Letters to Montaigne (2003 - 2004)

The following entries are excerpts from my first book
entitled Letters to Montaigne. Completed in 2004, each
essay is written in the form of a letter and is addressed
to the 16th Century French essayist Michel de Montaigne. Informal in tone, they cover a variety of philosophical subjects.



Sunday
Jul172011

On Lin Yutang and Poetic Philosophy 

Monsieur Montaigne,

I started writing a letter to you a couple of weeks ago, but I didn’t like the way it was going, so I decided to stop and start again some other day. I guess I’m just one of those people who doesn’t like forcing things. I’d rather wait until I feel more inspired – until I feel ready to write. Plus, since I want these letters to be an uplifting personal project, I don’t really see the point of dutifully forcing myself to be creative. Generally, the whole notion of forcing something is foreign to me. I think my personality is more evasive than confrontational. For the most part, if things are not moving along at a relaxed and easy going pace, then I’d rather just opt out.

The letter I started last week was about another one of my favorite writers – Lin Yutang. In a way, I’m a little surprised that I haven’t mentioned him to you before now. I suppose that I can become so absorbed in reading a certain author that I forget about my other favorites. In my mind, Mr. Yutang’s best book is called The Importance of Living. Published in 1937, the book begins much like your essays – subjective, thoughtful, and humble. The first paragraph of the Preface reads,

This is a personal testimony, a testimony of my own experience of thought and life. It is not intended to be objective and makes no claim to establish eternal truths. In fact I rather despise claims to objectivity in philosophy; the point of view is the thing. I should have liked to call it ‘A Lyrical Philosophy,’ using the word ‘lyrical’ in the sense of being a highly personal and individual outlook. But that would be too beautiful a name and I must forego it, for fear of aiming too high and leading the reader to expect too much, and because the main ingredient of my thought is matter-of-fact prose, a level easier to maintain because more natural. Very much contented am I to lie low, to cling to the soil, to be of kin to the sod. My soul squirms comfortably in the soil and sand and is happy. Sometimes when one is drunk with this earth, one’s spirit seems so light that he thinks he is in heaven. But actually he seldom rises six feet above the ground.

I wonder when Mr. Yutang wrote his Preface? Do you think he wrote it before the main body of the book? Or do you think he wrote it after he had finished the book, just prior to sending it to his publishers?

When did you write your Preface Monsieur? I bet you wrote it after the first publication of your essays. In my mind, it has a somewhat defensive tone – as if it is saying, my writing falls outside the realm of the usual criticisms.

On the other hand, if I had to venture a guess, I bet that you titled each of your individual essays before you started writing them, and then you allowed yourself to stray from the original discussion. In case you were wondering, I’ve been titling each of these letters after I’ve finished writing them. Although I start with a certain author or idea in mind, I still like to think of a title after I’ve finished writing the letter. It makes it seem like I’m more organized than I really am, however.

I think one of the reasons why I like Lin Yutang so much is that he and I share the same attitude about the best kind of philosophy. We are both drawn to poetic or lyrical discussions. Much of traditional western philosophy seems pointless to us both. Mr. Yutang thinks of himself as a Chinese Humanist, and the titles of the chapters in The Importance of Living are just the kind I like. He doesn’t write any treatises or critiques, or any metaphysical or epistemological arguments. Here are a few of his chapter titles, and as you might guess, I am drawn to them all.

Human Life a Poem, On Having a Stomach, On Playful Curiosity, The Importance of Loafing, The Cult of the Idle Life, On Sex Appeal, On Growing Old Gracefully, On Sitting in Chairs, On Tea and Friendship, On Bigness, On Rocks and Trees, Art as Play and Personality, and, The Return to Common Sense.

I especially like the last title as it relates to philosophy. Here are a few quotes from Mr. Yutang’s book. A few years ago, when I originally read them, tears welled up in my eyes. After so many years of feeling intellectually isolated, I was so relieved to learn that someone else had thought so many of the same things that I had. In a way, I sometimes wonder if my intellectual and spiritual personality is more Chinese than American.

Here are a few of my favorite excerpts from Mr. Yutang’s book. I hope I haven’t included too many.

The Chinese philosopher’s view of life is essentially the poet’s view of life, in China, philosophy is married to poetry rather than to science as it is in the west.

Human wisdom cannot be merely the adding up of specialized knowledge or obtained by a study of statistical averages; it can be achieved only by insight, the general prevalence of more common sense, more wit and more plain, but subtle, intuition.

