The most unexpectedly uplifting and consoling artist of the 20th century was the abstract painter Mark Rothko, the high priest of grief and loss who spent the latter part of his career turning out a succession of sublime and sombre canvases that spoke, as he put it, of the ‘tragedy of being human’ – and who, in 1970, committed suicide at the age of 66 in his studio in New York.
Born in Dvinsk, Russia, Rothko emigrated to the United States at the age of ten and immediately grew to despise the aggressive good cheer and steely optimism of his adopted land. Appalled by the sentimentality around him, he learnt to make art that was insular, unrelenting, sombre and oriented towards pain. It was, one critic said, the visual equivalent of a condemned prisoner’s last gasp. Rothko’s favourite colours were a burnt burgundy, dark grey, pitch black and blood red, occasionally, alleviated by a sliver of yellow.
In 1958, Rothko was offered a large sum to paint some murals for a soon to be opened opulent New York restaurant, the Four Seasons on Park Avenue. It was, as he put it, ‘a place where the richest bastards of New York will come to feed and show off.’ His intentions for them soon became clear: ‘I hope to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room,’ and to that end, he set to work on some large black and maroon colour fields expressing a mood of terror and archaic anguish. It was an unlikely commission for Rothko to have accepted but it became ever more so in his mind when, following a trip to Italy (where he had been much moved by Giotto’s renditions of the crucifixion), in the autumn of 1959, he took his wife Mell to the restaurant for lunch. His hatred became overwhelming. Believing it was ‘criminal to spend more than $5 on a meal’, he couldn’t get over the overpriced dishes, the fancy sauces and the ponderous waiting staff. ‘Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kinds of prices will never look at a painting of mine,’ he vowed. But he hated the clientele even more: suntanned, cheery rich people, out to celebrate and show themselves off, to cut deals and swap gossip, the apparent winners of life, the kind who invested in tennis lessons and whitened their teeth. His hatred of them had its roots in his sense that we only accede to our humanity when we face pain and commune around it with compassion and humility. Anything else is grandstanding and pride. He had remained Russian in his soul.
Following the lunch, Rothko called up his patrons, explained his feelings – and sent back the money. He then gave his paintings to London’s Tate Gallery, where they were hung in a quiet airy contemplative, religious-seeming space, that enclosed the viewer in an atmosphere of meditative mortification. The paintings remain ideal companions for visitors who drift into the gallery at their wits’ end, who might be working through the loss of a partner or the ruin of their career – and who need more than anything else to know that they are not alone. Rothko’s art did not save his life; it will have prevented many others from taking theirs.
Rothko’s canvases – though focused on the darkness – are never themselves depressing to look at because they lend our difficulties dignity and legitimacy. To bathe in their atmosphere is to gain a distinct sense of comfort, like lying in a tender person’s arms who says little other than a modest ‘I know’ in response to our dejection and loss. With Rothko as our guide, it matters a little less that the world is mostly filled with noisy, brash, apparent winners, that no one much cares for us, that we have failed in numberless areas, that our name isn’t in lights, that we have enemies, and that we are no longer young. We are offered a refuge from the boosterish voices of contemporary society and are able to locate in an external form works that echo our own confused and inchoate sorrows.
A great part of our misery is caused by the cruel and erroneous assumption that life might fundamentally be a pleasant journey, capable of delivering satisfaction and delight to those who work hard and retain noble and purposeful hearts.
The truth could not be further from such a sentimental vision. Agony is baked into the human condition. We are suffering not by coincidence but by necessity. We may be focused on the particular errors and cruelties that have brought us to a low point: we may be narrowly concerned with what our enemies have done to us, how a few mistakes have cost us everything or how we have been abandoned by those who should have cared for us. But it isn’t to minimise these problems to insist that they are merely local manifestations of what are in reality more global and endemic troubles. They are merely the specific mechanisms by which we have come to taste the sorrow that would – however fate had twisted our path – have been our lot and that is the grisly birth right of every human. We must all ultimately drink the very same amount of poisoned liquid from the cup of sorrow, even if in different gulps and at different times. No one gets through unscathed.
Yet not only are we sad, we are isolated and lonely with our sadness, because the official narrative is remorselessly upbeat, and insists that we can find the right partner, that work can deliver satisfaction, that destinies are fair and that there is no inherent reason for us to lament our state. However, we don’t deserve – on top of everything else – to be forced to grin. We should be allowed to weep without being hectored into positivity. Our true overlooked right is not, after all, the right to happiness; it is the right to be miserable.
This may sound far from a reason to live – but the ability to look darkness in the face and accept its role in our affairs functions as its own very particular and intense reward. No longer must we be surprised by our suffering. No longer must we be taken unawares by misery. No longer do we have to feel that our reversals say something unique and shocking about us. We can start to rediscover a taste for life when we see that we’re not alone in wanting to give up on it; that it is acceptable, even necessary, sometimes to hate the smiling ‘bastards’ who so annoyed Rothko and anyone else with a heart. We can build friendships – imaginative, artistic or real – around shared honesty about tragedy. We will have banked our first reason to live when we know that we aren’t exceptionally stupid for finding matters very difficult. Unhappiness is just – as wise artists have always liked to remind us, and despite the suggestions of all the adverts, the brochures and the confident-seeming people congratulating themselves in the world’s fancy restaurants – very normal indeed.
Reading has always had a central and prestigious place in our understanding of how we can develop our minds. The more we read, we’re told, the cleverer we stand to be. We need to read because we can’t do it all by ourselves; the fundamental point of reading is to acquire the good ideas of other people. However true this might be, we can nevertheless point to another, perhaps less familiar purpose to reading that is as important in terms of developing our minds: reading provides us with a superlative occasion on which to unearth and put into focus what we happen to think. It’s through contact with the books of others that we are sometimes best able to come to a clearer sense of our perspectives and ideas. The words of someone else can powerfully draw out our hitherto hesitant and disjointed notions; it is contact with another’s intelligence that may bring our own into new relief.
