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  • Philosophy is a discipline committed to helping us to live wiser and less sorrowful lives.

  • Here are six ideas from its Western branch that can inspire and console: ONE: “What

  • need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.” The Roman

  • philosopher Seneca used to comfort his friendsand himselfwith this darkly humorous

  • remark which gets to the heart of Stoicism, the school of philosophy which Seneca helped

  • to found and which dominated the West for two hundred years. We get weepy and furious,

  • says Stoicism, not simply because our plans have failed, but because they have failed

  • and we strongly expected them not to. Therefore, thought Seneca, the task of philosophy is

  • to disappoint us gently before life has a chance to do so violently. The less we expect,

  • the less we will suffer. Through the help of a consoling pessimism, we should strive

  • to turn our rage and our tears into that far less volatile compound: sadness. Seneca was

  • not trying to depress us, just to spare us the kind of hope that, when it fails, inspires

  • bitterness and intemperate shouting. TWO: Peccatum Originale In the late 4th century,

  • as the immense Roman Empire was collapsing, the leading philosopher of the age, St Augustine,

  • became deeply interested in possible explanations for the evident tragic disorder of the human

  • world. One central idea he developed was what he legendarily termed Peccatum Originale:

  • original sin. Augustine proposed that human nature is inherently damaged and tainted because

  • in the Garden of Edenthe mother of all people, Eve, sinned against God by eating

  • an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. Her guilt was then passed down to her descendants and

  • now all earthly human endeavours are bound to fail because they are the work of a corrupt

  • and faulty human spirit. This odd idea might not be literally true, of course. However,

  • as a metaphor for why the world is in a mess, it has a beguiling poetic truth, as relevant

  • to atheists as believers. We should notperhapsexpect too much from the human race, Augustine

  • implies. We've been somewhat doomed from the outset. And that can, in certain moods,

  • be a highly redemptive thought to keep in mind. THREE: "Kings and Philosophers shit,

  • and so do ladies." The blunt phrase appears in an essay by the 16th century French philosopher,

  • Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne wasn't being mean. His point was kindly: he wanted us to

  • feel closer to (and less intimidated) by people whose overt mode of life might seem painfully

  • impressive and very far from our own. And he could have added: in secret these people

  • also feel inadequate, fear rejection and mess up their sex-lives. We could also update his

  • examples to speak of CEOs, entrepreneurs, and the over-achieving person we went to college

  • with. Montaigne was attempting to free us from underconfidence and shyness, born out

  • of an exaggerated sense of the differences between ourselves and mighty others. At moments

  • of panic, before an important speech or a much-anticipated date, we should run Montaigne's

  • phrase through our febrile, underconfident minds and remind ourselves that no one, however

  • outwardly poised, is more than a few hours away from a poignantly modest and vulnerable

  • moment. FOUR: "All our unhappiness comes from our inability to sit alone in our room."

  • This assertion, by the 17th century French philosopher Pascal, is obviously not literally

  • true. But like all good philosophical aphorisms, it pointedly exaggerates an important idea

  • in order to bring home a general insight. We are tempted to leave "our room" and

  • crave excitements that too often turn out badly; we meddle in the lives of others but

  • fail to help them; we seek fame and end up being misunderstood by large numbers of people

  • we don't know. "Sitting alone" doesn't mean literally being on the bed but rather,

  • staying undistracted with ourselves: appreciating small pleasures; examining the contents of

  • our own minds, allowing the quieter (but important) parts of our psyche to emerge; thinking before

  • we act. Pascal's phrase's poignant because the louder voices in our culture are constantly

  • speaking in the opposite direction; are always goading us to get out more, to grow more agitated,

  • to seek more drama and to spend less time in thoughtful reveries, gazing out of the

  • window at the clouds passing high above. We should, with Pascal's encouragement, learn

  • to become better, quieter friends to ourselves. FIVE: "Sub specie aeternitatis." This means, translated

  • from the Latin, "under the aspect of eternity" – a memorable phrase from the Ethics, published

  • in 1677 by the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. For Spinoza, the task of philosophy is to

  • teach us to look at things, especially our own suffering and disappointment, "under

  • the aspect of eternity," that is, as though we were gazing down at the earth from very

  • far away or from a different star (Spinoza's outlook was much indebted to Galileo). From

  • this lofty perspective, the incidents that trouble us no longer have to seem so shocking

  • or so large. What is a divorce or a sacking when contemplated from the lunar surface?

  • What is a rejection in love judged against the earth's 4.5 billion year history? Our

  • nature means that we'll always be pulled to exaggerate the here and now, but our reasoned

  • intelligence gives us access to a unique alternative perspective, in which we participate in what

  • Spinoza called "eternal totality", and can cease railing against the status quo,

  • submitting to the flow of events with clear-eyed serenity instead. SIX: "Aus so krummem Holze,

  • als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden." It's a slightly

  • daunting and long German phrase but a hugely arresting and redemptive one, central to the

  • spirit of Western philosophy: "Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing

  • was ever made." So wrote the German eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant, who urged

  • us to recognise that nothing that human beings do can ever be less than slightly wonky, because

  • we are creatures as much of passion and erroneous instinct as of reason and noble intelligence.

  • The wise accept this dark reality head on and so do not expect perfection. When designing

  • governments, they do not presume that rationality will triumph; they do everything to assume

  • that error and folly will try to have their wayand so create structures to contain them.

  • When they marry, with comparable realism, they never expect that one person can be everything

  • to them and then harangue a partner when they turn out not to be. An acceptance of our crooked

  • nature isn't dispiriting, it's the birth of generosity and dark good humour. Not least,

  • added Kant, crooked beams can make for beautiful floors, in the hands of a talented carpenter.

  • If you want to learn more about the thinkers from our videos,

  • check out our Great Thinkers Book. Available world wide and now as an e-book.

Philosophy is a discipline committed to helping us to live wiser and less sorrowful lives.

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6 Great Sayings From Western Philosophy

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    Evangeline posted on 2018/04/25
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