Saturday, October 16, 2010

Once again, I start out in the hope that I can break away from my need to respond rather than initiate ideas. Making this part of my daily discipline, perhaps?

This is a memory piece that may start me off. I am describing
moments that remain in memory as "marked with a white stone". It is 1961, we are all around 17 and our philosophy master asks us about freedom. He was returning our essays in which we compared and contrasted Rousseau and Sartre's notions. I shudder, today, to think what trash I wrote - the content? Prothesis, antithesis and synthesis in the approved fashion, they have all have passed into the blank places of my memory. - Did we imagine ourselves free? M. Chambon asked us.
- We are subject to social, parental, school and, for some, religious structures, rules and injunctions. How can we call ourselves free? We are creatures of instinct and biological pressures (17, for God's sake! And sexual intercourse not yet invented). Is any part of our lives free?
The debate lasted nearly the whole two hours, continued through to the next day, in forbidden coffee bars and cluttered bedrooms. No internet and the 'phone rationed but gatherings of small groups. The next day, M. Chambon walked in to the classroom and wrote, in his neat, legible hand, on the blackboard (I can even smell the chalk today):

L’homme n’est qu’un roseau, le plus faible de la nature; mais c’est un roseau pensant. Il ne faut pas que l’univers entier s’arme pour l’écraser: une vapeur, une goutte d’eau, suffit pour le tuer. Mais, quand l’univers l’écraserait, l’homme serait encore plus noble que ce qui le tue, parce qu’il sait qu’il meurt, et l’avantage que l’univers a sur lui, l’univers n’en sait rien.
Toute notre dignité consiste donc en la pensée. C’est de là qu’il nous faut relever et non de l’espace et de la durée, que nous ne saurions remplir. Travaillons donc à bien penser: voilà le principe de la morale ."
(Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1660), fragments 347-348, Éd. Gallimard, coll. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1976, pp. 1156-1157.)
[My translation:
Humans are reeds, weakest thing in nature; but they are thinking reeds. It does not need the whole universe to crush them; a mist, a drop of water are enough to kill them. Yet even if the universe crushed them humans would be nobler than their killer because they know that they are dying and the universe has no understanding of its advantage.

It is clear, therefore, that the whole of our dignity rests in thinking. That is what we must understand, not space or time, neither of which can satisfy us. Let us work to think well: that is the basis of the good life.]

It is at that time that my own fascination with Christianity (a strange body of belief to a good secularly-educated boy) led me to ask the Catholic priest who came to give after-school catechism lessons: "Should we read books on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum?" His answer was that it was OK if they were set by our teachers - an intriguing 'jesuitical' reply, but it did give me pause to reflect on what was meant by the contemporary debate on freedom of conscience. The Pope had called the Second Vatican Council but it had yet to meet, let alone decide anything. We were very excited and exercised by the possibilities.

Over the years, I have encountered both mainstream religions and the sort of esotericism beloved of some, with their churches and lodges. At that time, I was reading Blavatsky, Steiner and Alice Bailey as well as more mainstream, canonical and deutero-canonical Christian stuff. They all have one thing in common: they have an imposable structure, rules and emphasis of loyalty. The same limitations on freedom are imposed by some of the humanisms.

To round off the memories from so long ago, I recall that we were given Voltaire's
Zadig to read with its wonderfully characteristic Voltairian episode with the angel, and to contrast it with the Book of Job. I fear that when I am told to bend the knee before someone else's 'truth' (for their own, specific definition of 'truth'), my "Inner Zadig" pipes up with "But......?" Nevertheless, I also hold to a hope, rather than a belief, a faith perhaps, that there is no such thing in the universe as waste so the time (cumulatively, probably, years) on encounters with faiths, their stories and practices, the baggage that I have acquired and which decorates the temporary mansions of my mind like the objects brought back from my travels, add up to something of use on the path, if only on my own path.

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