You, me & Montaigne

It bugged me. I was looking for a vague unformed idea with the same persistency as you would recall a forgotten dream, a dream you had vividly experienced and now all trace of it is lost except for a blurry intuition that claims it existed and was real. So in the same way, I am looking for an idea I’m not quite sure what it is; but I know that it exists and it is real. The idea has something to do with History. History has been on my mind recently. It is impossible to dismiss history when its presence is unmistakably obvious in the prints of books. There have been many before us. So many that the vast majority have perished within the confines of thier solitude and few or no traces are left of their struggles and dreams. I’m interested in how humans see themselves. It may be called their Interpretation of Life. The fact that we live is obvious and granted. But what we think about life changes dramatically from one skull to the next. With so many distinct opinions I do not worry of finding the correct one. All seem to have a likely possibility of truth. But what is truth anyway? A forgotten quest of ancient philosophers… Our age does not worry about truth. It has lost its relevance; we pay attention to other things. So I’m not looking for truth, I’m sure of that. It has to do more with an understanding of how the human interpretation of life changes throughout history. I’m gathering opinions rather the same way that an entomologist would collect beetles. No beetle is more precious than the others, each one of them exist and are as real as the entomologist that collects them. How to make sense of the numberless interpretations of life?

I think I’m getting closer to my forgotten dream: my unformulated idea.

There are many kinds of beetles in the world. There are more beetle species than there are fish, amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal species put together. How did so different types of beetles arise? Our age explains the varieties of species with the theory of evolution. The theory of evolution has been so popular and successful in explaining many aspects of our natural world that it has propagated over many other fields. Technology, ideas and the development of human societies can all be explained quite clearly from an evolutionary perspective.

The evolutionary perspective
 

 

Time is a bitch. We cannot define it, yet our whole lives are tyrannized by the ticking of the clock. Elusive in definition but very real and concrete in practice. Time is a fact. We live in time. Calendars and alarm clocks bind us:

“I need to wake up early tomorrow”

“I’m late for work”

“Let’s meet at five near the fountain”

“Next week is my birthday”

“If I don’t finish this in time, I’m in deep trouble”

And so on…

Time is very real. Listen to your own voices. We mention it every single day.

 

But we forget about time.

 

We forget that time is not only seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years. It is also decades, centuries, millennia, mega-annums, and giga-annums. The universe is a very old place. It’s been here long before any human ever stood erect. It will probably be here long after every human life has been exhausted.

Awareness of the long extension of time is important to understand the various Interpretations of Life.

That’s how I can begin to make sense of history. Through Evolution in the broadest sense of the word. There has been enough time for everything to evolve. Every atom on this planet evolved from the interior of dead stars, life arose for the evolution of simpler forms to more complex ones, and societies, language, ideas and technology evolve from rudimentary human communities spending enough time together to develop these attributes. Given enough time a lot can happen. This is the Evolutionary Perspective. An interpretation of life common among those living today.

We are bound by time. This interpretation of life helps me interpret the interpretation of life of others before me.

Thales surveyed the world around him and declared that it originated from water

Berkeley surveyed the world around him and declared that everything you perceived is not the real world but only your own mind.

Freud surveyed the world around him and declared that a blind unconscious force called the libido directs human life.

And so on…

Every opinion in your head has a history. Every hair in your body has a history. Every word you say originated somewhere sometime, and if you create something new the long chain of causes behind it supports it. If you adopt the evolutionary perspective, your every move is united to the most distant past.

Now I’m getting closer to what I really wanted to express. Not a theory but a melancholic reflection.

On March 1st 1580, Montaigne completed his ‘Note to the Reader’ for his long and voluminous essays. He set his pen (or feather) down and submitted himself to the currents of history. On May 11th 2007 I opened his essays and began reading in English his ‘Au Lecteur’ translated from the French. Something about that date shook me. 1580. Long time ago. A long time ago this man set to write down his ideas and experiences in countless pages. Four hundred twenty-seven years later I pick up his book and read in the thick darkness of midnight till my eyes dropped with exhaustion. Today I woke up with an idea on the tip of my tongue. Trying to shape it and give it a name. Montaigne, a man dead for four hundred fifteen years, influenced my Monday and if you are reading this, he managed to sneak into your life too; changing the course of your life ever so slightly, making you sit before your computer ten minutes extra than you had planned for.

If you adopt the evolutionary perspective, your every move is united to the most distant past.

Montaigne is an example of a life that has been recorded and has been able to influence people in the future. But the number of people that achieve this is negligible when compared to all those that leave no trace and return silently to the dark abyss from where they came. We like to think that life is Great. That it is worth living and that so much of it is special and worthy of commenting. That is why we meet up with our friends and tell them what we did, how we feel, what we hope for. It is sad and discouraging to think that our most troublesome struggles and our most dazzling joys will be lost completely and in five hundred years they will be of no use to anyone.

We are an island of consciousness engulfed in the ambiguous ocean of time.

I find something else discouraging. Of those millions and millions of lives, the lives of the masses that died in plagues, wars, and famines and remain in the history books only as a number:

8,000,000 dead in the Thirty Years War

75,000,000 dead after the Black Plague

100,000,000 dead during the Atlantic Slave Trade

and so on…

What about their Interpretation of Life. They had an equally valid opportunity of experiencing life, perhaps in the most atrocious circumstances. Their thoughts and yearnings are now lost under the memory of a number.

I’d like to compare all those opinions. The lush forest of conceptions that each skull harbors. There are as many as beetles in the world.

Is there a God?

Is there a soul?

Is there an afterlife?

Is there a purpose in life?

What is matter?

What are the stars?

What is happiness?

Every one has something to say. Every one has a right to that opinion. And every opinion is part of the legacy they inherited. The evolution of all forms and shapes; from the hair in your head to your thinking in verbs, nouns and adjectives. We are bound to the most distant past, perhaps too to the more distant future.

Whatever you do today, think what role it will play in the great course of things. When you pay for a pack of cigarettes, think of the journey the coin is about to embark upon. Perhaps a thousand years from now, that same coin is going to be dug up by a future archeologist and speculate about life at the beginning of the 21st century. Gaze up to the sky and imagine all those that have done the same, some seeing the wonderful creation of God, others the grand excitement of space, and others still, the unbelievable profundity of the human mind. Kiss your lover and wonder when the first human kiss was invented. Eat an apple and speculate from what distant tree it came from. Spit out its seeds and consider that in fifty years a child might be swinging from its tree branches.

Now go, and explore. Be part of the unrecorded history that unwinds daily…

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