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#7: On Becoming a Connoisseur of Everything

Copyright © 2014 by William B. Irvine


In my previous posting, I distinguished between gourmands, gourmets, and connoisseurs.

Gourmands have allowed themselves to become enslaved by their desire for food. It is a fate that a 21st century Stoic will want to avoid. Gourmets have adopted such high standards that they will be displeased by most of the food and drink they consume. They are therefore likely to spend their life in a state of self-induced misery. It is another fate that a 21st century Stoic will want to avoid.

Although the word connoisseur can be used as a synonym for gourmet, its root meaning is simply someone who is knowledgeable about something. A wine connoisseur knows all about wine.

Knowing about something can increase the pleasure we derive from it. This is certainly true of wine, but it is also true, as I argued in my previous posting, of a simple almond. The more you know about the almond and the process by which it came to you, the more delight you can take in consuming it. Indeed, if you are mindful of all the human effort it took to get the almond to you, the act of consuming it can itself seem like a minor miracle.

This thinking led me to the conclusion that one goal of a 21st century Stoic will be to become a connoisseur not just of wine or almonds, but of everything.

The ancient Stoics, besides taking an interest in philosophies for living, took an interest in physics—in what we today would refer to as natural science. And why would a philosopher study science? In large part because doing so can dramatically increase our appreciation of the universe in which we live.

Consider the sky. It is remarkably easy to take for granted, but it is something to be very grateful for. It is not only blue, but a beautiful shade of blue that changes subtly depending on where on earth you are, your altitude, what time of day it is, and what season it is.

Realize that the sky didn’t have to be blue. In fact, in our corner of the universe, blue skies are an anomaly.

Because it lacks an atmosphere, the moon has a black sky, which is the same as saying that it has no sky at all. Mars has an atmosphere and therefore has a sky, but it is not blue; windblown dust makes it butterscotch in color. Titan, a moon of Saturn, has an orange sky. Venus’s sky is red-orange in color, but because Venus’s atmosphere is so dense, you wouldn’t get much chance to enjoy it before its enormous pressure crushed you.

If what you like is butterscotch, orange, or red-orange skies, you can see them here on earth. For a butterscotch sky, you will have to wait for a dust storm, and for an orange or red-orange sky, you will have to be outside at sunrise or sunset.

To find another blue sky in the Solar System, you would have to travel to Uranus or Neptune. It is a long trip to make, though, and these are very cold places. Plan B for seeing a blue sky seems vastly preferable: simply walk to a nearby window.

Of course, if the day is cloudy, the blue sky will be obscured from your view, but then you will be treated to the spectacle of the clouds themselves. They come in a remarkable variety of shapes and sizes. (I myself am a particular fan of altocumulus clouds.) And of course, at sunrise and sunset, you will, on many days, be able to enjoy both clouds and the sky, in a mix of blue, white, red, pink, and orange.

All of this is spectacular, and it is completely free. It comes to us complements of the remarkable universe in which we find ourselves.

To be able to take full advantage of gifts like these, you will need to become knowledgeable about the world in which you live. You will need, that is, to become a connoisseur, not just of wine and almonds but of skies and clouds, paintings and poems, mountains and rivers, birds and trees—of as much as you can.

We are, as I said in my previous post, living in a garden of delight. To enjoy this garden, though, you will have to wake up, and you will have to keep your eyes open.

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