Tag Archives: Seneca

Seneca! Are You There?

[check for future postings, including “It’s All About Me:  The Universality of Projection”]

Posted by Mike

The young English classical scholar Alain de Botton discusses the thoughts of various philosophers in his book The Consolations of Philosophy. In addition he produced a television series on the topic, with the ideas of Seneca prominently presented during one episode of the series. Although Seneca was not only a philosopher, but also a playwright, politician, statesman and all round brilliant handyman for the emperor, it was Seneca’s approach to human expectations that de Botton focused upon in his presentation. For Seneca, much of the frustration and angst that we humans experience in relationships has to do with our expectations often not being met, and our consequent disappointments, not only in others but also in ourselves. Seneca said that it is important to have reasonable expectations; that humans by nature are imperfect creatures, often not living up to their and our idealized standards; that we fall short more often than not. And therefore if our expectations of ourselves and others are reasonable, and not idealized, we won’t expect too much and we will consequently not be disappointed when we or they don’t live up to the mark.

Although most of us don’t generally think of ourselves as idealists, it does appear that most people have an image of themselves and others that neglects that “other” side of our personality and functioning. I’m not talking about the “shadow” side that Jung opened us up to, altho that may be part of it; rather, it is the side of us that is not wholly rational, that makes mistakes, that has minor errors in thinking and judgment and behavior that get us into mild difficulties from time to time and that reflect the imperfect in our humanity. Recently I have noticed myself at times jumping to conclusions, spouting off in anger or irritation or acting prematurely, acting before thinking carefully. I’m not talking about big mistakes, but just enough to cause some mild friction in some relationships and for me to wonder if others might be beginning to see me as other than the image that I would like them to have of me. That’s part of the problem, of course. There is the image and the reality. So many people seem to insist on maintaining the image, the way they want to be seen, that the observer finds that the persons in question seem to have lost the zest and spontaneity that is a part of being who one is. Being fresh and real is not possible if one is trying hard to be what one would like to be seen as.

I guess that I’m writing about two somewhat different aspects of human behavior here: having reasonable expectations, and being authentic. Can you have one without the other? I’m inclined to think not. If I’m authentic, the chances are that I’m going to be more realistic in what I expect of myself and others, and if I have reasonable expectations, it’s likely that I’m going to be more authentic, because I’m going to be more accepting of who I am, blemishes and frailties included.

DeBotton might have subsumed his sharing with us Seneca’s perspective on these things under the title Compassionate Living. If we were more compassionate, it is likely that we would tolerate more, criticize self and others less, and that fragile web of human relatedness would be able to gently yield and spring back to support us on those occasions when we err or emotionally bruise ourselves or our brothers and sisters.

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