The Pleasures of Pessimism

Hope can be so burdensome.


Illustrations by Remy Labesque

It has been clear for a while that what we have to fear, above all, is hope. Attempts to trust that the worst is over and to stop frightening ourselves seem doomed to propel us into yet worse disappointment. We are not only unhappy, but also— believing calm and happiness to be the norm—unhappy that we’re unhappy.

It’s time to recognize how odd and counterproductive the optimism on which we have grown up is. For the past two hundred years, despite occasional shocks, the Western world has been dominated by a belief in progress, based on its extraordinary scientific and entrepreneurial achievements. But from a broader historical perspective, this optimism is a grave anomaly. Humans have spent the greater part of existence 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 remind ourselves of a few of their lessons, not to add to our misery, but to alleviate our injured surprise and sorrow.

To focus on the first of these sources, the philosopher Seneca should be the author of the hour. Living in a time of continuous 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 AD 62—that natural and manmade disasters will always be a feature of our lives, however sophisticated and safe we think we have become.

If we do not dwell on the risk of sudden calamity, and pay a price for our innocence, it is because reality has two cruelly confusing characteristics: on the one hand, continuity and reliability through the ages and, on the other, unheralded cataclysms. We find ourselves divided between a plausible invitation to assume that tomorrow will be much like today and the possibility that we will meet with an appalling event after which nothing will ever be the same again. It is because we have such powerful incentives to neglect the latter scenario that Seneca asked us to remember that our fate is forever in the hands of the Goddess of Fortune. This goddess can scatter gifts and then, with terrifying speed, watch a fifty-year-old company disintegrate into a worthless asset.

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, start 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 derivatives so complex that we didn’t dare to look inside. Such trust could not be further from a Stoic mind-set. We must, stressed Seneca, expand our sense of what may at any time 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.”

Christianity only backed up the Stoic message. It pointed out that all humans find it easy to imagine perfection, but that it is a problem—indeed a sin—to suppose that such perfection can ever occur on earth. Nothing human can ever be free of blemishes. There cannot be an end to boom and bust. We have tended to cast such gloomy messages aside. The modern bourgeois philosophy pins its hopes firmly on two great, presumed ingredients of happiness: love and work. But there is vast unthinking cruelty discreetly coiled within this magnanimous assurance that everyone will discover satisfaction here. It isn’t that these two entities are invariably incapable of delivering fulfilment, only that they almost never do so for too long. And when an exception is misrepresented as a rule, our individual misfortunes, instead of seeming to us quasi-inevitable aspects of life, will weigh down on us like particular curses. In denying the natural place reserved for longing and disaster in the human lot, the bourgeois ideology denies us the possibility of collective consolation for our fractious marriages, our unexploited ambitions, and our exploded portfolios, and it condemns us instead to solitary feelings of shame and persecution for having stubbornly failed to make more of ourselves.

We should, of course, instead remember the great pessimistic voices of history. There are two quotes I cherish for these sort of times. One is from Seneca: “What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.” The other is from the French moralist Chamfort: “A man should swallow a toad every morning to be sure of not meeting with anything more revolting in the day ahead.” There are evidently rife opportunities ahead for toad cereal manufacturers.

Alain de Botton is an author and philosopher. His latest book is A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary. He was a TEDGlobal 2009 speaker. www.alaindebotton.com

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