've recently started a business and am terrified. The challenge is enormous--and to be honest, I am in a panic most of the time. I don't know how to calm down. Any suggestions?
Brilliant but unusual advice comes from Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche seemed to recognise that we often compound our worries by fretting that we are worrying so much. We think life should be easier than it is, we panic about our panic. So Nietzsche's line is that we must accept that pain is a necessary stage on the road to anything valuable--be it a flourishing business, a great novel, or a beautiful house. In essence, pain is normal. We should realise that we cannot have both happiness and a pain-free life. Or, as he put it:
What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other... you have the choice: either as little displeasure as possible, painlessness in brief... or as much displeasure as possible as the price for the growth of an abundance of subtle pleasures and joys that have rarely been relished yet. If you decide for the former and desire to diminish and lower the level of human pain, you also have to diminish and lower the level of their capacity for joy.
For Nietzsche, the most fulfilling human projects appeared inseparable from a degree of torment, the sources of our greatest joys lying awkwardly close to those of our greatest pains.
Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people and peoples and ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favourable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible.
Why? Because no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great business-person at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfilment.
Nietzsche was striving to correct the belief that fulfilment must come easily or not at all, a belief ruinous in its effects for it may lead us to withdraw prematurely from challenges that might have been overcome if only we had been prepared for the savagery legitimately demanded by almost everything valuable.
My wife and I aren't getting on very well. We had children ten years ago, but the relationship has gradually soured. We rarely talk, dinners pass in silence, we never have sex. I don't suppose philosophers have thought much about this kind of emotional business, but frankly it's quite the most important problem in my life. How can I learn to be more philosophical?
It's true that philosophers have not traditionally been very impressed by this kind of thing: the tribulations of one's love life have appeared too childish to warrant investigation, the subject better left to poets and hysterics. It is not for philosophers to speculate on failed marriages. But one great philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, was puzzled by the indifference--and wanted to correct it.
We should be surprised that a matter that generally plays such an important part in the life of man has hitherto been almost entirely disregarded by philosophers, and lies before us as raw and untreated material.
Schopenhauer believed that people get married because they are driven by a biological urge to reproduce the next generation. We fall in love with people who biology believes will help us to make healthy, intelligent children. But Schopenhauer then added a pessimistic idea--which could prove oddly consoling. He claimed that a person who is highly suitable for our child is almost never (though we cannot realise it at the time because we have been blindfolded by biology) very suitable for us.
"That convenience and passionate love should go hand in hand is the rarest stroke of good fortune" observed Schopenhauer. The lover who saves our child from having an enormous chin or an effeminate temperament is seldom the person who will make us happy over a lifetime. The pursuit of personal happiness and the production of healthy children are two radically contrasting projects, which love maliciously confuses us into thinking of as one for a requisite number of years. We should not be surprised by marriages between people who would never have been friends:
Love...casts itself on persons who, apart from the sexual relation, would be hateful, contemptible, and even abhorrent to the lover. But the will of the species is so much more powerful than that of the individual, that the lover shuts his eyes to all the qualities repugnant to him, overlooks everything, misjudges everything, and binds himself for ever to the object of his passion. He is so completely infatuated by that delusion, which vanishes as soon as the will of the species is satisfied, and leaves behind a detested partner for life. Only from this is it possible to explain why we often see very rational, and even eminent, men tied to termagants and matrimonial fiends, and cannot conceive how they could have made such a choice...A man in love may even clearly recognise and bitterly feel in his bride the intolerable faults of temperament and character which promise him a life of misery, and yet not be frightened away... for ultimately he seeks not his interest, but that of a third person who has yet to come into existence, although he is involved in the delusion that what he seeks is his own interest.
Biology's ability to further its own ends rather than our happiness may, Schopenhauer's theory implies, be sensed with particular clarity in the lassitude and strong desire to spend a few minutes alone in the kitchen that frequently befalls people immediately after making love.
Has it not been observed how illico post coitum cachinnus auditur Diaboli? Directly after copulation the devil's laughter is heard.
Schopenhauer offered us a choice.
It seems as if, in making a marriage, either the individual or the interest of biology must come off badly.
though he left us in little doubt as to the superior capacity of biology to guarantee its interests.
The coming generation is provided for at the expense of the present.
We might well ask why this is helpful to someone whose in a marriage that's gone wrong. Schopenhauer would say that at least their kind of unhappiness is 'normal.' It's not your fault, it's the fault of the way we're constructed.
