Since the Enlightenment era, we’ve sought to unlock the mysteries of the cosmos: how to harness nuclear power to obliterate entire nations of people, how to eradicate disease, how to defeat death itself. In the last few hundred years, we’ve in many ways succeeded in this ambitious goal: we’ve discovered penicillin, we’ve built airplanes and railroads.
But though science gives us the illusion that we have command over the cosmos, we’re not sovereigns of the world. Men are but one species of millions on Earth; our miraculous, mysteriously oxygenated marble of a planet is but one speck in an ever-expanding universe. Each star in our sky is potentially another sun to another solar system. No matter how invincible we imagine ourselves, a single catastrophe— a terrible earthquake, a devastating forest fire, a worldwide pandemic, a bloody war— reminds us what fragile creatures we are. Humans are small sailboats in a storm-tossed sea: one strong gust of wind and we drown.
So how do we go on when faced with something so much mightier than we are, so beyond our control and so rife with uncertainty, be it the chance-governed universe or an international health emergency? In his crash course on emotional intelligence The School of Life: An Emotional Education, British philosopher Alain de Botton argues the mighty— what sages and saints throughout time termed the “sublime”— can offer calm in a chaotic world. The magnificence of a giant sequoia grove, the epic scale of the Grand Canyon, the scorched beauty of a burnt red-orange sunset in a southwest desert, the striking cliffs along the central California coast: each rid us of the arrogant belief that we’re the most all-powerful things in the cosmos.
We imagine the trivial dramas of our lives— the offhand comment our mother made about our disarray of dirty clothes, the quarrel we had with our lover over ravioli and red wine, the nerve-wracking choice between classic cream and deep beige for the dining room— are of serious consequence when in the grand scheme of things, they don’t much matter. Our names will most likely not be found in textbooks (unless— that is— we manage to do something truly history-making like discover a cure for cancer or formulate an elegant mathematical theorem). Schoolchildren will not study the stories of our lives or be captivated by the drama of our dating misadventures. Chances are in a few centuries we’ll be forgotten— our entire existence reduced to a tombstone.
While the idea that all will be buried beneath the sands of time is enough to bring on an existential crisis (after all, if nothing we do is of any consequence, isn’t life meaningless? why live at all?), it can also be a profound relief. If our mother makes snide comments about the cleanliness of our house, if we make the “wrong” choice and paint the dining room classic cream instead of deep beige— even if we make a more serious error and choose the wrong city or the wrong husband or the wrong career— the world will go on: the sun will set in the west and rise in the east, seeds will sprout and blossom, Earth will continue to spin on its axis at a thousand miles per hour through our wondrous, improbable universe. When we gaze at the glorious spectacle of stars in the night sky (or any other marvel of nature), we can transcend our petty problems. As de Botton writes:
“But there’s another way an encounter with the large-scale can affect us— and calm us down—that philosophers have called the “sublime.” Heading back to the airport after a series of frustrating meetings, we notice the sun setting behind the mountains. Tiers of clouds are bathed in gold and purple, while huge slanting beams of light cut across the urban landscape. To record the feeling without implying anything mystical, it seems as if one’s attention is being drawn up into the radiant gap between the clouds and the summits, and that one is for a moment merging with the cosmos. Normally the sky isn’t a major focus of attention, but now it’s mesmerizing. For a while it doesn’t seem to matter much what happened in the office or that the contract will— maddeningly— have to be renegotiated by the legal team.
At this moment, nature seems to be sending us a humbling message: the incidents of our lives are not terribly important.”
For more symposiums from the school of life, study culture as a cure for loneliness, the importance of kindness and the four criteria of emotional health. If you want to chart the mysterious topography of the human heart, revisit de Botton on love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionment, dating as a sort of performative play-acting, love as the origin of beauty, and the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning meaning.