Even before we reach the specific content of a book, a basic benefit of alighting on one that covers a topic we’re interested in is that its existence provides an implicit endorsement of the thinking-task ahead of us. In daily life, the people in the vicinity often don’t want to reflect on exactly what concerns us at a given time; a topic we’re curious about might be covered in just a few minutes at the table or dismissed as too complicated even to approach. But when we find a book on the subject we care about but are lonely with, we have evidence of an extraordinary commitment made by a serious stranger, which bolsters our sense of the legitimacy of the thinking challenge we face.
Someone else has seen fit to devote years of their life to our theme, and gathered fifty or a hundred-thousand words in its honour – a devotion made all the more tangible by the gold lettering on the spine, the logo of a venerable publisher, the rich cream paper and an elegant blue bookmark. Whatever might actually be inside, this is proof already that the thinking-task is in principle a serious one; with this book in our lap, it no longer seems quite so peculiar to want to think in a sustained way about urban design or the future of marriage, child psychology or income differentials in developed countries. We are encouraged to start our own brains by evidence of the developed thoughts of another person.
Once we start to read the book itself, the benefits to our own train of thought continues. We’re used to imagining that it’s the ideas explicitly stated in the book that will enrich us, but we may not need the full thoughts of another person to start to come to a better sense of what we ourselves believe. Often, just a few paragraphs or even parts of sentences can be sufficient to provoke our minds – and can leave us inclined to stop, daydream and reach for a notebook in which we jot down, not the thought that we’ve read, but the thought that it prompted inside us, which might be quite a different thing. The book frames the topic for us, it puts the right question to us, it functions as the three dots that start a ball rolling… – and we do the rest.
Then, most valuably, at times, we are privileged to disagree entirely with a book – and are richly rewarded for doing so. Whatever the charms of an author with whose views we concur perfectly, nothing can quite beat the service sometimes paid to us by one who we feel is tantalisingly off tangent, an author who starts to say something interesting, but then (in our eyes) goes resolutely off piste, an author who hovers close to an essential point but then drops it in favour of something maddeningly trivial, misguided or irrelevant. Assisted by the author’s ploughing of the intellectual landscape, our personal thoughts can start to germinate in a deeply authentic and vivid direction. We put down the book and find a whole portion of our own thinking revealed to us. Our argument with the author powers our own reflection. By not saying what we quite wished to hear, the author brings us into newfound contact with what we truly believe, and does us the immense service of releasing us from our intellectual underconfidence and languor.
The German 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant once famously credited the Scottish 18th-century philosopher David Hume for teaching him how to think – but, in a nuance to the usual such tribute, added that Hume had done this not by lending him a set of ideas with which he could agree but by laying out with elegance and precision a whole class of intellectual positions from which (as he now saw) he passionately dissented. Reading Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding had, said Kant, powerfully woken him from his ‘dogmatic slumber’ and directly inspired him to arrange his objections into what would turn out to be his masterpiece, The Critique of Pure Reason.
We are all so much the poorer if all we can do is agree with the books we read.
The role of books in reminding us of what we think through our inner arguments with them changes our sense of what an ideal curriculum might look like. It may include the sensible masterpieces of course, but there is all the more reason to find space in it for all the books that are fruitfully not very good or fascinatingly misconstrued or inspiringly erratic. So-called bad books might, when considered as a tool for thinking, be just as effective as the acknowledged good ones – and sometimes a lot better – for as we turn their pages, they allow us secretly to imagine our own, superior versions of what we are taking in.
The practice of thinking-reading should be distinguished from reading-reading, and venerated on its own terms. We should at times – as we turn the pages – get very interested not only in what the author is about to say but, as importantly, we might start to pay very special attention to what we are about to think.
Perhaps the most boring question one can ever direct at a religion is to ask whether or not it is ‘true’. Of course (this publication believes), none of its supernatural claims can ever be ‘true’ – but that may not be a reason to dismiss the religion in its entirety, just as one wouldn’t disregard Anna Karenina on the grounds that the tale had been somewhat invented. Religions are intermittently too interesting, wise and consoling to be abandoned to ‘believers’ alone.
For Christians, these are the darkest of days. Easter commemorates an incident of catastrophic failure. The story is dismal in the extreme: he was gentle, generous, sincere and wise. He was close to his mother and a friend to the poor and the lonely. He believed in love and forgiveness. He understood suffering and wanted to make a better world. And yet it all ended in humiliation, betrayal and unbearable pain. One of his best friends denounced him. He was tried on trumped up charges. His community abandoned him. The crowds jeered.
Life couldn’t go any more wrong than this
Jesus of Nazareth was nailed up on a cross and left to die. He suffered the fate of a criminal and an outcast. (For a long time), no one really gave a damn.
Who knows if it really all happened like this. But that’s not really the point. The truth of the story isn’t the decisive factor. He was clearly not ‘the son of God’, but the story nevertheless retains a critical power to educate the modern world about one or two important things.
Jesus is a symbolic character, a representative human being. No one is like him all the time. But most of us are a little bit like him some of the time. The story of his suffering is a strategically exaggerated version of the griefs involved in human experience more generally. Terrible things happen. Cancer is diagnosed. A divorce shatters a family. A firm goes bankrupt. An ordinary mistake triggers a calamity. A parent dies before a child gets around to sorting out what they might have meant to them.
Holding up the story of the Crucifixion for regular contemplation makes the most painful scenarios feel more familiar and more normal; severe trials and periods of misery are written into the contract of life.
Yet in a lot of today’s individualistic narratives, defeat can only be explained by a person’s own weakness or stupidity. Those who fail are callously described as ‘losers’. We are taken to deserve our fates. Against such a punitive backdrop, the story of the Crucifixion emerges as offering a more endurable and forgiving map of life.