There were many works of natural science in Schopenhauer's library and he often read of ants, beetles, bees, flies, grasshoppers, moles and migratory birds, and observed, with compassion and puzzlement, how all these creatures displayed an ardent, senseless commitment to life. He felt particular sympathy for the mole, a stunted monstrosity dwelling in damp narrow corridors, who rarely saw the light of day and whose off-spring looked like gelatinous worms--but who still did everything in its power to survive and perpetuate itself.
To dig strenuously with its enormous shovel-paws is the business of its whole life; permanent night surrounds it; it has its embryo eyes merely to avoid the light... what does it attain by this course of life that is full of trouble and devoid of pleasure?...The cares and troubles of life are out of all proportion to the yield or profit from it.
Every creature on earth seemed to Schopenhauer to be equally committed to an equally meaningless existence.
Contemplate the restless industry of wretched little ants... the life of most insects is nothing but a restless labour for preparing nourishment and dwelling for the future offspring that will come from their eggs. After the offspring have consumed the nourishment and have turned into the chrysalis stage, they enter into life merely to begin the same task again from the beginning... we cannot help but ask what comes of all of this... there is nothing to show but the satisfaction of hunger and sexual passion, and...a little momentary gratification...now and then, between...endless needs and exertions.
The philosopher did not have to spell out the parallels. We pursue love affairs, chat in cafes with prospective partners and have children, with as much choice in the matter as moles and ants--and are rarely any happier.
He did not mean to depress us, rather to free us from expectations which inspire bitterness. It is consoling, when love has let us down, to hear that happiness was never part of the plan. The darkest thinkers may, paradoxically, be the most cheering.
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 maintaining a happy existence... hence the countenances of almost all elderly persons wear the expression of what is called disappointment.
They would never have grown so disappointed if only they had entered love with the correct expectations.
What disturbs and renders unhappy...the age of youth...is the hunt for happiness on the firm assumption that it must be met with in life. From this arises the constantly deluded hope and so also dissatisfaction. Deceptive images of a vague happiness of our dreams hover before us in capriciously selected shapes and we search in vain for their original.... Much would have been gained if through timely advice and instruction young people could have had eradicated from their minds the erroneous notion that the world has a great deal to offer them.
It's my holidays and I've decided to bankrupt myself by checking into a hotel that promises to make me happy--or, as the brochure puts it more discreetly, to cater to my every need. There are two pools, airconditioned bungalows, nightly barbecues and mimosa-lined paths trimmed by discreet gardeners. And yet, as I write on my terrace to the sound of cicadas, I am forced to conclude that I'm not as happy as I'm supposed to be. What can I do?
Turn to Epicurus (341-270BC). Ever since ancient times, this Greek philosopher has been badly misunderstood. Look up "Epicurean" in the dictionary and it says sensual, addicted to luxury, profligate. One might describe your hotel as Epicurean, with its deep white towels and complimentary bath oils.
But Epicurus was no lotus-eater. He acquired the image because he was the first philosopher to state categorically that the purpose of life was pleasure--though what he meant by this was hardly luxurious pleasure. If you reflect seriously on what you actually need to be happy, you will--alleged Epicurus--arrive at a quite unmaterial list of priorities.
The first of these is friends. No life can be happy without friends, and no life will ever be miserable with them. The philosopher was so attached to congenial company that he bought a large house in Athens and asked a group of his best friends to move in with him. He recommended that one try never even to eat alone.
"Before you eat or drink anything, consider carefully who you eat or drink with rather than what you are to eat or drink: for feeding without a friend is the life of a lion or a wolf."
The second ingredient of a happy life is financial self-sufficiency. We can't be happy if we're at the mercy of odious and unpredictable superiors. It is better to have little money and be free, than be rich and vulnerable to the whims of others. So Epicurus and his friends dropped out of regular employment and started a commune, growing their own fruit and vegetables.
And the last ingredient of happiness is to lead a thoughtful life, analysing anxieties on a regular basis--writing them down and chatting through them with friends.
If you have these three goods in your life, asserted Epicurus, however poor you may be, however bad the hotel, you will always be happy; without them, you will almost certainly be sad.
Epicurus points us to the fragility of any vision of happiness based simply on comfort and luxury. In the most palatial environment, a single anxiety or feeling of loneliness can wipe out the benefits of the best bath-oils and towels. And conversely, with friends, with a sense of freedom, without anxieties, no cheap pension can sadden us.
There are many holiday resorts that have cracked the secret of luxury. Very few have cracked the secret of happiness.
