This essay is featured in Boston Review’s new book, Uncertainty.

We are fine, for now. What to do with the prospect of future ruin? The question seems to bring our end ever so closer. Try to think about other things. Look outside. Listen to your breath. Read a book. Work. Watch television. Look online for something. Is it better to be oblivious? Don’t answer this question. Work. Go for a run. Tweet something. Post something. Wait for reactions. Be with friends. Make a drink. Listen to your breath. Work. Look at the sky. We are fine.

We are fine, for now. What to do with the prospect of future ruin?

Do we have a problem? Do we worry too much? Do we need treatment? Or is it the other way around? Do we have a problem because we don’t worry enough? If we could only work up the courage to face the threat, whatever form it takes, then we might have a chance to prevent or forestall it. We’d be ready. But no. No, even the thought that we can do something is an illusion. A little more or less time wouldn’t make a difference in the grand scheme of things. There is nothing we can do about it. No matter when, the end will come too soon. But what about now? Why can’t we at least be alive now? We imagine how it will happen. When we ignore it, we feel it lurking, stalking us. We have a problem. We need help. Our mind can’t deal with this on its own. Our imagination torments us with visions of reality.

For us inhabiting the modern world, psychologists and psychiatrists are the doctors of the mind. But according to Cicero, we should turn instead to philosophy. Unlike the medical science of the body, Cicero says, philosophy is self-administered: “the help of philosophy is something we need not look to others to gain.” But in what sense are we our own healers if we rely on philosophers to teach us? And why should we listen to philosophers in the first place—do they really fare any better than we do? Seneca offers the following confession in his Letters on Ethics To Lucilius:

“How is it that you are advising me?” you say. “Have you already advised yourself? Have you got yourself straightened out? . . . I am not such a hypocrite as to offer cures while I am sick myself. No, I am lying in the same ward, as it were, conversing with you about our common ailment and sharing remedies. So listen to me as if I were talking to myself: I am letting you into my private room and giving myself instructions while you are standing by.

Philosophers don’t have answers, philosophy does. Moreover, philosophy’s answers are more than conclusions backed by arguments, they are movements and habits of thought. Philosophy is an activity, a daily exercise of the mind; a conversation with others that is also a conversation with oneself. So understood, philosophical theses are forms of address: they are said or written by someone to someone (though sometimes, both are the same person.) Their meaning cannot be properly understood when abstracted from the circumstances of their occurrence.

Philosophical thinking is an attempt to rescue the mind from its own trappings; to philosophize is to seek the way when one is lost.

Ambivalence is built into this model of philosophy. It is a mistake to try to disentangle the abstract from the concrete, content from style, word from deed. Philosophical thinking is an attempt to rescue the mind from its own trappings; to philosophize is to seek the way when one is lost. Those who make grand, universal, and decisive philosophical claims—about reason, rationality, or truth—are often those whose lives are in disarray. This is not to say that such claims must be insincere nor is it to cast doubt on their veracity. Rather, the fact that universal philosophical claims are always made by individual people with particular longings and fears means that such claims express much more than they let on. Their meaning extends beyond their explicit content. It is with this in mind that we can turn to philosophy for help.


Ancient Self-help

The ancients believed that philosophy could teach us how to live in the face of our inevitable ruin. But they were of two minds: some, with Epicurus, thought that we should look away from future suffering and misfortune while others, with the Stoics, thought that we should fix our gaze on the evils that await us. We find both approaches in Seneca; sometimes he appeals to one, sometimes to the other. In letter 24 he writes to Lucilius:

You write that you are worried about the outcome of a lawsuit that an enemy’s rage has brought against you. You suppose that I will urge you to fix your thoughts on the best and to ease your mind with comforting expectations. After all, what need is there to take an advance on future troubles, ruining the present with fear of the future? When troubles come is time enough to bear them. Surely it is foolish to be miserable now just because you are going to be miserable later on! But what I will do is lead you down a different road to tranquility. If you want to be rid of worry, then fix your mind on whatever it is that you are afraid might happen as a thing that definitely will happen. Whatever bad event that might be, take the measure of it mentally and so assess your fear. You will soon realize that what you fear is either no great matter or not long lasting.

