A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I watched a series of YouTube videos featuring Alain de Botton’s documentary based on his book “The Consolations of Philosophy”. Anyone who, like me, is interested in those aspects of philosophy that help us live happier, fuller lives should watch these – he discusses a lot of interesting points. Each video is centred around a particular philosopher and his or her work, and each one deals with a particular topic. As an example, there’s one on Epicurus and his ideas regarding happiness and how to attain it. Another one, which I found very interesting, was focused on Seneca, a Roman Stoic philosopher, and his thoughts on frustration.
I found this video intriguing because frustration is something I deal with on a daily basis, both my own and that of other people. Being a slow, pensive person, I tend to cause a lot of it. Seneca, apparently, was also dealing with quite a bit of frustration, working as the tutor of the emperor’s son, and frustration in that time and place was a dangerous thing. So it’s only natural that he ended up spending quite a bit of time trying to figure out how to prevent it. What he came up with is that frustration is caused by excessive optimism. It’s when we expect things to turn out well and they don’t that we get frustrated. Just think about it; imagine you have a friend who has a tendency to show up late to things. If you fully expect that said friend will arrive late to your party, and plan things accordingly, then you’ll be fine if he is late, and pleasantly surprised if he’s on time. However, if you don’t expect him to be late, but believe he’ll be on time on this occasion, and if you plan according to that, then you’ll be frustrated when he is late. We only ever become frustrated when things don’t work out the way we expect them to. Think back; can you remember a single occasion where you’ve genuinely said to yourself “oh, I’m sure this or that will happen, and if it does I’ll just have to deal with it in such and such a way” and then become frustrated when it did happen? Generally speaking, if we’re pessimistic about something from the start we’ll only find adversity mildly amusing. I, for one, think this is true. It’s that tried and true bit of advice; if your expectations are low you won’t be disappointed.
There is, however, one problem with this theory. Its conclusion is that we should adopt a more pessimistic attitude in order to avoid disappointment. We should be cynical, always expecting the worst. Many people believe that the opposite is better, that being optimistic is the best approach. I think a lot of people genuinely believe that if they’re positive and are sending out positive “vibes”, good things will come to them. Now, this might actually be the case. After all, if you wake up in the morning and convince yourself from the start that you’re going to have a good day, chances are it will be a good day. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, since you’ll get a kick of energy and will be more prepared to be active, and you’ll erect a sort of “bubble” of good-will and humour around yourself, dealing with problems more effectively. If you’re good at being optimistic, I think it’s possible to be quite content even on a fairly bad day. I recon it might even be possible to combat frustration with optimism. However, eventually you’ll hit a wall. Life has a way of keeping our feet firmly planted on the ground. If you’re pessimistic, on the other hand, you may be less happy in the short-term but you probably won’t be disappointed. It is, in many ways, an easier frame of mind to adopt and maintain than its opposite.
And yet, the idea that we’ll be more content if we’re cynical and pessimistic all the time seems counter intuitive, at least to me. It just doesn’t seem right. But maybe it’s not a question of being pessimistic. In fact, I don’t believe it is. What Seneca was saying was that we should always be prepared for the worst, but that doesn’t mean we can’t hope for the best. What he was advocating was realism, a simple acceptance of the fact that things really don’t always work out and that we’re bound to bump into problems from time to time. When we do, we should be prepared to say “ah well, that’s just the way of the world” and move on, rather than becoming angry and indignant. We should steep ourselves in reality, always ready to take the good with the bad. And when something goes wrong, we should try to take it philosophically. When the emperor ordered Seneca to kill himself, the man didn’t so much as complain. He took the knife, and then his life. Perhaps the perfect – if a tad lugubrious – illustration of what he was talking about.
On a side note, Alain de Botton has been criticized for popularising philosophy, over simplifying it to make it more accessible to “the masses”. To be frank, I’m not sure this is such a bad idea. I think philosophy has become a little too esoteric, a little too academic, and a little too lofty. Reading a philosophical text can be like trying to decipher some strange code. I believe it’s fully possible to express even the most complex philosophical theories in a simple manner. But I’ve only studied the subject for a while and can’t claim to be an expert. If you happen to have any thoughts on the matter, please share them!