Monday, January 30, 2012

The inevitability of thinking

In my last blog I talked about an adage on the ceiling of Montaigne’s study in the tower of his castle. It said that actually thinking is painful and so unpleasant, and it suggested that it is better to avoid it. One can wonder what brought the thinker Montaigne to have an adage there that is so contradictory to his person. One can only guess about his reasons, but there are some indications in his Essays that can help to get an idea why it appealed to him.
That thinking is painful and so unpleasant is not obvious. Everybody does it most of the time and what would man be without thinking? What supposedly Sophocles wanted to express with the statement, and apparently Montaigne with him, is that it is consciously thinking or rather consciously thinking about a certain problem that is painful and so unpleasant, and it is so because of the effort it takes. If this is right, the adage raises many questions. Why, for instance, should something that takes much effort be painful and therefore be unpleasant? Many people enjoy running as a sport, and although it can hurt in a certain sense they do not stop with it but they just consider it a pleasant activity. And so it is with consciously thinking about problems, too. Not always, of course, but in many cases, especially when it is thinking about philosophical puzzles (which are often not only puzzles but usually have a clear relevance for society). Thinking can be an effort and it can cause headaches, but we are looking forward to the possible solution and to the joy it will give to us. As I concluded in my last blog: Maybe thinking sometimes hurts, but often it’s a pleasure, too.
However, the problem with problem solving is that it often has no end. When we think to have solved one, we discover new problems that follow, and which we want to solve, too. Or we think to have found a good solution but then we start to doubt. Or, otherwise, we are contented with it, but then we want more. We are never satisfied with what we have. Maybe that’s why Montaigne had Sophocles’ remark written on his ceiling. Anyway, he agrees with Lucretius who says: “While that which we desire is wanting, it seems to surpass all the rest; then, when we have got it, we want something else; ‘tis ever the same thirst” (Lucretius, iii. 1095). Our thinking never stops, for once we think it will stop, it leads to new thinking. It’s like a relay race without an end: once a thought comes to an end, it has to pass the baton of thinking to the next thought. “Whatever it is that falls into our knowledge and possession, we find that it satisfies not, and we still pant after things to come and unknown, inasmuch as those present do not suffice for us; not that, in my judgment, they have not in them wherewith to do it, but because we seize them with an unruly and immoderate haste”. (Montaigne, Essays I, 53). And this endlessly and restlessly going on can be hurting; it’s true.
Montaigne was aware of this, and it seems that it caused in him (and in us, too) a longing for a simple life where everything is uncomplicated. As if simple is better. Actually it is a looking for a kind of Arcadia, a kind of paradise where everything goes smoothly and where real problems are absent. But is that the solution of our problems of life? I think it’s not. In the end people will become bored when they have no problems to solve. It will be quite annoying and it will lead to psychological stress. Then there is only one solution: do something; create problems or at least puzzles in the philosophical sense and start thinking how to solve them.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The pain of thinking

Montaigne is famous for his Essays. One of the striking things in this work is that it is full of quotations, mainly from classical authors. What not so many people know is that Montaigne had collected such quotations on the ceiling of the room in the tower of his castle where he wrote his essays. I was reminded of this when I saw a little booklet on the Internet, titled Montaigne’s Adages, compiled and translated by the Dutch historian René Willemsen (Rotterdam: Ad. Donker, 2011). Some years ago, I had visited Montaigne’s study, and I had seen the adages on the beams of the ceiling. Then I could cast only a quick look at them, but the visit had made me curious to know more about the maxims, so I could not resist buying the book.
Immediatedly after having received it through the post, I glanced a bit through the book and one of the first adages that caught my attention was this one: “Nothing is more pleasant in life than thinking about nothing, for not thinking doesn’t hurt”. According to Willemsen’s explanation it was from Sophocles’ tragedy “Ajax”. Because Montaigne had had put this adage on his ceiling, I suppose that he endorsed what it wants to express, although that doesn’t need to be so, of course. Anyway, when I read the quotation, I thought there was much truth in it and that I could agree with it. But I continued thinking and I began to doubt. Gradually my doubts increased. It was not so much that the adage said “Nothing is more pleasant in life…” that was the problem. Even after I had changed it into “One of the most pleasant things in life is thinking about nothing, for not thinking doesn’t hurt”, and then into “The more one’s thinking is reduced, the better it is, for the less one will be hurt by one’s thinking”, my doubts could not be stopped. It’s true, I remembered my tours on my race bike and my running in the wood, and that I had told my readers that these activities make me forget my day-to-day worries. And surely, cycling like a zombie (in the philosophical sense) on the roads around my little town makes me high in a certain sense (but my regular readers will certainly not have forgotten that it also increases the chance of getting an accident). But what made me reject Sophocles’ thought in the end was the question whether it was really so unpleasant for Montaigne to write his essays. Did he really write them à contrecoeur, so reluctantly, and with pain in his heart? Did Montaigne really shut himself in his tower in order to spend hours of hurting himself there by thinking what to write? I do not belief so. And even if it’s true, it will certainly be impossible to fool my readers that I wrote all my blogs of this website while I suffered doing so; that almost each Monday I spend two or three hours voluntarily, without any compulsion by others, in my study and behave like a self-punisher. Nobody would believe that and moreover it’s not true. What is true is that writing my blogs can require much effort (and the same will certainly have been true for Montaigne and his Essays). For some people that may be the same as pain, but for the thinker self it seldom is. I do not want to say that thinking never hurts, but at most we can maintain this: Maybe thinking sometimes hurts, but often it’s a pleasure, too.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The illusion of authenticity