It was the genius of Christianity to insist on making its central figure an ‘ordinary’ person, not an idealised all-powerful deity, but a character exposed to every available indignity – and at the same time, to insist on his status: both the king of kings and an ordinary loser. This was a truly revolutionary move with a deeply consoling message at its heart.
What is the mark of a good life? Who should be considered a success? Easter offers a surprising and helpful answer: success is not about obvious worldly triumph, it’s about developing an ability to use one’s own suffering as a route to compassion for others.
There’s a second side to the Easter story. The Crucifixion is presented as horrific, but the catastrophe becomes an occasion to promote forgiveness rather than revenge.
Forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing
The Roman guards and the cruel crowds are, in the image above, doing something terrible. But Jesus is not desperate to hurt them back. He isn’t being weak. It’s because he’s got an unusual idea about why things go wrong in people’s hearts.
Among the last words Jesus was meant to have said before he died was the plea: ‘Forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.’ Herein lies the fascinating suggestion that cruelty is a symptom of a lack of love and understanding, but it is not the ultimate truth about anyone. People who enjoy bringing pain to others are themselves traumatised, rather than inhuman. They are not fully in command of themselves. The jeering man in the crowd is himself the victim of past horrors, deserving – if we can find it in our hearts to understand – pity rather than rage.
A good society understands that we cannot work out how to live unaided. We need role models, guides to show us how we might handle pain and respond to insult and betrayal – and it places figures before us for our consolation and edification. The Christian narrative of Easter is an exemplary pedagogic tale. We perhaps shouldn’t worry quite so much whether or not the story is exactly ‘true’. What may matter more is whether or not it is helpful.
The School of Life is a global organisation committed to emotional education. Our headquarters are in some of the world’s major urban centres: London, Paris, Amsterdam, Melbourne, Seoul, Istanbul… But we have always been interested in helping our audiences find some of the peace of mind once offered by isolated rural monasteries.
It was with this in mind that we bought a piece of land in a deserted valley in central Wales and, with the help of the British architect John Pawson, built a secular ‘monastery’ we call THE LIFE HOUSE.
Visitors are invited to spend week-long formal retreats at the Life House – taking part in a variety of indoor and outdoor therapeutic exercises. One of the central experiences of The Life House is a Contemplation Chamber buried in the hillside, a bare room in which to empty the mind and become responsive to long suppressed thoughts and associations.
On the ground, on a massive piece of granite, is inscribed a quotation from Pascal: ‘All of man’s unhappiness is caused by his inability to stay quietly in a room by himself.’
Three bedrooms follow, each dedicated to one of the central ways in which humans have traditionally searched for calm.
There is a Music Bedroom, with state of the art equipment and a curated selection of music to bring calm and perspective to the soul.
Next comes the Library Bedroom, with an array of books that promote introspection, reconciliation and a sense of serenity.
Lastly there is the Bathing Bedroom, with a sunken tub that gives out onto the Welsh valley beyond.
We believe that architecture has a fundamental role to play in mental health and well-being. The Life House is an embodiment of our commitment to the education of the spirit.
If you are interested in a retreat, please click here for more information.
When pop music started in a big way in the 1960s, it seemed at times like an especially silly medium, favoured by hormonal school girls and connected up with delinquent and tediously bizarre behaviour.
By contrast, philosophy had a reputation for being deeply serious and impressive – the natural home of the big ambition to understand ourselves and transform the world through ideas.
But since the 1960s, philosophy has stalled and pop has conquered the world. It is now the foremost medium for the articulation of ideas on a mass scale. This explains why, if it is to survive, philosophy must study pop; part of its salvation lies in understanding pop’s techniques so as to be able to become, in crucial ways, a little more like it.
There are a host of critical lessons philosophy can learn from pop. For a start, pop teaches us about charm. The great pop songs are bewitchingly, dazzlingly charming in the manner in which they get their messages across: they know exactly how to wear away our defences and enter our imaginations with easy grace. It’s a reminder that it isn’t enough for ideas to be correct. For them to become powerful and deliver on their promises, they need to know how to win over an audience. Pop is the most seductive force the world has ever known; it has more – and more devoted – adherents than all religions put together. It is more deeply loved, more trusted, and a more constant companion in our joys and sorrows than any other art form.
Pop has become powerful in part because it has cleverly understood the division of labour. Those who can sing and hold the crowd may not be the same as those who know how to write music or arrange instruments. Pop is unashamed about uniting talent wherever it finds it, so that the final result can combine the most beautiful face with the finest voice, the best score and the most beguiling instrumental arrangement. Pop has overcome the Romantic hangup about the unique creator, it knows that the most intimate, heartfelt result may be the outcome of large-scale institutional collaboration.
Pop teaches us too about compression. It knows our lives are busy and has an extraordinarily ambitious sense of what could be achieved in under three minutes. Like all other art forms, pop is trying to communicate ideas, but it bypasses the more resistant intellectual parts of the mind. All the usual obstacles to reaching another person are stripped away in the name of visceral intimacy. Pop achieves what Pericles, Lincoln, Dickens and Proust were attempting – and spectacularly exceeds all of them. It provides the ultimate demonstration of the 19th-century theorist Walter Pater’s tantalising assertion that ‘All art aspires to the condition of music.’
Like religion, pop knows that repetition is key. It works its effect through being heard again and again. It would prefer to grab three minutes from you every day, than three hours every two months. Like religious incantation, it is interested in working upon our souls cumulatively.
Pop is intelligent in not being afraid of simplicity; it is too wise to be held back by pedantry or erudition. It knows that our emotional needs are in essence obvious: to be encouraged, to be held, to be jollied, to be reassured when we are alone, to be told something beautiful and uplifting. It doesn’t suffer from high art’s perverse addiction to subtlety. It accepts that the core of our minds may be astonishingly basic in its structure.