Seneca recommends here a favorite method of the Stoics. Cicero calls it praemeditatio futurorum malorum: “the pre-rehearsal of future evils.” Cicero attributes the method to Anaxagoras, who, upon hearing of his son’s death, is claimed to have said: “I knew my child was mortal.” Anaxagoras’s pupil, Euripides, the great Greek tragedian, puts the following speech in the mouth of Theseus: “I pondered in my heart the miseries / to come / . . . so that if by chance / some one of them should happen, I’d not be / unready, not torn suddenly with pain.” Initially this peculiar exercise, focusing on our future plight, might seem to indulge our anxiety rather than calm it. We might therefore be inclined to agree with Epicurus, who, according to Cicero, rejected the method and instead recommended distracting the mind from suffering and redirecting it to pleasures. Cicero, however, sides with the Stoics:

Nothing does so much to soften the impact of distress as this practice of thinking at all times that there is no misfortune that cannot befall us. . . . The result is not that we are always sad, but that we are never sad at all. A person is not saddened by thinking about the nature of things, about the changefulness of life and the weakness of humankind; rather, it is in this, above all, that one gains the benefits of wisdom.

The pre-rehearsal of future evils is supposed to help us in three, interrelated ways. First, by contemplating future misfortunes we avoid being surprised by them, and this, it is thought, dilutes their impact. Seneca gives voice to this idea when he writes: “When one is unprepared for a disaster, it has a greater effect: shock intensifies the blow. No mortal can fail to grieve more deeply when amazement is added to the loss.” Thus, through praemeditatio we disabuse ourselves of the illusion of security and a false sense of immunity. Loss is always near and often random, sudden, and swift.

Loss is always near and often random, sudden, and swift. Suffering does not single us out; on the contrary, through suffering we experience our humanity.

The second benefit of reflecting on future evils is that it normalizes loss and suffering as necessary and human. Cicero writes that “one understands that troubles are part of human life, and that to endure them, as we must, is also human.” Suffering does not single us out; on the contrary, through suffering we experience our humanity. Seneca adds that since suffering is everyone’s lot, we have no grounds for complaint, writing “we should pay without complaint the taxes of our morality.” Recognizing that suffering is inevitable and ubiquitous is meant to help us accept it. Euripides, cited by Cicero, writes: “No mortal lives who is untouched by grief / and sickness. Many have to bury children / and bear new ones; death is ordained for all. / And humans feel anxiety for this—in vain: / earth must return to earth, and life for all / be mowed, like wheat. Necessity insists.”

But how does the necessity of suffering provide any comfort? Cicero considers this point as well: isn’t “the fact that we are subject to such cruel necessity. . . itself a reason to grieve[?]” He replies that such thought is a form of vanity. We are not gods; by accepting suffering, we accept our humanity. Instead of clinging to the false hope that we will be spared and lamenting our fate when our time to suffer inevitably arrives, we must take inspiration from others who have endured loss and suffering with grace. While outrage exacerbates our suffering, acceptance lessens it. Seneca recommends the following internal dialogue between oneself and one’s pain: “You are only pain, whom that arthritic fellow there despises, whom the dyspeptic endures at fancy meals, whom the merest girl endures in childbirth.”

The final benefit of contemplating future misfortunes is that one realizes that these events are not evil. Anything that Fortune can take from us, Seneca says, cannot contribute to happiness: “the happy life consists solely in perfecting our rationality; for perfected rationality is the one thing that keeps the spirit high and takes a stand against fortune.” Reason is invulnerable to contingencies and mishaps. Thus, by identifying with reason, we immune ourselves to loss. Only by rehearsing future evils can we accomplish virtuous identification with reason and come to see evils as insignificant. In fact, Cicero says, we learn from this method of reason what we learn from the experience of grief as it diminishes with time: “gradually over time the pain grows less . . . because experience teaches us the lesson reason ought to have taught, that what seemed so serious is not in reality very significant.”

The pre-rehearsal of future evils aims to loosen our attachments and undo our love for particular people. But should we disown our attachments to anything that can be lost?

The pre-rehearsal of future evils is thus an exercise in loosening our attachments and identifications, and undoing our love for particular people and places. Pierre Hadot describes stoic practices as “a movement of conversion toward the self” that is also a movement toward “a new way of being-in-the-world, which consists in becoming aware of oneself as a part of nature, and a portion of universal reason.”

