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.