Pop is ultimately the master of collective euphoria. It possesses what churches and politicians would like, but are so rarely able to secure. It has worked out how to generate shared moments of deep emotion about important things. In the stadium, the singer functions as a high priest, for whom the flock might be ready to make major sacrifices; they would, in their benign frenzy, be willing to go anywhere.
That philosophy needs to learn from pop doesn’t preclude that pop needs – of course – to learn quite a bit from philosophy as well.
Pop currently touches on the big themes but doesn’t, as yet, properly take up many of the opportunities that lie its way. It is lacking in ultimate ambitions.
In the future, we need pop musicians to take up the challenge of investigating the deepest truths, of getting behind transformative concepts and of making these into the things we’ll sing about in front of the bathroom mirror with our hairbrushes – so that they become the background sounds of our inner lives. The world waits for a redemptive synthesis between philosophy and pop.
Stoicism is a philosophical school born in Ancient Greece and later dominant in Ancient Rome which continues to have urgent things to teach us about calm, resilience and emotional stability.
Arguably the greatest, and certainly the most prolific Stoic philosopher was the Roman author and statesman Seneca, who was born in 4BC in Spain and died in 65AD in Rome.
A lot of Seneca’s thought is known to us from the letters he wrote to his friends, usually giving them counsel at times of trouble. Seneca had a friend called Lucilius, a civil servant working in Sicily. One day Lucilius learned of a lawsuit against him which threatened to end his career and disgrace his good name. He wrote to Seneca in panic.
“You may expect that I will advise you to picture a happy outcome, and to rest in the allurements of hope,” replied the philosopher, but ‘I am going to conduct you to peace of mind through another route” – which culminated in the advice, “If you wish to put off all worry, assume that what you fear may happen is certainly going to happen.”
This is an essential Stoic tenet. We must always try to picture the worst that could happen – and then remind ourselves that the worst is survivable. The goal is not to imagine that bad things don’t unfold; it’s to see that we are far stronger than we think.
To calm Lucilius down, Seneca advised him make himself entirely at home with the idea of humiliation, poverty and ongoing unemployment – but to learn to see that these were, from the right perspective, not the end of everything.
“If you lose this case, can anything more severe happen to you than being sent into exile or led to prison?” asked the philosopher who had survived eight years of exile in Corsica. “Hope for that which is utterly just, and prepare yourself for that which is utterly unjust.”
Seneca gave Lucilius a tailor-made prescription to mull over in the luxury of his Sicilian home which he might have lost:
“I may become a poor man; I shall then be one among many. I may be exiled; I shall then regard myself as born in the place to which I shall be sent. They may put me in chains. What then? Am I free from bonds now? Behold this clogging burden of a body, to which nature has fettered me!”
Seneca tells us that we must grow familiar with, and hold before us at all times not just the sort of events we like to plan for, that are recorded in living memory or are common in our age group and class, but the entire range of possibilities – a longer and inevitably far less agreeable list which finds space for cataclysmic fires, sackings and deaths.
“Nothing ought to be unexpected by us. Our minds should be sent forward in advance to meet all problems and we should consider, not what is wont to happen, but what can happen.”
“Let us place before our eyes in its entirety the nature of man’s lot… not the kind of evil that often happens, but the very greatest evil that can possibly happen. We must reflect upon fortune fully and completely.”
Seneca bids us to accept the overall instability of human and natural affairs: what seems anchored and safe to us is, in the long-term, inevitably subject to decay and destruction. We build a house, it will one day collapse. We secure an empire, it will eventually crumble. We acquire a new set of tableware, it cannot outlast eternity. Better then to dwell regularly on the darkest outcomes.
“All of those cities, of whose magnificence and grandeur you hear today, the very traces will be blotted out by time… Not only does that which has been made with hands totter to the ground… nay, the peaks of mountains dissolve… places which once stood far from the sight of the sea are now covered by the waves. The mighty power of fires has eaten away the hills… and has levelled to the ground peaks which were once most lofty – the sailor’s solace and his beacon. The works of nature herself are harassed; hence we ought to bear with untroubled minds the destruction of cities. They stand but to fall.”
At one point, a friend of Seneca’s lost a son, and the consoling thoughts ran in a similar direction. Marcia, a lady of a senatorial family and an intimate friend of Livia, wife of the Emperor Augustus, was devastated by the death of her son Metilius, not yet twenty-five. She fell into a period of mourning that seemed to have no end: three years after the death, her sorrow had not abated, indeed, it was growing stronger every day. The visits of friends, the counsel of books, the passage of time, none of this brought solace to the grieving mother. So Seneca sent her an essay in which he expressed the hope that, given the length of time that had elapsed since Metilius’s death, she would forgive him for going beyond the usual condolences to deliver something darker, but perhaps more effective.
“What is man? A vessel that the slightest shaking, the slightest toss will break… A body weak and fragile, naked, in its natural state defenceless, dependent upon another’s help…”
To lose a son was surely the greatest grief that could befall a mother, but given the vulnerability of the human frame (could not a loose tile kill an emperor?), Metilius’s early death had its place in a merciless natural order, which daily offered examples of its handiwork:
“We never anticipate evils before they actually arrive, but, imagining that we ourselves are exempt and are travelling a less exposed path, we refuse to be taught by the mishaps of others that such are the lot of all. 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: how they will don the toga, serve in the army, and succeed to their father’s property.”
They might end up doing such things, but how mad to love them without remembering that no one had offered us a guarantee they would grow to maturity, let alone make it to dinner-time. “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.”
Recognition of this should lead us not to greater panic, but to greater appreciation:
“Snatch the pleasures your children bring, let your children in turn find delight in you, and drain joy to the dregs without delay”.
If Metilius’s death had been unexpected for Marcia, it was only on the basis of a wishful assessment of probabilities.
“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 to many?”
Marcia perhaps knew mothers whose sons enjoyed illustrious careers in politics and the army, and it could have been from these death-less scenarios that she had shaped her expectations of motherhood. Judged against this narrow and favoured context, it was normal if her loss should seem freakish, unjust.
