The View From the Stars
A student with whom I engage in regular philosophical discussions sent me the following musing, after admiring the night sky during a full moon:
A few stars reveal their existence by the tiny but clear sparkle, and I think of how tiny I will be from the point of view of the stars. How short human life will be, and how small some things I am concerned with will be.
This is similar to looking at things while thinking of death. Most of my worries disappear when I begin to imagine “Near my death, what will I regret?” — because I will certainly regret the time when I could do other things while worrying. I just think I easily forget that I cannot live forever.
Those fine ruminations inspire the following reply from me.
How tiny will you be from the point of view of the stars? It is interesting to think of that question remembering what you wondered about a few weeks ago, namely why our eyes have a limited range, so that an object can simply fly away until it “disappears” from our sight, as a receding dot finally evaporating into the blue. If the stars have no such limitations in their vision, then how might we appear to them indeed!
Would they see us as short-lived, as you assume? That is a complicated question. When we look at most of those stars in our sky, the light we see has already travelled hundreds (or thousands, or millions) of years to reach our eyes. If, therefore, the stars can see us, they are seeing us from hundreds (or thousands, or millions) of years after we emitted our little bit of light. In other words, they are seeing us from the distant future. Would we appear short-lived from that perspective? Does Jane Austen seem short-lived to you? Does Plato?
However, what does appear short-lived about Jane Austen is her illness, her anger after an argument with her cousin, or all the little worries and heartaches that made up much of her daily life. Likewise, Plato appears to us through his presentation of Socrates’ philosophical conversations, or through Aristotle’s descriptions of his school. We see none of the dirt on the bottom of Plato’s robe that must have annoyed him at times, or the months of staring lethargically into space after Socrates’ death, wondering how to carry on with his philosophizing.
The lesson from this: The light that reaches our eyes, hundreds of years after it first radiated from a star, is the light of an essence, purified of all the inessential and trivial dust around it, meaning of all those accidental details of life that only seem important, necessary, painful, or worrisome when seen up close and immediately, but which are invisible and irrelevant to the eyes of one catching the light from hundreds of years away.
Most of my worries disappear when I begin to imagine, “Near my death, what will I regret?” — because I will certainly regret the time when I could do other things while worrying.
If we could see ourselves as the stars would see us — from hundreds of years in the future — our priorities would look very different. We would see what ultimately matters in our lives and what does not, just as we can when we look at Plato or Jane Austen. We would live differently, or at least give in to our weaknesses less easily, if we could maintain that future perspective on ourselves as our primary view.
I just think I easily forget that I cannot live forever.
I think we easily forget that we might live forever, and that forever is the point of view from which we ought to observe ourselves if we want to see clearly what is meaningful today, and what is not.