The Philosophers' Guide to Calm, Part 1

Nowadays, almost all of us wish we could be calmer. It's one of the distinctive longings of the modern age. Across history, people have tended to seek out adventure and excitement. But most of us have had a bit too much of that now. The desire to be more tranquil and focused is the new, ever more urgent priority.

©REX/Jeff Blackler

In our view, there are eight basic causes of agitation - and the path to greater calm involves attempting to consider each one systematically and returning to it on a regular basis. Here is the start of a three-part guide to a calmer life:

One: Panic about Panic

A lot of agitation is caused by an unrealistic sense of how unusual difficulty is. We are oppressed by unhelpful images of how easy it is to achieve and how normal it is to succeed. The stories that officially circulate about what relationships and careers are like tend fatally to downplay the darker realities, leaving many of us not only upset, but upset that we are upset, feeling persecuted as well as miserable.

©REX/Image Source

If your life is rather more difficult than this saccharine image, it must be that you are a freak or a failure

We need to change our points of reference about what life is like. We need - in the broadest sense - better art, a kind that takes us more truthfully into the realities of relationships, the workplace and our 3 a.m. panics. We need to make sure we are surrounded by accurate case studies of the ordinary miseries of daily life.

©Jessica Todd Harper

The Agony in the Kitchen, Jessica Todd Harper, 2012

Consider this helpfully realistic picture of the life of a couple. Many things are going well for them. Earlier one of their children showed them such a sweet drawing she'd done at school. They had a nice holiday last year. They love playing soccer together in the park (the mum gets really competitive and has discovered she's a brilliant goalkeeper). They are trying to work out whether to move to a village outside the city. Sometimes they feel so close. But this evening is a nightmare. She received a flirtatious email from an ex-boyfriend of years ago; she hasn't shown it to her husband, but it's on her mind as a source of torment. It's opened up imaginative possibilities. She has put her head in her hands - but he's said twenty times that drives him nuts. His mother used to do that. Their marriage is OK. They've been together nine years. They're going to survive long-term, but right now, they're about to have a titanic fight. He'll call her a bitch and slam the door, but he's quite nice - genuinely...

We should contemplate this image to reduce panic about our relationships. Difficulty is normal. Very decent couples have long-running and extraordinarily vicious conflicts over apparently small things. In a good relationship, two nights out of five you will wonder what you are doing together. That is success. It's worth repeating: two bad nights a week is lucky.

The French 18th-century philosopher Chamfort wisely observed: 'A person should swallow a toad every morning to be sure of not meeting with anything more revolting in the day ahead.' Disgusting things are on the menu for all of us. Life, it seems, is - in many ways - about quite a lot of suffering.

Look at this image by the Spanish painter Velázquez. Christianity is upfront about the idea that our lives will be burdened by suffering. You don't have to believe in the religion (we don't) to recognise there's something important at play here. Christianity takes the view that loss, self-reproach, failure, regret, sickness and sadness will always find ways of entering life. Our troubles need practical help, of course. But Christianity identifies another need as well: for our suffering to be recognised as normal.

This picture of the Crucifixion universalises suffering. The painter shows a good - indeed perfect - man being humiliated, injured and ultimately killed. He invites us to contemplate the centrality of suffering in the achievement of all valuable goals. Rather than concentrate on the moment of fulfilment - when one feels the joy of success - he directs our attention to the times of hardship and sacrifice and says they are the most important, the most deserving of admiration.

Such dark images strengthen us a little - and offer valuable consolation - for the hard tasks of our lives.

Two: Taking too much responsibility

We over-personalise our fates, taking too much credit in the good times, and then, too much blame in the bad ones.

©REX/Sipa Press

It's tempting to take all the credit when there is a triumph. But the corollary is that we are entirely to blame when we are humiliated and beaten.

We are particularly prone to over-personalisation when it comes to money. To keep our agitation in check we should embrace an economic perspective that allows us to see ourselves as operating within a huge system loosely designated as 'Capitalism'. Regular contemplation of an image of the New York Stock Exchange reminds us that the way the world works is not our own doing. Powerful forces sweep over whole industries, condemning some to decline, while raising others to remarkable (if unstable) prosperity. The key point is: much about your fate is not your own work. You did not invent the world. You are not personally entirely responsible for your condition. The suffering is real, but remember that it is less personal than we tend to suppose.

This is a statue of the Roman goddess of Fortune. The Romans knew her as 'Fortuna'. She was to be found on the back of most Roman coins, holding a cornucopia in one hand and a rudder in the other. She was beautiful and usually wore a light tunic and smiled attractively. The cornucopia was a symbol of her power to bestow favours, but the rudder was a symbol of her more sinister power to change destinies, just like that. She could scatter gifts (a love affair, a great job, beautiful children), then with terrifying speed shift the rudder's course, maintaining a chilling smile as she watched us choke to death on a fishbone, disappear in a landslide or go bankrupt in a credit crisis.

