One of the most provocative analyses of love ever produced is to be found in the writings of the Danish Existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. In a book entitled Works of Love, published in Copenhagen in 1847, Kierkegaard — then thirty-four years old — proposed a theory which deliberately upset every leading idea that his own age (in this respect very similar to our own) liked to entertain about this hallowed concept.
First and most importantly, Kierkegaard insisted that most of us have no idea what love is — even though we refer to the term incessantly. The first half of the nineteenth century in Europe saw the triumph of what we today call ‘Romantic love’, involving a veneration and worship of one very special person with whose soul and body we hope to unite our own.
Kierkegaard insisted that through concentrating on Romantic love, we develop a narrow and impoverished sense of what love can actually be.
Love is not, Kierkegaard insisted, the special excitement we feel when in the presence of someone unusually beautiful, pure, clever or accomplished. He proposed that we return instead to an exacting version of Christian love, which commands us to love everyone, starting — most arduously — with all those who we by instinct consider to be unworthy of love.
He made a distinction between what in Danish is termed kaerlighed — true love, the kind Christians are commanded to give, and elskov — erotic love.
For Kierkegaard, we should learn to love all the many people it would be so tempting to curse and to hate; those whom we believe are mistaken, ugly, irritating, venal, wrong-headed or ridiculous; those who may have made some truly serious mistakes and offended our moral codes. To learn to love such people, to practise kaerlighed, this is the real accomplishment — and the summit of our humanity.
It is love when we can look at someone who appears misguided, lazy, entitled, angry or proud and instead of labelling them despicable, can wonder with imagination and sympathy how they might have come to be this way; when we can perceive the lost, vulnerable or hurt child that must lie somewhere within the perplexing or dispiriting adult.
Love means making the effort to extend our compassion beyond the bounds of attraction so that we may look generously on all those we might at first glance have deemed beyond the pale or ‘undeserving’.
Kierkegaard tells us that if we understood love properly, when we said we loved a person, we wouldn’t mean that we admired them but that we had a handle on all the many difficulties that underpinned their troubling and objectionable sides.
Kierkegaard was especially aggrieved by how his contemporaries had replaced the Christian-inspired emphasis on forgiveness with the pursuit of something that feels a great deal more objective, hard-edged and rational: justice.
The pursuers of justice want to give everyone what they actually deserve. This sounds extremely reasonable — until one comes face to face with an uncomfortable fact: that if we all actually ended up with what we truly ‘deserved’, the world would at once be rendered entirely unlivable. The attempt to pursue justice at all costs, and the belief that doing so is theoretically possible, gives rise to appalling intolerance, for if one really believes that one can be a flawless instrument of righteousness, then there is logically no limit to the degree of rage or the sternness of punishments that can be brought to bear upon ‘wrong doers’.
For Kierkegaard, our goal should not be to create a world in which everyone gets exactly what they deserve; it is to try to ensure that as many of us as possible get the kindness we need.
Applied to children, concepts of justice quickly reveal their absurdities, Kierkegaard could see. If parents were to give their children exactly what they ‘deserved’, most small people would at a stroke be put out on hillsides to die. The pursuit of justice may spring from the noblest of motives but it is a quick route to an unloving hell.
Kierkegaard proposed that there is a ladder of love, from the most undemanding to the true. On the first rung of the ladder, we love those who love us; then we love those who do not love us, then we love those who persecute us and finally, and triumphantly, we should love everyone without exception.
Kierkegaard mocks those who say they believe in love but add that they haven’t found someone they can love. There are millions of people around. If we say that they are not worthy of love, we haven’t understood love. We need to love those we can actually see, not ‘invisible beings.’ A Kierkegaardian dating site would force us to love utterly random candidates, not based on admiration or virtue, but on the basis of our shared humanity. He bemoaned ‘the selfishness of preferential love.’ ‘Christianity has never taught that one must admire his neighbour,’ he wrote, ‘one shall simply love him.’
Kierkegaard detects an appalling snobbishness in Romantic love. People who otherwise pride themselves on their lack of prejudice will apply terrifyingly strict criteria to their choice of partner: they want someone with just a certain sort of face or income or sense of humour. They think of themselves as kind and tolerant but when it comes to love, they have all the broad-mindedness of a believer in ‘a caste system whereby men are inhumanly separated through the distinctions of earthly life.’ Kierkegaard adds: ‘Christians don’t only love the poor; they love everyone. The rich, the corrupt, the powerful: “He who in truth loves his neighbour loves also his enemy…” Love is the fulfilment of a law…’
Kierkegaard talks about Christ’s love for his disciple Peter, who repeatedly lets him down: ‘Christ did not say: “Peter must change first and become another man before I can love him again.” No, just the opposite, he said: “Peter is Peter, and I love him; love if anything will help him to become another man.”’
So, in imitation of Christ, we should love people especially if they are hateful: doing something hateful does not disqualify anyone from love, in fact it makes them all the more deserving of it. ‘We speak continually about perfection and the perfect person. But Christianity […] speaks about being the perfect person who limitlessly loves the person he sees […] with all his imperfections and weaknesses.’
Ultimately, Kierkegaard wants us to do something that sounds both utterly odd and yet entirely kind: ‘To be a Christian means to be the imitator of Christ […] and to be an imitator means that your life has as much similarity to his as it is possible to human life to have.’
Danish readers of the 1840s who came across Kierkegaard’s writings on love must have been as surprised as we are on what this philosopher had to say on the subject — because his perspective is so different from that we ordinarily operate with. But however arduous his message to us may be, we can see how relevant it remains. We too so often get stuck on the idea that we have not found ‘the one’ and on that basis refuse to love anyone; we too judge and moralise rather than forgive and lend sympathy. We may still be at the dawn of understanding what true love really offers, and requires of, us.
Aristotle was born around 384 BC in the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia where his father was the royal doctor. He grew up to be arguably the most influential philosopher ever, with modest nicknames like ‘the master’, and simply ‘the philosopher’. One of his big jobs was tutoring Alexander the Great, who soon after went out and conquered the known world.
Aristotle studied in Athens, worked with Plato for several years and then branched out on his own. He founded a research and teaching centre called The Lyceum: French secondary schools, lycées, are named in honour of this venture. He liked to walk about while teaching and discussing ideas. His followers were named Peripatetics, the wanderers. His many books are actually lecture notes.
Aristotle was fascinated by how things really work. How does an embryo chick develop in an egg? How do squid reproduce? Why does a plant grow well in one place, and hardly at all in another? And, most importantly, what makes a human life and a whole society go well? For Aristotle, philosophy was about practical wisdom. Here are four big philosophical questions he answered:
1. What makes people happy?
In the Nicomachean Ethics – the book got its name because it was edited by his son, Nicomachus – Aristotle set himself the task of identifying the factors that lead people to have a good life, or not. He suggested that good and successful people all possess distinct virtues, and proposed that we should get better at identifying what these are so that we can nurture them in ourselves and honour them in others.
Aristotle also observed that every virtue seems to be bang in the middle of two vices. It occupies what he termed ‘the golden mean’ between two extremes of character. For example, in book four of his Ethics, under the charming title of conversational virtues and vices – wit, buffoonery and boorishness – Aristotle looks at ways that people are better or worse at talking to one another.
Knowing how to have a good conversation is one of the key ingredients of the good life, Aristotle recognised. Some people go wrong because they lack a subtle sense of humour: that’s the bore, ‘someone useless for any kind of social intercourse because he contributes nothing and takes offence at everything’. But others carry humour to excess: ‘the buffoon cannot resist a joke, sparing neither himself nor anybody else, provided that he can raise a laugh and saying things that a man of taste would never dream of saying’. So the virtuous person is in the golden mean in this area: witty but tactful.
