08/27/14

Montaigne’s cat and Descartes’ reality


“When I play with my cat,” wrote French philosopher and essayist, Michel de Montaigne, “Who knows whether she is not amusing herself with me more than I with her.*

That statement encompasses two very distinct paths of contemplation.

First is one of animal sentience. The recognition that animals are conscious, that they are sentient creatures, with feelings and intelligence, not simply biological machines, is fairly new. Most of our modern awareness of animal intelligence and consciousness comes only in the last century (although the debate was opened in Darwin’s time). The 17th-century philosopher, Rene Descartes, believed animals were machines that acted out of reflex only (or not… what he meant by his statements is a hotly debated issue, it appears – although the Cartesian view is still cited to justify use of animals in research).

Montaigne, writing almost 200 years before Descartes, recognizes that cats can play. Amuse themselves, have fun – just like people can. That strikes me as a considerable leap in understanding: play is the act of an intelligent, self-aware being, not an automata. Montaigne knew that cats were conscious.

The second thread is that of our own consciousness and what it can know of itself and the external world. Montaigne’s comment is remarkably akin to Chuang Tzu’s famous butterfly dream from the third century BCE:

Once Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a fluttering butterfly. What fun he had, doing as he pleased! He did not know he was Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and found himself to be Zhou. He did not know whether Zhou had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly had dreamed he was Zhou. Between Zhou and the butterfly there must be some distinction. This is what is meant by the transformation of things.**

Who is the awakened, who is the dreamer in Montaigne’s statement? Is the cat or the writer the active player? Or are they actually cooperating in the act, a shared reality that neither holds independently without the other?

Sara Bakewell, writing in The Guardian, explains it:

One of Montaigne’s favourite hobbies was imagining the world from different perspectives…. At home, he extended his perspective-leaping to other species. “When I play with my cat”, he wrote, “who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” He borrowed her point of view in relation to him just as readily as he occupied his own in relation to her. And, as he watched his dog twitching in sleep, he imagined the dog creating a disembodied hare to chase in its dreams – “a hare without fur or bones”, just as real in the dog’s mind as Montaigne’s own images of Paris or Rome were when he dreamed about those cities. The dog had its inner world, as Montaigne did, furnished with things that interested him.
These were all extraordinary thoughts in Montaigne’s own time, and they remain so today. They imply an acceptance that other animals are very much like us, combined with an ability to wonder how differently they might grasp what they perceive.

Montaigne isn’t merely projecting himself into his cat. The question has greater reach: how does any of us really know what reality is? Is there even an objective reality outside our subjective viewpoint? Is there some objective reality that is separate from the observer or are effect and observer inseparable (the Schrodinger’s cat theorem…). And of course it leads back to Descartes and thus to the TED video posted at the top of this page.

What, after all, is reality and can we discover it? Timothy Leary philosophized about what he called the “reality tunnel” of subjective perspective:

The theory states that, with a subconscious set of mental filters formed from his or her beliefs and experiences, every individual interprets the same world differently, hence “Truth is in the eye of the beholder”.

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are,” wrote Anais Nin, in her novel, The Seduction of the Minotaur, 1961

Can we really know what another person is thinking or feeling – let alone what a cat is thinking? We don’t even know for sure if another person sees the came colours or hears the same sounds as we do. And we assume there is some objective, measurable reality about such physical phenomena. So how can we know thoughts?

Montaigne, of course could not get into the mind of his cat any more than we can get into the mind of Montaigne. It was a rhetorical question, really, meant as an observation, or perhaps the starting point of a discourse on the subjective nature of reality. Unfortunately, he left that line alone and never followed through in a later essay to explore the thought further.