The goddess of Fortune remains a useful image to keep our exposure to accident, luck and fate continually in our minds; she conflates a range of threats to our security into one ghastly anthropomorphic enemy.

Not everything that happens to us occurs with reference to something about us. Our romantic or professional failure does not have to be read as retribution for some sin we have committed, it is not always rational punishment handed out after careful examination of all the evidence by an all-seeing Providence in a divine courtroom; it may be a cruel, but morally meaningless, byproduct of the machinations of a rancorous goddess. The interventions of Fortune, of 'luck', whether they are kindly or diabolical, introduce a random element into human destiny.

To be calm, we must reduce the weight of our proud and unrealistic modern individualism.

Three: Being too Hopeful

A major source of agitation is, strange as it might at first sound, optimism. The expectation that things will go well creates anxiety because, at some level, we know that we can't quite count on our hopes coming to fruition. And of course, as things turn out, quite often they don't. We are on tenterhooks - and we suffer.

To restore calm we need to become strategically pessimistic. That is, to spend more time getting used to the very real possibility that things will work out rather badly. A lot of good projects fail, most things go wrong, at least half our dreams won't work out. Pessimism dampens unhelpful and impatient expectations.

It is hope - with regard to our careers, our love lives, our children, our politicians and our planet - that is primarily to blame for angering and embittering us. The incompatibility between the scale of our aspirations and the reality of life generates the anxious disappointments which spoil so many days.

There are some extremely helpful pessimists in the history of philosophy, waiting to cheer us up. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal stands out for the exceptionally therapeutic nature of his gloom.

In his book, the Pensées, Pascal misses no opportunities to confront his readers with evidence of how badly things normally turn out. In seductive classical French, he informs us that happiness is an illusion ('Anyone who does not see the vanity of the world is very vain himself'), that misery is the norm ('If our condition were truly happy we should not need to divert ourselves from thinking about it') and that we have to face the desperate facts of our situation head on: 'Man's greatness comes from knowing he is wretched'.

Given the tone, it comes as something of a surprise to discover that reading Pascal is not at all the depressing experience one might have presumed. The work is consoling, heartwarming and even, at times, hilarious. For those teetering on the verge of despair, there can paradoxically be no finer book to turn to than one which seeks to grind man's every last hope into the dust. The Pensées, far more than any sentimental volume touting inner beauty, positive thinking or the realisation of hidden potential, has the power to coax the suicidal off the ledge of a high parapet.

There is relief, which can explode into bursts of laughter, when we finally come across evidence that our very worst insights, far from being unique and shameful, are part of the common, inevitable reality of mankind. Our dread that we might be the only ones to feel anxious, bored, jealous, cruel, perverse and narcissistic turns out to be gloriously unfounded, opening up unexpected opportunities for communion around our dark realities.

We should honour Pascal, and the long line of pessimistic philosophers to which he belongs, for doing us the incalculably great favour of publicly and elegantly rehearsing the facts of life.

This is not a stance with which the modern world betrays much sympathy, for one of its dominant characteristics, and certainly its greatest flaw, is its optimism.

Despite occasional moments of panic, most often connected to market crises, wars or pandemics, the secular age maintains an all but irrational devotion to a narrative of improvement, based on a messianic faith in the three great drivers of change: science, technology and business. Material improvements since the mid-18th century have been so remarkable, and have so exponentially increased our comfort, safety, wealth and power, as to deal an almost fatal blow to our capacity to remain pessimistic - and therefore, crucially, to our ability to stay calm. It has been impossible to hold on to a balanced assessment of what life is likely to provide for us when we have witnessed the cracking of the genetic code, the invention of the mobile phone, the opening of Western-style supermarkets in remote corners of China and the launch of the Hubble telescope.


Yet while it is undeniable that the scientific and economic trajectories of mankind have been pointed firmly in an upward direction for several centuries, we do not comprise mankind: none of us individuals can dwell exclusively amidst the ground-breaking developments in genetics or telecommunications that lend our age its distinctive and buoyant prejudices. We may derive some benefit from the availability of hot baths and computer chips, but our lives are no less subject to accident, frustrated ambition, heartbreak, jealousy, anxiety or death than were those of our medieval forebears. But at least our ancestors had the advantage of living in pessimistic times which never made the mistake of promising its population that happiness could ever make a permanent home for itself on this earth.

It's worth adding that a pessimistic worldview does not have to entail a life stripped of joy. Pessimists can have a far greater capacity for appreciation than optimists, for they never expect things to turn out well and so may be amazed by the modest successes which occasionally break across their darkened horizons. It's quite possible to be both pessimistic and, day to day, a real laugh.

Tomorrow: part 2 of The Philosophers' Guide to Calm


The School of Life