In a fascinating survey of personality and behaviour Aristotle analyses ‘too little’, ‘too much’ and ‘just right’ around a whole host of virtues. We can’t change our behaviour in any of these areas just at the drop of a hat. But change is possible, eventually. Moral goodness, says Aristotle, is the result of habit. It takes time, practice, encouragement. So Aristotle thinks, people that lack virtue should be understood as unfortunate, rather than wicked. What they need isn’t scolding or being thrown into prison, but better teachers and more guidance.
2. What is art for?
The blockbuster art at the time was tragedy. Athenians watched gory plays at community festivals held at huge open-air theatres. Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles were household names. Aristotle wrote a how-to-write-great-plays manual, The Poetics. It’s packed with great tips: for example, make sure to use peripeteia, a change in fortune when, for the hero, things go from great to awful. And anagnorisis, the moment of dramatic revelation when suddenly the hero realises their life is going very wrong – and is, in fact, a catastrophe.
But what is tragedy actually for? What is the point of a whole community coming together to watch horrible things happening to lead characters? Like Oedipus, in the play by Sophocles, who by accident kills his father, gets married to his mother, finds out he’s done these things and gouges out his eyes in remorse and despair. Aristotle’s answer is: catharsis. Catharsis is a kind of cleaning: you get rid of bad stuff. In this case, cleaning up our emotions, specifically, our confusions around the feelings of fear and pity.
We’ve got natural problems here: we’re hard-hearted, we don’t give pity where it’s deserved, and we’re prone to either exaggerated fears or not getting frightened enough. Tragedy reminds us that terrible things can befall decent people, including ourselves. A small flaw can lead to a whole life unravelling. So we should have more compassion or pity for those whose actions go disastrously wrong. We need to be collectively retaught these crucial truths on a regular basis. The task of art, as Aristotle saw it, is to make profound truths about life stick in our minds.
3. What are friends for?
In books eight and nine of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle identifies three different kinds of friendship: there’s friendship that comes about when each person is seeking fun, their chief interest is in their own pleasure and the opportunity of the moment, which the other person provides. Then there are friendships that are really strategic acquaintances. They take pleasure in each other’s company only insofar as they have hopes of advantage of it.
Then, there’s the true friend. Not someone who’s just like you, but someone who isn’t you, but about whom you care as much as you care about yourself. The sorrows of a true friend are your sorrows. Their joys are yours. It makes you more vulnerable, should anything befall this person. But it’s hugely strengthening too. You’re relieved from too small orbit of your own thoughts and worries. You expand into the life of another, together you become larger, cleverer, more resilient, more fair-minded. You share virtues and cancel out each other’s defects. Friendship teaches us what we ought to be: it is, quite literally, the best part of life.
4. How can ideas cut through in a busy world?
Like a lot of people, Aristotle was struck by the fact that the best argument doesn’t always win the debate or gain popular traction. He wanted to know why this happens and what we can do about it. He had lots of opportunity for observations. In Athens, many decisions were made in public meetings, often in the agora, the town square. Orators would vie with one another to sway popular opinion.
Aristotle plotted the ways audiences and individuals are influenced by many factors but don’t strictly engage with logic or the facts of the case. It’s maddening and many serious people can’t stand it. They avoid the market place and populace debate. Aristotle was more ambitious. He invented what we still call rhetoric, the art of getting people to agree with you. We wanted thoughtful, serious and well-intentioned people to learn how to be persuasive, to reach those who don’t agree already.
He makes some timeless points: you have to soothe people’s fears, you have to see the emotional side of the issue – Is someone’s pride on the line? Are they feeling embarrassed? – and edge around it accordingly. You have to make it funny because attention spans are short, and you might have to use illustrations and examples to make your point come alive.
We’re keen students of Aristotle. Today, philosophy doesn’t sound like the most practical activity, maybe that’s because we’ve not paid enough attention recently to Aristotle.
Baruch Spinoza was a seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher who tried to reinvent religion – moving it away from something based on superstition and ideas of direct divine intervention to being a discipline that was far more impersonal, quasi-scientific and yet also, at all times, serenely consoling.
Baruch – the word means ‘Blessed’ in Hebrew – was born in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam in 1632, a thriving centre of Jewish commerce and thought.
His ancestors were Sephardic Jews, who had fled the Iberian peninsula following the Catholic-inspired expulsion of 1492. Baruch, a studious highly intelligent child, received an intensely traditional Jewish education: he went to the local Jewish school, the yeshiva and followed all the Jewish High holidays and rituals.
But gradually, he began to distance himself from the faith of his ancestors: “Although I have been educated from boyhood in the accepted beliefs concerning Scripture,” he later wrote with characteristic caution, “I have felt bound in the end to embrace other views.”
His fully fleshed out views were to be expressed in his great work, the Ethics, written entirely in Latin and published in 1677. In the Ethics, Spinoza directly challenged the main tenets of Judaism in particular and organised religion in general:
– God is not a person who stands outside of nature
– There is no one to hear our prayers
– Or to create miracles
– Or to punish us for misdeeds
– There is no afterlife
– Man is not God’s chosen creature
– The Bible was only written by ordinary people
– God is not a craftsman or an architect. Nor is he a king or a military strategist who calls for believers to take up the Holy Sword. God does not see anything, nor does he expect anything. He does not judge. He does not even reward the virtuous person with a life after death. Every representation of God as a person is a projection of the imagination.
– Everything in the traditional liturgical calendar is pure superstition and mumbo-jumbo
However, despite all this, remarkably, Spinoza did not declare himself an atheist. He insisted that he remained a staunch defender of God.
God plays an absolutely central role in Spinoza’s Ethics, but it isn’t anything like the God who haunts the pages of the Old Testament.
Spinoza’s God is wholly impersonal and indistinguishable from what we might call variously call nature or existence or a world soul: God is the universe, and its laws; God is reason and truth; God is the animating force in everything that is and can be. God is the cause of everything, but he is the eternal cause. He doesn’t participate in change. He is not in time. He cannot be individuated
“Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can exist or be conceived without God.”
Throughout his text, Spinoza was keen to undermine the idea of prayer. In prayer, an individual appeals to God to change the way the universe works.
But Spinoza argues that this is entirely the wrong way around. The task of human beings is to try to understand how and why things are the way they are – and then accept it, rather than protest at the workings of existence by sending little messages up into the sky.
As Spinoza put it, beautifully but rather caustically:
“Whosoever loves God cannot strive that God should love him in return.”
In other words, only naive (but perhaps rather touching) narcissism would lead someone at once to believe in a God who made the eternal laws of physics and then to imagine that this same God would take an interest in bending the rules of existence to improve his or her life in some way.
Spinoza was deeply influenced by the philosophy of the Stoics of Ancient Greece and Rome. They had argued that wisdom lies not in protest against how things are, but in continuous attempts to understand the ways of the world – and then bow down peacefully to necessity.
Rembrandt, Philosopher in Meditation (1632)
Seneca, Spinoza’s favourite philosopher, had compared human beings to dogs on a leash being led by the necessities of life in a range of directions. The more one pulls against what is necessary, the more one is strangled – and therefore the wise must always endeavour to understand ahead of time how things are – for example, what love is like, or how politics works – and then change their direction accordingly so as not to be strangled unnecessarily. It is this kind of Stoic attitude that constantly pervades Spinoza’s philosophy.
To understand God traditionally meant studying the Bible and other holy texts. But Spinoza now introduces another idea.
The best way to know God is to understand how life and the universe work: it is through a knowledge of psychology, philosophy and the natural sciences that one comes to understand God.
