Alain de Botton on Pessimism


Susan takes your hand and she leads you
to the ribbon she is wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counter and
the Sun falls down like money on our leave the heart and she shows you where
to look Thank you very much! As I think Susanne mentioned this is unfortunately going to be a very bad lecture. I brought you all under the false pretense as you will learn almost nothing You will come away from this talk disappointed thinking that I’ve let you down. That you learned almost nothing, that your life is not being enhanced. Things will then start getting worse and you will come to the realization that life is essentially meaningless; that your efforts are headed nowhere. And then at some point you will be struck down by death and your loved ones and all your achievements will wither and be returned to dust. These are the basic facts of human life though they are often denied. But here, we have come together today to put darkness on the table and to look at it fairly and squarely. So, I want to sing a hymn in praise of looking at the glass half-empty and do want to emphasize to you the wisdom, and indeed the beauty of thinking of life as an essentially deeply troubled and compromised affair. We are currently living in troubled times and many of us respond to these troubled times with a feeling of injured self-pity, as though something that is supposed to have gone right, has gone wrong. I would like to reverse the equation. Nothing was entirely supposed to go right and so nothing has particularly gone wrong. We have simply returned to a state of crisis which is the norm in human history. It’s sometimes the principle of newspapers that murder, disease, crisis is the exception. It makes the news. But in fact, this is the news. This is all that ever happens. So, as I say, this feeling of being in a historically abnormal postition is really a misreading of the true facts of existence which is an almost continuous series of crises. Let’s try and remember. None of us were particularly happy in 2004 when things were going supposedly so well. We had all sorts of troubles on our mind, certainly, I did. I don’t remember these boom times being so great. Nothing boomed for me. So, it’s really a return, as I say, to the same. We do have in our world-culture, two very important strands of thought: Buddhism and Christianity that have emphasized that life is essentially an imperfect business from an entirely secular point of view. And we are a secular organization talking in this secular hall. I’d like to recover some of that wisdom. Some of the wisdom of thinking that, essentially, life is suffering, and the human-being is a fallen creature. I love the idea of fallenness. It’s a wonderful starting point; very good in a marriage or a relationship – “Don’t expect… I never said I was perfect. I am a fallen creature.” It’s very hard for people to comeback at us on that one. So, really, I am just trying to emphasize the ever present nature of suffering and unhappiness. But really, I want to talk about impotence first. Who here has been impotent recently? The devil… Anyone else suffered from impotence? You are just not being honest! Please, someone put up their hand, apart from me. Ok, thank you, thank you! Lady, Ok, right, so impotence it’s a fact of life now, very interesting thing about impotence impotence is all to do with pessimism and optimism its when there is a huge expectation on you for things to go really well thats when people get impotent, and really this goes to the heart of what I wanted to be talking about today there’s a lovely for those of you who
knows Monte know montagnes essays Montaigne 16th century French
philosopher wrote a wonderful essay what about impotence in which his essential
drift is if you if you arrive in the bedroom or bedchamber as he put it with
high expectations there’s a very serious risk that things will go wrong so he
counsels there was a man there’s a true story
there was a man near his his village who had failed with a woman as he put it and
had cut off his member and had sent it to the woman in atonement for his error
and this had so disturbed the local community and so disturbed Montaigne
that he picked up a pen to try and write about listen and and his essential
conclusion was when entering the bedroom always say that you are a bad lover this
is the only way really in which you can ever stand the chance of making it a
good impression must always lower the expectations of performance that’s the
way in which you can be a good lover but I think there’s a deeper point a this is
not just about sexual performance this is about life performance that somehow
raising expectations and and and suggesting that all will go well is the
surest way to get very nervous and with nervousness comes failure so there’s a
curious debt of success on a complete familiarity with failure if you expect
to succeed you will almost certainly fail so pessimism doesn’t necessarily
have to lead to a lack of achievement or a complete resignation but very
strangely we have to start I think I want to argue from a feeling that that
things are not going to go well nowadays our philosophers and thinkers and and
public figures are often in the business of trying to tell us how to cope with
how to make life better somehow the improvement of life is the way in which
most problems are viewed how can we make things go better I want to direct your
thoughts to a school of philosophy that flourished in ancient Rome and that took
a completely different approach I’m talking about stoicism and the stoic
school of philosophy when we speak of someone being stoic in the face of it of
a disaster we are very much plugged in to an ancestral memory of how the Stoics
of ancient Rome went about things one of my favorite stoic philosophers is the
philosopher Seneca who lived in the time of Nero a very troubled time for the
Roman Empire if we think we haven’t got it bad look at Nero’s reign for what was
going on then and he very much believed that philosophy was a discipline to keep
you sane in troubled times and that one of the best ways to be sane was
precisely to master pessimism to make yourself at home in pessimism to become
a master of this strange and perhaps depressing seeming but not actually
depressing philosophy Seneca wrote a book on anger very interesting thing
about anger now many of us nowadays think that anger is an almost
physiological problem it’s to do with sort of being hot-blooded or something
Seneca thought that was nonsense he believed that anger we get angry for a
very simple reason optimism optimism makes us angry and he compared a very
interesting thing he asked why people don’t get angry when it rains
particularly in Northern Europe the reason why people don’t get angry when
it rains is that we expect it to rain ticking in England it’s amazing if it
doesn’t rain so it would not occur to anybody to get angry at the fact it is
raining now the interesting thing is we don’t adopt this very wise approach in
all areas of life and think about our keys you know we start shouting when we
lose the house keys or how we behave when they were stuck in traffic we you
know we insult people we think how come we’re in traffic now essentially that is
because we believe implicitly in a world in which keys never go astray and the
roads are always mysteriously traffic free a very very odd starting
