The Wisdom of Melancholy: Alain de Botton

In 21st century America, melancholy seems passe, dated, all but forgotten. It's something that happens to people in Chekhov plays, or other countries.

Everyone knows about depression, by contrast, and ten percent of Americans are taking anti-depressants, according to one study, and one in four middle-aged women. 

“It’s not only that physicians are prescribing more, the population is demanding more,” Dr. [Ramin] Mojtabai said [to the NYTimes]. “Feelings of sadness, the stresses of daily life and relationship problems can all cause feelings of upset or sadness that may be passing and not last long. But Americans have become more and more willing to use medication to address them.”

But what if melancholy connects us to others and the world, where depression isolates us?

So argues philosopher Alain de Botton. He writes:

Many of the things we most want are in conflict: to feel secure, and yet to be free; to have money and yet not to have to be wage slaves. To be in close knit communities and yet not to be stifled by the expectations and demands of others. To travel and explore the world and yet to put down deep roots. To fulfil the demands of our appetites for food, drink, sex and lying on the sofa – and yet stay thin, sober, faithful and fit.

The wisdom of the melancholy attitude (as opposed to the bitter or angry one) lies in the understanding that the sorrow isn’t just about you, that you have not been singled out, that your suffering belongs to humanity in general. So often our sorrows are egocentric. We see them as special misfortunes which have come our way. Melancholy rejects this. It has a wider, much less personal take. Much of what is painful and sorrowful in our lives can be traced to general things about life: its brevity; the fact that we cannot avoid missing opportunities, the contradictions of desire and self-management. These apply to everyone. So melancholy is generous. You feel this sorrow for others too, for ‘us’. You feel pity for the human condition.

I cannot help but think of the Miller Williams poem/Lucinda Williams song linked here a month or so ago, that goes:

Have compassion for everyone you meet
Even if they don't want it 
What seems conceit, bad manners or cynicism
is always a sign
of things no ear has heard, no eye has seen
you do not know
what wars are going on
down there
where the spirit meets the bone. 

Included in those few lines is compassion for one's own self don't you know. 


Photograph by Ansel Adams of aspens at dawn in autumn from de Botton's essay in the Philosopher's Mail

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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