Should we accept this aspiration to disown our attachments to anything that can be lost? It is difficult, for example, to accept Cicero’s claim that the loss of our loved ones is not worth grieving. But it is here that we must remember the ambivalence of the ancients’ philosophical thought. We should not separate Cicero’s claim about the insignificance of loss from the circumstances in which it was conceived and written. He was in the grip of grief when writing the Tusculanae Disputationes, the work in which these claims appear. His only daughter, Tullia, whom he adored, died soon after giving birth to his first grandchild.

In his personal letters from that time, Cicero tells of the violent anguish that took over: the wish to be alone, long walks in the woods, and uncontrollable fits of weeping. “Reading and writing do not comfort me but they do distract me,” he writes. In fact, he held on to his pain: “I try in every way I can to repair my countenance—though not my heart. I think sometimes that I am wrong to do so, at other times that I will be wrong not to.” He embarked on a writing frenzy. Among the various works he wrote in the months following his daughter’s death was Consolation, “which I composed in the midst of sorrow and pain, not being a wise person myself. I . . . applied a remedy to the mind’s swelling while it was still fresh. I brought the force of nature to bear upon it, so that my great pain would give way to the greatness of the medicine.”

There are some things to which any decent, loving person must respond with anguish and horror.

Like Seneca, Cicero was philosophizing to heal himself. What initially appears as Cicero’s heartless dismissal of the significance of loss is, in fact, the cry of a bereaved father and a distressed mind desperately trying to find its bearings. When philosophy is at once a reasoned investigation of eternal truths and a practice of self-help—a theory and a conversation—even the most decisive philosophical statement is steeped in ambivalence.

In rehearsing future evils Cicero was also rehearsing past ones, but the question he poses is neither about the future nor the past. Rather, he asks: What, if anything, should ruin us? Is abject and eternal grief ever called for? This is not a matter of how to avoid the pain of loss, but whether we have reason to feel it at all. The answer to the question determines, at once, our relation to past and future evils. It is understandable that we should want to be justified in seeking relief, especially when loss casts its shadow over us. But do we really lack reason to be anguished by loss? An affirmative answer would be comforting for us only if true. Indeed, the Stoics believed that an affirmative answer is true—we lack reason for grief—and that we must use our imagination to see this truth.

The Stoic answer is, I believe, mistaken. There are some things to which any decent, loving person must respond with anguish and horror. But the Stoic idea that we come to know things for what they really are only through imagination strikes me as both profound and perplexing. Doesn’t imagination lead us astray? Isn’t imagination the reason we project onto reality our own fears and desires, and fail to see it for what it is? Imagination can certainly deceive us, the Stoics would agree, but only when we let it run wild. When properly executed, the pre-rehearsal of future evils subjects imagination to the dictum of reason and the authority of the rational will. It thereby exposes as “indifferent”—that is, as neither good nor bad—that which initially appeared to be evil. When exercised virtuously, our imagination helps subdue the mind’s demons and deny external reality the force it often has over us. The Stoics also advise that imagination must be practiced and developed. We must work to expand it and imagine truthfully, without distorting the imagined object according to our wishes or fears. We cannot avoid the dread of future evils by ceasing to imagine them altogether, but neither should we let our imagination bring our anxieties to life.

Our imagination helps subdue the mind’s demons and deny external reality the force it often has over us. If we truthfully consider every possible evil, nothing can shock or hurt us.

The Stoics were optimists not merely because they thought that a virtuous person cannot suffer evil and loss, but also because they thought that our imagination has no limits. If we work at it, they believed, we can imagine the worst that might possibly happen to us—if we truthfully consider every possible evil, nothing can shock us, merit our indignation, or hurt us. We will be fine.


Imagining the Unimaginable

This is not just about death. We are not merely terrified by our future demise; we are terrified by the demise of what we love. We are terrified of living in an empty world, a world that has been gutted. There are disasters we do not wish to survive; changes we do not want to endure. Some things are supposed to destroy us, but they might not. The prospect of surviving such loss is a source of terror. By imagining future evils, we contemplate our present separateness from what we love. Our terror is a form of revolt: in the name of love, we refuse to imagine.