for life so it’s our it’s our expectations that defines what will
anger us that’s not to say we won’t ever feel sad but there’s a difference
between sad sadness and anger and I think Senecas point was will be a lot
wiser if we manage to expect a lot more that our sense of what is normal to
expect is hugely reduced so we get very surprised when people suddenly die or
when things suddenly go wrong he urges to think Seneca that our fate is really
in the hands of the goddess of fortune now the goddess of fortune was held to
be a woman who commanded all of our destinies and the thing about her is
that he’s entirely fickle she’s cruel vain and made any point decide that we
will die and somebody else will succeed essentially she’s uncontrollable entity
in our lives and in ancient Rome the goddess of fortune was everywhere there
was her Statue everywhere she was on the back of coins etc and her message was
most of our life is in the hands of somebody else and however much we try
and achieve rational control we will you know we will she’ll probably at some
point get us in order to try and cope with the vagaries of fortune Seneca
counseled us to undertake what he called a in Latin a prime edit RTO a curious
exercise called a premeditation he advised that every morning in bed before
getting up you should essentially run through in your mind the whole day ahead
of you and imagine every single disaster that could occur to you not because it
would necessarily occur but in order to protect you if it might and I just want
us to go through what Seneca says in his premeditation he says some the wise will
start each day with the thought that fortune gives us nothing which we can
really own nothing whether public or private is stable the destinies of men
no less than those of cities are in a whirl how often of cities in Asia been
laid load by a single shock of an earthquake how many towns in Syria we
live in the middle of things which have all been destined to die mortal have you
been born and to mortals have you given birth so reckon on everything expect
everything a year later the town of Pompeii was destroyed in other words we
of on unstable ground and we must accept this in a very fundamental starting
point we must not react with injured surprise to bad things these bad things
are written into the contract of life no one should have a child wrote Seneca
without the ability to tolerate the thought that that child may be may be
dead by evening here I have two children he gives some lovely quotes which are
oddly cheering he says what need is there to weep over parts of life he says
the whole of it calls for tears there’s also a lovely quote from him he where he
says a man must swallow a toad every morning to be sure of not meeting with
anything more disgusting and the whole day ahead we try to have toad cereal
here for you today but it didn’t it didn’t come about but essentially the
starting point has to be much more pessimistic the interesting thing is I
always cheer up when I read this sort of stuff and I think the reason is that
some of the darkest thinkers are consoling the reason I wanted Leonard
Cohen is that listening to Leonard Cohen particularly when you listen it on CD
cheers you up it it makes you feel that somehow you’re not alone in your sadness
that sadness which can seem like an aberration a departure from the norm is
in fact the basic default mode of human beings and so the works of art have a
huge role to play I think in confirming those dark hunches it’s very unfortunate
as I said a minute ago that we live in a world full of hope we live in a world
surrounded by self-help books and one of the things about self-help books is
they’re constantly telling us to get out get out of bed and achieve things and do
wonderful things and I undertook a few years ago a bit of a study of the
self-help of genre and I found I came across a self-help book which was
perhaps one of the most depressing books I think I’ve ever read unintentionally
it’s by a man called Anthony Robbins and if any of you know him please don’t read
him if you don’t a few years ago he read he wrote a book called awaken the giant
within and the the essential point is that all of us are small he said but all
of us have a potential giant and by reading his book $16
on Amazon he we can start to grow and do do amazing things and he described how
he had once been poor and small and depressed but he and fat as well but he
went on a diet etc I’ve got a little quote for you here he goes um I
discovered a magical power in me to take back control of my physical well-being I
permanently rid myself a 38 pounds of fat through this dramatic weight loss I
attracted the woman of my dreams I married her and I created the family I’d
always desired I used my power to change my income from subsistence level to over
ten million dollars a year this moved me from a tiny apartment where I was wish
washing my dishes in the bathtub because there was no kitchen – my family’s
current home the spanish-style Del Mar castle a picture of which he helpfully
includes in his in his book okay we all know the type of book they’re out there
in water stones and everywhere else and they’re a very very depressing but
they’re part of a wider movement and that is the feeling that everybody can
succeed that opportunity is not just for the few it’s for the many this is the
message we hear from every single politician who ever stands up on a
pulpit everyone can do it no one should hold you back you can do it it’s a
beautiful idea except it’s got some serious drawbacks one of the most
serious drawbacks is it constantly feels leaves us feeling envious let me talk to
you about Envy the interesting thing about Envy is you don’t envy everybody
it’s I think very unusual for anyone in this room to Envy the Queen anybody envy
the Queen I don’t envy the Queen the reason the reason we don’t envy the
Queen is she’s too weird she’s just someone
she’s just so remote from us we can’t really relate to her she lives in this
odd Palace et cetera however who in this room has not envied someone at a school
reunion or at a university riu nor by reading something in the paper about
someone they were once at school with or interested with anyone not felt that
emotion no few but not very many about the same level as impotence so basically
the reason for this is a sense of opportunity we don’t feel that we will
envy the Queen because she feels too strange she feels distant from us we
don’t feel equal to her as soon as you feel equal to
somebody soon as you feel I’m basically more or less like this person and I
could do this too but you haven’t you will start to get envious and depressed
so a feeling of opportunity and equality and the fact that everybody can make it
this is strangely a really really depressing a starting point which
constantly leaves us a feeling that we haven’t achieved enough there’s an
interesting thing when I was doing my little study of American self-help books
it struck me that if you look at self-help shelves in in America but I
think probably all over there are really two kinds of books the first kind of
book is like the Anthony Robbins type of book you can do it you can make it it’s
out there the other kind of book is a books telling you how to cope with
what’s euphemistically termed low self-esteem and I think there’s a real
