Tomorrow is the first work day for 2017, and we will have to wait till about Easter for another long and blissful festive intermission.
So instead of lolling in a lacy negligee in my dream bed that looks something like this:
and thinking about what to cook or eat:
or, for that matter, what to wear:
I’d be stuck in this:
or, if you prefer a more recent take, this:
…A cheery perspective or what? 🙂
In the face of such grimness looming ahead, how about making a New Year’s resolution to see us through the wind and rain (and traffic, and deadlines, and the bad manners of others, and…)?
I have already made several, such as Be More Gracious, Go to Bed before Midnight, Practice the Guitar Daily and so on, but today I remembered a still better one, which is more of a reflection really but which, if kept, would facilitate the keeping of all others. It is a resolution about how to live. I’m talking like Audrey Hepburn’s Sabrina, I know.
Here, take a look at this:
Most men, even in this comparatively free country [meaning the US in the first half of the 19th century], through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be any thing but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance—which his growth requires—who has so often to use his knowledge? We should feed and clothe him gratuitously sometimes, and recruit him with our cordials, before we judge of him. The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.
Henry David Thoreau’s works, collected in the book pictured above and called beautifully A Life Without Principle after one of his essays, are an example of subjective thought halfway between searching for the truth as a scientist would, and searching for the subjectivity of one’s own soul as a writer or a poet would. This third road, reconciling the irreconcilable and similar to the esse in anima concept of Middle-Age Scholasticism, is the essay – the precursor of modern-day blogging. 🙂
Michel de Montaigne, a French philosopher of the 16th century, is perhaps the person who has coined the term essay and has practiced and perfected the genre over a thousand pages, in the comfort of his mansion near Bordeaux. According to Mr. Vladimir Gradev, a Bulgarian diplomat, scholar and professor in Religious Theory at the Sofia University, Montaigne has ushered subjectivity into the Western culture by recognising and cultivating in himself what’s probably, Gradev agrues, the strangest and most refined of human qualities – that of being interested in what would serve him no practical purpose at all.
Motaigne needed and enjoyed his solitude, which he used the way an artist would use perspective – to assess how various things, all things in fact, stand in relation to himself. He tasted and contemplated reality, not striving for security but perfecting the art of remaining in insecurity, constantly assessing, thinking, questioning, convincing or contradicting himself as the case might be. Of course, monolith natures always sure of what’s what disconcerted him, good-natured self-irony was what he did best.
Montaigne’s contemplative curiosity, the driving force behind his Essays, is in fact philosophy at its best and its most useful, denoting dynamic and probing thought which shapes daily life choices for the purpose of achieving rational control over heart and mind, disciplining body, and developing resistance to outside circumstances and influences. All of this serves to keep the fire burning in one’s inner room, as defined by Blaise Pascal in his Pensees.
Similarly to Thoreau and his call for delicate handling, Montaigne referred to his approach to life as flattering death (flatter la mort), suggesting that cultivating self-reflection and introducing conscious improvements into the daily business of living would make one prepared to eventually face death with dignity and lucidity, without fear or regret. By the way, a dignified death as a wreath to a worthy life is what the Orthodox are praying for at every Sunday liturgy too.
Still further back in time, there is philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180) and his Meditations, which tell us to not give up in bitterness when we fail to live by what we know is important, but rather to dust ourselves off and try again, as a modern-day song says.
There is also this:
Concentrate every minute like a Roman—like a man—on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can—if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life? If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you. (Book II, 5)
Do external things distract you? Then make time for yourself to learn something worthwhile; stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions. But make sure you guard against the other kind of confusion. People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward, are wasting their time—even when hard at work. (Book II,7)
This somehow sends us back to Thoreau with whom we started, doesn’t it? 🙂
…Imagine the gratitude and the “manly, inexpressible delight” Baudelaire talks about in a poem, that I’ve felt reading Mr. Gradev’s take on Montaigne, appearing in the most recent edition of the Christianity and Culture magazine. It has certainly helped me connect not a few dots in my mind, and has also made me polish bits of my personal philosophy of living. What a joy.
As to the post title, this is actually the title of a book, originally written as Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, by Austrian philosophical writer Robert Musil (1880-1942).
According to Musil, the disposition to assess and question reality from one’s standpoint, and to shape decisions and opinions based on these considerations is the life stance of Men without Qualities in the competitive sense, who are also Men Who Make the Best of What’s Possible (Moeglichkeitsmenschen). Because, as German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz had it back in 1710, we do live in the best possible world after all.
For goodbye, a final attempt at squaring the circle:
The way through the world is more difficult to find than the way beyond it,
PS. Elegant and debonair music for you, which aids concentration and uplifts the spirit by nourishing it with beauty and order.