philosophical questions

Teenagers doing philosophy

 It was a sunny morning at school, a long time ago now.  The last couple of high school examinations before the summer holidays - before our longest summer holidays ever! – so our teachers solemnly declared.  
So there I sat, at my table in the sunny classroom, 17 year old, looking at the question I had just received from the Latin teacher. He was a fifty year old, erudite man, slightly foreboding, who during this final semester had tried to instil a brief history of classical philosophy into his pupils. 
“Stoicism, Epicureanism or Platonism. Which philosophy would you rather make your own? And why?”

At that time, as a teenager, I continuously alternated between iconoclastic rebellion (frequenting the local punk café of bad repute) and brooding self-doubt (seeking solitary refuge in books). Amongst adults I admired both the self- confident rebels and the pensive, learned intellectuals. 
Already then I struggled to boldly take sides in any debate, rather getting myself entangled in nuances & qualifications & doubts. But still, at that time I at least benefited from the arrogance of youth.  So the answer seemed an easy one: first acknowledging the worth of each philosophy (diplomatic examination strategy to display knowledge) before defiantly asserting I would definitely need and make my own philosophy!

Philosophical equipment for living 

Since then lots of time has gone by, time spent in fulfilling duties (or commonly perceived as such), in diligently learning and executing a trade, time spent in getting to know this place.  Much questioning has been added since high school. Many books have been read.  

 At the same time, philosophy’s standing in the world has precipitously declined (becoming all but an obsolete occupation, or so at least it seems from a  21st C  private sector vantage point. But maybe my work environment has biased my view, maybe philosophy, art and  literature are as alive and kicking as ever, in worlds parallel to my professional setting).  

But in any case, truth is that this philosophical question about “Stoicism, Epicureanism or Platonism?"  has accompanied me during all those years.  And really, as questions go, it’s not a bad one, when it comes to interpret life, when it comes to taking a step back and looking at oneself and others living their lives. 

I’ve come up with different answers over the years.  I’ve had my periods of stern Platonic longing for transcendence (preferring adventures of the spirit above the untidiness of reality)  as I have had my more Epicurean moods (but even then,  I’ve never managed to be a purely materialist hedonist).  And I’ve always felt reassured by stoicism as some sort of last refuge in an uncertain and ever cruel world (though I never got fully reconciled with its apparent heartlessness).

I have also been adding other philosophical precepts to my “philosophical equipment for living” . From Richard Rorty, exemplifying the self-doubt of an entire era,  to Martha Nussbaum, so incredibly optimistically soldiering on (eg in a recent article urging us to be happy and to enjoy ourselves in order to have enough energy for solidarity).

“Time never did assuage”

There are of course also the more sombre philosophical strands that are difficult to escape – the most oppressive one not necessarily being the self-satisfied, triumphant pessimism of a Schopenhauer. 
But how about that very precise question asked by Camus: « Il n'y a qu'un problème philosophique vraiment sérieux: c'est le suicide. Juger que la vie vaut ou ne vaut pas la peine d'être vécue, c'est répondre à la question fondamentale de la philosophie. Le reste, si le monde a trois dimensions, si l'esprit a neuf ou douze catégories, vient ensuite. Ce sont des jeux ; il faut d'abord répondre.”

That of course was not the kind of question those teenagers got asked during their high school examination. And luckily, most people need never ask themselves that question.
But for those who do ….. it is profoundly troubling to see people reaching their 50s (1) , reaching even their 65th year (2) , and then answering the question unfavourably.

One of the delusions of youth is perhaps to think that by age 50,  one will have built a solid fortress to withstand all storms (be they interior or exterior).  That by age 50, “one has safely arrived”, “es ist erreicht”. Quod non.

Emily Dickinson knew:
They say that "Time assuages"
Time never did assuage
An actual suffering strengthens
As Sinews do, with age

Time is a Test of Trouble
But not a Remedy
If such it prove, it prove too
There was no Malady”


  1.   In remembrance of my cousin, 51 years old
  2.  And here’s to a rebel I much admired:   

an affinity with fragments

The Lili Dujourie exhibit was aptly called  "folds in time"

Because of the folds, obviously. Elegant draperies folding majestically, reminding one of the very venerable folds of art history.  (And there’s ironic playfulness, of course, in these contemporary folds,  but also genuinely solemn elegance.) 

Because of the evocation of time:  time – not entirely lost, but slowly unfolding in a sonnet, while a woman smokes in front of a window,  while smoke curls, while light changes ever so slowly in a dusty room. Or lazy summer time, when  the slow  summer light in an apartment at the seaside might recall winter. 

 (but then,  ah the poignancy of contemporary art – so ephemeral its contemporary means, so transient the modernity of its medium : a dated Kodak slide projector, trembling black & white videos from the 70s, collages of yellowing brittle paper scraps, and then that dusty fraying velvet – no match for those 15th century panels where the deep glow of oil paint still rivets the eye)   

“an elegant celebration of the fragment”,  read another exhibit-comment, a phrase which promptly dazzled me.

Yes, the melancholy remembrance embodied within fragments, such as paper scraps, ragged pictures:  like this picture of a luminous corner of a room, with a window suggestive of a sunny world outside (it could have been the window in the Arnolfini's room , but it isn’t) – or the  picture of a terrace with a balustrade, looking out over a sea (it could have been a Corot in Italy , or else a dusky Lorrain – but it isn’t)

Fragments, reflected in a broken mirror, or deceivingly sturdy like those elegant colourful fragments made of papier-mâché. 

Or frozen fragments of time, such as a book lying on a window sill, with a timeless seaview outside.  

But over to another fragment, in another museum – the eye, enchanted by intense red, zooms in on the folds of a man’s sleeve.  The eye is seduced too by the gilded clasp and by the illuminations of a book of prayers.  But it remains insolently indifferent to the face of this owner of sleeve and prayer book.  A wealthy donor, devoutly praying, buying salvation and posthumous 21st Century admiration (albeit it here only for his sleeve and his book).