relationship a society that tells people that they can achieve anything
we’ll also be a society that very swiftly develops a problem of
self-esteem because simply if everybody expects to achieve everything you’re
going to get an awful lot of people who are feeling that something’s gone
dramatically wrong with their lives it probably is unlikely today that you
could become successful as Bill Gates as it was unlikely in the 17th century that
you could join the ranks of the French aristocracy but it doesn’t feel like
that it feels from opening most magazines etc that you know if you had a
garage and knew that what about software and had a few bright ideas few contacts
you could get there simple really it’s not statistically it is
unbelievably small I was talking to somebody in venture capital the other
day who said to me that something like 98% of all business ideas ever submitted
will fail we don’t hear that we don’t hear those stories we are focused on a
very very small minority another thing that you always hear another very
optimistic but very depressing idea that is proposed in our optimistic Society is
the idea of meritocracy now what is meritocracy meritocracy is the idea that
if we all work hard enough at making society fair we will be able to build a
world where anybody can make it and you know you hear politicians on all sides
of the political spectrum praising meritocracy
how can we get the school system working well enough that it can make a
meritocratic world come true now the interesting thing about a meritocracy is
that it’s got some very nasty cruel side effects if you really believe that we
can build a world where everybody is going to end up where they merit to be
where they deserve to be you’ll also end up with a society in which anybody who
doesn’t as it were make it deserves not to make it if you believe in a world
where those people who get to the top merit their success you’re implicitly
also standing up a society where people deserve to fail and merits to fail and
the more people believe that we do live in a meritocracy the more people will be
very hard on themselves if they fail and very tough on others I remember a little
while ago I was them I was in America which is after all the land the center
of meritocracy in many ways of belief in meritocracy and and and there was some
at a dinner with some friends and everyone had a bit too much to drink and
there were lot of jokes being made about white trash and trailer trash and there
was lots of hilarity about trailer trash and how funny was that people were
living on the edge of cities in caravans and having children with their children
and all this sort of thing and I said oh hang on a minute this doesn’t sound
particularly funny here I mean what’s going on in this friend of mine piped up
she said you know this really makes me feel my blood boil you know because you
know you come from Europe and you know you’re all socialist and essentially you
believe you know that that there’s something wrong with this kind of
attitude whereas really I only got to where I got and she was quite a
high-powered person I only got to where I got because I worked hard you know
she’s my father’s an alcoholic but I made it and I made it because of
me and so I deserve to be at the top and if someone’s in a trailer home well
they’re in a trailer home and that’s their problem and don’t expect me to pay
for them now that’s an attitude you sometimes hear and it’s the attitude
that’s precisely the result of meritocracy now I think it’s absolutely
impossible to have a meritocracy it’s completely crazy to imagine that we will
ever reach a society where people will really deserve their success and totally
deserve their failure there is simply too many factors in anybody’s life and
to expect that you can simply take a read
of somebody’s life and and determine from that whether they deserve to be
there or not is is simply unbelievable again if we go back to our Romans and
our Stoics you know think of the goddess of fortune an ancient Roman who did well
did not think that he or she was entirely responsible for success they
knew that it was the goddess of fortune the goddess of fortune had done it and
so instantly if something went right you went to give an offering to the goddess
of fortune to basically say thank you you know I didn’t sell my company for
millions of pounds I didn’t you know win public office the goddess of fortune
gave this to me it’s a gift and that gift may be taken away I don’t own it
that gift says nothing about me that gift is really as it were in the hands
of somebody else again we’ve lost sight of this we’ve
become much more optimistic we believe that we are in control of our destinies
and with that belief in control comes serious self-esteem people commit
suicide weirdly a lot more nowadays and a lot more in societies which are felt
to be individualistic where the individual is felt to be entirely in
control of his destiny the rates of suicide goes up and the reason for that
is that all failure is assumed to be a personal point of blame so people assume
their success and they assume personally they’re their failure and that’s why
rates of suicide are higher the interesting thing about a recession is
that racine recessions certain kinds of suicide go down in number why is that
because suddenly there is a public explanation for failure and that public
explanation is a huge burden that’s lifted off our backs
in fact people continue to fail at all times of the economic cycle but suddenly
there’s a story a publicly available story for why there is a failure and
that and that publicly available story is very important and what I want to
suggest is really that these stories of public failure have disappeared in the
narrative that we tell ourselves about what life is like I mean if we look at
the history of work and how people view work you know for nowadays people expect
that their work will be an arena of fulfillment and happiness that is the
sort of basic assumption that we have and that constantly is held before us a
completely insane idea historically where work was assumed to be I mean if
you listen to the ancient Greeks work is slavery and if you want have a good life
you you simply have to take yourself out of the financial system you cannot you
know the pleasurable sides of existence are not those certain circumscribed
within the boundaries of work and in early Christianity a similar kind of
belief that that work is essentially a punishment for the sins of Adam that’s
why we toil that idea starts to disappear by the time you get to the
18th century various bourgeois philosophers are singing the praises of
work work as a place to realize yourself to become yourself to to become you know
someone who’s someone who can take out of yourself something that’s precious
and put it out there and get paid for it a beautiful idea
but again an idea with all sorts of casualties because it incidentally the
optimistic idea of work kicks in at roughly the same time that the
optimistic idea of love comes about the 18th century is a curious time mid 18th
century a lot of bourgeois philosophers come up with a new idea of love the idea
is that suddenly you should marry someone that you love pletely mad idea
historically previously you don’t marry someone you love you marry somebody’s
got a farm next door you hand over the family property that’s how you do it but
