30 August 2010

The Lessons of Manila

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self-Portrait

Thanks to Manila and its police force, we have come to the realisation that we are merely the play-things of luck and fate. Aside from the tragedy itself and the uselessness of the Manila police force, we are suddenly drawn back to investigate the tension between stability and chaos. The incident forcefully throws us on the presence, inviting us to question what it means to exist. It also enforces a moment of deeper contemplation and urges us to readjust our priorities in life. If lessons are offered through this incident, it might be the fact that it reminds us that we should never let the thought of death slip away too easily, even if happiness is what travel tends to suggest.

In this critical time, the survived victims and the affected families may seek help from psychologists. If they think psychologists have a power to console, it is perhaps because psychologists supposedly have clear-eyed investigation into the depth of different versions of human nature. However, besides psychology, there exists a discipline in the academia that can perhaps offer as much help as psychology, namely, philosophy. How might a philosopher console the victims of this incident? What can philosophy offer to fan their dim light of hopes?

Hence I wish to draw your attention to the Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca. At one level, what Seneca has to offer might run counter to what a psychologist might commonly suggest, but at another level, it might actually prove more consoling. Rather than feeding the suffered with primordial optimism, what he offers is often of the 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...?’ If what happened in Manila makes us sad, it is because we are most easily hurt by what is most unexpected. But Seneca tried to calm us by reminding us that disasters will always be part of our lives, however wise we are and however advanced our technology is. Therefore, we must bear in mind the wisdom of "we might possibly die in the next second" at all times. To refuse to acknowledge the inherent complexity of human affairs is to engage ourselves into a religion of comfortableness. Our actions are rarely determined by our free will. On the contrary, it largely depends on luck and chance. Our destiny is never in our hands. How easy the long-standing philosophical debate between free will and determinism is decided by the death of eight hostages.

If the incident makes us incredibly sad, it is perhaps because the human race never has quite the capacity to understand the value of pessimism, the inability to live our sadness fully. We often harbour in our hearts a religion of optimism that assures us the fact that history is always progressive, that humans must necessarily grow wiser as time moves on, that we must always invest our hopes in the future. We have been plugged into an ancestral memory of what is comfortable. Unfortunately, this incident suggests the otherwise. It illustrates the depressing fact that the reality is always disappointing. Happiness is never guaranteed, even during a trip in Manila.

The value of a pessimistic habit of mind lies not in making us cynical, but in a paradox that griefs actually cheer us up. It invites us to the thought that somehow we are not alone in sadness that everyone perhaps suffers from the same pessimistic equivalents like ours. Moreover, it alleviates our pain by reminding us there are things in this world that are profoundly sadder than this incident- the suffering of the Africans from poverty and hunger, the Rwanda Massacre, the women who are stoned to death in the Middle East. Pessimism forces us to dwell upon things that are even darker and gloomier, which in essence induces us to reflect on this relatively minor incident that things perhaps could have gone even worse.

But what deeply underlies pessimism is more arresting. It is because pain allows us to grow wiser. It helps enforce moments of contemplation, pushing us to acquire a better sense of reality and placing pain in a more proper context, just like only when we stump a nail on the ground, we may have the awareness of pain, thus becoming wise to the fact that human bodies are fragile. What is valuable about pessimism is that it puts us through a mental gymnastics which could not have been arisen without suffering. It strengthens our minds by producing a proper amount of cerebral activity, as opposed to the predominant trend of zero consumption of brain energy nowadays. It wards us off illusions and urges us to entertain vital thoughts that promote our intellectual adequacy and emotional sensitivity.

Therefore, we come together to acquire the capacity to be happily sad. There comes the time when we must put our darkness on the table and confront it, that we should embrace sadness and suffering to push ourselves towards a more correct direction of life. The lessons? The incident in Manila was undoubtedly a tragedy, but we should allow its dimension to be a part of life, as something to remind us of what life constitutes. It offers insights for our lives as to how to be properly and productively unhappy. Only through pain and suffering, we may learn to be the masters of life. May the victims rest in peace. But I hereby wish things would go badly for all of us from now on.

"To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities- I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not- that one endures." - Friedrich Nietzsche



  1. philosophy => happiness is a state of mind

  2. The basic idea of this post: that philosophy can be useful for overcoming psychological trauma, I find very compelling. The Nietzsche quote you end with, however, is hardly a psychologically healthy sentiment.

    A little stoicism seems more appropriate: "Say to yourself at the break of day, I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious and ungrateful men. All these vices have fallen to them because they have no knowledge of good and bad. But I, who have beheld the nature of the good, and seen that it is right: and of the bad, and seen that it is the wrong, and of the wrongdoer himself, and seeing that his nature is akin to my own - not because he is of the same blod and seed, but because he shares with me in mind and portion of the divine - I, then, can neither be harmed by any of these men, nor can I become angry with one who is akin to me, nor can I hate him, for wave have come into being to work together, like feet, hands, or eyelids, or the two rows of teeth in our upper and lower jaws. To work against one another is therefore contrary to nature; and to be angry with another and turn away from him is surely to work against him." Marcus Aurelius.

    Not only is this considerably more healthy than anything Nietzsche wrote, but it is clear evidence against one of the basic arguments Nietzsche makes in The Genealogy of Morals (that the Pagan conception of good and bad was corrupted by the "slave morality" of Jews and Christians).


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