Seneca imagined meeting Marcia before her birth and inviting her on a tour of the troubled earth, so that she could weigh up the terms of life, then choose whether or not to accept them. On the one hand, Marcia would see a planet of awe-inspiring beauty, where celestial bodies whirled ceaselessly above the clouds, where countless stars gleamed in the heavens, where boundless fertile plains stretched as far as the eye could see, where mountains rose to snow-capped summits and brooks flowed gently through lush meadows. It was a world of innumerable cities, of great lakes, valleys, and corn-fields, of precious stones, jewels and gold. But it was also a violent, miserable world. The very waters of the oceans could suddenly boil into a mighty rage, sea monsters that surpassed in size all creatures of the land scoured the deep, terrifying sailors by drinking in the waters of the sea and blowing them out again with force enough to sink a ship. It was a world visited by a thousand plagues, diseases, robberies, poisons and accidents, one we might be able to leave only after enduring immense cruelty and anxiety.
Would Marcia choose to step into such a world? Her existence suggested her answer. In which case, would she not have to bow to the terms of earthly life in all its extremes, from the calm meadows to the hideous water-blowing sea-monsters?
Picturing how vulnerable we all are to disaster bids us to redraw the limits to our sense of what is ours: we should no longer imagine that our farmhouses, vineyards, children, spouses and businesses are under our jurisdiction, if we feel anxious at the thought of their loss, we need only remind ourselves that they do not, and have never truly belonged to us. On acquiring a new house, lover or goblet, we must accept – from the very first date or the signature of contract – that, despite appearances, we are renting, not buying. And the owner is temperamental.
“No good thing renders its possessor happy, unless his mind is reconciled to the possibility of loss… Therefore, encourage and toughen your spirit against the mishaps that afflict even the most powerful… No man has ever been so far advanced by Fortune that she did not threaten him as greatly as she had previously indulged him. Do not trust her seeming calm; in a moment the sea is moved to its depths. The very day the ships have made a brave show in the games, they are engulfed. Reflect that a highwayman or an enemy may cut your throat; and, though he is not your master, every slave wields the power of life and death over you.”
Seneca was – along the way – keen to assuage the anger generated by the sense we have been insulted, the hot prickly anger we feel at the thought that the man in the gymnasium was giggling at the size of our forearms, that a friend at a dinner party was snide about our business or that the attendant at the gladiator’s show gave us terrible seats so we couldn’t see the Christian being eaten alive by a lion.
Seneca’s consolation followed a similar pattern as his thoughts on natural disasters: just as we should make ourselves at home with the full range of horrors that may befall us, so we should face up to everything about us which may provide others with amusement. Features of our character and appearance will inevitable be ridiculed behind our back so we should be wary of being initiated into these faults through the cruelty of others. Better to meditate on them oneself so that there will be nothing others can find to say about us of which we are not fully aware already.
“Some jest at the baldness of my head, the weakness of my eyes, the thinness of my legs, my build. By why is it an insult to be told what is self-evident?”
The more fragile our sense of self-worth, the more grounds we imagine there are for us to meet with ill-treatment, therefore, the more rapidly we form the impression that we have, in fact, been insulted. Seneca tells the story of Gnaeus Piso, consul and governor of Syria, who ordered the execution of a soldier because he had returned from leave without his companion. Piso judged that the soldier’s inability to produce this companion was a sure sign that he had killed him and, therefore, ordered him to suffer the consequences. The condemned man protested and begged for time for an enquiry to be made, but Piso refused and the soldier was carted off for execution. And yet, just as the centurion was ordering his subordinate to slice off the man’s head, the missing companion appeared. Relieved, the centurion called off the execution at once, and there was rejoicing among the troops. Piso took the news less well. Interpreting the rejoicing as insolence and an affront to his authority, he ordered both men to be executed; the soldier who had not committed murder and the one who had not been murdered. For good measure, he also ordered the execution of the centurion.
If only he could have had the confidence to trust that the rejoicing of the troops was no sign that they had worked out what a daft commander he was. They were just happy to see the execution called off.
If only Piso had followed the example of the philosopher, who at the end of a letter to Lucilius reported:
“I shall tell you what I liked today in the writings of Hecato; it is these words: ‘What progress, you ask, have I made? I have begun to be a friend to myself.’ That was indeed a great benefit; …you may be sure that such a man is a friend to all mankind.”
When we are furious, paranoid, weak-willed or sad, Stoicism is on hand – as it has been for 2,000 years, to nurse us with wisdom and friendship.
The School of Life is a global organisation with a simple mission in mind: to increase the amount of Emotional Intelligence in circulation. We are seeking more emotionally intelligent kinds of:
To further our goals, we undertake a number of activities; we run conferences, shops and classrooms worldwide, consult to businesses, write and publish books, make films, sell products and operate digitally. Behind our activities lies a common way of looking at the world: a set of beliefs about the central challenges facing us and how our lives might be improved. Our thinking breaks down as follows:
We agree with the view (first put forward by Freud) that a fulfilled life is essentially made up of two ingredients: Love and Work. But we’re also aware that disappointment, frustration and a sense of failure are very often the norm in these arenas; which both saddens us and spurs our efforts.
In our thinking about love, we’re much indebted to psychotherapy, which at its base tells us that our childhoods mark us deeply and frequently leave us a legacy of trouble around relating to others. We can have difficulties trusting or being close, achieving the right distance or staying resilient. We are prone to ‘transfer’ a lot of emotions from our past on to present day scenarios where they don’t quite belong, and may thereby respond unfairly to partners without quite understanding what is driving us. We may (in the invaluable vocabulary of the English psychoanalyst John Bowlby) be either ‘avoidant’ or ‘anxious’ in how we behave with others.
The only hope of escape from these patterns is to become a little more aware of them. In our search to understand love, we are great believers in the benefits of self-knowledge and sustained introspection.
