Alain de Botton: The Consolations of Pessimism: In our Age as in Seneca’s the worst is always possible

[Alain de Botton is an essayist living in London. He has written numerous books, including The Architecture of Happiness and the forthcoming The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.]

It’s been clear for a while, at least since the collapse of Lehman Brothers last fall, that what we have to fear above all is hope itself. 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—believing calm and happiness to be the norm—unhappy that we’re unhappy.

It’s time to recognize how odd and counterproductive 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. But from a broader historical perspective, this optimism is an anomaly. Humans have spent the greater part of their existence drawing a curious comfort from expecting the worst. In the West, lessons in pessimism derive 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.

The Roman philosopher Seneca should be the author of the hour. Living in a time of continuous financial and political upheaval under the emperor Nero, 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 man-made disasters would always be part of their lives, however sophisticated and safe they thought they had become.

If we do not dwell on the risk of sudden calamity, in the markets and otherwise, and end up paying a price for our innocence, it is because reality comprises two cruelly confusing characteristics: on the one hand, continuity and reliability lasting across decades; on the other, unheralded cataclysms. We find ourselves divided between a plausible expectation 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. It is because we have such powerful incentives to neglect the second 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, make a 50-year-old company disappear into a worthless asset, or let a balance sheet be destroyed by an evaporation of demand....

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