In traditional religion, believers will ask special favours of God. Spinoza proposes instead that we should understand what God wants and we can do so in one way above all: by studying everything that is. By reasoning, we can accede to a divine eternal perspective.
Spinoza makes a famous distinction between two ways of looking at life, we can either see it egoistically, from our limited point of view, as he put it:
Sub specie durationis – under the aspect of time
Or we can look at things globally and eternally:
Sub specie aeternitatis – under the aspect of eternity
Our nature means that we’ll always be divided between the two. Sensual life pulls us towards a time-bound, partial view. But our reasoned intelligence can give us unique access to another perspective – it can quite literally allow us – here Spinoza becomes beautifully lyrical – to participate in eternal totality.
Normally, we call ‘bad’ whatever is bad for us, and good whatever increases our power and advantage, but to be truly ethical means rising above these local concerns. It might all sound forbidding, but Spinoza envisaged his philosophy as a route to a life based on freedom from guilt, from sorrow, from pity or from shame.
Happiness involves aligning our will with that of the universe. The universe – God – has its own projects and its our task to understand rather than rail against these. The free person is one conscious of the necessities that compel us all.
Spinoza writes, the wise man, the person who understands how and why things are, “possesses eternally true complacency (acquiescentia) of spirit.”
Needless to say, these ideas got Spinoza into very deep trouble. He was excommunicated from the Jewish community of Amsterdam in 1656. The rabbis issued a writ known as a cherem against the philosopher:
“By the decree of the angels” – it went – “and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with all the curses which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down, and cursed be he when he rises up…”
Spinoza was forced to flee Amsterdam and eventually settled in the Hague, where he lived quietly and peacefully as a lens grinder and private tutor till his death in 1677.
Spinoza being forced out of the community
Spinoza’s work was largely ignored. In the 19th century, Hegel took an interest, as did Wittgenstein – and some 20th-century scholars.
But on the whole Spinoza offers us a warning about the failures of philosophy.
The Ethics is one of the world’s most beautiful books. It contains a calming, perspective-restoring take on life. It replaces the God of superstition with a wise and consoling pantheism.
And yet Spinoza’s work failed utterly to convince any but a few to abandon traditional religion and to move towards a rationalist, wise system of belief.
The reasons are in a way simple and banal.
Spinoza failed to understand – like so many philosophers before and since – that what leads people to religion isn’t just reason, but far more importantly, emotion, belief, fear and tradition.
People stick with their beliefs because they like the rituals, the communal meals, the yearly traditions, the beautiful architecture, the music and the sonorous language read out in synagogue or church.
Spinoza’s Ethics arguably contains a whole lot more wisdom than the Bible – but because it comes without any of the Bible’s supporting structure, it remains a marginal work, studied here and there at universities in the west – while the traditional religion that he thought outmoded in the 1670s continues to thrive and convince people.
If we’re ever to replace traditional beliefs, we must remember just how much religion is helped along by ritual, tradition, art and a desire to belong: all things that Spinoza, despite his great wisdom, ignored at his peril in his bold attempt to replace the Bible.
Arthur Schopenhauer was a German 19th-century philosopher, who deserves to be remembered today for the insights contained in his great work: The World as Will and Representation.
Schopenhauer was the first serious Western philosopher to get interested in Buddhism – and his thought can best be read as a Western interpretation of, and response to, the enlightened pessimism found in Buddhist thought.
‘In my 17th year,’ he wrote in an autobiographical text, ‘I was gripped by the misery of life, as Buddha had been in his youth when he saw sickness, old age, pain and death. The truth was that this world could not have been the work of an all loving Being, but rather that of a devil, who had brought creatures into existence in order to delight in their sufferings.’ And like the Buddha, it was his goal to dissect and then come up with a solution to this suffering.
It is chiefly the fault of universities that Schopenhauer is taught in such an academic way that it has stopped him from being widely known, read and followed. And yet in truth, this is a man who – no less than the Buddha – deserves disciples, schools, art-works and monasteries to put his ideas into practice.
Schopenhauer’s philosophy starts by giving a name to a primary force within us which he says is more powerful than anything else – our reason, logic or moral sense: and which he terms The Will-to-Life. The Will-to-Life is a constant force which makes us thrust ourselves forward, cling to existence and look to our own advantage. It’s blind, dumb and very insistent. What the Will-to-Life makes us focus on most of all is sex. From adolescence onwards, this Will thrums within us, turns our heads constantly to erotic scenarios and makes us do very odd things – the oddest of which is fall in love.
Schopenhauer was very respectful of love, as one might be towards a hurricane or a tiger. He deeply resented the disruption caused to intelligent people by infatuations – or what we’d call crushes – but he refused to conceive of these as either disproportionate or accidental. In his eyes, love is connected to the most important (and miserable) underlying project of the Will-to-Life and hence of all our lives: having children.
“Why all this noise and fuss about love? Why all the urgency, uproar, anguish and exertion?” he asked. “Because the ultimate aim of all love-affairs… is actually more important than all other aims in anyone’s life; and therefore it is quite worthy of the profound seriousness with which everyone pursues it.”
The romantic dominates life because “what is decided by it is nothing less than the composition of the next generation…the existence and special constitution of the human race in times to come.”
Of course, we rarely think of future children when we are asking someone out on a date. But in Schopenhauer’s view, this is simply because the intellect “remains much excluded from the real resolutions and secret decisions of its own will.”
Why should such deception even be necessary? Because, for Schopenhauer, we would never reliably reproduce unless we first had – quite literally – lost our minds. This was a man deeply opposed to the boredom, routine, expense and sheer sacrifice of having children.
Furthermore, he argued that most of the time, if our intellect were properly in charge of choosing who to fall in love with, we would pick radically different people to the ones we end up with.
An illustration from The Sorrows of Young Werther, a novel about the perils of love by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a much-admired acquaintance of Schopenhauer.
But we’re ultimately driven to fall in love not with people we’ll get on with, but with people whom the the Will-to-Life recognises as ideal partners for producing what Schopenhauer bluntly called ‘balanced children.’ All of us are in any case a bit unbalanced, he thought: we’re a bit too masculine, or too feminine, too tall or too short, too rational or too impulsive. If such imbalances were allowed to persist, or were aggravated, in the next generation, the human race would, within a short time, sink into oddity.
The Will-to-Life must therefore push us towards people who can, on account of their compensating imbalances, cancel out our own issues – a large nose combined with a button nose promise a perfect nose. He argued that short people often fall in love with tall people, and more feminine men with more assertive and masculine women.
Unfortunately, this theory of attraction led Schopenhauer to a very bleak conclusion: namely, that a person who is highly suitable for producing a balanced child is almost never (though we cannot realise it at the time because we have been blindfolded by the will-to-life) very suitable for us. “We should not be surprised by marriages between people who would never have been friends: Love…casts itself on people who, apart from sex, would be hateful, contemptible, and even abhorrent to us. But the will of the species is so much more powerful than that of individuals, that lovers overlook everything, misjudge everything, and bind themselves forever to an object of misery.”
The Will-to-Life’s ability to further its own ends rather than our happiness may, Schopenhauer’s theory implies, be sensed with particular clarity in that rather scary, lonely moment just after orgasm: “Directly after copulation the devil’s laughter is heard”.
Watching the human spectacle, Schopenhauer felt deeply sorry for us. We are just like animals – except, because of our greater self-awareness, even more unhappy.
There are some poignant passages where he discusses different animals but dwells especially on the mole: a stunted monstrosity that dwells in damp narrow corridors, rarely sees the light of day and whose offspring look like gelatinous worms – but who still does everything in its power to survive and perpetuate itself.