Our current relationship difficulties also stem from a cultural source – which we call ‘Romanticism’. We’ve collectively given ourselves a deeply problematic Romantic picture of what good relationships should be like: we dream of profound intimacy, satisfying sex, an absence of secrets and only a modicum of conflict. This faith in love is touching, but it carries with it a tragic flaw: certain expectations can turn out to be an enemy of workable mature relationships.
We are instead drawn to what we’ve called a Classical approach. The Classical view is in certain ways cautious about love. Classical people pay special attention to what can go wrong around others. Before condemning a relationship, they consider the standard of partners across society and may regard a current arrangement as bearable, under the circumstances. This view of people is fundamentally, but usefully, dark. Everyone is ultimately deeply troubled and hard to live with. The only people whom one can think of as normal are those one doesn’t yet know very well.
A Classical philosophy holds that because we are not naturally well equipped for the demands of relationships, we need a lot of assistance and education. We need a culture that helps us to understand ourselves and to form realistic expectations. We require regular reminders to be more patient, forgiving, understanding and appreciative.
The starting point has to be a frank recognition of our natural frailties: we have to accept that we have terrible tendencies to misinterpret people and situations and regularly fail at the challenges of getting close to others. We believe that love is a skill that has to be learnt, not an impulse that can just be followed.
In our quest to help relationships go better, we write books, make films, run classes and offer psychotherapy in person and online.
We’re also aware of the scale of the hopes and challenges around sex. Though we often believe ourselves to be living in a liberated age, it remains acutely difficult not to feel shame around many of our sexual impulses. It is especially tricky to communicate what we want to those we are drawn to.
In addition, technology has made pornography a constant feature of modern love – and a challenge to our desire to integrate our sexuality with other things we might care about, like tenderness, intelligence and dignity.
We believe in removing some of the shame around sex, revealing that many desires belong to complex quests for intimacy.
In our work on sexuality, we write books, make films, run classes and offer psychotherapy.
One of the distinctive ideas of modern times is that we don’t expect work to be simply a drudgery that we have to undertake to survive. We have high expectations of this huge part of our lives. Ideally, we want work to be ‘meaningful’, which involves the belief that we are in some way either reducing the pain, or increasing the happiness of other humans.
There seem to be three things that imbue work with meaning. Firstly, a meaningful job taps into the deepest, most sincere and talented parts of us. So different people will necessarily find different sorts of work meaningful, according to what is inside their deepest self.
Secondly, a meaningful job is one which to some extent helps others: which fixes a problem that humans have: a job which in ways large and small, serves humanity. Meaningful work provides a service to others. And thirdly, a job feels meaningful when the person doing it can viscerally sense, day to day, the impact of their work upon an audience. In other words, not only is the job theoretically meaningful, it actually feels meaningful as one does it in the course of an average day.
Three big reasons stand out for why meaningful work has become difficult to secure: firstly, because it’s perilously hard for us to locate our true interests in the time we have before sheer survival becomes an imperative. Our interests don’t manifest themselves spontaneously, they require us to patiently analyse ourselves and try out a range of options, to see what feels as if it might have the best ‘fit’ for us. But unfortunately, schools and universities, as well as society at large, doesn’t place much emphasis on this stage of education; on helping people to understand their authentic working identities. There’s far more stress on simply getting ready for any job, than a job that would be particularly well suited to us. Which is a pity not just for individuals, but for the economy as a whole because people always work better, harder and more fruitfully when their deep selves are engaged.
Secondly, many jobs are relatively meaningless because it’s very possible, in the current economy, to generate profits from selling people things that don’t fundamentally contribute to well-being, but prey on our lack of self-command.
Thirdly, a job may have real meaning, may genuinely be helping others, but it may not feel like this day to day because many organisations are so large, so slow moving, so split up over so many continents that the purpose of everyone’s work day to day gets lost amidst meetings, memos, conference calls and administration.
This diagnosis helps to point the way to what we might begin to do to make work more meaningful for people: firstly, pay a lot more attention to helping people find their vocation, their real working authentic self; through career counselling and psychotherapy, extended work placements and changes to school and university curricula so as to allow students to start to analyse their identities and aptitudes from a much younger age.
Secondly, the more we, as customers, can support businesses engaged in meaningful work, the more meaningful jobs there will be. Consumers have an enormous power over what kind of lives we can have as producers. By raising the quality of our demand, we raise the number of jobs there are which can answer to mankind’s deeper needs.
Thirdly, in businesses which do carry out meaningful work, but on too large a scale over too long a period for it to feel meaningful day to day, we can get better at telling stories of what an organisation is up to, offering a tangible sense of every individual’s contribution to the whole.
Ensuring that work is meaningful is no luxury: it determines the greatest issue of all in modern economics and politics: how hard and well people will work – and therefore how successful and wealthy our societies can be.
We run a Business unit that works with companies to create more meaningful products and services; we also run a learning and development department which resolves many interpersonal issues in workplaces and we offer psychotherapy and career counselling which helps people discover their vocation and unpick conflicts around careers. More at: www.theschooloflife.com/london/business
Our ability to learn is one of the most basic things about the human condition. The range of things that we can learn to do better, via instruction, is very wide. However, the powerful influence of Romantic thinkers, who were convinced that important psychological things could not be taught, means the current education system leaves us stranded with all sorts of issues which are not passed down across generations, because they are believed to lie in the realm of intuition.
We take the more Classical view that all important human achievements – especially around emotions – can be taught: how to control rage; how to have a conversation, how to be a loving parent, how to be calmer or more creative…
We’re aware of how easily people are turned off by anything that appears too preachy and by the fatal tendency for what is worthy to come across as dull. Our commitment to education makes us very interested in the seductions and charms of consumer brands: we recognise the need to get and hold people’s attention in a highly individualistic world filled with distractions and demands.
