I’ve been reading Alain de Botton’s fantastic book The Consolation of Philosophy, a tome that makes that most abstract subject seem a little more practical for day-to-day use.
I’m growing particularly fond of Seneca the more I read about him. Born during a tyrannical period of Roman history, he saw royal infighting lead to murder, and suffered through several years as Nero’s tutor. That same student would demand Seneca take his own life just a few years later, following a false charge of treason directed at the philosopher. Like Socrates, Seneca’s place in history was secured by his determination and strength of will in the face of his own death — he spoke of the fateful event as a single moment of pity within the much greater sorrow of the whole human life, and therefore, it was of little consequence.
While this might appear overly cynical to some, I find great strength in the scepticism that Seneca would have us endorse, and I believe a great many others feel the same way. Comedians like Louie CK use standup to broadcast ideas about mortality and the things we suffer through on a daily basis. Revered journalists pull away the trappings of falsehood created by governments or corporations so that we can gain a perspective of scepticism as we address these entities in our society.
If we come to grips with the shortcomings of life through entertainment, why is it so hard to face up to it on a daily basis, as a kind of activity?
Seneca believed it was healthy to open your mind to the downturns and disasters that can overtake us. He advocated the use of meditations on the subject. I’ll just provide a small portion of the text found in de Botton’s book:
We live in the middle of things which have all been destined to die.
Mortal have you been born, to mortals have you given birth.
Reckon on everything, expect everything.
So, give it a try: the next time you’re looking down at your corn flakes in the morning, remember old Seneca, and keep things in perspective.