We’re just like them and just as pitiful: we are driven frantically to push ourselves forward, get good jobs to impress prospective partners, wonder endlessly about finding The One (imagining they’ll make us happy), and are eventually briefly seduced by someone long enough to produce a child, and then have to spend the next 40 years in misery to atone for our error.
Schopenhauer is beautifully and comically gloomy about human nature: “There is only one inborn error, and that is the notion that we exist in order to be happy… So long as we persist in this inborn error… the world seems to us full of contradictions. For at every step, in great things and small, we are bound to experience that the world and life are certainly not arranged for the purpose of being content. That’s why the faces of almost all elderly people are etched with such disappointment.”
Schopenhauer offers two solutions to deal with the problems of existence. The first is for rather rare individuals that he called ‘sages’.
Sages are able, by heroic efforts, to rise above the demands of the Will-to-Life: they see the natural drives within themselves towards selfishness, sex and vanity… and override them. They overcome their desires, live alone (often away from big cities), never marry and quell their appetites for fame and status.
In Buddhism, Schopenhauer points out, this person is known as a monk – but he recognizes that only a tiny number of us can go in for such a life.
The second and more easily available and realistic option is to spend as long as we can with art and philosophy, whose task is to hold up a mirror to the frenzied efforts and unhappy turmoil created in all of us by the Will-to-Life. We may not be able to quell the Will-to-Life very often, but in the evenings at the theater, or on a walk with a book of poetry, we can step back from the day to day and look at life without illusion.
The art Schopenhauer loved best is the opposite of sentimental: Greek tragedies, the aphorisms of La Rochefoucauld and the political theory of Machiavelli and Hobbes. Such works speak frankly about egoism, suffering, selfishness and the horrors of married life – and extend a tragic, dignified, melancholy sympathy to the human race.
It’s fitting that Schopenhauer’s own work fitted his own description of what philosophy and art should do perfectly. It too is deeply consoling in its morbid bitter pessimism. For example, he tells us:
To marry means to do everything possible to become an object of disgust to each other.
Every life history is the history of suffering.
Life has no intrinsic worth, but is kept in motion merely by want and illusion.
After spending a lot of time trying, yet failing to be famous, and trying, yet failing to have a good relationships, towards the end of his life, Schopenhauer eventually found an audience who adored his writings. He lived quietly in an apartment in Frankfurt with his dog, a white poodle whom he called Atman after the world soul of the Buddhists – but whom the neighbouring children called Mrs Schopenhauer. Shortly before his death, a sculptor made a famous bust of him. He died in 1860 at the age of 72, having achieved calm and serenity.
He is a sage for our own times, someone whose bust should be no less widespread and no less revered than that of the Buddha he so loved.
It is still, tragically, sometimes assumed that the best way to cheer someone up is to tell them that everything will turn out all right; to intimate that life is essentially a pleasant process in which happiness is no mirage and human fulfilment a real possibility.
However, we need only read a few pages of the book known as the Pensées by the great French 17th-century philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-62) to appreciate how entirely misguided this approach must be, because Pascal pulls off the feat of being both one of the most pessimistic figures in Western thought and simultaneously one of the most cheering. The combination seems typical: the darkest thinkers are, paradoxically, almost always the ones who can lift our mood.
Pascal was born in Auvergne in central France in June 1623, and from the earliest days, learnt to look at the glass of life as half-empty. His mother died when he was three, he had few friends, he was a hunchback and he was always ill. Luckily, he was recognised from an early age – and by more than just his proud family – to be a genius. By twelve, he had worked out the first thirty-two propositions of Euclid, he went on to invent the mathematics of probability, he measured atmospheric pressure, constructed a calculating machine and designed Paris’s first omnibus.
Then, at the age of thirty-six, ill-health forced him to set aside plans for further scientific exploration and led him to write a brilliant, intensely pessimistic series of aphorisms in defence of Christian belief which became known as the Pensées – the book for which we today chiefly remember and revere him.
The purpose of the work was to convert readers to God and Pascal felt the best way to do this was to evoke everything that was terrible about life. Having fully considered the misery of the human condition, he assumed his readers would instantly turn for salvation to the Catholic Church. Unfortunately for Pascal, very few modern readers now follow the Pensées like this. The first part of the book, listing what is wrong with life, has always proved far more popular than the second, which suggests what is right with God.
Pascal begins by telling us that earthly happiness is an illusion – but is especially keen to point out how much we hate being on our own, thinking and exploring our lives. He is perhaps best known of all for this aphorism of genius:
Tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos, dans une chambre.
All of man’s unhappiness comes from his inability to stay peacefully alone in his room.
The aphorism should be written in large letters in the departure lounges of all the world’s airports.
Pascal’s charm lies in his bitterness and tart cynicism. People will do anything rather than consider their dreadful reality. “Man is so vain that…the slightest thing, like pushing a ball with a billiard cue, is enough to divert him.” At the same time, they are tortured by their passions, especially the passion for fame; “We are so presumptuous that we want to be known all over the world, even by people who will only come after we have gone.” And perhaps the greatest source of suffering is the most banal – boredom. “We struggle against obstacles, but once they are overcome, rest proves intolerable because of the boredom it produces.” Pascal’s conclusion: “What is man? A nothing compared to the infinite.”
Pascal misses no opportunities to confront his readers with evidence of mankind’s resolutely deviant, pitiful and unworthy nature. In seductive classical French, he informs us that happiness is an illusion (‘Anyone who does not see the vanity of the world is very vain himself’), that misery is the norm (‘If our condition were truly happy we should not need to divert ourselves from thinking about it’), that true love is a chimera (‘How hollow and foul is the heart of man’), that we are as thin skinned as we are vain (‘A trifle consoles us because a trifle upsets us’), that even the strongest among us are rendered helpless by the countless diseases to which we are vulnerable (‘Flies are so mighty that they can paralyse our minds and eat up our bodies’), that all worldly institutions are corrupt (‘Nothing is surer than that people will be weak’) and that we are absurdly prone to overestimate our own importance (‘How many kingdoms know nothing of us!’). The very best we may hope to do in these circumstances, he suggests, is to face the desperate facts of our situation head on: ‘Man’s greatness comes from knowing he is wretched’.
Given the tone, it comes as something of a surprise to discover that reading Pascal is not at all the depressing experience one might have presumed. The work is consoling, heartwarming and even, at times, hilarious. For those teetering on the verge of despair, there can paradoxically be no finer book to turn to than one which seeks to grind man’s every last hope into the dust. The Pensées, far more than any saccharine volume touting inner beauty, positive thinking or the realisation of hidden potential, has the power to coax the suicidal off the ledge of a high parapet.
If Pascal’s pessimism can effectively console us, it may be because we are usually cast into gloom not so much by negativity as by hope. It is hope – with regard to our careers, our love lives, our children, our politicians and our planet – that is primarily to blame for angering and embittering us. The incompatibility between the grandeur of our aspirations and the mean reality of our condition generates the violent disappointments which rack our days and etch themselves in lines of acrimony across our faces.
Hence the relief, which can explode into bursts of laughter, when we finally come across an author generous enough to confirm that our very worst insights, far from being unique and shameful, are part of the common, inevitable reality of mankind. Our dread that we might be the only ones to feel anxious, bored, jealous, cruel, perverse and narcissistic turns out to be gloriously unfounded, opening up unexpected opportunities for communion around our dark realities.
