Philosophy for Life

June 5, 2012

This is an interesting pod cast Little Atoms Jules Evans and i’ve been reading a bit more Jules Evans through his website What i particularly like is that it’s not teeth crunchingly earnest or overly confident – a seemingly common feature of a lot of the happiness / well being types. Gonna get the book but here’s something from his blog that helped turned over some soil in my ‘ead:

Anxiety is a part of being human – it’s just that, 100,000 years ago, the anxiety would have been about whether a tiger would eat us, or whether we’d survive the winter. Now, we no longer live under the daily threat of violent death or sickness. But you can’t just turn off our evolutionarily developed capacity for worry, so it has to find new things to worry about – what our workmates think of us, will we find a life partner, is our nose too big, are we too fat.

Sometimes these modern anxieties seem incredibly petty compared to old-school anxieties about death and starvation. But anxiety is rarely completely irrational. What our workmates think of us does matter, and will affect how we do in our career. If we’re too fat, it might affect our ability to find a nice life partner.

Of course, anxiety is very often self-defeating: we worry excessively about what our workmates think of us, and our insecurity communicates itself to them, and they think less well of us. Sometimes, in modern life, the least anxious seem to thrive the best.

The ancient world, and the Renaissance, had a good method of dealing with anxiety, which I find still works – the memento mori, or reminder of Death. Ancient philosophers, particularly the Stoics, would train themselves to consider Death , to consider how everything around them would turn to dust, how they themselves would soon be eaten by the worms, and forgotten by everyone on earth.

Asian philosophers, particularly the Buddhists and Hindus, also trained themselves to contemplate Death, even going to meditate in charnel houses, surrounded by skeletons and corpses. The Christian Medieval Church was one big memento mori – its art works were overflowing with grinning skulls and dancing skeletons, showing the supremacy of Lord Death over all human pretensions.

And Renaissance artists, inspired by ancient philosophy, revitalized this sombre tradition – Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example, is in some ways an extended memento mori, and other artists and writers like Holbein and Montaigne were equally ready to remind themselves of Death and bring it before their eyes.

Somehow this tradition was lost, probably around the eighteenth century, the century of politeness, urbanity and materialism, when it started to seem barbaric, morbid, even fanatical to focus on Death. The emphasis becomes much more on man’s ability to control nature, to achieve his wishes, to cheat Death. Death became merely death, a minor embarrassment in the cocktail party of life.

But I don’t think the ancient tradition of the memento mori was necessarily morbid. It was a way of turning down the volume on modern anxieties. By reminding yourself that you would die very soon, you learned to detach yourself from worldly anxieties, from all the petty striving after reputation or status. It was a way of achieving release, liberation, peace.

I remember when I had social anxiety at university, and was really anxious alot of the time, I one day had an epiphany that we would all die. I was sitting in my room, and I suddenly saw that everything in it would turn to dust, that the entire town would crumble and disappear, that I myself would be dead and buried within a few years, and the universe would not have been significantly altered. For some reason, I found this amazingly liberating. Why was I worrying what such-and-such thought of me…what did it matter how my finals went…why did we cling on to worldly things, when they were turning to dust in our fingers? Why do we torture ourselves worrying about our place in the world, when we are only here for a few, brief and insignificant moments?

Later on, when I found myself getting anxious again, I found that reminding myself of Death helped me achieve detachment and perspective on my problems. I couldn’t take myself, my career, my love-life or whatever else I was worrying about that seriously, knowing I would be dead in a few weeks, months or years. What was the point? I had no idea why I was alive, but I knew I was going to die soon, in a few decades at most, so I might as well relax, try to enjoy life, and maybe try and help others as well.

So I really think reminding myself of Death helped me to overcome anxiety. The ancient technique still works, that’s why we have passed it down to modern times. And I think our modern society, so obsessed with itself, its own glamour and importance, would do well to remind itself occasionally of the grinning skull beneath all the make-up.


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