Guest Contributor: Alain de Botton
We are living in especially uncertain times. And so, it’s not unsurprising that we might look to the life of the mind – to thought and philosophy – to help us live with that uncertainty. On the anniversary of our More to Wealth lecture by Alain de Botton, we hope you will enjoy revisiting his sage advice, as follows:
One school of philosophy in particular, Stoicism, can be especially helpful in trying times.
Stoicism was a philosophy that flourished for some 400 years in Ancient Greece and Rome, gaining widespread support among all classes of society. It had one overwhelming and highly practical ambition: to teach people how to be calm and brave in the face of overwhelming anxiety and pain. We still honour this school whenever we call someone ‘stoic’ or plain ‘philosophical’ when fate turns against them: when they lose their keys, are humiliated at work, rejected in love or disgraced in society. Of all philosophies, Stoicism remains perhaps the most immediately relevant and useful for our uncertain and panicky times.
It was at its most popular during the days of Ancient Rome when emperors like Nero and Caligula were on the throne: thin-skinned and paranoid tyrants, prone to sudden swerves of temper and vengeful judgments. The people of Ancient Rome had to look for ways to survive with such radical uncertainty, and they found it in the work of Stoic philosophers such as Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. Their writings are terrifically consoling. Not least because they help us to remember something important: that hope is one of the most dangerous things we can play with.
This is due to an interesting quirk in our temperament. We don’t cry and we don’t panic whenever something goes wrong. We cry and we panic when something goes wrong that we did not expect. If you think about the person who starts shouting when they find themselves in a traffic jam, they are doing this because, somewhere in their semi-conscious, they believe in a world in which the roads are mysteriously traffic-free. This is a dangerous assumption to have about traffic, but this is not the only example of how expectations can make us upset.
Someone who shouts every time they lose their house keys, again, is betraying a belief – touching perhaps, but naive and reckless – in a world in which keys do not go astray. Of course, the reality of the world is much more complex than this and it can be difficult to accept this reality. It means we have to make our peace with a world in which a lot more things are seen as possible than we previously thought. House keys can disappear for all sorts of strange reasons; traffic jams occur when we least expect them. We have to adjust our sense of what is normal and that adjustment is always painful, whilst also being very necessary. The Stoics believed that in order to achieve peace of mind, we should regularly imagine the worst-case scenario. If we do this, then it can help us to see that the worst-case scenario is still liveable.
They believed that what keeps us up at night and what agitates us more than anything else is the oscillation between hope and despair. Their solution to this – their recommended technique for dampening this oscillation – was to settle it in favour of complete despair. This isn’t because we should necessarily think that the despairing scenario will come true, but because once we’ve made our peace with it, we are then free to confront reality with a lightness of mind. In order to help us do this, they recommended certain exercises. They believed that we should undertake what they termed a pre-meditation. (A ‘pre meditatio’ in Latin).
Every day, before heading out into the world, they believed that a Stoic should pre-meditate on everything that could possibly go wrong. This included everything from personal disgrace to one of your children dying, your spouse dying or you dying. This was something that you were to practice every single day. The idea was that, although you wouldn’t become insured from loss itself, you would be insured from the sense of panic, persecution and unexpectedness that frequently comes with loss. And so, in the present climate, this may be a time for some dark pre-meditations. Not because the world itself is dark, but because we have to prepare for periods of darkness in order to be less prone to sudden agitation. This is the ultimate lesson of Stoic philosophy.
Romanticism and Education
For most of history, the idea that the goal of our lives was to be happy would have sounded extremely odd. In the Christian story which dominated the Western imagination, unhappiness was not a coincidence, it was an inevitability required by the sins of Adam and Eve. For the Buddhists, life simply was in its essence a story of suffering. Then, slowly at the dawn of the modern age, a remarkable new concept came to the fore: that of personal fulfilment, the idea that happiness could be achievable both at work and in relationships. Unfortunately, this new concept coincided with a belief that the skills required to achieve happiness could be picked up outside of education. In this respect, our current system of education has been very unhelpful. Especially when it comes to teaching people how to live.