There is clearly a distinction between logical thinking and reasonable thinking, which may be also expressed as the difference between academic thinking and poetic thinking. Of academic thinking we have a great deal, but of poetic thinking we find very little evidence in the modern world.

The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials, in reducing the problems of philosophy to just a few – the enjoyment of the home, of living, of nature and of culture - and in showing all the other irrelevant disciplines and futile chases after knowledge to the door.

We have today a philosophy that has become stranger to life itself, that has almost half disclaimed any intention to teach us the meaning of life and the wisdom of living, a philosophy that has lost that intimate feeling of life or awareness of living which we spoke of as the very essence of philosophy… For the disease of thinking typified by Descartes’ famous discovery: ‘I think therefore I exist,’ we have to substitute the more human and more sensible statement of Walt Whitman’s: ‘I am sufficient as I am.’ Life or existence does not have to go down on its knees and beg logic to prove that it exists or that it is there.

I especially like this last excerpt. As a philosophy student 15 years ago, I regularly questioned the wisdom of what I was being taught. I was once required to take a class called Practical Logic, and as you might imagine, what we studied didn’t seem very practical to me. Not once did we discuss how to be happy or how to love people well. Instead, we learned that if A is not B and B is not X, then A and X may or may not be the same.

Maybe it’s just me, but I always wondered how A, B or X could help me to become a happy and wise person. I think that if I were ever to teach a course called Practical Logic, I would discuss things that are actually practical. For example, we might talk about how people with shifty eyes tend to be untrustworthy. And because untrustworthy people rarely make good friends, it is generally a good idea not to become friends with people who have shifty eyes.

Or, we might discuss the logic of humor. For example, we might notice that what we consider humorous is often unexpected and surprising. And, we might come to the conclusion that very predictable things are generally not very humorous.

One thing is for sure, the last thing that most students would say about modern education is that it is unpredictable. I’m sure that if we took a survey, most students would say that they think of school assignments as dry, predictable, and boring. And, on the other hand, my guess is that most of those same students would also say that their favorite teachers were funny or, at the very least, entertaining.

So given this, I wonder why so many teachers and professors aren’t happier and more carefree while they teach. I think it is really a shame that schools are often so incredibly boring. Logically speaking, I see no reason why this must be the case. Can’t learning be enjoyable? I think it can, and I would even go so far as to say that true learning must be enjoyable – otherwise, students won’t remember what they have learned. Maybe I’m just strange, but I definitely tend to learn more when I am having fun. I also tend to remember the times that I have laughed more than the times I’ve been bored.

I suppose that I just don’t understand why our traditional systems of education have to be so dry and serious and boring. Do you remember when I wrote to you a while back and mentioned the quotation about boring books being unwise? Well, let me now add that in my opinion,

Boring teachers are unwise.

Lately, I’ve been reading Aristotle’s Ethics., and although I find many of his thoughts and distinctions substantive and helpful, I must say that I am a little disappointed with his style. His writing is so categorical and predictable that I sometimes find that my mind drifts away from his analysis, and I start to daydream. Every few pages, I have to stop and re-read what I thought I had just finished reading. I think that Mr. Yutang said it well when he wrote, Aristotle was strictly the grandfather of the modern text-book writers, being the first man to cut up knowledge into separate compartments – from physics and botany to ethics and politics. As was quite inevitable, he was the first man also to start the impertinent academic jargon incomprehensible to the common man, which is being outdone by the American sociologists and psychologists of today.

I don’t know about you Monsieur, but I always hated reading textbooks while I was a student. Consequently, I don’t think that I learned much back then either. Although I mastered the art of teacher-pleasing while I was in college, I only occasionally enjoyed and took pride in my studies. Really, it has only been in the last five years or so that I’ve begun to enjoy my learning. I think, too, that writing is more memorable when it is filled with an occasional witty remark or a surprising detour.

So, with that in mind, I’m going to spend a few minutes searching through my notes of Mr. Yutang’s book, and I’m going to pick out another quotation that may or may not have anything to do with the contents of this letter…

OK. Here you are,

There is an ease, a sureness, a lightness of touch, that comes from mastery… Seriousness, after all, is only a sign of effort, and effort is a sign of imperfect mastery.

Here’s one more,

I prefer talking to a maid to talking with a mathematician; her words are more concrete, her laughter is more energetic, and I generally gain more in knowledge of human nature by talking with her.

Au revoir smart guy.

Brian

Sunday
Jul172011

On Wandering, Money, and Bacon

Monsieur,

About a week ago I did one of my favorite things. It was a cool and sunny day, so I decided to travel to a nearby town. When the weather is nice, I just love to drive for an hour or two.

