Tsunamis and Stoicism (Redux)


Franklin. Gert. Harvey. Irma. Jose. Katia. Lee. Maria. Nate.

Now, with Tropical Storm Ophelia developing into a hurricane, 2017 has become the first year since 1893 to have 10 Atlantic storms reach hurricane strength. The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season has been one of the most prolific on record — and the season doesn’t even finish until the end of November.

In September two earthquakes rocked Mexico City and surrounding areas in Central Mexico, killing hundreds and injuring thousands more. Dozens of buildings have collapsed, with countless more left uninhabitable due to structural damage and slated for demolition.

With these natural disasters come ecological destruction (or “ecological succession”, if you’re in a more positive frame of mind). It also hastens grief at the individual and societal scale. Life for many people in southeastern U.S., Caribbean islands, Central America and Mexico — including members of my own immediate family who live in Mexico City — has been upended, thrown into uncertainty and chaos for the foreseeable future.

The uncertainty and chaos that has enveloped what seems to be much of the world is not limited to just natural disasters. An anxiety, one that has an acutely contemporary quality to it, has also infected the political and societal landscape: Trump. Brexit. North Korea. Artificial intelligence. Islamic fundamentalism. Climate change. Identity politics. Neo-nazis. (You get the idea.)

What can be done to avoid the worst outcomes in the face of natural and political threats as monumental as these? Is it just a matter of better politics, intellectual honesty, science and reason? These are all certainly required, of course. But is there anything an average person can do, right now, to help alleviate some of these stresses? While by no means a solution to many of these problems, can a person’s attitude and outlook contribute to a kind of resilience that may help overcome some of the potential suffering associated with them?

In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011, the author and philosopher Alain de Botton published an incredibly inspiring and poignant essay titled “Tsunamis and Stoicism” that sought to answer some of these questions. Drawing from the teachings of the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, de Botton consoles readers with lessons for dealing with uncertainty in a seemingly indifferent universe. The essay had such an influence on me that a day doesn’t go by where I haven’t thought about the lessons it taught me. It’s perhaps what was responsible for sparking my interest in Stoicism.

So, in light of recent natural and political disasters around the world, and in light of the fact that October 16 marks the start of Stoic Week — I’ll be attending the Stoicon conference that just so happens to be hosted this year here in Toronto — I’ve decided to reprint the essay here. (The original essay has since been removed from de Botton’s revamped The Book of Life website.)

Tsunamis and Stoicism
by Alain de Botton


Early in the morning on the fifth of February AD 62, a gigantic earthquake rippled beneath the Roman province of Campania and in seconds, killed thousands of unsuspecting inhabitants. Large sections of Pompeii collapsed on top of people in their beds. Attempts to rescue them were stopped when fires broke out. The survivors were left destitute in only the soot-covered clothes they stood in, their noble buildings shattered into rubble. There was horror, disbelief and anger throughout the Empire. How could the Romans, the world’s mightiest, most technologically sophisticated people, who had built aqueducts and tamed barbarian hordes, be so vulnerable to the insane tempers of nature?

The suffering and confusion – only too familiar today in the wake of the earthquake off Japan – attracted the notice of the Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca. He wrote a succession of essays to comfort his readers but, typically for Seneca, the consolation on offer 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 the spring of AD62 – that natural and man-made disasters will always be a feature of our lives, however sophisticated and safe we think we have become. We must therefore at all times expect the unexpected. Calm is only an interval between chaos. Nothing is guaranteed, not even the ground we stand on.

If we do not dwell on the risk of sudden giant waves and pay a price for our innocence, it is because reality comprises two cruelly confusing characteristics: on the one hand, continuity and reliability lasting across generations, on the other, unheralded cataclysms. We find ourselves divided between a plausible invitation to assume 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 again. It is because we have such powerful incentives to neglect the latter 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, then with terrifying speed watch us choke to death on a fishbone or disappear along with our hotel in a tidal wave.

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, hold the possibility of the most obscene events in mind at all times. No one should undertake a journey by car, or walk down the stairs or say goodbye to a friend without an awareness, which Seneca would have wished to be neither gruesome nor unnecessarily dramatic, of fatal possibilities.

Given our technological prowess, it’s become natural to think of ourselves as controlling our destiny. Man doesn’t any longer have to be a plaything of random forces and with the application of reason, all our problems may be solved. Nothing could be further from a Stoic mindset. We must, stressed Seneca, expand our sense of what may at any time go wrong in our lives: ‘Nothing ought to be unexpected by us. Our minds should be sent forward in advance to meet all the problems, and we should consider, not what is wont to happen, but what can happen. What is man? A vessel that the slightest shaking, the slightest toss will break. A body weak and fragile.’

In the wake of the Calabria earthquake, many people argued that the whole area should be evacuated, and nothing more built on earthquake zones. But Seneca disagreed with the underlying belief that there might be somewhere on earth, in Liguria or Calabria perhaps, where someone could actually be wholly safe, out of reach of Fortune’s will: ‘Who promises them better foundations for this or that soil to stand on? All places have the same conditions and if they have not yet had an earthquake, they can none the less have quakes. Perhaps tonight or before tonight will split open the spot where you stand securely. How do you know whether conditions will henceforth be better in those places against which Fortune has already exhausted her strength or in those places which are supported on their own ruins? We are mistaken if we believe any part of the world is exempt and safe… Nature has not created anything in such a way that it is immobile.”

To try to prepare ourselves psychologically for disaster, Seneca asked us to perform a strange exercise every morning which he called in Latin a praemeditatio – a premedition – and which involved lying in bed before breakfast and imagining everything that could go wrong in the day ahead. This exercise was no idle fun, it was designed to prepared you if your town burnt down that evening or your children died: ‘We live in the middle of things which have all been destined to die,’ ran one example of a premeditation, ‘Mortal have you been born, to mortals have you given birth. So you must reckon on everything, expect everything.’

Does Stoicism mean accepting everything that life throws at you? No, it simply means recognising how vulnerable we remain, despite all our advances. Seneca asked us to think of ourselves like dogs who have been tied to a chariot driven by an unpredictable driver. Our leash is long enough to give us a degree of leeway, but is not long enough to allow us to wander wherever we please. A dog will naturally hope to roam about as it wants. But as Seneca’s metaphor implies, if it can’t, then it’s better for the animal to follow obediently behind the cart rather than dragged and strangled by it. As Seneca put it: ‘An animal, struggling against the noose, tightens it… there is no yoke so tight that it will not hurt the animal less if it pulls with it than if it fights against it. The best alleviation for overwhelming evils is to endure and bow to necessity.’

By turning back to the wisdom of the Stoic philosophers, we may find a helpful way of tempering some of our expectations and dampening our shock at disasters and bloodshed. When, in AD 65, Seneca was ordered to kill himself by the crazed Emperor Nero, his wife and family collapsed in tears, but Seneca had learnt to follow the chariot of life with resignation. As he calmly took the knife to his veins, he remarked – in a sentence we may be wise to repeat to ourselves as we read the news on certain particularly sad mornings – ‘What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.’


Photo credit: Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP / Getty