Making a Heaven of Hell



One of the core questions to be addressed by philosophy (and by its fuzzy second cousin, once removed, Religion) is the existence of hardship.  Failure, frustration, mishaps, disasters, tragedies, unfairness, and difficulties of all kinds small and large are absolute certainties.  If anyone thinks otherwise, that person is very young, wonderfully obtuse, or very lucky (and that can always change).  Seneca considered the existence of hardship in two ways, and they are the two basic ways that a thinking person can tackle it: either there is objectively no such thing, so that whether something pleases or troubles us is a matter of our own subjective judgment, or it exists and we can reconcile ourselves to it by exercise of our reason. As Seneca in his letters would embrace one approach and then focus on the other, so do I find that both views of hardship pertain, but that both have limitations in the extreme examples that cast us back to the other.

Things happen and they are good or bad depending on our perception of them.  There is much truth in that, as seen from simple examples.  If I have a job interview, and am not offered the job, that is good, if I really didn’t want to work and was taking the interview just to prove to someone that I was making an effort to find work.  On the other hand, if the bank is about to foreclose, it is a personal tragedy that the employer could not appreciate the depth and scope of my talents.  I decide in my own mind what is desirable.  This is a pedestrian example of what Satan meant in “Paradise Lost” when he rose from the burning lake and exclaimed to his fallen cohorts that he did not need to reside in heaven: “The mind is its own place and can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.”  That rings particularly true when we hear of people who would seem fortunate in terms of wealth and ease who are dissatisfied, depressed, or even suicidal.

One example of a situation in which the mind makes its own hell arises from expectation.  If I hold hopes for a future event, over which I have little or no control, and am made miserable by an undesirable outcome, then I have no one to blame but myself.  The outcome is not objectively anything to anyone but me and would not have been unfortunate but for my hopes.  For a simple example, if anyone were to pin his hopes on a chance outcome whether it is getting into an elite school, having a book published, or winning first place and becomes unhappy because of an outcome contrary to his wishes, then he has single handedly created that misery in his own mind.  While on the topic– what is the point of hoping?  One of the most devious things I could do to a person whom I heartily disliked would be to build up his hopes for something.  Expectations are insidious and unnecessary.  If events turn out to our liking, we are as glad as we can be or need to be.  If events go against us we must address that but will not have the added pain of dashed hopes.  I have had the experience of even seemingly legitimate hopes wither and die and it is a pain that I would spare myself.  As Seneca wrote, “The pang of disappointed wishes is necessarily less distressing to the mind if you have not promised it sure fulfillment.”

Aside from the easily ambiguous situation and that which arises from harmful expectations, there are of course many events that clearly seem bad to anyone.  It is like the legal distinction between malum prohibitum and malum in se.  A fire that destroys our home seems to be an objective evil because we all would find it dreadful—that collective subjectivity makes it a de facto objective misfortune.  That is where Plan B comes into play and we have to bring reason to bear to reconcile ourselves to being dealt those blows.  In my next post I will explore how reason can reconcile us to the vicissitudes of life.

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