I'm very bad at dealing with frustration. I get very very angry. When there's a traffic jam, or something goes wrong at work, I tend to shout--and try to hit people. What can I do to control my rage?
The Stoic philosopher Seneca held anger to be a kind of madness.
There is no swifter way to insanity. Many angry people call down death on their children, poverty on themselves, ruin on their home, denying that they are angry, just as the mad deny their insanity. Enemies to their closest friends...heedless of the law..., they do everything by force... The greatest of ills has seized them, one that surpasses all other vices.
In calmer moments, the angry may apologise and explain that they were overwhelmed by a power stronger than themselves, that is, stronger than their reason. "They", their rational selves, did not mean the insults and regret the shouting; "they" lost control to darker forces within. The angry hereby appeal to a predominant view of the mind in which the reasoning faculty, the seat of the true self, is depicted as occasionally assaulted by passionate feelings, which reason neither identifies with nor can be held responsible for.
The account ran directly counter to Seneca's view of the mind; according to which anger resulted not from an uncontrollable erruption of the passions, but from a basic (and correctible) error of reasoning. Reason did not always govern our actions, he conceded: if we were sprinkled with cold water, our body gave us no choice but to shiver; if fingers were flicked over our eyes, we had to blink. But anger did not belong in the category of involuntary physical movement, it could only break out on the back of certain rationally-held ideas; if we could only change the ideas, we would change our propensity to anger.
And in the Senecan view, what makes us angry are dangerously optimistic ideas about what the world and other people are like. How badly we react to frustration is critically determined by what we think of as normal. We may be frustrated that it is raining, but our familiarity with showers means we are unlikely ever to respond to one with anger. Our frustrations are tempered by what we understand we can expect from the world, by our experience of what it is normal to hope for. We aren't overwhelmed by anger whenever we are denied an object we desire, only when we believe ourselves entitled to obtain it. Our greatest furies spring from events which violate our sense of the ground-rules of existence.
With money, one could have expected to lead a very comfortable life in Ancient Rome. Many of Seneca's friends had large houses in the capital and villas in the countryside. There were baths, colonnaded gardens, fountains, mosaics, frescoes and gilded couches. There were retinues of slaves to prepare the food, look after the children and tend the garden.
Nevertheless, there seemed an unusual level of rage among the privileged. "Prosperity fosters bad tempers" wrote Seneca, after observing his wealthy friends ranting around him because life had not turned out as they had hoped.
Seneca knew of a wealthy man, Vedius Pollio, a friend of the Emperor Augustus, whose slave once dropped a tray of crystal glasses during a party. Vedius hated the sound of breaking glass and grew so furious that he ordered the slave to be thrown into a pool of lampreys. Such rages are never beyond explanation. Vedius Pollio was angry for an identifiable reason: because he believed in a world in which glasses do not get broken at parties. We shout when we can't find the remote control because of an implicit belief in a world in which remote controls do not get mislaid. Rage is caused by a conviction, almost comic in its optimistic origins (however tragic in its effects), that a given frustration has not been written into the contract of life.
We should be more careful. Seneca tried to adjust the scale of our expectations so that we would not bellow so loudly when these were dashed.
When dinner comes a few minutes late
"What need is there to kick the table over? To smash the goblets? To bang yourself against columns?"
When there's a buzzing sound
"Why should a fly infuriate you which no one has taken enough trouble to drive off, or a dog which gets in your way, or a key dropped by a careless servant?"
When something disturbs the calm of the dining room
"Why go and fetch the whip in the middle of dinner, just because the slaves are talking?"
We must reconcile ourselves to the necessary imperfectibility of existence.
"Is it surprising that the wicked should do wicked deeds, or unprecedented that your enemy should harm or your friend annoy you, that your son should fall into error or your servant misbehave?"
We will cease to be so angry once we cease to be so hopeful.
Of course, there would be few great human achievements if people didn't refuse to be disappointed. The motor of our ingenuity is the question, 'Does it have to be like this, could it not be different?'--from which arise political reforms, more punctual trains, scientific developments, better relationships. But sadly, the very side of us which tries to improve things is also responsible for our useless fury in cases where altering reality is simply not an option.
It was to teach us to be more "philosophical" about frustration that the Stoic philosophers of Ancient Greece and Rome came up with an image to evoke our condition. They argued that we were all like dogs tied to a cart. The leash was long enough to give us a degree of leeway, but too short to allow us to go wherever we pleased. The philosopher Zeno wrote: "When a dog is tied to a cart, if it wants to follow, it is pulled and follows, making its spontaneous act coincide with necessity. But if the dog does not follow, it will be compelled in any case. So it is with men too: even if they don't want to, they will be compelled to follow what is destined."
