Re-reading De La Rochefoucauld's Maxims and came upon this most magnificent one: Il y a des gens qui n'auraient jamais été amoureux s'ils n'avaient jamais entendu parler de l'amour. There are people who would never have been in love had they never heard of love. At first glance, this slightly confusing maxim forces a double take. Is De La Rochefoucauld saying that love is an awakening? Is he saying that love irrevocably is and therefore cannot be denied? We're all familiar with the Hollywood take on love - a compelling force that literally stops us in our tracks and then sweeps us off our feet. We've had the experience too- the sharp intake of breath, the deafening thumping in our chests, the feeling that suddenly the happiness of the other person is all that matters. Love, that breathless sensation, quickly all consuming, becomes our reason for getting up in the morning and our reality.
However reality is truth grounded in fact. For example, let's take the following sentence: I watched an apple fall from the tree. A sentence could not be more unromantic if it tried. 'An apple fell from the tree' is a statement of fact. Love, on the other hand, is an emotion. And emotions from a philosophical perspective are illusions.
In his thought-provoking maxim, De La Rochefoucauld is enlightening us to the following: our reactions to the world we live in and even our emotions are unoriginal. Put another way, anyone who does not question convention or express indignation from time to time doesn't know their own mind. Like Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, it is good occasionally to declare that the sun is the moon. According to De La Rochefoucauld, original thought is something that ordinary human beings don't possess unless they choose to challenge themselves. And so it follows that if we had never heard of the concept of love, falling in love would never happen. In other words, do we know what we actually think? (Perhaps nowhere else could the answer to that question be more explicit or obvious than in our opinions on the EU Referendum.)
The implications of being in control of one's mind are very far-reaching. We live in an era of great turmoil on all fronts: political, religious, economic and the specter of war is ever present. Being strong mentally creates a buffer of sorts: it can help us cope with uncertainty and also spare us unnecessary worry. But here's the riddle within the enigma: knowing oneself, the journey towards self-awareness and ultimately contentment, takes tremendous courage. In order to learn from bad experiences and choose to either succumb or overcome, demands stores of innate strength and self-belief. Along the journey of self-awareness we form a unique set of convictions borne or good and bad experiences, which will in turn become the template for our future behaviour. Without the determination to know ourselves, life can be a complicated obstacle course, which at times is impossible to navigate.
When we read De La Rochefoucauld's maxim again, it is a profound insight into the necessity of having a strong mind. A literal acceptance of anything is a wildly reckless thing to do because crucially, it absolves the individual of all responsibility of their actions and weakens their resolve.
Had we never heard of love therefore, we would be incapable of feeling it. Original thought- the ability to think for ourselves, create ideas that are unique and to establish the parameters by which we define who we are- is sadly becoming a rare thing indeed. Instead of thinking, we react. Just look at the immense popularity of every new fad diet or the confusion that surrounds what is good or bad to eat. It is also becoming harder to find heroes or those to emulate who represent something that is out of the ordinary and who possess a fortitude that is neither self-serving nor for the purpose of brazen self-aggrandisement. In today's world who can we say has incomparable honour and nobility of spirit that is not for sale?
Walk down any high street and you will see people who are the carbon copy of someone else, not merely in their dress or appearance but in their aspirations, lifestyle and crucially, thinking. Put another way, challenge your perception about what you know when you read the following statement and consider what's wrong with it: My very excellent spiritual adviser smokes and occasionally takes anti-depressants.
I fear we are all becoming narcissists, masters of self-deception and frauds, permanently choosing our reflection over the discovery of who we really are. Remaining lost in translation condemns us to never finding ourselves and renders us more vulnerable- without a strong mind it is harder to cope when bad things happen and to be gullible, handing the remote control to someone else. Is a man without thoughts of his own of value to society? Perhaps therein lies the conundrum. Or perhaps an absence of thought is the dream of every politician, pharmaceutical manufacturer, health guru, astrologer or other peddler of what we should be thinking.
Me and my shadow. Photo copyright S. van Dalen