We should honour Pascal, and the long line of Christian pessimists to which he belongs, for doing us the incalculably great favour of publicly and elegantly rehearsing the facts of our sinful and pitiful state. Reading Pascal reminds us that the secular are at this moment in history a great deal more optimistic than the religious – something of an irony, given the frequency with which the latter have been derided by the former for their apparent naiveté and credulousness. It is the secular whose longing for perfection has grown so intense as to lead them to imagine that paradise might be realised on this earth after just a few more years of financial growth and medical research. With no evident awareness of the contradiction they may, in the same breath, gruffly dismiss a belief in angels while sincerely trusting that the combined powers of the IMF, the medical research establishment, Silicon Valley and democratic politics will together cure the ills of mankind.
Religions have wisely insisted that we are inherently flawed creatures: incapable of lasting happiness, beset by troubling sexual desires, obsessed by status, vulnerable to appalling accidents and always slowly dying.
Why should any of this be so cheering? Perhaps because pessimistic exaggeration is so comforting. Whatever our private disappointments, we can start to feel very fortunate when we compare our mood to Pascal’s. Pascal wanted to turn us to God by telling us how awful life was. But by sharing his troubles, he ironically strengthens us to face the troubles of our own lives on this earth with greater courage and forbearance.
Philosophy is a discipline committed to helping us to live wiser and less sorrowful lives. Here are six ideas from its Western branch that can inspire and console:
ONE: ‘What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.’
The Roman philosopher Seneca used to comfort his friends – and himself – with this darkly humourous remark which gets to the heart of Stoicism, the school of philosophy which Seneca helped to found and which dominated the West for two hundred years. We get weepy and furious, says Stoicism, not simply because our plans have failed, but because they have failed and we strongly expected them not to. Therefore, thought Seneca, the task of philosophy is to disappoint us gently before life has a chance to do so violently. The less we expect, the less we will suffer. Through the help of a consoling pessimism, we should strive to turn our rage and our tears into that far less volatile compound: sadness. Seneca was not trying to depress us, just to spare us the kind of hope that, when it fails, inspires bitterness and intemperate shouting.
TWO: Peccatum Originale
In the late 4th century, as the immense Roman Empire was collapsing, the leading philosopher of the age, St Augustine, became deeply interested in possible explanations for the evident tragic disorder of the human world. One central idea he developed was what he legendarily termed Peccatum Originale: original sin. Augustine proposed that human nature is inherently damaged and tainted because – in the Garden of Eden – the mother of all people, Eve, sinned against God by eating an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. Her guilt was then passed down to her descendants and now all earthly human endeavours are bound to fail because they are the work of a corrupt and faulty human spirit. This odd idea might not be literally true, of course. However, as a metaphor for why the world is in a mess, it has a beguiling poetic truth, as relevant to atheists as believers. We should not – perhaps – expect too much from the human race, Augustine implies. We’ve been somewhat doomed from the outset. And that can, in certain moods, be a highly redemptive thought to keep in mind.
THREE: ‘Kings and Philosophers shit, and so do ladies’
The blunt phrase appears in an essay by the 16th century French philosopher, Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne wasn’t being mean. His point was kindly: he wanted us to feel closer to (and less intimidated) by people whose overt mode of life might seem painfully impressive and very far from our own. And he could have added: in secret these people also feel inadequate, fear rejection and mess up their sex-lives. We could also update his examples to speak of CEOs, entrepreneurs, and the over-achieving person we went to college with. Montaigne was attempting to free us from underconfidence and shyness, born out of an exaggerated sense of the differences between ourselves and mighty others. At moments of panic, before an important speech or a much-anticipated date, we should run Montaigne’s phrase through our febrile, underconfident minds and remind ourselves that no one, however outwardly poised, is more than a few hours away from a poignantly modest and vulnerable moment.
FOUR: ‘All our unhappiness comes from our inability to sit alone in our room’
This assertion, by the 17th century French philosopher Pascal, is obviously not literally true. But like all good philosophical aphorisms, it pointedly exaggerates an important idea in order to bring home a general insight. We are tempted to leave ‘our room’ and crave excitements that too often turn out badly; we meddle in the lives of others but fail to help them; we seek fame and end up being misunderstood by large numbers of people we don’t know. ‘Sitting alone’ doesn’t mean literally being on the bed but rather, staying undistracted with ourselves: appreciating small pleasures; examining the contents of our own minds, allowing the quieter (but important) parts of our psyche to emerge; thinking before we act. It’s a poignant phrase because the louder voices in our culture are constantly speaking in the opposite direction; are always goading us to get out more, to grow more agitated, to seek more drama and to spend less time in thoughtful reveries, gazing out of the window at the clouds passing high above. We should, with Pascal’s encouragement, learn to become better friends to ourselves.
FIVE: Sub specie aeternitatis
It means, translated from the Latin, ‘under the aspect of eternity’ – a memorable phrase from the Ethics, published in 1677 by the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. For Spinoza, the task of philosophy is to teach us to look at things, especially our own suffering and disappointment, ‘under the aspect of eternity,’ that is, as though we were gazing down at the earth from very far away or from a different star (Spinoza’s outlook was much indebted to Galileo). From this lofty perspective, the incidents that trouble us no longer have to seem so shocking or so large. What is a divorce or a sacking when contemplated from the lunar surface? What is a rejection in love judged against the earth’s 4.5 billion year history? Our nature means that we’ll always be pulled to exaggerate the here and now, but our reasoned intelligence gives us access to a unique alternative perspective, in which we participate in what Spinoza called ‘eternal totality’, and can cease railing against the status quo, submitting to the flow of events with clear-eyed serenity instead.
SIX: Aus so krummem Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden.
It’s a slightly daunting and long German phrase but a hugely arresting and redemptive one, central to the spirit of Western philosophy: ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.’ So wrote the German eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant, who urged us to recognise that nothing that human beings do can ever be less than slightly wonky, because we are creatures as much of passion and erroneous instinct as of reason and noble intelligence. The wise accept this dark reality head on and so do not expect perfection. When designing governments, they do not presume that rationality will triumph; they do everything to assume that error and folly will try to have their way – and create structures to contain them. When they marry, with comparable realism, they never expect that one person can be everything to them and then harangue a partner when they turn out not to be. An acceptance of our crooked nature isn’t dispiriting, it’s the birth of generosity and dark good humour. Not least, added Kant, crooked beams can make for beautiful floors, in the hands of a talented carpenter.
This is a section of The Book of Life that gathers together our canon: our selection of the greatest thinkers from the fields of philosophy, political theory, sociology, art, architecture and literature whom we believe have the most to offer to us today.
The idea of assembling a ‘canon’ can feel a bit awkward – maybe even oppressive. It can feel unfair to leave out so many people. And anyway, who decides? Surely the people making the canon are bringing some bias to their task?
We happily admit to bias. We’re sometimes taught to think ill of bias, as if the only good kind of information was that which carried absolutely no intention or design, and left everything up to the audience instead. This emphasis on neutrality is understandable; there has historically – especially in the 20th century – been a lot of bad bias around. But we ultimately believe that the goal isn’t to have no bias at all but to put forward ‘good’ bias; by which we mean, bias in favour of a selection of thinkers who point us to valuable and important ideas. At The School of Life, we are heavily biased towards emotional intelligence and the use of culture as a tool for consolation and enlightenment.
We have some quite specific views about what makes a thinker ‘great’. Typically, great thinkers are included in encyclopedic works on the basis of reputation: a list is drawn up asking what names have been most influential, and what ideas have most memorably shaped the intellectual world. However, we’ve got our sights on a different aim: we want to work out what ideas offer help with some of the leading problems of our own times. For us, a ‘great’ thinker is someone whose ideas stand the very highest chance of being helpful in our lives now.
