May 27, 2009


The Consolations of Pessimism: In our age, as in Seneca’s, the worst is always possible. (Alain de Botton, Spring 2009, City Journal)

The Roman philosopher Seneca should be the author of the hour. Living in a time of continuous financial and political upheaval under the emperor Nero, Seneca interpreted philosophy as a discipline to keep us calm against a backdrop of continuous danger. His consolation was of the stiffest, darkest sort: “You say: ‘I did not think it would happen.’ Do you think there is anything that will not happen, when you know that it is possible to happen, when you see that it has already happened?” Seneca tried to calm the sense of injustice in his readers by reminding them, in ad 62, that natural and man-made disasters would always be part of their lives, however sophisticated and safe they thought they had become.

If we do not dwell on the risk of sudden calamity, in the markets and otherwise, and end up paying a price for our innocence, it is because reality comprises two cruelly confusing characteristics: on the one hand, continuity and reliability lasting across decades; on the other, unheralded cataclysms. We find ourselves divided between a plausible expectation that tomorrow will be much like today and the possibility that we will meet with an appalling event after which nothing will ever be the same. It is because we have such powerful incentives to neglect the second scenario that Seneca asked us to remember that our fate is forever in the hands of the Goddess of Fortune. This goddess can scatter gifts, and then, with terrifying speed, make a 50-year-old company disappear into a worthless asset, or let a balance sheet be destroyed by an evaporation of demand.

Because we are hurt most by what we do not expect, and because we must expect everything—“There is nothing which Fortune does not dare”—we must, argued Seneca, keep in mind at all times the possibility of dire events. No one should make an investment, undertake to run a company, sit on a board, or leave money in a bank without an awareness, which Seneca would have wished to be neither gruesome nor unnecessarily dramatic, of the darkest possibilities.

Secure in our financial prowess, we have for too long thought of ourselves as masters of our destiny.

Let us suppose for a second that we are a citizen of Rome of impossibly long life and have dwelt in the city from Seneca's time until today. what single thing must we say is true of that existence? Despite some temporary bad news at the margins we will have enjoyed the highest or very nearly the highest living standard of any human community for very nearly two thousand uninterrupted years. How then can one justify pessimism?

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 27, 2009 7:12 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus