Saturday, June 17, 2017

La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims (introductory post)

Several years ago I occasionally posted on my Facebook page selections from La Rochefoucauld’s (Tr. Leondard Tancock) Maxims (Penguin Books, 1959, first published in 1665) and I thought perhaps Ratio Juris readers might enjoy them as well. It is one way to mark the start—and is in the spirit—of summer. Permit me to introduce the first group of these with some wise observations from Jon Elster:   

“Alone among the moralists, La Rochefoucauld offered something like a theory of human motivations. In fact, his views about unconscious motivation and unconscious cognition are probably more valuable than anything found in twentieth-century psychology. To some extent it is true, as Jean Lafond says, that ‘a certain verbal exuberance together with the exaggeration required for an original assertion turns the psychology into mythology.’ Yet…some systematic views can be extracted from what first appear as a random collection of diamond-like maxims.” — Elster on “the French Moralists” in a work that evidences his singular capacity to see with remarkable clarity both the forest and the trees in the study of emotions, namely, Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 1999). The four writers he treats in one part of the book—Montaigne, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère—“mark the beginning and the end of the greatest era in French intellectual and cultural history.” Whether or not he intended it as such, we might read this, in part at least, as an indirect comment on the overweening infatuation with postmodern French philosophers among more than a few academic intellectuals.  

I sometimes comment on one or more maxim (as below) by way of saying something directly or indirectly related to the perspectival truth ensconced in a particular maxim.   

“One of the reasons why so few people are to be found who seem sensible and pleasant in conversation is that almost everybody is thinking about what he wants to say himself rather than about answering clearly what is being said to him. The more clever and polite think it enough simply to put on an attentive expression, while all the time you can see in their eyes and train of thought that they are far removed from what you are saying and anxious to get back to what they want to say. They ought, on the contrary, to reflect that such keenness to please oneself is a bad way of pleasing and persuading others, and that to listen well and answer to the point is one of the most perfect qualities one can have in conversation.” — La Rochefoucauld  

“Spiritual health is no more stable than bodily; and though we may seem unaffected by the passions we are just as liable to be carried away by them as to fall ill when in good health.” — La Rochefoucauld  

“Nothing makes it so difficult to be natural as the desire to be so.” — La Rochefoucauld  

Indeed. This last maxim calls to mind a mental fallacy Jon Elster, after the late psychologist Leslie Farber, termed “willing what cannot be willed” (that is, in reference to those mental state or states of affairs in the world—like spontaneity or sleep—that cannot be the direct product of willing but are rather the—indirect—outcome or by-product effect of other mental states or actions). See Elster’s Sour Grapes: studies in the subversion of rationality (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983): 43-66.  

And yet, in Daoism, for example, we learn that one can engage in an “intentional project” to “be natural,” which in this case is characterized as wu-wei (lit., non-action). Livia Kohn’s entry on this concept from The Encyclopedia of Taoism, 2 Vols. (in Pregadio, ed. 2008: 1067) provides us with a succinct formulation: “Wuwei or ‘non-action’ means to do things the natural way, by not interfering with the patterns, rhythms and structure of nature, without imposing one’s own intentions upon the world.” The “natural way” is not meant here in the sense of how most of us, most of the time, “naturally” behave or act (which may be a function of habit, mindlessness or inattentiveness) but has a more specific or technical meaning depending on the way in which the natural world is said to be intrinsically in harmony with or expressive of (in an immanent sense) of the Dao. Thus wu-wei is not, literally, non-action but refers instead to a qualitatively distinct and uncommon kind of action, what the late Huston Smith called “creative quietude,” meaning one acts with a still or clear (‘unmuddied’) mind in a manner that embodies or incarnates or exemplifies the Dao. Such action is characterized by a freedom and spontaneity (ziran) that come from a heart-mind experiencing, it seems, an ecstatic or blissful oneness (or simply a kind of contentedness) with “all-there-is.” It is the characteristic and conspicuous action of the sage (shengren) and the ideal ruler in the political realm and is, arguably, a direct product of ascetic praxis and mystical states of consciousness. In short, wu-wei is acting with a meditative heart-mind (like a polished mirror, to use a prominent metaphor) in harmony with the natural world and tian while instantiating the Dao.  

Ascetic self-discipline, training in the arts, and meditative praxis are necessary yet not sufficient conditions for wu-wei. In other words, while “making every effort,” “striving,” “working hard” or even “willing” are, in one important sense, truly the antithesis of wu-wei, arduous striving, self-discipline and training the mind are no less integral to the eventual accomplishment of wu-wei. The “acting naturally” that is wu-wei, therefore, does not come naturally to us, hence we are instructed, by way of an “intentional project,” to “return to the uncarved block,” dampen the passions and still the mind, all by way of attaining a “second” nature in Joel Kupperman’s sense, as it requires forms of self-discipline and self-knowledge that are arduous, that involve ascetic or ascetic-like training of the body and the heart-mind (i.e., reason and the emotions). Only then might we prove capable of acting in a timely fashion with the consummate skill, grace and spontaneity befitting alike the exigencies of daily situations and unique circumstance, and in a manner indicative of our ability to “be” one with Dao. In sum, acting naturally in the Daoist sense means cultivating what for us does not come naturally, and thus self-cultivation brings about, so to speak, a second nature, a nature in accord with the natural world, and capable of spontaneously and effortlessly realizing the Dao. [This material is taken from a short unpublished essay found here.]

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