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Learning the value of pessimism from ancient Stoics and Christians

Glasses empty and fullHere’s the perfect reality check for all of the current ill-conceived hopes for a swift economic “recovery,” defined as a return to our previous bubblicious state of unfettered (and, as it turned out, fake) economic growth and “greed is good”-induced cultural mania:

For a happier life, shake off your misplaced optimism” — Financial Times, April 30, 2009

It’s a brief essay by Swiss writer, philosopher, and television host Alain de Botton, who commands a magnificent grasp of the idiocy of modern Western corporate/consumer culture. He begins his essay by locating all of the recent media chatter about “signs of hope and recovery” in stark historical context:

It has been clear for a while, at least since the first talk started about “green shoots” of recovery, that what we have to fear above all is hope. Attempts to trust that the worst is over and to stop frightening ourselves seem doomed to project us into yet worse disappointment. We are not only unhappy but — believing calm and happiness to be the norm – unhappy that we are unhappy.

It is time to recognise how odd and counter-productive is the optimism on which we have grown up. For the last 200 years, despite occasional shocks, the western world has been dominated by a belief in progress, based on its extraordinary scientific and entrepreneurial achievements. On a broader perspective, this optimism is a grave anomaly. Humans have spent most of recorded history drawing a curious comfort from expecting the worst.

He goes on to sketch the way of inner-peace-through-active-resignation advocated by the ancient Roman Stoics, and augments this by applying it directly to current circumstances:

Because we are hurt most by what we do not expect, and because we must expect everything (“There is nothing which Fortune does not dare”), we must, argued Seneca, hold the possibility of the most obscene events in mind at all times. No one should make an investment, undertake to run a company, sit on a board or leave money in a bank without an awareness, which Seneca would have wished to be neither gruesome nor unnecessarily dramatic, of the darkest possibilities.

He also touches briefly on Christianity:

Christianity only backed up the Stoic message. It pointed out that while humans might strive for perfection, it is a problem — indeed a sin — to suppose that such perfection can ever occur on earth. Nothing human can ever be free of blemishes. There cannot be an end to boom and bust, mayhem and death.

And he does a masterful job of using all of this to expose the sham of our contemporary bourgeois worldview that elevates a cheap and uncritical optimism to the status of self-evident axiom:

When an exception is misrepresented as a rule, our individual misfortunes, instead of seeming to us quasi-inevitable aspects of life, weigh down on us like particular curses. In denying the natural place reserved for longing and disaster in the human lot, the bourgeois ideology denies us the possibility of collective consolation for our fractious marriages, unexploited ambitions and exploded portfolios, and condemns us instead to solitary feelings of shame and persecution for having stubbornly failed to make more of ourselves.

What’s left for me to say but, “Amen, world without end”?

Especially when de Botton has also called a spade a spade in talking about the insanity and ugliness of life in the modern corporate office, as reported in an April 23 story at one of Australia’s main news sites: “Upbeat office culture fake and creepy, says Alain de Botton.”