In Year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion writes about the death of her husband, John, and her refusal to imagine her life without him. Though she knows on some level that he is gone, she cannot believe it. In denying reality, she resorts to what she calls “magical thinking”: somehow John will return home and wear his clothes again, need his shoes again, and sit in his chair again. She cannot imagine John’s death. Of course, Didion knows John is dead, but she doesn’t believe it in the way one believes something to be real. It may seem strange, but recognizing something as real requires imagining it as such. The sheer fact of reality is not enough.

We are terrified of living in an empty world. There are disasters we do not wish to survive; changes we do not want to endure. Some things are supposed to destroy us, but they might not. The prospect of surviving such loss is a source of terror.

Where, then, does Stoic imagination lead us? For all its concern with reality and truth, Stoicism lends itself to avoidance. When Cicero denies the significance of loss and the appropriateness of grief, he denies reality. Like Didion, he exercises magical thinking, refusing to imagine the very worst, that his only daughter, whose existence gave his life a sense of meaning, is gone. He would rather imagine that she was never as important to him as his grief suggests: “what seemed so serious is not in reality very significant.” Cicero does not deny reality by denying the event of his daughter’s death; he denies reality by denying her death as a loss. Thus, in his Stoic proclamations, Cicero reveals the shortcomings of imagination. It is easier for him to imagine that no one could be so important as to merit the anguish of grief than to imagine that Tullia, the most important thing in his life, is gone forever. When stared at long enough, Stoicism begins to look like nihilism.

But we should not judge Cicero too harshly. Some form of magical thinking seems to be called for when a loved one dies. It is an obligation of love and devotion to resist the idea that life will continue without someone we love deeply. Though we want our loved ones to live on after we are gone, we would be bothered by the thought that they might continue with their lives without missing a beat. We do not want to be lost without a fight. Yet the same love and devotion also requires recognition of the loss and its significance. “I knew my child was mortal,” said Anaxagoras, the Stoics’ hero. Perhaps this means that to appreciate those we love, we must also appreciate the wonder, brevity, and finitude of their existence. The certainty of future loss is at the heart of love, it breathes life into it and makes even the dullest moments count. Love issues conflicting commandments: hold on; let go. As in philosophical thought, so in the space between us and those closest to us we find an ineradicable ambivalence.

That various things are simultaneously imaginable and unimaginable is essential to love, our sense of self, and our sense of what is real. When we fantasize about a different life—with a different husband or wife, different parents or children, in a different part of the world, with a different language and climate—we normally cannot imagine our fantasy as reality. That is, we indulge in the fantasy as such; we enjoy it from a distance.

Recognizing something as real requires imagining it as such. The sheer fact of reality is not enough.

Take the movie theatre as an example: we find relief from our lives and the present moment by giving ourselves to the drama, tragedy, suspense, or horror that is projected on the screen. We can do this because in the darkness of the movie theatre we feel safe from the fantasy in which we are immersed. A movie might be a perfect depiction of reality, yet if we remain aware of our position in relation to what it depicts, we do not mistake it for reality (the serial killer is on the loose, but we are never his potential victims; the Titanic is sinking, but we will not drown). This is true of fiction and of art in general—a sense of safety, of distance, is a condition for the most engrossing fantasies.

However, if we imagine the fantasy-life as a real possibility, as something we might choose given the chance or something we might endure, then real life often becomes harder to sustain. It is a phenomenon many of us are familiar with: the closer the fantasy seems to us, the less we can accept reality. At the extreme, we become estranged from the people in our life and from ourselves. When real life becomes unimaginable as reality, we witness it as if from a point of view outside of it—from a movie theatre in another world. From this external position, nonsensical thoughts become meaningful: Is this who I am? Is this how I live?

