When a senior politician is charged with adultery today, we expect them to issue a press release, either in self-defence or contrition. Exiled to Corsica on the charge of extra-marital relations with Julia Livilla, sister of the emperor Gaius, the Roman Stoic philosopher and statesman Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote a letter to his mother, offering philosophical consolation for her grief at being parted from her son. In Stoic style, Seneca emphasises the importance of preparing oneself for change in life, so that one is not unseated by the shock of its arrival. One must be like a sentry on guard, he advises, always ready for sudden attack. For drastic change, like an enemy ambush, “scatters those whom it catches off guard; but those who have prepared in advance for the coming conflict … easily withstand the first onslaught, which is the most violent” (Letter to Helvia, 5).
In my seminars on Philosophy for Change, I’ve found that Seneca’s Stoic approach to change resonates with people of various ages and walks of life. This is not surprising given the times we live in. The global financial crisis has compounded the sense of anxiety that pervades society at the end of a tumultuous decade of terrorism, war and epidemics. When we add to our list of challenges the existential threat of runaway climate change, the future begins to look grim indeed. It is already clear that the Copenhagen talks this month will be full of trade-offs and compromises, but it is imperative that they result in a genuine plan for reducing global net greenhouse gas emissions. The hard work of figuring out how to achieve these changes on the ground will fall on governments and civil societies across the planet. Stalling will only make things more difficult after 2020, when the modest targets must be ramped up to meet the goal of cutting global emissions by 80 per cent or more from 1990 levels. One doesn’t have to be a futurologist to see that there are major social changes on the horizon.
As we prepare for these changes ahead, we’d do well to reflect on the personal challenges of change and whether we are equal to them. We will need wisdom and forbearance as we pass through these difficult times. This would be an ideal time for us to revive Stoic lessons about personal resilience and rational self-control. It is not inconceivable that, in a decade’s time, Stoic philosophy will again be central to our sense of who we are.
One important respect in which we need to learn to think differently about change today concerns our attitude to broad-scale social and economic change. It is time we overcame the technocratic perspective on change that we’ve inherited from the 20th century. Broad-scale social and economic change is something we like to leave to leaders, managers and experts. This reflects a form of organisational culture that grew up, flourished, fragmented, and diminished through the last century, in which institutions are hierarchically structured and power and influence flow from the top down. Through a host of cultural and democratic initiatives, bound up with emerging technologies such as the internet, the late 20th and early 21st centuries challenged this top-down model of organisational culture. But when we think about broad-scale social and economic change, we tend to lapse into a technocratic mindset, unburdening ourselves of personal responsibility while awaiting directions from above. An alternative approach would be to apply the optimistic, entrepreneurial attitude towards change that informs the best of contemporary activist culture to transforming society from the grassroots. New internet-based networking technologies could play a vital role in this process. Wikis, blogs, and social networking sites could give the public a primary role in the struggle against global warming.
The other major impediment to change today is the fact that we live in one of the most heavily indemnified, risk-adverse societies in history. The problem this poses is that it is difficult to convince people to enter into processes of whole systems change, since these processes are fraught with uncertainty and risk. Superficially, post-modern culture is obsessed with change. Business books preach creative destruction, TV ads promote personal change, and politicians make (and ruin) careers by gambling on expensive infrastructural changes. But “change”, for the most part, is a slogan for piecemeal innovation and reform ventured in the context of relatively stable circumstances. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt took a risk in 1934 when he committed the American economy to whole systems change under the New Deal. Confronted with the worst recession since Roosevelt’s time, President Barack Obama, by contrast, has been able to do little more than tinker with the standing free market economic system, despite modelling his Presidency on Roosevelt’s own and campaigning on a ticket of change. Yet Obama’s unwillingness to change the system has less to do with his personal commitment to change than it does the kinds of changes that are deemed responsible and acceptable in today’s society. “Change”, in the vernacular, means incremental change. Change has become a calculated shift from one more-or-less stable position to another.
If we are to meet the challenges of the 21st century, it is vital that we learn to think differently about change. It is necessary to find ways of making the genuine possibilities of whole systems change apparent. This entails cultivating the courage to look beyond the limits of what exists today, and the resilience to hold to our line of sight against the depreciations of the status quo. We need to devise a new horizon of coordinates to enable us to think differently about the present and to transform our trajectory into the future.
None of this is impossible. The human mind is a plastic medium with a natural facility for change. The Stoics took this to reflect the divine origins of human reason. ‘Heavenly things are by nature always in motion’, Seneca explains from his exile in Corsica. “Look at the planets which light up the world – not one is at rest. … How silly then to imagine that the human mind, which is formed of the same elements as divine beings, objects to movement and change of abode, while the divine nature finds delight and even self-preservation in continual and very rapid change” (Letter to Helvia, 7). Seneca’s submission amounts to simple common sense today, as we struggle with uncertainty and risk. Whatever history records, we would do well to cultivate the spiritual levity of the Stoic sage, and learn to find “delight and even self-preservation” in a world of continual change.