Michel De Montaigne

‘I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics; that is my physics.’

Free books can be the best books. This morning my train station stop provided “Michel De Montaigne | The Essays: A collection”. I knew his name once, in undergrad, most likely in a creative writing course or possibly a history course.

Now I’ll move beyond knowing nothing but his name!

Naturally I skipped to his section titled “To philosophize is to learn how to die”. My attraction to philosophy is undying, pun intended, so there I was, my melancholy self attracted to another melancholy self.

“Cicero says that philosophizing is nothing other than getting ready to die. That is because study and contemplation draw our souls somewhat outside ourselves, keeping them occupied away from the body, a state which both resembles death and which forms a kind of apprenticeship for it; or perhaps it is because all the wisdom and argument in the world eventually come down to one conclusion; which is to teach us not to be afraid of dying.”

I can’t say I agree with his conclusion, but his initial thoughts are brand new to my mind. Abstract thought is a form of death. Tell that to your professors! I love it. I really love it. There is truth to this thought. I’ve viewed abstract thought for a while as quite problematic. Aren’t there other kinds of truth? A friend of mine, a philosophy professor, tells me that rationality is only one way of knowing the world. I appreciate that thought. It helps right the ship of my own thoughts which tends to lean heavily towards abstract thought, analysis, “charting”, basically the form in which modern western man thinks. Data, graphs, that which can be empirically verified, ultimately that which is simple, reducible, because that’s all our minds can handle.

If/when I read more of Montaigne, I will post it here.

I found a thought on politics, which I’ll record, since that’s taken much of my thought recently: “The most desirable laws are those which are fewest, simplest and most general.” Perhaps why I’ll be voting for Gary Johnson? But that’s a post for another day.

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The Presidential Debate

The first presidential debate is Monday and I am convinced it will not feel presidential. The primary reason for this is that one half of the debate is, as Colin Powell says, “a national disgrace and an international pariah.” I think of him as a child – unruly, self-obsessed, definitively lacks knowledge, glories in chaos and problem-causing, can not construct sentences well, appears to still be learning English, feels no need to tell the truth (or publicize his tax returns), and does not appear to value thought itself. He needs a mommy and daddy. Children should stay home and not enter politics.

But on the topic of debate, it is stunning to notice the time difference. In 1858, the opening speaker in the Lincoln-Douglas debate got 60 minutes. In 2016, the opening speaker will get 2 minutes. TWO. Or, if you will, 120 seconds. (I should go on to say that in the 1858 debate, the second speaker got 90 minutes!) That is a massive cultural difference. What exactly can you fit in two minutes? Nothing of great complexity. Our current system and culture reinforce the kind of thinking that the *man-child embodies for the world to see.

Speaking of the man-child, it’s hard to imagine him debating in a civil manner. The article I read – which this post is largely based on – says the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention agreed “to argue without asperity, and to endeavor to convince the judgment without hurting the feelings of each other.” Hurting each other’s feelings? Asperity? (I had to look that one up: harshness of tone or manner.) From watching political debate on TV, I thought that was the goal. They do what I wouldn’t let 10-year olds do, i.e. interrupt each other, attack personally, and largely ruin the original intent of the event.

But perhaps debate isn’t worth much? Being a good debater, does not make you a good president, and the reverse. But the author of this article views debate with the highest possible regard: “Debating, like voting, is a way for people to disagree without hitting one another or going to war: it’s the key to every institution that makes civic life possible, from courts to legislatures. Without debate, there can be no self-government.

This article said many other good things. You should read it. But it goes on too long and doesn’t answer its main question: how should candidates—and voters—argue about politics? I was dearly looking forward to an answer to that question. Perhaps I’ll learn on Monday? I can only hope.

*The Republican candidate is so repugnant to me that I prefer to leave his name unwritten. Henceforth, he will be the man-child.