, and it will produce the fruit of proper ethics. 

That’s how we build the best lives & world possible. 

Part Three — So Let’s Get Curious

What is the best way to cultivate the garden?

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There’s a fascinating anecdote about both Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci (though da Vinci’s are more popular) and their notebooks. The artists known for some of the most memorable and profound works of innovative genius didn’t just show up and have their works flow out of nothing. Rather, for every great piece of art or world impacting invention came a thousand sketches and notes. 

If you look at either of these artist’s journals, you would see drawings of seemingly random things with notes such as, “What is this?” or “How does this work?” There are lists and categories that attempt to draw previously uncommon similarities. They would both use drawings to better understand science or write long notations explaining how they thought a particular piece of the world worked. 

My favorite is a drawing of a woodpecker by da Vinci with a note wondering how a woodpecker’s tongue works. 

Here are two of the great innovators and artists of history with no goal or agenda in their ramblings except to discover the world more and more. The most important thing was being curious. It was then that progress and world-enhancing productivity ensued. 

Instead of starting with doing something, Michelangelo and da Vinci focused on becoming something that would naturally lead to their work flowing from the stored up knowledge bank they were constantly creating. 

You start with curiosity and it leads to production.

You focus on the input and the output becomes unstoppable. 

It is as if curiosity is the intentional work of gleaning seeds and putting them in the ground, of observing the nature of plants and discovering every gem of information waiting to be found — the resulting plant becomes the natural manifestation of the work that has already been done. 

Or, better yet, curiosity is the difference between a marinated piece of meat and just throwing something on the grill. An unseasoned, un-marinated steak might still be good, but simply by doing the long process of focusing on the input of content, the result becomes exponentially better. You take notes and think through seemingly random happenings, you store up whatever you happen to find, and you take on a posture of constantly being aware and asking questions so much so that you are like a continuously open portal to everything the world has to offer.

That is the discipline of curiosity. 

And it has the potential to sustainably create a life and a work that excels like a healthy garden. 

Curiosity is what will allow you to explore your map, to know its depth and intricacies, and to, therefore, act in the world based on what you have discovered. You take all of those pieces of your life, the pie-chart of your existence, and you ask questions, have conversations, and soak in the vast wisdom that has been formulated or that has yet to be unturned and you allow it to form your next step. You want to brush your teeth in the best way possible? Then you have some curiosities just waiting to be unhinged about teeth and toothpaste and what the best method might be. You want to have a thriving relationship? Well, begin the process of understanding the mind and emotions and lifestyles that will inform how to relate to that being. Observe the world and other relationships while connecting the dots of what works and what doesn’t. You want to make the next great invention? You might want to analyze how a woodpecker’s tongue works.

Engage in the constant discipline of noticing, learning, and taking in the bank of content just waiting to be harnessed.

Because wisdom begins with virtue.

And virtue begins with curiosity.

Part Four — Living a Curiosity Induced Lifestyle (5 suggestions)

Here, then, are some suggestions to begin wrapping your life in the discipline of curiosity.

1 — Study Everything For Its Usefulness

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Often, we limit ourselves to only learning about those concepts that have been penned in great books or categorized into important fields. Of course, exploration in psychology, physics, and the giants of scholasticism should inhabit our time, but everything is worth studying.

This also implies that study is not contained to the act of sitting at a desk or reading a book. The act of study is simply an opportunity awaiting you in every moment. Certainly, you can take on the task of learning a language or exploring economic theory — both of which I would recommend as a part of curiosity — but anywhere your eyes turn, any experience you behold, has the potential to elicit the at of being curious.

Maybe learning isn’t something you do, it is a way to do everything.

Quite possibly, the only difference between learning and not learning in a given moment or of exploring with curiosity or just letting the opportunity pass, is by being intentional. See that everything has the potential to be explored with depth — your life will grow parallel to how much you pay attention.

2 — Ask Questions

Every day before my children go off to school, I speak two requests to them:

“Remember who you are. And ask lots of questions.”

Because the issue of assuming only certain things are worth studying is that we don’t know how to approach the seemingly mundane. However, in studying everything for its usefulness, the act of asking a good question is what will uncover the ordinary and launch the discovery.

Why did that political decision unfold that way? Why did that person say that thing? Why did that business decision result in that effect?

But then it goes further — why does that plant grow that way? Why does this food taste the way it does? How does my keyboard result in those shapes appearing when I push this button? How does the internet actually work?

You see what this implies? That our children might have the most to teach us. It may be true that we have conformed to a world where curiosity was seen as out of place; where the questions we are so often bombarded with by children are seen as primitive or undeveloped. Maybe we have just been influenced to stop asking questions because it was easier for everyone else. Maybe we should ask why that bug died or why the sky is blue more often. And maybe, in our progressed, knowledge-filled state, we will be able to see answers and discover connections that we weren’t capable of years ago.

To study everything, the best practice I have found is to simply launch into questions whenever I have the opportunity. I may find no answers and it may just be a fleeting moment, but I’ve nurtured the act of curiosity and, often, I end up a little more informed than I would be otherwise. This result seems to be worth the time.

3 — Practice Random Stimulation

Random Stimulation is often a practice involved in creativity. An interesting parallel is that curiosity and creativity are very much linked.

Essentially, this is the act of exploring something that you might assume is completely unrelated to what you are pursuing. We have categorized the world in order to make life easier and we have much to be grateful for in that regard. However, we often let those categories become absolute. We study economics by studying economics. We study organizational leadership by studying organizational leadership. While there is nothing wrong with that, we also lose the great wealth of knowledge waiting to be unveiled — simply because we have assumed they are disconnected.

But sometimes the woodpecker’s tongue can inform more than you think.

A great sign of a curious person is someone who can take two seemingly unrelated things and tie them together. Can the migration patterns of penguins foster a new theory of architecture? I don’t know. But learning about the migration patterns of penguins might show you more than you initially consider.

4 — Learning is a Means to an End

Remember, knowledge is not all that useful in and of itself — it is when knowledge leads to virtue which leads to wisdom that it becomes viable. Maybe we could say that this is what makes the learning of curiosity different from the learning of knowledge. The attempt to inform your operating system, of aligning that ideal with your reality, will occur by exposing yourself to the wonderful world in a way that actually leads to wisdom and the ethics of human flourishing.

You are learning how to build the best world possible in order to build the best world possible. You are learning how the world works and how humans work in their healthiest manifestation so that the knowledge will move you to the virtuous wisdom of the garden.

Input leads to formation and formation leads to function.

For more on this see - “Information Intake vs. Information Embodiment

5 — Avoid the Antonym: Amathia

To not be curious, to not explore and discover and learn in this way is what the Stoics called “amathia” (you can read more on that here: Let’s Talk About Your Perspective).

Essentially, amathia is ignorance. You could also translate this word as “intelligent stupidity” — when you are so assured that you already know that you actually keep yourself from knowing. This sort of ignorance, this lack of pursuit, has a very small chance of producing wisdom-like behavior. If you attempted to garden without actually exploring the best way to keep a garden, you will likely make wrong or, even, poor choices seem like viable options.

The worst possible posture is to think that you have already arrived — it is the refusal to understand. Which might just be the opposite of wisdom.

Not pursuing curiosity will lead to less ability to care for and cultivate the garden.

Rather, we are invited to this discipline — the act of constantly and wholeheartedly opening yourself up to the vastness of the world so that you may better live in it.

May you practice the discipline of curiosity. 

May you constantly grow to better cultivate the garden of your life. 

And as you understand the world better, may it produce a life and a world that lives better.