suddenly a new idea note you should marry someone that you love and that’s
how marriage should work and and similarly you should get a job and that
you love as well you should realize yourself so suddenly these two vital
safety valves the hobby and the mistress go out of the window
for hundreds of years hundreds of years you know your real working life happens
happens on your you realize your real life not real your real life happens on
the weekend and evenings in your spare time that’s that’s the time of enjoyment
and similarly your real love life goes on in extra curricular activity but
suddenly this new better idea I know some people who are very happily married
and I know some people who really enjoy their jobs but they’re a real minority I
would estimate around 5% of people I’ve ever come across
or in that lucky band so it’s very odd that the other 95% of us have before us
as idea of normality an ideal which has failed 95 percent of us it’s a very very
bizarre philosophy of life that we should be holding up as normal something
which is clearly almost a you know beautifully rare so we have holding up
before us as an idea of normality something which is anything other than
normal I want to talk more about the the cheerful sides of pessimism and how to
be happily sad one of the things that I think we should all do a lot more is
some put skulls on our desks in the in the Middle Ages and the early modern
period a vital piece of interior design was a skull if you’d finished a
beautiful desk mahogany desk whatever one of the way you know put your quill
pen but also skull a skull was something you’d always put on your desk and the
reason for that is that as you’re doing your work
you’ll always look at the skull and think I’m going to be like him in a
little while and the point was not to despair but precisely to focus on what’s
important because I think one of the things about the thought of death is it
doesn’t make you think that life is meaningless far from it it simply
readjusts your priorities any of us who’ve been in a near-death experience
or let’s face it all of us are in near-death experiences we’re in a
near-death experience right now because you know you could fall on your head and
you would be dead so life is a near-death experience but any of us
who’ve come really close to a near-death experience
will report the following thing that some things started to matter a lot and
other things started to matter a bit less and the things that tend to matter
a lot less are what other people think about you and certain aspects of your
career so and the things that’s not to matter
lotmore are what people you really like think of you
very unusual idea but something that only tends to occur to us on our
deathbed you know and so the contemplation of death a very very
important part of a healthy life and I didn’t don’t have a skull but as I said
I would like all of us to reflect on death more regularly and hopefully
there’ll be time at the end for us to do that other things to do if you’re if
you’re if you’re a tourist ruins I don’t know if and if you like ruins
I love ruins but head out to see some ruins there’s some wonderful ruins
obviously in ancient Egypt in Greece they’re quite good too but also there’s
some modern industrial ruins you know head up north to parts of northern
England head to the Mojave Desert weathers a plain famous plain graveyard
where most of the world’s airlines are currently parking their airliners it’s
good to see modern civilization in crumbling to bits it’s good to see what
will happen to us in time to make ourselves properly at home I think we
you know we live in a world where human achievement is right at the center of
what we do and we constantly have held before us great human achievements it’s
very important to balance that by getting out into nature getting out into
bits of history where we see the marks of time written into the landscape
anything which as it were puts us into perspective in some way there’s a nice
we’re feeling small I suppose I want to say very often we made you feel small by
people you know at work or in social life who patronize us etc I want to
invite us to feel small in relation to the really big things eternity time
death these are good things to feel small in front of and it’s I think
that’s why many of us enjoy going off to see a glacier say or looking down at the
Earth from an aeroplane or going thinking about the polar icecaps these
vast empty spaces make us feel small in a way which alleviates us from that
agonizing sense of self-importance and egoism which is otherwise clinging to us
like a bad smell so head out to glaciers head out to anywhere which makes you
feel properly small and as I say put a skull on
on your table the other thing of course that that you can do with sadness is to
discover works of art that are sad and if you are feeling a little bit sad my
advice to you is to find an artist who somehow says not you know life is
cheerful that’s a devil’s talk that life is cheer the an artist who somehow makes
it even grimmer so read someone like the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer read
Pascal listen to Leonard Cohen or indeed listen to Elton John there’s a I want to
there’s a lovely song by Elton John called called sad songs and listen to
the first verse guess there are times when we all need to share a little pain
and ironing out the rough spots is the hardest part when memories remain and
it’s times like these when we all need to hear the radio because from the lips
of some old singer we can share the troubles that we already know so in
other words a sense of confirmation it’s through the sad song that our own
sadness is alleviated and on that note I like to play and all of you to sing if
you can a little bit of sad songs take it away sad songs by Elton John is it
coming should here we are and like you’re just sing and I’ll sing too
give it a bit louder one two three guess there are times when be you need
to share and for us what is the hardest part when
memories remain a times like these when we want me to give her we already know come on louder on Ted on
those sides when hope is gone love you too your loo just
do you feel gosh of this goal okay we’re gonna cover there thank you
thank you Scott thank you all right thank you can I get for it no
now now thank you now the other thing that the other thing that sadness and
sad songs and pessimism generally can do is to improve your sex appeal it’s a
little known fact very rarely spoken off in the pages of
fashion magazines and other such things that sadness as I say can bring you
dates and it’s very often thought that if you’re not getting out enough if
you’re not feeling attractive if if you’re not pulling people in that maybe
you should feel happy as more cheerful and suggests an image that your life is
going well I’d like to draw your attention to the leaflet that came the
parish newsletter where on the back of it you should find a picture by Edward
Hopper called automat painted in 1929 here’s a woman in a cafe and I think
she’s rather cute and I think one of the reasons why she’s
cute is because she’s sad now I think that contra imagined this woman with a
group of her girlfriends giggling away things have gone really happy she’s got
a promotion she’s so happy she’s waving her arms about instantly I find a rather
less attractive I think the reason is that when we think about love and