This is because it presumes that clever people know how to live already. But it doesn’t matter how clever you are: no one really knows how to live. We are very good at educating ourselves in a range of technical areas such as accountancy, flying planes or brain surgery. We have fantastic institutions in which to learn about these things. But if you were to visit the University of Oxford or Cambridge and ask whether you could start a course which showed you how to run a relationship without accident, how to tap into the deepest parts of who you are and govern your life in an authentic way, or make sure that your precious years on this earth were not wasted – they would think you insane. If you managed to make it through that speech they would be calling an ambulance, or at least a doctor, because it sounds so weird. It sounds distinctly odd.
The typical belief is that intelligent people know all these things already. They don’t. Most of us get deep into our 40s and 50s without really understanding what it is that we want or where our drives in life come from. We end up leaving some of the largest questions about ourselves to chance, and this is because we are living in an age that is still dominated by Romanticism: the idea that we can approach these big questions through intuition alone. If we were to imagine a pilot who said they simply weren’t interested in using any of their flight instruments because they could land their plane just by using intuition – we would naturally think they were insane.
However, we don’t tend to see this as a form of insanity elsewhere in our lives. If a friend were to tell you – “I met a person and I felt such a strong feeling, and after six weeks, I know it’s only six weeks, we’re getting married because we love each other so much,” – your reaction would likely be positive. Most people would find this to be quite a touching story.
It is, in fact, a story of madness, but we accept this (very touchingly) because we believe that intuition is generally a good thing and should be allowed to run its course in life. We often take this approach with our children too. We ask our children if they know what they’d like to be when they grow up. Then they might offer an unusual answer – a detective, an inventor, a baker – or they tell us that they don’t know. We find it amusing and sweet, but we don’t think of helping them systematically to make their decision. As a parent, it would be better to help your child on a more or less daily basis to try and understand what they would like to do in the world. We can help, from the age of fifteen at least, to try and plot a career that works for them.
Sadly, we don’t do this, because – in a rather Romantic way – we leave it to chance instead. We have this idea that the best things come to us through flashes of inspiration, by sudden urges in one direction or another: a religious visitation that will guide us and show us the way. But it doesn’t happen. Or, if it does happen, its outcomes are often not very good. It’s important to recognise that, although we have instinct, we generally shouldn’t listen to it. There’s generally not much to be gained from instinct unless it first passes through the hand of reason. We do this in most areas of life, except for the ones that really matter.
When it comes to our professional and personal lives, there’s a tendency to be surprisingly casual and cavalier about things. When it comes to those higher order questions – “What are we doing?”, “Who are we doing it with?”, etc. – we often leave things to chance. It’s a very reckless approach. It’s why most of us, deep down, are quite sad. We simply haven’t been afforded the time to look closely at our lives and explore what we want. We too easily end up angry, fruitlessly envious or crushed by disappointment, because we’ve let intuition guide us where a systematic approach would work wonders instead. We must abandon our fondness for Romanticism, if we want to educate ourselves and others in how to achieve a reasonable level of happiness and fulfilment.
It’s a remarkable fact of life that, once we reach over a certain age, people are no longer interested in whether we’re nice or not. It’s nice if we’re nice, of course, but it’s not crucial. What really counts is what we are doing. The first question that people tend to ask each other at a party is, “What do you do?”. According to how you answer that question, people are either incredibly pleased to see you or they leave you stood alone next to the snack table and don’t want anything more to do with you. Naturally, this can cut you straight to the heart.
It’s a devastating change to our social existence and it normally kicks in after school or higher education. Suddenly, there comes a new way of evaluating a fellow human being. It’s profoundly anxiety-inducing kind of snobbery. Not one that is obsessed with old-fashioned respectability – country houses and official titles – but instead career snobbery. A type of judgment that only looks at a person according to one narrow area of their life. It refuses to consider the whole of who someone is before making an evaluation.
Part of the trouble is that the snobbery we have to face leaves us fired up by a desperate urge to achieve and impress. Sometimes our behaviour is mistaken for greed and vanity, but it is more poignant than this. A lot of our interest in fancy cars, jobs and houses has nothing to do with materialism. It has to do with a hunger for the respect and esteem that is only available in our societies through the acquisition of material goods. It isn’t the goods themselves we seek; it is the love we stand to gain through our possession of them. The next time we see someone driving a Ferrari, we shouldn’t condemn them for their greed, we should pity them for the intensity of their need for love from the world.
