The Utility of Pessimism

As a reliable compass for orientating yourself in life nothing is more useful than to accustom yourself to regarding this world as a place of atonement, a sort of penal colony. When you have done this you will order your expectations of life according to the nature of things and no longer regard the calamities, sufferings, torments and miseries of life as something irregular and not to be expected but will find them entirely in order, well knowing that each of us is here being punished for his existence and each in his own particular way. This outlook will enable us to view the so-called imperfections of the majority of men (i.e. their moral and intellectual shortcomings and the facial appearance resulting therefrom) without surprise and certainly without indignation: for we shall always bear in mind where we are and consequently regard every man first and foremost as a being who exists as a consequence of his culpability and whose life is an expiation of the crime of being born.

Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer is regarded as one of the most pessimistic philosophers, a sentiment clearly demonstrated in the above quote from his work Essays and Aphorisms. Despite this obviously negative view of the human experience, let’s dissect this quote and see what we can learn.

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Accepting the Absurdity of Life

He who despairs of the human condition is a coward, but he who has hope for it is a fool.

Albert Camus

The tragedies of life — a plane crash, a baby born with a terminal condition — can make one cry out, “Why, God?”. It is safe to assume one cannot expect any answer back from the heavens. The almost brutal indifference the world can show to our dreams and our prayers leads one to think that life is absurd. The French existentialist Albert Camus (1913-1960) likens the human condition to that of Sisyphus in Greek mythology:

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The Mid-Life Crisis

“The road is always better than the inn.”

~ Miguel de Cervantes

Habits and routines are useful tools that help us simplify the world, making it manageable enough for us to confidently navigate and experience; it can even be said that they are critical to the achievement of goals and maintenance of every day life, promoting consistency and discipline. Despite its utility, habit and routine can cause our life to become methodical and bland, void of the joy and novelty necessary for a fulfilling life. It is therefore necessary, on occasion, to force ourselves out of our comfort zones and into the unknown. I reckon the mid-life crisis strikes those who, after living busy and repetitive lives for 35 or 40 years, one day realize that they have less time left than they have lived already and have neglected their inner desires, drives, and passions for the comforting embrace of routine and the societal status quo. Seeking new experiences and knowledge can help to renew that vigour for life that often dissipates as we age and grow into adulthood. Below, I propose three ways we can continually challenge ourselves throughout life to avoid that dreadful mid-life crisis.

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The Stoic Ideal

“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”

~ Marcus Aurelius

Stoicism is a philosophical school of thought with origins in ancient Greece around the 3rd century BCE. Stoicism was particularly popular throughout the Roman and Greek world, with the majority of its surviving literary corpus written by several prominent figures of the time including Epictetus, Seneca, and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. I was introduced to Stoicism in university and was drawn to its pursuit of virtue and its emphasis on individual responsibility and living ‘in accordance with nature’. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations was my introduction to philosophy and sparked my interest in the use of philosophical study for the development of the inner self.

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The Ballot or the Bullet

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life — longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

~ Martin Luther King Jr.

Certain moments in history are so profoundly prophetic in nature that one struggles to refute the intervention of the divine. Such moments — like MLK Jr’s last speech, given only one day before his assassination — are almost undeniable evidence that God does his work through certain individuals, sent by Him to teach us and correct the course of humanity. Such individuals are heroes of faith, putting aside selfish desires and conquering the natural human tendencies toward fear and satisfaction of base urges. These figures dominate religious literature: see Moses and Jesus Christ for example.

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“I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. God help me. Amen.”

~ Martin Luther

These were the infamous words uttered by Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, at which he defied the church, which at the time believed itself to be on par with God Himself.

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The Sisyphean Task

“Do not judge or you too will be judged. In the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the same measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

~ Matthew 7:1-2

It is impossible as a conscious being not to formulate opinions or to categorize independent of the influence of our own unique experiences and emotions. It is what makes us human and it is unavoidable. It is an essential tool of the human conscious which has served us well over time, allowing us to defend ourselves from predators and form groups of like-minded individuals, leading to synergistic progress.

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On Reading

“Education begins the gentleman, but reading, good company, and reflection must finish him.”

~ John Locke

2018 was a year of significant tribulation and reconstruction for me, however (I think) I have emerged on the other side a more complete and purposeful individual. One can draw from strength they never knew they possessed in their lowest moments, and I found this to be particularly true this year. A place of unfathomable strength and wisdom is books, and I have turned to them for answers on many occasions.

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The Quintessential Man

“The individual has always had to struggle from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is hard business. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”

~ Rudyard Kipling

When one is young, creative abilities are at an all time high. It is in our youth where our greatest ideas and motivations plant their roots. It should therefore be the ultimate goal of human nature to fertilize this; to not let it wither away with time. Societal structure promotes obedience, and in doing so promotes the death of creativity.

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Law 25: Re-create Yourself

“I had rather be first in a village than second in Rome.”

~ Julius Caesar

The properties you are born with are not necessarily who you are, outside of the characteristics inherited through your parents, friends, and experiences in life that have shaped your personality. One should see themselves as an artist, a clay that can be continually molded to their liking.

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