Because education is so central, we are ambitious about all the things that can educate us. Education isn’t just what goes on in schools: the arts and the media have hugely educative roles – but our culture has tended to shy away from acknowledging them.
It should not only be children who go to school. Adults in general should see themselves as in need of education. One should never be done with school. One should stay an active alumni, learning throughout life. In the adult section of schools, there should be courses on how to converse with strangers or how to deal with the fear of getting old; how to calm down and how to forgive. There should be career advice for the middle-aged. Schools should be where a community gets educated, not just a place for children. So children should feel that they are participating in the early stages of a life-long process. Some classes should have seven-year-olds learning alongside fifty-year-olds (the two cohorts having been found to have equivalent maturities in a given area). In the Utopia the phrase ‘I’ve finished school’ would sound extremely strange.
The School of Life runs physical branches around the world where you can drop in for classes on almost any topic in the arena of emotional well-being. We also diffuse our lessons through films and books.
We’ve got a particular take on religion. We are clearly in a post-religious age but that doesn’t make us indifferent or hostile to religious thinkers. In fact the opposite is true: we are very keen on learning from religious thinkers. The technical errors of religions (for example, the claim that the soul can be reincarnated, that Christ rose from the dead or that the creator of the cosmos made specific promises about land rights at the eastern end of the Mediterranean) historically got entwined with some highly important, enduring large scale social and psychological ambitions. Religions have been machines for addressing psychological needs, which we still have.
Religions at their best tried to:
- keep ideas about forgiveness at the front of our minds
- encouraged compassion
- insisted that certain forms of worldly success were misleading primary ways of assessing the worth of people
- got us to recognise our own capacities to hurt others and to feel sorry for doing so
- nudged us to be tender and understanding towards the secret sufferings of others
- gave us helpful rituals to keep important ideas before us throughout the year
We see the School of Life as picking up many of the tasks of religion and creating secular replacements for particular religious ideals and practices. In agreement with the great thinkers of the 19th century, we believe that culture should replace scripture.
At the moment, culture (literature, art, film, photography, theatre) isn’t properly focused on taking up the crucial topics that religion formerly led the way on. People who want to express admiration for culture often say it’s valuable ‘for its own sake’. We can’t agree: it is valuable because it is capable of addressing our needs for education, guidance, consolation, perspective, encouragement and correction.
We are drawn to the idea that culture is therapeutic. The idea of a ‘therapeutic’ culture isn’t that it should help us primarily with very urgent and severe mental health issues. It’s the idea that it can assist us to get better at managing the normal troubles of everyday life; like the tendency to get unhelpfully irritated with people we like, to lose perspective over minor matters, to lose sympathy with people who deserve our compassion and to take too harsh a view of our own mistakes.
Seeing the various branches of culture having a therapeutic function isn’t new – it’s an idea started by Aristotle and endorsed by, among many others, Hegel and Nietzsche. We can here highlight some of the key therapeutic powers of conspicuous areas of cultural life:
Comedy helps us around inescapable failures and follies. The normal instinct is to be very annoyed with ourselves and others when we mess up. Unfortunately, this instinct often doesn’t serve us very well. Comedy, at its best, makes the therapeutic move of showing the fool as loveable. We don’t laugh at the fool out of derision, but out of unexpected sympathy.
History teaches us to deal more effectively with the problems that face us today. It introduces us to ideas that were in circulation in the past but which are needed now. History is a corrective to the myopia of the news industry.
Painting and the visual arts help us by being (in Hegel’s terminology) ‘the sensuous embodiment of ideas’. Often even very good ideas need to be experienced in a sensory way before they become meaningful to us. This power is revealed when a skilled piece of photography on the news makes us suddenly feel personally very touched by a geographically distant event which had previously left us cold. The role of the visual arts is to build up the images that we ought to have playing often in our minds at the difficult moments of our lives.
Music the role of music is to support beneficial emotions and states of mind. Many states that are very important to us (calm, patience, modesty without being crushed, hopefulness, forgiveness) also tend to be fleeting and elusive. We need them, but on our own, we struggle to hold onto them. Music is a therapeutic cultural mechanism for deliberately and strategically making certain states of mind more reliably available.
Literature has an astonishing ability to take us inside the experience of other people. So we can, even if only briefly, experience the world through the eyes of those who once seemed foreign and threatening, a move we find so hard in our daily lives. Novels lend us more lives than we have properly been granted.
Architecture creates environments that have characteristics comparable to human ones. We need buildings and cities that encourage our own better natures – by presenting in a lasting and very large-scale way the characteristics we ourselves have at our best. Ideally, buildings give long-term and public encouragement to the social virtues of harmony, modesty and dignity.
Fashion is a form of communication: it promotes identity. What we wear tells other people (and ourselves) something about who we are. Fashion tends to strike serious people as vain and silly because the messages that clothes happen to send are often not very helpful or admirable. But they sometimes are and could be much more.
We believe that the world has, up to now, not properly made use of the huge therapeutic potential of culture. We pay reverence to culture: but we have not yet learnt how to use it systematically.
We have built a secular monastery in mid-Wales with the architect John Pawson: www.thebookoflife.org/the-life-house
7. The Media
The media is hugely important to our chances of fulfilment – because it gives a society a picture of itself, shapes the agenda of politics and claims to know what information is most vital to us.
However, very often, the media presents a challenge to our attempt to lead good lives; it prevents us from seeing the real issues and holding on to them, it is obsessed either by unhelpful ideologies or by a commitment to a bland neutrality of ideology; it is a breeding ground for feelings of undigested envy and material dissatisfaction; it fails to explain the economy to us; it informs us about disasters in other lands without granting us the tools for empathy; it constantly frightens and alarms us, heightening our sense of fragility; it leads us to distrust strangers and to have a very bleak view of collective life.
Part of learning how to stay sane is to have a robust approach for how to deal with the stream of incoming information from the media.