falling in love one of the things I think we want to do is to touch other
people’s sadness could sound rather creepy but really what we want in a
relationship is to share the sad things I mean what’s the point of having a
relationship in which you’re cheerful all the time you want to have a
relationship where you can somehow unite your sadness with somebody else’s
sadness relationships are built around shared griefs and letting a little bit
of that shared grief show even on a first date is a good thing but
confessing how lonely you’ve recently been is
a good thing cheekily I think there’s a gender divide I have to be honest I
think that I think most men speak personally most men do very much like
someone who’s been in a lot we feel relaxed and coming back to impotence
very cheered up by the sense that a woman has not got too many dates and
that she’s a little bit alone so we need to admit to that Oh time is ticking on
so I’m gonna I’m gonna bring things to a close but I think one of the things that
I want you to take away from today is the advantages of living your dark
moments fully living your sadness to the full not seeing it as some aberration
but seeing it as something that is an intrinsic part of life and something
that you shouldn’t run away from you should embrace and standing in your room
with Elton John at full blast you should as I say embrace the sounds also read
some Nietzsche let me let me equation a bit from Nietzsche he says to those
human beings who are of any concern to me
I wish suffering desolation sickness ill treatment indignities and illness I wish
that these friends of mine should not remain unfamiliar with profound self
contempt the torture of self mistrust the wretchedness of the vanquished in
other words Nietzsche one of the greatest philosophers of the 19th
century possibly of all time is advising us that anyone he cares about he wants
to suffer now what on earth is going on there the reason is simple Nietzsche
believed like many of those many those have studied the question that somehow
there is a real relationship between the ability to suffer the ability to endure
suffering and live suffering and look suffering in the face and the capacity
to do anything important or good let me read you another bit from Nietzsche if
you refuse to let your suffering lie upon you for even an hour and if you
constantly try and prevent and forestall all possible distress way ahead of time
if you experience suffering and displeasure as evil hateful worthy of
annihilation and as a defect of existence then it is clear that you
Harbor in your heart the religion of comfortableness how
little you know of human happiness you can
little people for happiness and unhappiness our sisters and even twins
that either grow up together or as in your case child remains small together
in other words there’s a real relationship between the capacity to
endure suffering and the capacity to do to do great things it’s not a
coincidence that Nietzsche was a teetotaler his favorite drink was milk
and he advised us never to drink please know none of you if you want to be
Nietzsche and don’t go to the pub now the reason for this is let’s think about
what alcohol does alcohol is one of those things if you if you feel a little
bit sad got some problems what do you do drink and then what happens after you’ve
had a few drinks you feel a bit more cheerful now this is absolutely
disastrous advice for Nietzsche because Nietzsche believed that it’s in moments
of darkness that we have our best insights into what we need in life if we
try and stop feeling envious immediately if we try and stop feeling bad if when
we’re writing a book we feel happy with it immediately we will never do anything
good the capacity to tolerate suffering the capacity to be pessimistic
comfortably to endure passages of pessimism is absolutely essential and
that’s why Nietzsche thought that alcohol was a
very very bad idea now and it’s something else that Nietzsche thought
was a very bad idea and I’m speaking in an appropriate place and that’s
Christianity famously and he called Christianity and alcohol the two great
narcotics of European civilization and he believed that Christianity was bad
for the very same reason that alcohol is bad the reason that Christianity is bad
do you excuse anybody here who’s a believer the reason he believed that
Christianity was bad is because it makes us feel good too quickly if you’re
worried about timidity the New Testament tells you blessed are the meek for they
shall inherit the earth if you’re worried about having no friends the New
Testament says blessed are ye when men shall hate you and when they shall
separate you from their company if you’re worried about an exploitative job
the New Testament advises servants obey in all things your masters according to
the flesh so in other words you quickly feel better about a lot of things now
Nietzsche famously argued that all of us actually want many good things like we
want an active sex life we don’t want to be meek we quite want to be clever we
want to have good jobs but some of us give up too quickly and we
give up too quickly because we are addicted to comfortableness we want to
be comfortable so quickly and Christianity for Nietzsche was a
religion that turned all these things on its head it was a hypocritical creed
which denounces what people actually want but a too often too weak to fight
for and it praises what many of us don’t want but happen to have so in the
Christian view powerlessness becomes goodness baseness becomes humility
submission to people one hates becomes obedience and in each us phrase not
being able to take revenge turns into forgiveness now Nietzsche thought that
was all a very very bad idea and he very much believed now incidentally he was
poor totally forgotten and in many ways wretched but the very different the
difference he thought was that he embraced the darkness he didn’t say he
didn’t say I’m sad but he didn’t say there are things wrong with my life but
they’re not really wrong he said there are things wrong with my life and I’m
sad about it he embraced the pessimism he admitted to the pessimism and this is
really the essence of what I’m trying to say now that pessimism is a feature of
life it’s a feature of life that we often try to run away from by running
away from it too quickly we cut ourselves off from the opportunity to
embrace this darkness and to embrace the lessons that it often brings and we
often also cut ourselves off from the deepest kind of relationships which we
can have with other human beings which are relationships based around a
confession of suffering and I think that essentially all good friendships are
about confession one sort or another they’re a confession of things that the
rest of the world thinks of as unacceptable but are in fact part of
human life so all of us now we can have a little bit of time to have some tea
and cakes and also there’s get a confessional box but really what I want
to what I hope that will take away from the next few minutes is going to be a
sense of shared communion around the dark things and a capacity to admit
among ourselves just how hard we find everybody a life so join me in joining
me in being sad and in eating some misfortune cookies
which will also be at the back but thank you all very much and and I hope that
today goes quite badly thank you