Because a canon is necessarily so selective, it is always vulnerable to attack. We have a sanguine view of selection; selection is simply an inescapable feature of living in an information-rich world. The ideal isn’t to avoid being selective, the challenge is to try to select as well as possible. In our eyes, this means picking out thinkers who can unpick some of the greatest difficulties in our political, professional and personal lives. We aren’t historians recovering ideas for their own sakes; we are applied philosophers seeking intellectual concepts that can be put to work in the here and now.
We’ve worked hard to make the thinkers in The Book of Life sound simple, easy and (hopefully) quite charming. In the past, many of these thinkers have been caught in a fiendish trap. What they have had to say has been hugely relevant and important. But how they have said it has guaranteed that they went unheard: because their books were a little too dense, some of their ideas sounded odd and many of their most crucial concepts were prone to get lost amidst a welter of subsidiary information. We’ve recovered what we see as the important ideas in our chosen thinkers by following a number of principles:
- Only a few things that any mind, however great, has ever said are likely to be of central lasting importance.
- These key points are detachable from the full body of a thinker’s work.
- We are forgetful, time-pressured creatures. We are liable to forget every intricacy of a complex sustained argument. So we need central messages spelt out memorably and simply.
- Whatever academic culture tells us, context is not decisive. Important truths get lodged in odd places and can be extricated from them; they may lie in 3rd century China, in an aristocratic salon in 18th century Paris or in a small house in an alpine village in the 19th century. Yet what always matters in the end is what they can do for us now.
- It’s a tragic paradox that there are ways of showing reverence for the great thinkers that ends up preventing them having an impact in the world – the opposite result which reverence initially hoped for. Being a little casual with a great thinker is the biggest homage one could pay to him or her.
- Our guiding concern is that great ideas should be widely known and that they should be active in our lives.
That said, we recognise that there are proper worries around ‘simplification’. There is a concern – fed by the academic world – that if you simplify, you inevitably betray: you omit the stuff that really matters. We understand the anxiety, but don’t want to let it triumph, for we are equally aware of the dangers of listening to it too closely: needless complexity can lead to good ideas being ignored altogether. We think that the important truths about how we might live are capable of popular formulation. We’re against the tragic view that what is important is condemned always to be unpopular or incomprehensible to most citizens.
Popularising is, from our perspective, a great and noble task, especially in a democratic consumer-led world where elite culture has (more or less) lost its sway. It’s what makes ideas real in the life of a society. In any case, our lives are never entirely bookish or intellectual. We’re always driven by, and to an extent reliant on straightforward thoughts that guide our conduct. Those ideas are the ones that matter to the day to day flourishing of a community. Preciousness can be the downfall of the best concepts.
The modern world has to date left the study and transmission of cultural ideas largely to university departments in the humanities. Their main focus has been on trying to understand what great thinkers were about in and of themselves. Here, somewhat heretically, we’re doing something very different: we want to know what they can do for us.
We’ve mined history to bring you the ideas we believe to be of the greatest relevance to our own times. We will have succeeded if, in the days and years ahead, you find yourself turning to them to illuminate the multiple dilemmas and griefs of daily life.
Athens, 2400 years ago. It’s a compact place: around 250,000 people live here. There are fine baths, theatres, temples, shopping arcades and gymnasiums. Art is flourishing, and science too. You can pick up excellent fish down at the harbour in Piraeus. It’s warm for more than half the year.
Leo von Klenze, The Acropolis, 1846
This is also home to the world’s first true – and probably greatest – philosopher: Plato.
Born into a prominent and wealthy family in the city, Plato devoted his life to one goal: helping people to reach a state of what he termed:
Eudaimonia: this peculiar but fascinating Greek word is a little hard to translate: it almost means ‘happiness’ but is really closer to ‘fulfilment’, because ‘happiness’ suggests continuous chirpiness – whereas ‘fulfilment’ is more compatible with periods of great pain and suffering – which seem to be an unavoidable part even of a good life.
How did Plato propose to make people more fulfilled? Four central ideas stand out in his work.
1. Think Harder
Plato proposed that our lives go wrong in large part because we almost never give ourselves time to think carefully and logically enough about our plans. And so we end up with the wrong values, careers and relationships. Plato wanted to bring order and clarity to our minds.
He observed how many of our ideas are derived from what the crowd thinks, from what the Greeks called ‘doxa’, and we’d call ‘common-sense’. And yet repeatedly, across the 36 books he wrote, Plato showed this common-sense to be riddled with errors, prejudice and superstition. Popular ideas about love, fame, money or goodness simply don’t stand up to reason.
Plato also noticed how proud people were about being led by their instincts or passions (jumping into decisions on the basis of nothing more than ‘how they felt’), and he compared this to being dragged dangerously along by a group of blindfolded wild horses.
As Freud was happy to acknowledge, Plato was the inventor of therapy, insisting that we learn to submit all our thoughts and feelings to reason. As Plato repeatedly wrote, the essence of philosophy came down to the command to:
2. Love More Wisely
Plato is one of the great theorists of relationships. His book, The Symposium, is an attempt to explain what love really is. It tells the story of a dinner party given by Agathon, a handsome poet, who invites a group of his friends around to eat, drink and talk about love.
Anselm Feuerbach, The Symposium, 1874
The guests all have different views about what love is. Plato gives his old friend Socrates – one of the main characters in this and all his books – the most useful and interesting theory. It goes like this: when you fall in love, what’s really going on is that you have seen in another person some good quality which you haven’t got. Perhaps they are calm, when you get agitated; or they are self-disciplined, while you’re all over the place; or they are eloquent when you are tongue-tied.
The underlying fantasy of love is that by getting close to this person, you can become a little like they are. They can help you to grow to your full potential.
In Plato’s eyes, love is in essence a kind of education: you couldn’t really love someone if you didn’t want to be improved by them. Love should be two people trying to grow together – and helping each other to do so. Which means you need to get together with the person who contains a key missing bit of your evolution: the virtues you don’t have.
This sounds entirely odd nowadays when we tend to interpret love as finding someone perfect just as they are. In the heat of arguments, lovers sometimes say to one another: ‘If you loved me, you wouldn’t try to change me.’
Plato thinks the diametric opposite. He wants us to enter relationships in a far less combative and proud way. We should accept that we are not complete and allow our lovers to teach us things. A good relationship has to mean we won’t love the other person exactly as they are. It means committing to helping them become a better version of themselves – and to endure the stormy passages this inevitably involves – while also not resisting their attempts to improve us.
3. The Importance of beauty
Everyone – pretty much – likes beautiful things. But we tend to think of them as a bit mysterious in their power over us and, in the greater scheme, not terribly important.
But Plato proposed that it really matters what sorts of houses or temples, pots or sculptures you have around you.
Portrait of Sappho
No one before Plato had asked the key question: why do we like beautiful things? He found a fascinating reason: we recognise in them a part of ‘the good’.
There are lots of good things we aspire to be: kind, gentle, harmonious, balanced, peaceful, strong, dignified. These are qualities in people. But they are also qualities in objects. We get moved and excited when we find in objects the qualities we need but are missing in our lives.
Beautiful objects therefore have a really important function. They invite us to evolve in their direction, to become as they are. Beauty can educate our souls.
It follows that ugliness is a serious matter too, for it parades dangerous and damaged characteristics in front of us. It encourages us to be like it: harsh, chaotic, brash. It makes it that much harder to be wise, kind and calm.
Plato sees art as therapeutic: it is the duty of poets and painters (and nowadays, novelists, television producers and designers) to help us live good lives.
Plato believed in the censorship of the arts. It’s not the paradox it seems. If artists can help us live well, they can, unfortunately, equally give prestige and glamour to unhelpful attitudes and ideas. Just being an artist doesn’t guarantee the power of art will be wisely used.