A dog will naturally hope to go where he wants. But, as Zeno's metaphor implied, if he cannot, then it is better for the animal to be trotting behind the cart rather than dragged and strangled by it. Though the dog's first impulse may be to fight against the sudden swerve of the cart in an awful direction, his sorrows can only be compounded by his resistance. It is better to head in a bad direction without a pain in the neck than to be dragged and strangulated.
To reflect that we are never without a leash around our neck may help to reduce the violence of our mutiny against events which veer away from our intentions. The wise will learn to identify what is necessary and follow it at once, rather than exhaust themselves in protest. When a wise man is told that his luggage has been lost in transit, he will resign himself at once to the facts. This was how the founder of Stoicism responded to the loss of his luggage: "When Zeno received news of a shipwreck and heard that all his luggage had been sunk, he said, 'Fortune bids me to be a less encumbered philosopher."
Whatever the similarities between ourselves and a dog on a leash, we do have one important advantage: we have reason and the dog doesn't. So the animal often can't even grasp that he is tied to a leash, whereas our reason enables us to see when our wishes are in irrevocable conflict with reality, and then bids us to submit ourselves willingly, rather than angrily or bitterly, to necessities.
We may be powerless to alter certain events, but we remain free to choose our attitude to them, and it is in our spontaneous acceptance of necessity that Seneca thought we could find freedom. It might sound like a recipe for passivity, encouragement to resign ourselves to frustrations that might have been overcome. But Seneca was more subtle. It would be no less unreasonable to accept something as necessary when it wasn't as to rebel against something when it was. We can as easily go astray by accepting the unecessary and denying the possible, as by denying the necessary and wishing for the impossible. It is for reason to make the distinction.
I'm at university (reading English and History) and am so bored by having to study other people's books all the time. These great figures of the past are so boring; I just long to go off and chat with my mates. I know I should be putting my head down, but can't find the motivation.
The premise of most universitities today is that certain great thinkers of old have had far better ideas than you and me. That's why we should put our concerns aside and humbly listen to what Descartes had to say, or Shakespeare, Spinoza and Tolstoy. We should write commentaries on great thinkers and quote from their works because they're basically a lot brainier than we are.
But there was one philosopher who in the sixteenth century launched an impassioned attack on what one could call the "culture of quotation." Michel de Montaigne argued that the universities of his day encouraged people to write endless commentaries on the great names (Aristotle, Plato, Cicero etc.), but discouraged them from ever thinking for themselves. Rather than being told to explore what they thought about anger or justice or marriage, students were simply instructed to run to a great name and determine what he thought about it. Montaigne wasn't wholly unsympathetic to this idea. After all, he spent much time reading and quoting from the classics and learnt a lot as a result, but he was aware of how easy it to rely excessively on the big names out of cowardice, timidity and a desire to impress others. And the result is, he lamented, that, "We know how to say, 'This is what Cicero said'; 'This is morality for Plato'; 'These are the ipsissima verba of Aristotle.' But what have we got to say? What judgements do we make? What are we doing? A parrot could talk as well as we do."
The problem seems as acute in our own day as in Montaigne's. One wouldn't get very far trying to write a PhD on "What I have to say about justice," but "What Aristotle has to say about it" would go down very well in almost any university. But Montaigne wished to point out that interesting ideas can be found in every life. We can--at least in theory--derive greater insights from ourselves than from all the books of old. "Were I a good scholar," he wrote, "I would find enough in my own experience to make me wise." Only an intimidating scholarly culture make us think otherwise. "We are richer than we think, each one of us."
We may all arrive at wise ideas if we cease to think of ourselves as so unsuited to the task because we aren't two thousand years old, aren't interested in the topics of Plato's dialogues and have never been to university. "You can attach the whole of moral philosophy to a commonplace private life just as well as to one of richer stuff," wrote Montaigne.
He was pointing to a highly peculiar source of wisdom--you and me. If we attend properly to our experiences and learn to consider ourselves plausible candidates for an intellectual life, it is, implied Montaigne, open to all of us to arrive at insights no less profound than those in the great ancient books.
The thought is not easy. We are educated to associate good thinking with submission to big names, not to an exploration of our own views. Montaigne tried to return us to ourselves. So quit university--and start thinking for yourself.
Copyright © 2000 Alain de Botton
Photo credit © Roderick Field