We are our customs, at least in a certain sense and at least for a part. We have seen it in my blog last week. Customs belong to those things that make us the persons we are. It is not only so that the customs we encounter already immediately after our birth “force” us to follow them. Usually we have the feeling that they really belong to us and that they are right. We support them so that they continue to exist. We have interiorized these customs and we believe in them. Once this is so, we can say that our following certain customs is authentic.
Customs (especially those we call “traditions”) are often typical for certain cultures. Maybe we understand why certain customs in other cultures exist and what they mean, but they are not part of us; we haven’t interiorized them. For instance, I, as a Dutchman, believe in St. Nicholas but not in Santa Claus. For me, St. Nicholas needs to be respected; Santa Claus is just a man in special clothes.
Many people in Western countries have a feeling that they miss authenticity. They have a feeling or they think that what they do does not come from themselves, but that many things they do are enforced on them by the circumstances or by other people around them; that they do what they do because they are expected to do so, although they do not want to do it; or because they are in the rat race; and for a lot of other reasons. I do not want to say that they are unhappy, but there is a feeling of superficiality and a feeling of missing something that is described as authenticity. So, what do they do, if they have the money for it? Travelling, and especially travelling to other cultures, looking for something that is “real”. Therefore more and more “corners of the world” are discovered and uncovered by them [For those living in these “corners of the world”: forgive me the expression, for in fact, it is quite colonial; but so Western people often think]. Or do more and more “corners of the world” lose their “innocence” in this modern age?
One of the “corners of the world” flooded by Western tourists is the Dogon Valley in Mali and one of the authentic traditions there is a dance of death, which is performed every twelve years. What is more to be wished for a Western authenticity seeker? Especially if s/he can order the dance for 60 euros from the village chief, three times a day, if s/he likes. And as soon as the tourist and his/her group have left, the chief calls the next village with his cell phone: “Take your masks, they are coming!” And what do they do with the money earned? Buying what they need to live and investing, of course, and making holidays to Europe for feeling the culture of their customers.
(Source: One World, Dec. 2011; pp. 16-17)