That’s why Plato believed that artists should work under the command of philosophers, who would give them the right ideas and ask them to make these convincing and popular. Art was to be a sort of propaganda – or advertising – for the good.
4. Changing society
Plato spent a lot of time thinking how the government and society should ideally be. He was the world’s first utopian thinker.
Edgar Degas, Young Spartans Exercising, 1860
In this, he was inspired by Athens’s great rival: Sparta. This was a city-sized machine for turning out great soldiers. Everything the Spartans did – how they raised their children, how their economy was organised, whom they admired, how they had sex, what they ate – was tailored to that one goal. And Sparta was hugely successful, from a military point of view.
But that wasn’t Plato’s concern. He wanted to know: how could a society get better at producing not military power but eudaimonia? How could it reliably help people towards fulfilment?
In his book, The Republic, Plato identifies a number of changes that should be made:
a) We need new heroes
Athenian society was very focused on the rich, like the louche aristocrat Alcibiades, and sports celebrities, like the boxer Milo of Croton. Plato wasn’t impressed: it really matters who we admire, for celebrities influence our outlook, ideas and conduct. And bad heroes give glamour to flaws of character.
Plato therefore wanted to give Athens new celebrities, replacing the current crop with ideally wise and good people he called Guardians: models for everyone’s good development. These people would be distinguished by their record of public service, their modesty and simple habits, their dislike of the limelight and their wide and deep experience. They would be the most honoured and admired people in society.
b) We need censorship
Today censorship makes us anxious. But Plato was worried about the wrong sort of freedom: Athens was a free-for-all for the worst opinion-sellers. Crazy religious notions and sweet sounding, but dangerous, ideas sucked up mass enthusiasm and lead Athens to disastrous governments and misguided wars (like a fateful attack on Sparta).
Pericles’ Funeral Oration
Continuous exposure to a storm of confused voices was – Plato thought – seriously bad for us, so he wanted to limit the activities of public orators and dangerous preachers. He would – nowadays – have been very sceptical about the power of mass media.
c) Better Education
Plato believed passionately in education, but wanted to refocus the curriculum. The primary thing we need to learn is not just maths or spelling, but how to be good: we need to learn about courage, self-control, reasonableness, independence and calm.
To put this into practice, Plato founded a school called The Academy in Athens, which flourished for over 400 years. You went there to learn nothing less than how to live and die well.
It’s fascinating and not a little sad how modern academic institutions have outlawed this ambition. If a student showed up at Oxford or Harvard universities today seeking to be taught how to live, the professors would call the police – or the insane asylum.
d) Better Childhoods
Families try their best. And sometimes children strike lucky. Their parents are well balanced, good teachers, reliably mature and wise. But pretty often parents transmit their confusions and failings to their children.
Minoan youths boxing (BCE 1500), Knossos fresco
Plato thought that bringing up children well was one of the most difficult (and most needed) skills. He was acutely sympathetic to the child who is held back by the wrong home environment.
So he proposed that many children would in fact be better off if they could take their vision of life not from their parents but from wise guardians, paid for by the state. He proposed that a sizeable share of the next generation would be brought up by people more qualified than their own parents.
Plato’s ideas remain deeply provocative and fascinating. What unites them is their ambition and their idealism. He wanted philosophy to be a tool to help us change the world. We should continue to be inspired by his example.
‘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.
Statue of Marcus Aurelius, Musei Capitolini, Rome
Many hundreds of philosophers practiced Stoicism but two figures stand out as our best guides to it: the Roman politician, writer and tutor to Nero, Seneca (AD 4-65); and the kind and magnanimous Roman Emperor (who philosophised in his spare time while fighting the Germanic hordes on the edges of the Empire), Marcus Aurelius (AD 121 to 180). Their works remain highly readable and deeply consoling, ideal for sleepless nights, those breeding grounds for runaway terrors and paranoia.
Stoicism can help us with four problems in particular:
At all times, so many terrible things might happen. The standard way for people to cheer us up when we’re mired in anxiety is to tell us that we will, after all, be OK: the embarrassing email might not be discovered, sales could yet take off, there might be no scandal…
But the Stoics bitterly opposed such a strategy, because they believed that anxiety flourishes in the gap between what we fear might, and what we hope could, happen. The larger the gap, the greater will be the oscillations and disturbances of mood.
To regain calm, what we need to do is systematically and intelligently crush every last vestige of hope. Rather than appease ourselves with sunny tales, it is far better – the Stoics proposed – to courageously come to terms with the very worst possibilities – and then make ourselves entirely at home with them. When we look our fears in the face and imagine what life might be like if they came true, we stand to come to a crucial realisation: we will cope. We will cope even if we had to go to prison, even if we lost all our money, even if we were publicly shamed, even if our loved ones left us, and even if the growth turned out to be malignant (the Stoics were firm believers in suicide).
Jacques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii, 1784
We generally don’t dare do more than glimpse the horrible eventualities through clenched eyelids, and therefore they maintain a constant sadistic grip on us. Instead, as Seneca put it: ‘To reduce your worry, you must assume that what you fear may happen is certainly going to happen.’ To a friend wracked with terror he might be sent to prison, Seneca replied bluntly: ‘Prison can always be endured by someone who has correctly understood existence.’
The Stoics suggested we take time off to practice worst-case scenarios. We should, for example, mark out a week a year where we eat only stale bread and sleep on the kitchen floor with only one blanket, so we stop being so squeamish about being sacked or imprisoned.
We will then realise, as Marcus Aurelius says, ‘that very little is needed to make a happy life.’
Jean-Léon Gérôme, Diogenes, 1860
Each morning, a good Stoic will undertake a praemeditatio, a premeditation on all the appalling things that might occur in the hours ahead. In Marcus Aurelius’s stiffening words: ‘Mortal have you been born, to mortals have you given birth. So you must reckon on everything, expect everything.’
Stoicism is nothing less than an elegant, intelligent dress rehearsal for catastrophe.
We get angry – especially with our partners, our children, and politicians. We smash things up and hurt others. The Stoics thought anger a dangerous indulgence, but most of all, a piece of stupidity, for in their analysis, angry outbursts are only ever caused by one thing: an incorrect picture of existence. They are the bitter fruits of naivety.
John William Waterhouse, Cleopatra, 1888
Anger is, in the Stoic analysis, caused by the violent collision of hope and reality. We don’t shout every time something sad happens to us, only when it is sad and unexpected. To be calmer, we must, therefore, learn to expect far less from life. Of course our loved ones will disappoint us, naturally our colleagues will fail us, invariably our friends will lie to us… None of this should be a surprise. It may make us sad. It must never – if we are Stoics – make us angry.
The wise person should aim to reach a state where simply nothing could suddenly disturb their peace of mind. Every tragedy should already be priced in. ‘What need is there to weep over parts of life?’ asked Seneca, ‘The whole of it calls for tears.’
It is easy to think we’ve been singled out for terrible things. We wonder why it has happened to us. We tear ourselves apart with blame or direct bitter venom at the world.
The Stoics want us to do neither: it may neither be our, nor anyone else’s, fault. Though not religious, the Stoics were fascinated by the Roman Goddess of fortune, known as Fortuna, whom they took to be the perfect metaphor for destiny. Fortuna, who had shrines to her all over the Empire, was popularly held to control the fate of humans, and was judged to be a terrifying mixture of the generous and the randomly wilful and spiteful. She was no meritocrat. She was represented holding a cornucopia filled with goodies (money, love etc.) in one hand, and a tiller, for changing the course of life in the other. Depending on her mood, she might throw you down a perfect job or a beautiful relationship, and then the next minute, simply because she felt like it, watch you choke to death on a fishbone.