At the root of snobbery is a lack of imagination and confidence about how to decide who in the world is valuable. The snob isn’t wrong in their background sense that there are better and worse sorts of people around. They are just brutally misguided and slavish in their beliefs about how the superior individuals can identified. For snobs, it is the already-acclaimed and already successful who are the only ones worthy of respect. There is no room in their timid regimented minds to imagine that someone might be clever, kind or good – and yet somehow have been overlooked entirely by society, their qualities lurking beneath an unfamiliar guise, and having as yet discovered no obvious outlet.
Touchingly, the personal origins of snobbery typically lie in parents who were themselves snobs – and never endowed their offspring with the confidence to judge each new person on their own terms, without reference to social status, income and reputation. Despite their commitment to surrounding themselves by people of high status, ironically, snobs constantly fail to spot who might one day be feted and applauded. They are misled by the unexpected outward forms that brilliance often takes. Snobs don’t sign up the Beatles, don’t invest in the start-up iteration of Google or Apple, don’t give the time of day to the taxi driver who might one day be the president or the old lady in a woolly hat writing the great novel of the 21st century.
The true answer to snobbery is not to say that there is no such thing as a better or worse person, but to insist that better or worse exist in constantly unexpected places and carry none of the outward signs of distinction. And because we are such poor judges of the worth of others, our ultimate duty remains to be kind, good, curious and imaginative about pretty much everyone who ever crosses our path – and that includes ourselves.
Luck and Dignity
At the turn of the 20th century, a French sociologist called Émile Durkheim made a fascinating discovery.
He realised that societies which operate as we do – in a market society based on individualism, which celebrates individual achievement and financial achievement – have much higher rates of suicide than societies which are communitarian, believe in God, and don’t necessarily place financial accumulation above other goals. Why should this be? It’s basically because, in the modern world, we hold people responsible for their own biographies. We no longer believe in luck. If you were to tell your friends, “I lost my whole portfolio, I lost my job, I was sacked, but it was just bad luck, it’s not me,” it’s unlikely that anyone would believe you.
Today, we hold people responsible. We are constantly told that “Winners make their own luck,”. In Medieval England the situation couldn’t have been more different: the poor were known as ‘unfortunates’. This was not a casual title; they were literally recognised as people who were not blessed by the Goddess of Fortune. It was understood that unfortunates were the worthy recipient of the charity of other people. Nowadays, particularly in America, people at the bottom of society (even if it’s behind closed doors) are called ‘losers’. This shows us the difference between the modern world and the ancient world.
The modern world believes that life is a game, that we are all fair and able actors in that game, and if we screw up then we are entirely responsible. This leaves a huge and punishing weight hanging from our shoulders. The penalty of unemployment is often seen to be purely financial, but this is a gross oversimplification. It’s also a deduction of respect. What crushes the unemployed – ultimately – is disgrace, not poverty. This is something that our society is very bad at recognising. We think that financial issues always have a financial solution when, often, we’re really dealing with issues of humiliation.
We can see this very clearly across the Atlantic, where the American lower and middle classes that voted for Donald Trump were not necessarily starving without a roof over their head and living in extreme financial penury. They were, however, feeling humiliated. Trump, like a genius – or rather like a man who understands humiliation better than anyone else – understood the mechanics of this humiliation and was able to tap into it. He is a genius of understanding how people’s dignity can be removed from them. He’s constantly described as thin-skinned and that’s a good description.
He is extremely aware of his own dignity, its absence and its presence. It’s tempting to ask if there’s something we can do about this. Whether or not there’s a way to help someone like Trump, and others like him, achieve peace of mind in an age where we have to live under such huge financial as well as emotional pressures. And just as the Medieval era was perhaps better at sympathising with the poor – the unfortunates – perhaps it had a better grasp on how its rich might live as well.
In the Medieval period, if you were a wealthy merchant, a standard piece of interior decoration that you would put in your study was a skull. They called this a Memento mori – a remembrance of dying.
The idea of having this decorative skull was that it could be placed somewhere prominent in your home. That way you would catch a glimpse of it in the morning when signing your papers and in the evening when switching off the light before bed. Every day, you would be handed a quick reminder of your mortality. Now, this might seem like a rather grim object to place in your home. It’s tempting to think that regularly staring at a human skull might convince us that life is actually pretty meaningless. But, in actual fact, the opposite is true. Many of our present concerns are placed in a very interesting and valuable perspective by being constantly referred to against the counsel of death.