Sometimes a person might experience something so at odds with her sense of reality that she is thereafter trapped in another world. In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell explains soldiers’ tendency to experience war as “unreal.” He writes, “it is impossible for a participant to believe that he is taking part in such murderous proceedings in his own character. The whole thing is too grossly farcical, perverse, cruel, and absurd to be credited as a form of ‘real life.’” To have a real sense of the experience of war is to have a sense of the experience of war as unreal. Fussell gives an example from Stuart Cloete’s How Young They Died, a novel about WWI, in which Jim Hilton, wounded, makes his way to the rear:

The curious thing was that he was not here; he was somewhere else. On a high place, . . . looking down at this solitary figure picking its way between the shell holes. He thought: that’s young Captain Jim Hilton, that little figure. I wonder if he’ll make it. . . . He was an observer, not a participant. It was always like that in war though he had not realized it before. You were never you. The I part of you was somewhere else.

The experience of the war does not end with the war. One is stuck in the experience precisely because one does not recognize oneself in it. The unreality of the war spreads to other areas of one’s life, until everything is colored by events one cannot recall but can’t help remembering. One remains always in exile, “somewhere else,” never oneself.

Sometimes a person might experience something so at odds with her sense of reality that she is thereafter trapped in another world.

But even those of us fortunate enough to find reality imaginable still need to imagine other worlds to preserve our sense of the real. Our fantasies, while expressing real desires and frustrations, often reach for things we do not really want. Or we do really want them—perhaps even desperately want them—but we don’t want them to be real.

This distance from fantasy also allows us to contemplate our fears. In an essay about tragedy and its importance to moral thought, Bernard Williams writes that there are evils that can only be acknowledged in fiction: “When . . . [Nietzsche] said that we have art so that we do not perish from the truth, he did not mean that we use art in order to escape from the truth: he meant that we have art so that we can both grasp the truth and not perish from it.” Truths we cannot bear in reality, we can often confront in fiction. In art we rehearse evils that we cannot—and perhaps should not—imagine as real. The ambivalence of imagination, like the ambivalence of philosophical thought, makes truthfulness possible even when truth can barely be fathomed.


Imagining Evils

We are tormented by imaginations of past and future evils. So we try to avoid them by distracting ourselves or convincing ourselves that they are smaller than they are—that they need not concern us. These maneuvers go only so far. Unless we descend into madness and avoid reality altogether, we must sense the presence of things that our loves and attachments forbid us from imagining. Past and future evils torment us because they are at once real (because the world is as it is and human beings are as they are) and impossible (because we stand to lose everything, or because everything has already been lost and we are still here).

We must acknowledge the reality of evils because denying them might lead us to deny the value of the people and things we cannot imagine losing.

Yet we must acknowledge the reality of evils because denying them might lead us, with Cicero, to deny the value of the people and things we cannot imagine losing. To deny that Tullia’s death is a loss is to deny that Tullia’s life was precious; it is to deny Tullia and those who loved her. For Cicero, it is also self-denial. Like the mouse in Kafka’s “Little Fable,” we change direction to escape the trap, but run straight into the cat’s mouth. Avoidance consumes us.

Shakespeare’s King Lear is an exploration of this predicament and its horrifying implications. Like Cicero, King Lear disowns his daughter, Cordelia, the only person he loves, while she is still alive. Stanley Cavell, in his essay “The Avoidance of Love: A reading of King Lear,” writes that Lear’s dominating motivation is to avoid being recognized. To avoid his love for Cordelia, Lear humiliates her; to avoid the shame of his betrayal, Lear avoids himself and the world. Descending into madness, Lear asks: “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” The Fool replies: “Lear’s shadow.”

Cavell writes of this exchange:

Suppose the Fool has precisely answered Lear’s question, which is only characteristic of him. Then his reply means: Lear’s shadow can tell you who you are. If this is heard, it will mean that the answer to Lear’s question is held in the inescapable Lear which is now obscure and obscuring, and in the inescapable Lear which is projected upon the world, and that Lear is double and has a double . . . [the play] taunts the characters with their lack of wholeness, their separation from themselves, by loss or denial or opposition.

We are not fine. We stand to lose everything, or maybe everything has already been lost. Yet here we are.

In fiction, in art, we find a space between the real and the impossible where we may rehearse evils—a space where we can recognize ourselves in our doubles and be recognized by others. Ambivalence, it turns out, is a path to a place where the mind can roam free, safe from reality, studying itself and the world it occupies by studying other minds and worlds. “We are double in ourselves,” Montaigne wrote, “we believe what we disbelieve, and we cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.” We are not fine. Yet here we are.