Monday, January 09, 2012

The customs we are

Customs play an important role in life. They are not simply like branches on a path that we throw away, when we think that someone can stumble over them. Or like cars we stop for, when we want to cross a road. Customs are not accidental but they guide our lives, they can give our stream of activities a certain rhythm and function as reasons for what we do. They are threads in life and help us get hold of what we do. So the Christian holidays, a kind of social customs, are for many people reasons to go church and for them they are highlights of the year. For others the vacations around these feast-days are reasons for making short trips or longer travels. Together with the yearly summer vacation – in fact also a kind of custom – these fixed points of attention guide or maybe even determine the recurrent cycle of life. For some this cycle may have a spiritual meaning, for others the meaning may be worldly when it determines, for instance, the planning of their outings and trips.
Customs as such can be reasons for what we do that need no further explanation. A Christian does not need to explain why s/he attends church on Christmas Day. Just the fact that it is Christmas is a sufficient reason. Or once we know that a person loves playing tennis, s/he doesn’t need to explain that s/he is going to play with friends every Sunday morning. It’s enough to say: on Sunday mornings I cannot visit you, for then I play with my tennis friends. For many things we do there is no need to explain them, when they are customs or even habits. It is a sufficient reason for acting, which does not imply, of course, that customs or habits cannot change.
However, customs, and habits, too, are not simply things we regularly do, nor are they only reasons for our actions, like branches that we throw away because someone might stumble over them (with the implication that we are free to do it or not, as we like). In a certain sense we are our customs and habits. Once we have them, they are part of our identities, not only in the sense that we can remember how we followed them during a big part of our lives but also that they continuously make us act in a certain way and that we become quite annoyed, to say the least, or even mentally disordered in the worst case, if we are obstructed doing them. And the same so for “passive customs”: things people are supposed to do to us and ideas and thoughts that automatically pop up in us, because they are related to our habits and customs, although they may seem ridiculous to others. So, I feel a bit annoyed when guests on the birthday party of my wife forget to congratulate me, for in the Netherlands it is a custom to congratulate not only the person whose birthday it is but also her or his partner and relatives. And when, during the weeks before St. Nicholas’ Eve (December 5) I see a man dressed like a bishop, I – unlike foreigners – do not see someone who plays St. Nicholas but someone who is St. Nicholas, since I – as a Dutchman – have been educated in this tradition. And so it could happen that last month somewhere here in the Netherlands, a man dressed and made up as St. Nicholas stopped his car, walked to the middle of the crossing and begun to regulate the traffic like a police man, just for fun. And everybody obeyed, and probably nobody got the idea that the man was a joker. For the Dutch he was St. Nicholas and what this saintly man says or does is right, anyhow, for so this tradition has made him.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Of old customs

Somewhere in the beginning of his essay “Of ancient customs” Montaigne says that sometimes customs rapidly change and that what once was a custom often is ridiculed some time later. Especially in fashion this is the case: “When they wore the busk of their doublets up as high as their breasts, they stiffly maintained that they were in their proper place; some years after it was slipped down betwixt their thighs, and then they could laugh at the former fashion as uneasy and intolerable.” Therefore Montaigne wants to show that some customs are already old, while others aren’t “to the end that, bearing in mind this continual variation of human things, we may have our judgment more clearly and firmly settled.” Then Montaigne gives a range of customs in antiquity, some of them different, some of them the same as in his days.
I do not want to list here, like Montaigne, old customs and compare them with modern ones in order to put what we do into perspective. What actually surprises me is that some things we do are already so old, albeit that they may have got other coats during the years. When I write this, it is just after Christmas, a feast full of traditions. On this day we remember the birth of Christ. But is Christmas really on the 25th of December because Christ was born on this day? In fact the day was chosen, because the adherents of the Mithras religion commemorated the birth of their god on this date. Moreover, many other peoples in the world had (and still have) midwinter celebrations about this time of the year. A lot of Christmas customs apparently go back to such much older pre-Christian traditions. And, although it is not typically a midwinter tradition, didn’t the Romans already give presents on the Saturnalia (Dec. 17)?
Not only such more or less “official” customs, so traditions, have a long history. Also many of our habitual actions that actually everybody does have a long past. I mean just the normal daily routines. Montaigne mentions, for instance, a simple thing like “to eat fruit ... after dinner” in antiquity; and where I had written “…”, Montaigne wrote “as we do”. “We”, 21st-century wo/men, still often do the same. But in fact, I realized how old some of our daily habits and customs are not just when I read Montaigne’s essay, but when I encountered lately a newspaper article about a recent archeological discovery that showed that “when Europe still was inhabited by Neanderthal man, in Africa people had already completely equipped bedrooms”. And it is not Neanderthal man, but this homo sapiens in Africa who is our ancestor. Already our forbears in Southern Africa 77.000 years ago had bedrooms and beds. Of course, their beds were not the same as ours with mattresses, sheets and blankets but they were made of saw sedge, which is still used for making beds here and there today, though. But what made this article made me aware of is that one of the things I do every day is already very, very old, at least 77.000 years: making up my bed. Many things we do have changed through the ages, but some seem to stay forever.
Michel de Montaigne, “Of ancient customs”, Essays, Book I, essay 49. I use the Gutenberg translation: