Thursday, 3 September 2009

The collision of a wish with an unyielding reality

There are certain times when it is useful to return to the musings of people who have been through this before and had a decent think about it. Alain De Botton's look at Seneca is quite useful, pop-philosophy though it might be.

Seneca was a philosopher of the Roman Empire. He noticed that at the heart of every frustration lies a basic structure: the collision of a wish with an unyielding reality. We attain wisdom by learning not to aggravate the world’s obstinacy through spasms of rage, self-pity, anxiety, bitterness, self-righteousness and paranoia.

What makes us angry are dangerously optimistic notions about what the world and other people are like. How badly we react to frustration is critically determined by what we think of as normal. We will cease to be so angry once we cease to be so hopeful.

Reality comprises two cruelly confusing characteristics. We are invited to assume that tomorrow will be much like today. Yet there is a possibility that we will meet an appalling event after which nothing will ever be the same again.

When one suffers disaster, one is unable to fit the event into a scheme of justice. One alternates between a feeling that one may after all have been bad, and the feeling that one has fallen victim to a failure in the administration of justice. The belief that the world is fundamentally just is implied in the very complaint that there has been an injustice. It is based on a picture of a moral universe where external circumstances reflected internal qualities.

Frustration, anger, shock, and the sense of injustice are caused by an incorrect paradigm of the world. Wisdom lies in correct discerning where we are free to mould reality according to our wishes, and where must accept the unalterable with tranquility. Reason allows us to determine when our wishes are in irrevocable conflict with reality, and then bids us to submit ourselves willingly, rather than angrily or bitterly, to necessities. We may be powerless to alter certain events, but we remain free to choose our attitude towards them. It is in our spontaneous acceptance of necessity that we find our distinctive freedom. Seneca recommended this formula:

[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 isfortune; 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 been destined to die. Mortal have you been born, to mortals have you given birth. Reckon on everything, expect everything.

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