Some Timely Philosophy For Tumultuous Times
When it seems like the world is falling apart around us, philosophy can provide a steady hand
Seneca proposed we are ‘…injured most by what we do not expect, and because we must expect everything, we must hold the possibility of disaster in mind at all times.’
How relevant I should turn to this page in my nightly reading considering NSW and QLD are experiencing some of the most devastating floods on record, and World War III is upon us?
In The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain De Botton writes of Fortune, the original fertility goddess who lived on the back of many Roman coins. She held a cornucopia in one hand as a symbol of her power to bequeath favors, and on the other had was a rudder: this was to represent her random and irrational servings of chaos, hardship, and infelicity.
Following an earthquake that struck Pompeii, leaving the population devastated, Seneca advised those who sought to flee to what they considered safer ground¹:
Who promises them better foundations for this or that soil to stand on? All places have the same conditions and if they have not yet had an earthquake, the can nonetheless have quakes. Perhaps tonight or before tonight, today will split open the spot where you stand securely. How do you know whether conditions will henceforth be better in those places against which Fortune has already exhausted her strength or in those places which are supported on their own ruins? We are mistaken if we believe any part of the world is exempt and safe…Nature has not created anything in such a way that it is immobile.
I wonder how many Australians were feeling safe they were not in the shoes of Ukrainians, only to have everything they hold dear washed away by floodwaters?
Of course, we know thanks to science and technology which areas are prone to earthquakes and which aren’t, but Seneca’s point is still valid. And he imparts yet another gem of wisdom on us too.
After his own turn of affliction, he reaffirms Fortune is not judge, juror and executioner — she does not decide what is right or wrong and punishes accordingly — her distribution of fate is random, therefore there is no point in ruminating over what past misdeeds we have committed to deserve what has been bestowed upon us.
Don’t bother to ask ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’
We can risk mitigate to a certain extent, but we can never be sure of what the future holds. Most importantly, we don’t need to worry whether what is happening to us is a result of past actions that we need to correct. The world is full of randomness, and we should adjust our mindsets accordingly.
- De Botton, Alain. The Consolations of Philosophy (2000). Penguin Books. Pp 87.
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