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08/17/14

Inanity and vanity


Michel de Montaigne wrote in his usual self-deprecating but sardonic way:

If other men would consider themselves at the rate I do, they would, as I do, discover themselves to be full of inanity and foppery; to rid myself of it, I cannot, without making myself away. We are all steeped in it, as well one as another; but they who are not aware on’t, have somewhat the better bargain; and yet I know not whether they have or no.
Book 3, IX: Of Vanity

That chapter is one of his longer pieces in The Essays, and like most others in the collection, is not simply focused on the subject of the title, but meanders through several thoughts and observations that may not all seem related. In this case, he ponders on his estate, his old age, his government service, on writing (his own and that of others), his talents, his father, memory, friendship, travel, and more.

The quote above is from the 1877 edition, translated by Charles Cotton and edited by William Hazlitt. Donald Frame, in his 1957 translation, renders it as this, somewhat more clearly:

If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another, but those whoa re aware of it are a little better of — though I don’t know.
Quoted in Bakewell: How to live; A Life of Montaigne.

I do not have the Screech translation yet, to compare this quotation with his rendition, but the book is on order from Amazon and should arrive next week. According to the New York Review of Books, it is more modern than Frame: “Despite Frame’s declared intention to be non-archaic, there are still traces of fustian in his style…” We’ll see if that’s true, when I get my hands on it.

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08/14/14

Re-reading Heraclitus


HeraclitusI started to re-read Haxton’s 2001 translation of Heraclitus last night. I came across references to him when reading introductory material on Montaigne recently and I wanted to flesh out my knowledge and understanding.

Heraclitus of Ephesus was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who lived during the transformational Axial Age, roughly contemporary with other philosophers like Gautama Buddha, Zarathustra, Confucius and Lao Tzu. He wrote a significant treatise (On Nature) consisting of three books, one on the cosmos, one on politics and the third on theology. It may have been, like the fragments, a collection of aphorisms and epigrams.

That master work vanished around the time of Plutarch ( 46-120CE) and has has long been lost. Heraclitus’ words only survive in the famous gnomic “fragments” which give but a small and incomplete glimpse into his thoughts. Still, Heraclitus was an important part of the development of Greek thought that led to Plato and Aristotle, and he influenced the later Roman philosophers and writers who still had his complete work to read.

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Heraclitus held that,

…(1) everything is constantly changing and (2) opposite things are identical, so that (3) everything is and is not at the same time.

Haxton’s is one of many translations into English (at the moment my sole printed version), making the fragments into a more poetic rendition than some of the more literal and drier translations. His version also includes the Greek – just in case you’re schooled in reading ancient Greek (I’m not; I took it for a semester when I started university, but found my facility for learning it was stunted…).

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08/10/14

Montaigne’s words on anger


“There is no passion that so shakes the clarity of our judgment as anger,” Montaigne wrote in Book II of his Essays (Chapter 31). “It is a passion that takes pleasure in itself and flatters itself.”

That strikes me a very Buddhist statement, a comment lifted from the Dhammapada, although Montaigne was a solid Catholic. It certainly has a similar wisdom.

I have seen that anger cloud the judgment of people in political debate, on many stages from national to local. It blinds people to the reality of the issues, and carries them on a wave of self-induced pleasure, as Montaigne saw.

When fuelled by anger, discussion degenerates into shouting matches where no one can win. They make of their anger a holy cause unto itself, closing themselves to any argument or fact that might challenge their self-righteousness. They no longer listen to compromise, or weigh alternatives. Anger outweighs all. Anger becomes ego becomes anger, a vicious feedback loop.

Montaigne also criticized those who bluster and bellow their self-righteous anger for the world’s attention:

“They go after their own shadow, and carry this tempest into a place where no one is punished or affected by it, except someone who has to put up with the racket of their own voice.”

One is reminded of Shakespeare’s line about “…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing…”

Anger displaces rational thought and ends any possibility of civil or civilized debate. It spews forth in puerile vituperation and accusation. We see it on social media every day.

Calm, rational thought, he wrote in that same essay, is the only way to engage one another.