The School of Life ran a news organisation at www.philosophersmail.com, set up www.newsastherapy.com and now runs a popular Youtube channel (www.youtube.com/theschooloflifetv). It is deeply interested in mass communication.
There’s a fairly widespread anxiety around consumption. Thoughtful people often complain that ‘we’ve become too consumerist’ or they say they’re sick of ‘materialism’.
We think that it’s not consumption or materialism – buying things and getting excited by possessions – that’s really the problem here. The trouble is that we’ve not collectively made a clear distinction between good and bad versions of these things. We agree there’s plenty of bad consumption around. But the way to deal with it is to beef up our capacity for good consumption. The same goes for materialism. It turns out there are very good kinds of materialistic behaviours.
Material objects can play positive psychological (or spiritual) roles in our lives. Our highest ideals can get ‘materialised’ in physical objects, so that by buying and using these things we’ll be getting closer to our better selves.
There’s a crucial constructive psychological role for possessions. And good consumerism occurs when people get really focused on finding the objects that can play this role for them. Hunting for the ideal book, pencil or card needn’t be the enemy of the wise and mature life.
The School of Life operates a retail unit at www.theschooloflife.com/shop
Economies look as if they are basically about huge material facts – oil fields, communications satellites, huge retail complexes, vast entertainment districts. But behind these impressive factors, we believe, that the economy is to an extraordinary extent a psychological phenomenon driven by our collective appetites and our imaginations and longings. It is what people are willing to pay for that generates profit and organises the whole system of investment.
The education of the customer is, therefore, one of the key economic moves for today.
Up to now, capitalism has unsurprisingly tended to focus on the supply of our more basic needs. We’re interested in a kind of capitalism that operates further up Abraham Maslow’s famous Pyramid of Needs: that’s as efficient at meeting our needs for understanding as for sweet things to eat; that’s as great at helping us find OK partners as it is, at present, great at uniting us with the ideal sandwich.
So, we don’t think the question should be: Capitalism – yes or no? The core issue is about improving capitalism to make sure it is fulfilling our highest needs.
The School of Life tries to tug businesses to make a more emotionally intelligent sort of capitalism via its business unit: www.theschooloflife.com/business
The School of Life exists to demonstrate that the proper role of ideas is to lead to the transformation of our societies in positive, emotionally intelligent directions.
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The Book of Life is brought to you by The School of Life – a global organisation dedicated to developing emotional intelligence. We apply psychology, philosophy and culture to everyday life. You can find our classes, films, books, games and much more online and in our branches around the world. Below is a feature from our shop which we think you might find of interest:
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Cultural mining describes the process by which the most valuable parts of culture – by which we mean the arts, humanities and philosophy – are recovered and made useful for our own times.
In cultural mining, the refined and practical essence of culture is carefully extracted, cleaned, blasted and remoulded – and then used to manufacture the utensils and mental resources that will help us navigate contemporary life; work, relationships, family, self-knowledge and so on.
It’s been a historic problem of major proportions that hugely valuable Cultural Insights have often been lodged within highly unappealing material far below ‘ground’. It has been dark and cramped in the corridors of culture and hardly anyone other than certain accredited experts have been tempted or allowed to visit. Their labours have had a lot of prestige, but in truth, the material has been like metal in ore, entirely impractical in its raw state.
For Culture to be useful to us, it needs to go through a process of refinement, which may involve quite radical, even drastic, moves. One needs to excise cultural insights from a lot of surrounding material. Insights have to be forcefully separated from contexts and then twinned with real world issues so as to bring out their dynamism. Insights have to be skilfully fitted to live contemporary problems so that their helpfulness emerges. They must be translated from an arcane language of the deep into a spoken language of the surface, culture moving from a learned to a living dialect. Finally, like in gold mining, only a very small portion of what had originally been dug out will ever be usable to make the finished precious item that is sought: a good idea.
It is around this process of refinement that the big difference between us and academia becomes apparent. We’re very grateful to academia for digging the mineshafts and keeping open the tunnels – but we have a different project, we are interested in the extraction and utilisation of the material on the surface, rather than its preservation and interpretation below ground.
The idea of cultural mining is new and still feels a little weird. But it has a critical role to play in our world because, at present, lots of people don’t – grievously – believe that culture has anything much to offer them. This isn’t their fault of course. When you look at the raw material form in which culture is generally laid out before us, that’s not surprising. But there is no need to stay stuck at this level forever.
We’ve only just started the business of cultural mining. We’re only now starting to extract the true value of culture in a systematic and ambitious way. But there is much to look forward to for, when we get to it, there is enough down there, deep in the often clammy and dark cultural ground, to help us meet the multiple confusions and anxieties of our times.
Lego is a surprisingly useful medium for getting big ideas across:
1. Lego ‘Philosophy’
2. Finding the ‘right’ one
3. No one is normal
4. Keeping going
5. Why we love disaster news
6. Memento mori
From a distance, it seems weird, irrelevant, boring and yet also – just a little – intriguing. But it’s hard to put a finger on what the interest really is. What are philosophers? What do they do? And why does one need them? Luckily, the answer is already contained in the word philosophy itself. In Greek, philo means love – or devotion – and sophia means wisdom. Philosophers are people devoted to wisdom. Though a bit abstract, the concept of ‘wisdom’ isn’t mysterious. Being wise means attempting to live and die well, leading as good a life as possible within the troubled conditions of existence.
The goal of wisdom is fulfilment. You could perhaps say ‘happiness’ but ‘happiness’ is misleading, for it suggests continuous chirpiness and joy, whereas ‘fulfilment’ seems compatible with a lot of pain and suffering, which every decent life must by necessity have.
So a philosopher or ‘person devoted to wisdom’ is someone who strives for systematic expertise at working out how one may best find individual and collective fulfilment.
Here are films on some of our favourite philosophers:
3. The Stoics
7. La Rochefoucauld