June 23, 2017 • Los Angeles
Pop philosopher Alain de Botton talks about the classical philosopher Seneca and Stoicism in The Consolations of Philosophy, which was later adapted into a TV series. De Botton’s whole thing is that the thinking of classical philosophers, including the Stoics, has insight and utility for us today. Seneca worked as a tutor to the murderous Roman emperor Nero, who kept him on a short leash, and in his writing Seneca uses the image of a dog on a short leash. It’s a reasonable analogy for human life in general and the limitations on our free will.
The useful part of it comes in the question de Botton asks of people who drive every day and get upset at the traffic: if you know it’s going to be the same each time you get in the car, why get upset? If you know you’re on a short leash, why not just go along with it?
Whether that helps people stressing out over traffic or not—complaining about it is certainly a favorite pastime in this town—it is a useful way to conceptualize the world, and embodies the Stoics’ understanding of the human condition: you can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you react to it. There are echoes of this idea in the ever-popular twelve-step programs, expressed in the idea that we should “accept the things we can’t change.”
It’s an approach that requires a bit of forethought, but the promise is definitely more contentment with life. Lots of video from de Botton is on YouTube if you want to hear more of his ideas.