“I observe in the writings of the ancients,” wrote Montaigne, “…that the man who thinks strikes home much more forcefully than the man who pretends.”

But it is difficult to crack that wall of angry self-justification.

08/9/14

Finding my muse in Montaigne


Montaigne

Muse: a source of inspiration; especially a guiding genius; the imaginary force thought to provide inspiration to poets, writers, artists, etc.

A muse, for modern writers, is that indefinable force that drives us to write. It’s part imagination, part inspiration. I suspect there’s a heady brew of psychology and biology at work, too.

Why write instead of, say, paint? Or sculpt? Or compose? I don’t know. It just is, for me, the thing my muse – however you define that – compels me to pursue. It compels others, though in different ways, and many in much more creative and innovative ways than I have in me. But nonetheless, writing fulfills a basic need in me. Scripturient, after all.

The inspiration part is easier to explain, I suppose, at least from my perspective. It’s a long list of people whose work, whose writing, whose ideas, whose politics, art, music, lives and contributions move me. My problem has always been my eclectic tastes and interests, and my grasshopper-like habit of jumping from topic to topic (albeit passionately).

What do Darwin, Chaucer, Machiavelli, Thucydides, Cliff Edwards, Ana Valenzuela, Han Shan, Gandhi, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Napleon, the Three Stooges, Shakespeare, Monty Python, Emanuel Lasker, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, my father, Henry Hudson, the Beatles, Frank Herbert, Don Marquis, Eric Clapton and Omar Khayyam have in common?

Not much – except that they are inspirational to me. For very different reasons, of course, in different ways and touching very different parts of my life and my activities. They are, of course, a mere handful of the total; the list is far too long to present here. Inspiration is composed of many fine details; a multitude of threads that weave our lives, not just big swatches.

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03/26/14

The ethics of politics via Aristotle


Aristotle PoliticsPolitics, Aristotle wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics, is the “master science of the good.” The good of which he wrote is the greater good, the “highest good” that benefits the state, not the personal.

For even if the good is the same for the individual and the state, the good of the state clearly is the greater and more perfect thing to attain and safeguard. the attainment of the good for one man alone is, to be sure, a source of satisfaction; yet to secure it for a nation and for states is nobler and more divine.

But good is hard to define, Aristotle wrote, and full of “irregularity” because, he added, “in many cases good things bring harmful results.”

For Aristotle and his fellow philosophers, politics was the science of figuring out what is conducive to life in a polis or city (which in the Greece of his day were city states); it determined how people can live together in communities and cities. It still is, which is why his 2,000-plus year-old work, Politics, is still taught in poli-sci courses.

Politics also has the practical side: the legislative component. And ethics underlies both parts.

Ethics and virtue are interconnected in Aristotle, but it’s not entirely the same virtue of which Machiavelli writes (and Aristotle described many more virtues than Plato’s four: courage, wisdom, temperance and justice). Aristotle’s virtue is a mean between excess and deficiency. It isn’t being super good, or unbendingly upright, or sticking to a dogma or theological script.

It’s almost like situational ethics (see Nicomachean Ethics, Book I.7). The BBC notes:

Situation ethics teaches that ethical decisions should follow flexible guidelines rather than absolute rules, and be taken on a case by case basis.

As this site notes:

Aristotle says that it is a mean between extremes, but not a mechanically determinable mean: “to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way”

For example, the mean between obsequiousness and cantankerousness is friendliness (see here). Angry, vituperative blogs full of accusation and wild allegation would not fit Aristotle’s definition of virtuous because they have a deficiency of social conduct, according to the chart.

As this site explains:

The good for human beings, then, must essentially involve the entire proper function of human life as a whole, and this must be an activity of the soul that expresses genuine virtue or excellence.

It also notes:

True happiness can therefore be attained only through the cultivation of the virtues that make a human life complete.

Cultivation: it means virtues have to be consciously worked at, and practiced. They are not innate or hereditary.

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