Statue of the goddess Fortuna
It is an urgent priority for a Stoic to respect just how much of life will always be in the hands of this demented character. ‘There is nothing which Fortuna does not dare,’ warned Seneca.
Understanding this ahead of time should make us both suspicious of success and gentle on ourselves around failure. In every sense, much of what we get, we don’t deserve.
The task of the wise person is therefore never to believe in the gifts of Fortune: fame, money, power, love, health – these are never our own. Our grip on them must at all times be light and deeply wary.
4. Loss of Perspective
We naturally exaggerate our own importance. The incidents of our own lives loom very large in our view of the world. And so we get stressed and panicked, we curse and throw things across the room.
To regain composure, we must regularly be reduced in our own eyes. We must give up on the very normal but very disturbing illusion that it really matters what we do and who we are.
The Stoics were keen astronomers and recommended the contemplation of the heavens to all students of philosophy. On an evening walk, look up and see the planets: you’ll see Venus and Jupiter shining in the darkening sky. If the dusk deepens, you might see some other stars – Aldebaran, Andromeda and Aries, along with many more. It’s a hint of the unimaginable extensions of space across the solar system, the galaxy and the cosmos. The sight has a calming effect which the Stoics revered, for against such a backdrop, we realise that none of our troubles, disappointments or hopes have any relevance.
Nothing that happens to us, or that we do, is – blessedly – of any consequence whatsoever from the cosmic perspective.
We need the Stoics more than ever. Every day confronts us with situations that they understood and wanted to prepare us for.
Their teachings are dark and sobering yet at the same time, profoundly consoling and at points even rather funny.
They invite us to feel heroic and defiant in the face of our many troubles.
Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Seneca, 1773
As Seneca reminded us, ‘Look at your wrists. There – at any time – lies freedom.’
To counterbalance the enragingly cheerful and naive optimism of our times, there is nothing better than the bitter-sweet calming wisdom of these ancient sages.
The Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus was born in 341 BC, on the island of Samos, a few miles off the coast of modern Turkey. He had an unusually long beard, wrote over three hundred books and was one of the most famous philosophers of his age.
What made him famous was his skilful and relentless focus on one particular subject: happiness. Previously, philosophers had wanted to know how to be good; Epicurus insisted he wanted to focus on how to be happy.
Few philosophers had ever made such a frank, down-to-earth admission of their interests before. It shocked many, especially when they heard that Epicurus had started a School for Happiness. The idea of what was going on inside was both entirely shocking and deeply titillating. A few disgruntled Epicureans made some damaging leaks about what was going on in the school. Timocrates said that Epicurus had to vomit twice a day because he spent all his time on a sofa being fed luxurious meats and fish by a team of slaves. And Diotimus the Stoic published fifty lewd letters which he said had been written by Epicurus to some young students when he’d been drunk and sexually obsessed. It’s because of such gossip that we still sometimes now use the adjective ‘Epicurean’ to describe luxury and decadence.
But such associations are unfounded. The truth about Epicurus is far less sensational – but far more interesting. The Greek philosopher really was focused on happiness and pleasure, but he had no interest in expensive meals or orgies. He owned only two cloaks and lived on bread, olives and – as a treat – the occasional slice of cheese. Instead, having patiently studied happiness for many years, Epicurus came to a set of remarkable and revolutionary conclusions about what we actually need to be happy, conclusions wholly at odds with the assumptions of his age – and of our own.
Epicurus proposed that we typically make three mistakes when thinking about happiness:
1. We think we need romantic relationships
Then, as now, people were obsessed with love. But Epicurus observed that happiness and love (let alone marriage) almost never go together. There is too much jealousy, misunderstanding and bitterness. Sex is always complicated and rarely in harmony with affection. It would be best, Epicurus concluded, never to put too much faith in relationships. By contrast, he noted how rewarding most friendships are: here we are polite, we look for agreement, we don’t scold or berate and we aren’t possessive. But the problem is we don’t see our friends enough. We let work and family take precedence. We can’t find the time. They live too far away.
2. We think we need lots of money
Then, as now, people were obsessed by their careers, motivated by a desire for money and applause. But Epicurus emphasised the difficulties of employment: the jealousy, the backbiting and frustrated ambitions.
What makes work really satisfying, Epicurus believed, is when we’re able to work either alone or in very small groups and when it feels meaningful, when we sense that we’re helping others in some way or making things that improve the world. It isn’t really cash or prestige we want, it’s a sense of fulfilment through our labour.
3. We put too much faith in luxury
We dream of luxury: a beautiful home, elegant rooms and pleasant views. We imagine trips to idyllic locations, where we can rest and let others look after us…
But Epicurus disagreed with our longings. Behind the fantasy of luxury, what he believed we really want is calm. Yet calm won’t possibly arise simply through changing the view or owning a delightful building.
Calm is an internal quality that is the result of analysis: it comes when we sift through our worries and correctly understand them. We therefore need ample time to read, to write, and most of all, to benefit from the regular support of a good listener: a sympathetic, kind, clever person who in Epicurus’s time would have been a philosopher, and whom we would now call a therapist.
With his analysis of happiness in hand, Epicurus made three important innovations:
– Firstly, he decided that he would live together with friends. Enough of seeing them only now and then. He bought a modestly priced plot of land outside of Athens and built a place where he and his friends could live side by side on a permanent basis. Everyone had their rooms, and there were common areas downstairs and in the grounds. That way, the residents would always be surrounded by people who shared their outlooks, were entertaining and kind. Children were looked after in rota. Everyone ate together. One could chat in the corridors late at night. It was the world’s first proper commune.
– Secondly, everyone in the commune stopped working for other people. They accepted cuts in their income in return for being able to focus on fulfilling work. Some of Epicurus’s friends devoted themselves to farming, others to cooking, a few to making furniture and art. They had far less money, but ample intrinsic satisfaction.
– Thirdly, Epicurus and his friends devoted themselves to finding calm through rational analysis and insight. They spent periods of every day reflecting on their anxieties, improving their understanding of their psyches and mastering the great questions of philosophy.
Epicurus’s experiment in living caught on. Epicurean communities opened up all around the Mediterranean and drew in thousands of followers. The centres thrived for generations – until they were brutally suppressed by a jealous and aggressive Christian Church in the 5th century. But even then, their essence survived when many of them were turned into monasteries.
Epicurus’s influence continues into the modern age. Karl Marx did his PhD thesis on him and thought of him as his favourite philosopher. What we call Communism is at heart just a bigger – and rather more authoritarian and joyless – version of Epicureanism.
Even today, Epicurus remains an indispensable guide to life in advanced consumer capitalist societies because advertising – on which this system is based – functions on cleverly muddling people up about what they think they need to be happy.
An extraordinary number of adverts focus on the three very things that Epicurus identified as false lures of happiness: romantic love, professional status and luxury.
Adverts wouldn’t work as well as they do if they didn’t operate with an accurate sense of what our real needs are. Yet while they excite us by evoking them, they refuse to quench them properly. Beer ads will show us groups of friends hugging – but only sell us alcohol (that we might end up drinking alone). Fancy watch ads will show us high-status professionals walking purposefully to the office, but won’t know how to answer the desire for intrinsically satisfying work. And adverts for tropical beaches may titillate us with their serenity, but can’t – on their own – deliver the true calm we crave
Epicurus invites us to change our understanding of ourselves and to alter society accordingly. We mustn’t exhaust ourselves and the planet in a race for things that wouldn’t possibly satisfy us even if we got them. We need a return to philosophy and a lot more seriousness about the business of being happy.