Stoicism to the rescue

In the times of distress and uncertainty, the only thing that can calm our minds is a bit of cheerful pessimism. And, that’s what stoicism is all about. The below post by Alain de Botton couldn’t have been more timely.

“Stoicism was a philosophy developed in ancient Rome, devoted to the art of living serenely through political chaos. Here is a taste of what Stoicism teaches:

This stiff counsel is – the Stoics believed – the very best light we can hold on to in an appalling world.

Our lives are powerfully affected by a special quirk of the human mind, to which we rarely pay much attention. We are creatures deeply marked by our expectations. We go around with mental pictures, lodged in our brains, of how things are supposed to go. We may hardly even notice we’ve got such phantasms. But expectations have an enormous impact on how we respond to what happens to us. They are always framing the way we interpret events. It’s according to the tenor of our expectations that we will deem moments to be either enchanting or (more likely) a catastrophe.
What drives us to fury are affronts to our expectations. There are plenty of things that don’t turn out as we’d like but don’t make us livid either. When a problem has been factored into our expectations, calm is never endangered. We may be sad, but we aren’t screaming. Yet, when we can’t find the car keys (they’re always by the door, in the little drawer beneath the gloves) or our partner does not welcome us warmly after a trip or the wrong person wins election, the reaction may be very different. Here we are suffering from expectations. We are enraged because somewhere in our minds, we have a perilous faith in a world in which car keys simply never go astray and partners show no vengeance when they have been abandoned for a few days and electorates are wise and measured. Every one of our hopes, so innocently and mysteriously formed, opens us up to a vast terrain of agitation.

A solution to our distress and agitation lies in a curious area: with a philosophy of pessimism. It’s an odd and unappealing thought. Pessimism sounds unattractive. It’s associated with failure, it’s usually what gets in the way of better things. But when it comes to our dealings with the world, expectations are reckless enemies of serenity. Pessimism is the royal route to calm.

One of the great theorists of agitation is the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca. He insisted that anger is always the result of certain rationally-held but false ideas; if we can only change the ideas, we will change our propensity to anger. And in the Senecan view, what makes us angry are dangerously optimistic ideas about what the world and other people are truly like.

As Seneca put it: “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.”
He chided his readers for their hazy optimism as regards the future. They would be wiser to reflect on how open we are to disaster at all times: “We never anticipate evils before they actually arrive… So many funerals pass our doors, yet we never dwell on death. So many deaths are untimely, yet we make plans for our own infants… No promise has been given you for this night – no, I have suggested too long a respite – no promise has been given even for this hour.” There is dangerous innocence in the expectation of a future formed on the basis of probability. Any accident to which a human has been subject, however rare, however distant in time, is a possibility we must ready ourselves for.

Because habit risks seducing us into sentimental somnolence, Seneca entreated us to spare a little time each day to think of everything that could go wrong. We do not know what will happen next: we must expect something. In the early morning, we should undertake what Seneca termed a praemeditatio, a meditation in advance on all the sorrows of mind and body to which the goddess may subsequently subject us.

[The wise] will start each day with the thought… Fortune gives us nothing which we can really own. Nothing, whether public or private, is stable; the destinies of men, no less than those of cities, are in a whirl. Whatever structure has been reared by a long sequence of years, at the cost of great toil and through the great kindness of the gods, is scattered and dispersed in a single day. No, he who has said ‘a day’ has granted too long a postponement to swift misfortune; an hour, an instant of time, suffices for the overthrow of empires. How often have cities in Asia, how often in Achaia, been laid low by a single shock of earthquake. How many towns in Syria, how many in Macedonia, have been swallowed up. How often has this kind of devastation laid Cyprus in ruins. We live in the middle of things which have all been destined to die. Mortal have you been born, to mortals have you given birth. Reckon on everything, expect everything.”