Anyone who’s had a brush with death – whether they’re approaching death or just more conscious of it than most – isn’t necessarily in touch with a dispiriting or depressing agent, they’re in touch with something that can re-jig their entire value system. Most of us, sadly, are living according to values and aspirations which are not properly our own. We are taking in ideas from the world, quite uncritically, which tell us what a good life will look like. The trouble is that these ideas won’t necessarily fit us very well.
We are pack animals by nature and so we’re inclined to look around and keep an eye on what other people are doing. It is in our nature to imitate what seems to brings success to others because it should hopefully do the same for us. Unfortunately, our personal style of being happy or content, the nature of our own needs, is likely to be to the left or to the right of what our peers are doing. This leaves us in a tricky situation, but also one with enormous possibility, because it means that there’s an immense need in all of us to develop the courage to be who we really are. It takes a while to discover what that might be, and something like the figure of death can be an incredibly important agent in helping us to realise it.
Nature and Humility
Nowadays, there’s a great emphasis on nature and the natural world. We’re encouraged to go out into nature and take as much fresh air as we can; trekking through fields or hilltop villages or the exotic jungles and forests of more far-flung destinations. The reason we’re told to do this is that it’s good for our physical health. Plenty of strenuous exercise in the great outdoors will keep our hearts pumping vitally and give our muscles a good wholesome stretch. But there is another reason why nature is good for our health and its chief concern is our mental wellbeing.
Vast terrain is a supreme aide to mental health. There are huge tracts of wilderness on this earth that have never uttered a word, have never written anything down, have no mind or thought, and yet can be counted as one of the most philosophical entities on earth, always on hand, either practically or as a concept in our minds, to bring perspective back to our otherwise chaotic, harassed lives.
It is usually unpleasant to be made to feel small by more successful peers and colleagues. But feeling diminished by the grandeur of the natural world can be very satisfying. It reminds us that the world will go on much the same without us, which can be a source of relief rather than distress. It is very helpful to be reduced, from time to time, in our own eyes, because it reminds us that, in a way, everyone is small. It places our own humiliations and fragilities in a perspective which leaves them no longer quite so crushing, no longer quite so humiliating. That is the purpose of the stars, the oceans.
To some extent, this is also true of animals and small children. (Meaning no disrespect whatsoever to small children). It is wonderfully relaxing to be around a dog, a cat, or a small child because they don’t care about your portfolio. They don’t care about your job title or where you grew up. They care if you’re fun. If you’re going to roll that ball towards them or catch it, or make a small farting noise, or stand up and sing a song; whatever it may be that is fun, that is silly, that’s why they’re going to like you. This is tremendously different from anything we normally encounter in the world.
We need, more than ever, a good measure of the nonchalance which we get from small children. If our society is becoming quite child-focused, it’s because we know that children are an important resource; a concentrated dose of something that is so in danger in the world at large – humility.
If you were told that someone very successful was about to walk through the door, that in a few minutes you’d have someone very successful in the room next to you, in all likelihood you’d probably think: “It’s someone rich and famous who’s had a fantastic career”.
We tend to think that success means money, status, fame, and power. But if we take a quick look in the dictionary things become, thankfully, quite a bit more complicated. Because success, in truth, is rather more neutral and less value-laden than we tend to assume. It simply means doing anything well, excelling at something, and that might encompass any number of different things.
You can be a success at running the 100m. You can be a success in business, certainly. But you can also be a success in slightly stranger, less heralded things such as listening very attentively to a child, or being extremely kind to strangers. You can be a success at filling your mind with interesting ideas and associations, or knowing just when to put an arm around someone when it’s too much for them. People who triumph in these lesser acknowledged fields are also big success stories.
The simple fact is we can’t be successful in every area of our lives. Doing something to a high degree of excellence requires your full undivided attention and it’s inevitable that this will swallow up and unbalance your life in one way or another. There’s nothing wrong with this. There’s nothing wrong with making sacrifices to achieve the things you most care about. But it is important to make sure that you follow your own understanding of success, not someone else’s. To follow your own distinctive and personal path to the success that can truly fulfil you.