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.


skholiast said...

I am reminded of the lovely little book of interviews with Arne Næss, Is it painful to think?, which I believe was titled without intentional reference to Montaigne. Also a remark of Russell's regarding Wittgenstein: that he wanted to find out, not this or that, but how things are; "It hurts him not to know." And yet of course, I can't imagine that Socrates pursued this good life of inquiry because he thought it was character-building in some sort of tough-love way. There was eros involved. Pleasure and pain. the question must be, then, what sorts of each?

HbdW said...

Thank you for your reaction and for the link to the book of interviews with Naess. I haven't much to add, but next week I'll publish another blog about this theme (without having been able to use your references, however). Of course, pleasure and pain exist in many sort, and maybe Sophocles and Montaigne did not realize that.