100 thoughts on “Alain de Botton on Pessimism

  1. i read his book on marcel proust, i thought alain would be a 80year old wiseman with a curtain for a beard. he looks young and healthy!!

  2. Wow, I was actually surprised at his mention of Tony Robbins. I mean, his TED Talk is one of the most watched ever, and I have always found it inspiring. But that extract from his book sounds ridiculous. 😒

  3. As much as I love and understand this Seminar, what exactly is the overall message? Do not work too hard because your chances of reaching the top are low anyway, there's no place for everyone to be up there (all true), so you have to be ok with where you are right now. Lower the extent of your aims and goals so that you wouldn't be overwhelmed.

    It is against everything I've ever been taught as a high achiever… I know Alain de Botton is saying it`s the expectations that shouldn't be high. That somehow doesn't motivate me to work harder. Right now I feel regardless of what I do the chances of succeeding is 0,01%….
    someone learned is saying the world is unfair because it's realism that should kick in now, I'm aware of all that but … I don't want the spirit to be sucked out of me. There are merits to the Capitalistic society even though I know its disadvantages. There's got to be a way to be content without crushing dreams. Aren't they what keep us going? (otherwise life would seem a bit empty, just keep going)

    I can't settle for less than what I hoped for… and I'm not an unrealistic dreamer… I usually make it work. But my aims are high… if I don't reach them I will consider life not worth living. So I understand where Alain de Botton is coming from. I know that failing will crush me. But I set my mind to it. I want to live, I don't just want to survive… do you see where I'm coming from?

  4. I love his lectures. You can tell that his thoughts are going lightining fast and sometimes he can't quite keep up with them lol

  5. wow this made me feel good. I make a living as an artist but sometimes I take it for granted because it lacks the glamour that few other artist enjoy, my hard work made me competent for my position but luck itself placed me in that not only that but it can easily be taken from me, so I truely am fortunate for the little that I have and am not entitled to more or less.

  6. If you follow the principle of the Yin and Yang you'll accept both pessimism and optimism. We need a balance, and by balance I don't necessary mean 50/50, it's a flow, a fluctuation. Sometimes, it's 70% optimism, 30% pessimism on a particular situation.