Typically when I visit another town, I do three things. First, I like to browse through a bookstore and buy a book. Second, I like to browse through a music store and buy some music. And third, I like to find a quiet little cafe' and have a bite to eat.

I suppose I'm pretty easy to please then. After all, I don't really care about expensive clothes, cars, or food. I suppose part of the reason why I don't care for expensive things has to do with the people who seem to hover around those things. While there are always exceptions, I think that people with expensive tastes are often lacking in depth. It is as if they think that their belongings will impress other people and make up for their lack of personality.

Also, it seems like people who are always chasing after money have their priorities out of order. I mean what does a person really need a great deal of money for? Does anyone really need a giant mansion? Or glamorous clothes? Or expensive meals? To me, mansions are mostly cold and empty. Glamorous clothes are mostly uncomfortable and difficult to wash. And, expensive meals usually taste strange and upset my stomach, which reminds me about one thing that is a little tricky about traveling.

When I travel, I often feel a bit uneasy about trying too many different types of food. While one part of me very much wants to be adventurous and learn about another town or another culture, a different part of me very much wants to maintain the regularity of my bowels and not spend the better part of my journey sitting on a toilet. For me, this travel and food conundrum is a very serious problem. I actually have spent a large part of two different trips sitting on a toilet - all because I was trying to be an open-minded traveler and an experimental eater. But, I guess being an experimental eater isn't the same thing as being an expensive eater, which brings me back to the whole money issue again.

It's not that I don't like money, but rather, I don't particularly like most of the stuff that people with money tend to like. To me, money simply offers time, travel, and security. Time is valuable because with it a person can do what he loves to do without having to think about making money. Travel is valuable because life is more interesting when a person can experience new places and meet new people. And, security is valuable because without it, a person will feel stressed and uneasy, and these feelings will undermine his ability to enjoy life.

In any event, last week, when I drove to a neighboring town, I bought a book of ESSAYS by Francis Bacon. Since he was born in England in 1561, I think he is someone you may have heard of - although I will say that his essays are a bit dryer in style and shorter in length than yours.

I think that, for the most part, Mr. Bacon was primarily interested in being concise. I suspect he was not much of an intellectual wanderer. His writing doesn't meander or ponder at all really. When he writes about Truth, Love, Revenge, and Travel, he has definitive instructions and ideas to convey. He catalogs examples almost as if he is making a list. It's a good thing that each particular essay isn't very long; otherwise, I would surely get bored - just like when I read Aristotle or an academic textbook.

If I were Mr. Bacon and I were to write about my own travels, I might write something like this.

"When a person driveth to a neighboring town, one should not driveth too fast nor too slow. One should driveth with care and consulteth a map so one does not get lost and waste time upon careless matters. One should take note of and appreciate local architecture, nature, and personage during said travels. Be advised to avoid those who poseth or pretend toward importance. Book shops, music shops, and affordable restaurants may provide one with feelings of contentment. If one haveth a simple constitution, one should ingest food primarily for nourishment and not for experiment. Experimental ingestion may resulteth in unpredictable digestive activity, which may in turn, causeth extended water closet visitation."

You know, the more I think about it, perhaps neither one of us would enjoy meeting Mr. Bacon so much. If the style of his writing is indicative of his personality, he probably would not have been very intersting to speak with. But then again, perhaps he would be so intelligent that the content of his thoughts would override his less than colorful delivery. Or, perhaps his living personality is very different from or more entertaining than his style of writing. In the end, I suppose we'll never know.

On a different note, I thought you might be interested in knowing that today is my birthday. Remember when I mentioned to you that I too was born under the sign of Pisces? Well, I was actually born on the last day of the astrological calendar. Although I don't put all of my faith in astrology, I do believe that there is something to learn from pondering all that it suggests. And, inexplicably, like I've mentioned in previous letters to you, I do feel an affinity with other people born under my sign. I know that in your essays, you seemed very skeptical of astrological studies, but I still find it interesting that you would think the topic at least meaningful enough to write about. After all, if astrology is complete foolishness, I'm sure you wouldn't have taken the time to mention it is your essays at all - if even to discredit it. It's funny, too, that Schopenhauer chose to discuss the planets as they relate to our stages of life.

In my next letter to you, I think I'm going to tell you about another Pisces thinker who was born in the 19th century. Believe it or not, he was a scientist, and his personality was far from boring. In my era, his name has even become synonymous with the term "genius."

Bonjour,
Brian