De Botton on pessimism

Alain De Botton had a nice column in the FT last week on the usefulness of pessimism for getting us through the day.

He writes:

It is time to recognise how odd and counter-productive is the optimism on which we have grown up. For the last 200 years, despite occasional shocks, the western world has been dominated by a belief in progress, based on its extraordinary scientific and entrepreneurial achievements. On a broader perspective, this optimism is a grave anomaly. Humans have spent most of recorded history drawing a curious comfort from expecting the worst. In the west, lessons in pessimism have derived from two sources: Roman Stoic philosophy and Christianity. It may be time to revisit some of these teachings, not to add to our misery but precisely so as to alleviate our sorrow.

To focus on the first of these sources, the philosopher Seneca should be the author of the hour. Living in a time of financial and political upheaval (Nero was on the Imperial throne), Seneca interpreted philosophy as a discipline to keep us calm against a backdrop of continuous danger. His consolation was of the stiffest, darkest sort: “You say: ‘I did not think it would happen.’ Do you think there is anything that will not happen, when you know that it is possible to happen, when you see that it has already happened … ?” Seneca tried to calm the sense of injustice in his readers by reminding them – in AD62 – that natural and man-made disasters will always be a feature of our lives, however sophisticated and safe we think we have become.

Because we are hurt most by what we do not expect, and because we must expect everything (“There is nothing which Fortune does not dare”), we must, argued Seneca, hold the possibility of the most obscene events in mind at all times. No one should make an investment, undertake to run a company, sit on a board or leave money in a bank without an awareness, which Seneca would have wished to be neither gruesome nor unnecessarily dramatic, of the darkest possibilities.

Given our financial prowess, we have for too long thought of ourselves as in control of our destiny. We have trusted in the mathematical geniuses who promised us “risk management” and fashioned derivatives so complex we dared not look inside. Such trust could not be further from a Stoic mindset. We must, stressed Seneca, expand our sense of what may go wrong in our lives: “Nothing ought to be unexpected by us. Our minds should be sent forward in advance to meet all the problems, and we should consider, not what is wont to happen, but what can happen. What is man? A vessel that the slightest shaking, the slightest toss will break. A body weak and fragile.”

He also recently gave a talk on pessimism at the School of Life – sounds like another book coming!

A few points in response to his ideas:

Firstly, Stoicism may seem pessimistic, but is actually very optimistic. Stoics believe that everything that happens, happens for the good. The universe is guided by the Logos, a divine intelligence that shapes the world for the best. So if your house is bombed and your family dies, it’s for the best, from a cosmic perspective.

You can draw a direct line from this Stoic belief to the Deist belief of Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide that this is the best of all possible worlds. The word ‘Panglossian’ now means naively optimistic.

So it’s a bit dangerous to put forward Stoicism as purely a philosophy of pessimism.

The same is true of Christianity. Yes, Christians believe this world is a vale of tears. But they also believe the virtuous will be rewarded with an eternity of blessedness – a very optimistic belief.

Nietzsche is right to say that ancient tragedy is the truly pessimistic vision of existence. He quotes with relish the saying of Silenus – ‘The best thing is never to be born at all. If you’re born, best to die quickly.’

But even in tragedy, we find an optimism often born out of deep pessimism. Take the story of Oedipus, as told by Sophocles. Oedipus discovers he has unconsciously married his mother and killed his father, he loses just about everything he has, he is shamed, blinded, thrown out of Thebes to wander in exile.

He is the most unlucky man in existence, from the perspective of conventional goods like reputation, wealth, family and citizenship.

But he learns to accept these misfortunes, because he learns there is something higher than our conventional values, which is acceptance of the will of the gods. By learning this acceptance and endurance, he achieves a harmony with Nature. Whatever Nature throws at him, he accepts. He is one with the universe. By the end of the play Oedipus at Colonus, he has become semi-divine, a being of magical powers, and is taken up by the gods into the heavens.

This, in some ways, is the message of Stoicism: if you have attachments to conventional external goods, you are destined for suffering. Nature can take them away at any moment. So expect them to be taken away at any moment, do not hold on to them. Be pessimistic about external stability.

But at the same time, trust that there is a higher law, a cosmic mind that guides all events, trust that Nature is divine, that there is a ‘providence that shapes our ends’ as Hamlet put it. Let go of your partial, limited perspective, the perspective of the ego, and trust in that higher law.View things from the perspective of the universe.

From this perspective, we can even welcome conventional misfortunes, such as losing our job, or even losing loved ones, if they enable us to detach ourselves from the whirligig of passions and material aspirations, and glimpse for a second the higher pattern, the transcendent goal of humanity, which is oneness with the Logos.

In other words, be pessimistic about conventional goods, but optimistic about higher, transcendental goods. That is the message of Stoicism, and also of some tragedies, like Hamlet or Oedipus.

(Other tragedies however, like King Lear, are more unremittingly pessimistic. In King Lear, there is no benevolent pattern. The gods kill us for their sport. But we can at least realise we are united in our suffering. It afflicts us all, kings and beggars alike. And that can lead to a transcendent sympathy for the weak and the humble, which is what Lear discovers on the heath.)

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