    Think tough love, gentle giant, etc.

  7. i honestly feel like things are just going to get a lot worse now after knowing all of this. thanks!

  8. "…misfortune cookies" 😀 😀 Brilliant talk as usual. The singing doesn't quite make it, but my, was that an inspiring talk, explains a lot. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  9. He makes a lot of good points but I don’t know if this is the right mindframe to have 24/7. It can become toxic and make your quality of life shit. I mean it’s relevant sometimes in the pursuit of staying humble and opening your mind to new perspectives. Everything in moderation. You need pessimism to appreciate optimism. And vice versa. But a constant pessimistic attitude towards life is a very dark world in a world that’s already dark.

  10. People that believe they deserve their position because of their hard work ignore those people, situations, conditions, options, timing, luck, and similarities that have been offered and put before them, while ignoring the fact that they hold a position that ONLY ONE PERSON CAN HAVE therefore disallowing for the fact that they are in a position of privilege and like it or not are accountable to those "below" them. I would say the individual difference of those who rise is the ability to scratch and claw and steal

  11. The problem with religions are the men that run them. The message and directives of the spiritualists are what this guy's talks are based on, like it or not. BTW Christ embraced being hung on the cross.

  12. Although he's right that life is intimately bound up with suffering in the broad, existential sense, he makes the common mistake of thinkers in the humanities of assuming that murder and disease and crisis are the historical norm. Empirically speaking writers like Pinker and Ridley make a good case that there is much less violence and disease and higher rates of prosperity and longevity today than ever before…

  13. I think you need a mix of pessimism and optimism.

    You need to be optimistic as to your OWN innate abilities to achieve something. This needs to be worked on. The aim is create core self-belief.

    Conversely you also need to be realistic as to how challenging things can be and how other people's interests can on occasion act against your own personal interests – it's nothing personal, just an incompatible aim. This creates motivation to achieve (realising how difficult things can on occasion be to achieve) and helps to guard against despair. But in that realism, optimistic in your own abilities can overcome such challenges.

    Anyone any thoughts on this?

  14. By Being pessimistic , to my understanding what he means is to have low expectations from the results and being positive towards the work and satisfaction of that hard work 🙂

  15. You are a top guy but pls work on the ‘ers’ and ‘erms’ 🙂 probably just a nervous tick but killed the intro for me, could have been very powerful otherwise 👍🏽

  16. Just adding one more to cross the 666 number of comments.. The lecture is fabulous, of course..

  17. The School of Life is a commercial organisation PUMPING OUT "self help" stuff that eclipses anything here that de Botton criticises in all his speeches including this one. It is actually staggering how hypocritical he is. To be charitable, maybe this supposedly intelligent man just hasn't noticed how extraordinary is the conflict between what he says in nearly every speech about "how to" publications and his own website, which peddles exactly the same thing. Just go there to see how hypocritical he is. His website is absolutely PEPPERED with "how to" talks, publications and courses. Nearly all of them are really about exactly the kind of "success" he is criticising here. None of these courses or publications are "spiritual" or " philosophical". They are all about MAXIMISING your success in the world using exactly the same criteria that this author is arguing against.

  18. David Foster Wallace for us Americans. "This is water." https://youtu.be/8CrOL-ydFMI

  19. So, deep down I am a pessimist that just acts like an optimist, because everyday I'm feeling great due to not having any big expectations.
    Not sure if it's being pessimistic or just as real as possible about life itself and my existence.

  20. Interesting thing about Christianity at the end, but I always interpreted bad situations as “blessedness” because it causes suffering, which in Christianity is a good thing, which also agrees with Nietzsche

  21. Nietzsche should have been an optimist so that when things went wrong he could suffer even more

  22. His voice is just ughhhhh. Have you ever thought of doing podcasts and audio books(if you haven’t yet) I would listen the shit outta that.

    Excuse my only un-intelectual comment

  23. I just feel a little uncomfortable with the "cult vibe" given here.

  24. Alain, you look like a discount version of "The Kurgan"! (Highlander movie) On a serious note, Interesting vids!

  25. The last 10 minutes has moved me. The religion of comfortableness. The capacity of suffering and the capacity to do great things. We give up too quickly because we are addicted to comfortableness.

  26. "Better to be in the house of mourning than the house of mirth."
    "Better is a dry morsel eaten in quietness than a house full of feasting with strife."
    "Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith."
    "It is better to dwell in the corner of a housetop alone, than with a contentious woman in a wide house."
    (I hope I quoted these fairly correctly)

  27. Christianity is all about suffering but peace, joy and hope at the same time.

  28. Optimists tend to be simple folk "ohh its a lovely day, the sun is shining, look at the flowers, I get to work, grow old and die and drink tea between", like crippled pigeons relentlessly looking for food they simply don't know their own plight, bird brains.

  29. People who like happy music all the time are incomprehensible to me. How do they find all that energy?

  30. Nietzsche's ideas about Christianity are shallow at best. Like the teens living in Salt Lake City, having escaped the oppressive Mormonism pushed on them by their parents or by the church, the REACTIVE response is objection and rejection. But the more mature response is Proactive and the thinker goes forth to find what there is about religion that is sound advice and what there is that is flotsam and jetsam. The wise do the same with employment, education, family, friends, etc.
    Concentrate on the good and ignore the bad is what I say and Kurt Vonnegut agrees with me.
    ; )

    Nietzsche was indeed brilliant. But I never fully trust a man who doesn't drink.
    : )

  31. I enjoyed this new perspective although it felt uncomfortable that I agreed with it.

  32. What a great man! He is much more valuable than a doctor for our individualistic society as he spreads widely i hope, his curing ideas. he changes lives i believe.

    Firstly, I started listen to him because i learn English, and i was fascinated by the quality of his diction and by the beauty of his language . Instantly i 've become a fan of him. Glory to Alain, Thank you YouTube!

  33. YouTube…let me download without premium, I can't live like this.

  34. I like the idea of putting a sulk on our desk! I do embrace the dark side of my life. Thank you for the video.

  35. This is making me smile! You mean it's okay to be pessimistic? Awesome! I'm right where I need to be.

  36. In China they have a meritocratic system. They have social credit starting 2020: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Credit_System

    "From the Chinese government's Plan for Implementation, the SCS is due to be fully implemented by 2020. Once implemented the system will manage the rewards, or punishments, of citizens on the basis of their economic and personal behavior. Some types of punishments include: flight ban, exclusion from private schools, slow internet connection, exclusion from high prestige work, exclusion from hotels, and registration on a public blacklist. 
    The rewards of having a high score include easier access to loans and jobs and priority during bureaucratic paperwork. Likewise, the immediate negative consequences for a low score, or being associated to someone with a low score, ranges from lower internet speeds to being denied access to certain jobs, loans and visas."

  37. Nietzsche has got it wrong about Christianity. Listen to the words again – Blessed are the meek etc. It is indeed calling for people to embrace their situation. It very much agrees with what you are saying. Christians are encouraged to see their smallness, to be real about their faults and admit they are flawed. The optimism does not come from ego and inflated self opinion or happiness but the very same grief, pessimism and sadness mentioned taken on board and seen for its reality. The upside is the knowledge and faith that there is one who is greater and a comforter who wants to share themselves and relate to your grief because he suffered every sort of grief there is in existence

  38. Damn, now I have an addiction: School of Life videos. Those became both a narcotic and a stimulant. I think that is not what Botton had in mind…

  39. Stoicism is now branded as a form of toxic masculinity in German psychiatric practice now, as I understand

  40. This should be called " mastering The art of Contentment "…I don't fully agree with all that have being said. I do see the point.

  41. 10:30 or was it?! "HISTORYGATE; FOMENKO, NEWTON, and COUNTERFEIT POMPEII" by Observation Deck.

    Great Mr de Bottom!!…if that is your real name at all 😉

  42. Timidity is not an accurate synonym of the word “meek” in the context of the Bible. The ancient translations of the word “meek” shows a meaning far different from being timid – having the capability to defend oneself or others and destroy your enemies, but instead choosing a path that is commensurate justice to those who trespass against us. Being meek had nothing to do with being a coward, it had everything to do with choosing not to destroy everything. That’s why the meek shall inherit the earth, they understand how to defeat evil because they recognize their ability to become evil and voluntarily control it.

  43. Look in deeper in terms of what the Bible talks about pessimism. Read Ecclesiastes. Man, he is giving Christianity a bad rap.

  44. Wow. I’m glad to know I’m not the only person who thought Tony Robbins’s books are bogus. I couldn’t finish to read them and regretted purchasing them. There are just so many people writing books and publishing it with extravagant marketing skills lately that it has regretfully become difficult to find great books.

  45. 😍😍😍😍😍😍😍I LOVE HIM 😁😁😁😁😂🤣😂🤣😂🤣

  46. Alain de Botton has a unique way of keeping it real that I find helpful.

  47. I too had a thought to hang a skeleton in the house to remind myself that's the truth beneath all beauty and tt we are made of dust.

  48. Alain is the best my favourite ever so clever smart witty and very funny 👏🏻👍🏻👏🏻🤣

  49. >criticises self-help books
    >link to an online store selling almost nothing else in the description
    ok then

  50. I'm so glad to hear this… we've (family) been called stoics repeatedly. I'm so sick of being surrounded by manic optimists who come crying to me to fix /help/advise when it's all gone pear-shaped and they failed to prepare for the worst. You can be pessimistic and retain optimism in it's proper place. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
    I've seen so many businesses/marriages/ventures fail because die-hard optimists insist on throwing themselves off the cliff without a parachute or safety net.
    I never call it pessimism – it's acceptance of reality – $hit happens! Opportunities don't appear for everyone… self-help trash should be banned – it's a way to get an emotional crutch for the short term.

  51. Also sick of hearing "Oh, don't say that" from optimistic fools, when you name worst case scenarios as a way to plan how to avoid them.

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