Philosophy at the Descartes

I found myself wandering the 5th arrondissement (I think) of Paris the other day and decided to contemplate and wait  out a spring shower at Le Descartes. It was there that I allowed myself to indulge in some armchair/cafe chair philosophizing–tres Parisien–on a topic that comes to my mind often: ethics (tres Cartesian).

The Descartes Cafe, on the day in question.

From the scribbling in my leather journal, here are some thoughts that came to mind as the students and construction workers leaned on the counter, huddled in the corners, and, like me, contemplated the rain, with varying degrees of patience.

Does an abundance of laws imply a shortage of integrity? Or does it merely reflect the complexity of life in the modern world? Are we required to constantly monitor our actions by defining what is legal because we cannot exercise the discipline to routinely do what is ethical?

How long and how often can we cut corners and still retain a moral center?

Despite the long shadow of constitutions, amendments, legislation, regulations, and democratic institutions that often seem to dictate the terms of almost every aspect of our lives, I think a secret truth remains: in one way or another, people  most certainly do end up governing themselves. Not in a representative way, with members of parliament and congressmen and whomever. Customs, culture, rituals and routines, traditions and taboos–these, I’m sure, do far more to moderate appetites, maintain standards, direct behavior…or not.

Lawmakers, history shows and modern times confirm, are often far away from their constituents and disconnected from their daily lives. “Rome can make all the laws they want,” a tough-as-nails Neapolitan told me a few years ago, standing at a corner, a few minutes from where he was born, a few yards from where he lived, and certainly, not far from where he would someday die. He then shrugged, letting the silence communicate the rest of that thought. 

For men will most likely give a passing nod to the law of the land, and even lip service if circumstances require it. But they will, unsupervised and independent of authority, do and say pretty much what they want. Their childhood, their education, their community–these are the lawmakers of a person left unattended and unshackled from the mandatory. 

In this context, to legislate against culture is folly. Or revolution. 

For those of us who were born into, advocate, or aspire to emulate the culture of Old Money, we must police ourselves, (often with ‘no adult supervision’, as my wife labels circumstances when I am left alone), and take the high road. It is often, sadly, less travelled. We may go alone or with support. Results can be random: we may suffer, profit, prevail, or stumble as a result of our choice. 

But it is not the result of our choice–like the fruits of our labor–that matters most. It is the principle of the thing. There is an old saying in creative circles that if you miss practice one day, you will know. If you miss it two days, your teacher will know. If you miss it three days, the audience will know. We can draw parallels for our behavior: if we slight our principals once, we will know. Twice and our family and friends will know. Three times and the world will know. 

Of course, it’s easy to pontificate from an ivory tower (or Paris cafe?) about doing the right thing in difficult circumstances. (When else does it really count?)  It is quite another to simply do it. Best then to perhaps cut the Olympian task down to size, to eat the elephant one bite at a time, to measure twice and cut once.

It was a flinty Scotsman named Thomas Carlyle who once wisely counseled: “Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand.” (My original notes in the cafe had attributed the quote to Teddy Roosevelt, but, as I prepared this for posting, the internet corrected me.)

Then, almost as a footnote, I noted that, Practicing too much philosophy can be compared to a drunk man fighting to get into (or out of) an overcoat: the adversary is, under normal circumstances, constructed to be beneficial; the main obstacle is the man’s present condition; defeat can be humiliating; and victory can be hollow. So it’s best to keep it in perspective: it can be amusing, as long as it’s someone else engaged in the struggle.

At that point, the clouds had passed. The waitress had brought the petite l’eau chaud, I’d asked for. I added that onto the top of my half-drained cafe americaine, and the rain had stopped in an instant. Paris had had its magic moment, and now it was over. I almost wanted to look around for the film director to yell ‘Cut!’ The construction workers shuffled back to the hole in the building wall and dug-up sidewalk. The students rolled their cigarettes, adding timeless ritual to mindless health risk, and gave Baudelaire a break.  I motioned to the waitress for my check, because you can sit there all day and until you ask, they won’t bring it.

I dropped a couple of euros in the dish, and it was time to go.

  • BGT


8 thoughts on “Philosophy at the Descartes

  1. What a lovely account, which brought a thought to mind…

    Not to diminish rules and laws, for certainly we need some bounds, but as we observe the diminishing standards of society around us, we must remember that the enforcement of rules and laws, as well as the construction of new rules and laws, is purely reactive… we are but a day late to the deterioration of individual and societal standards that led up to the need for enforcement and/or construction of rules and laws.

    Or to put in another metaphorical way, the time to act is not when the enemy is battering the gates, but when family, friend, neighbor, or stranger is being transformed into enemy.

    The troubles we as a world or nation face today, began awhile ago, and they started at the individual level, snowballing and gaining mass to form the issues we “suddenly” face today. Likewise then, it may be safe to assume that the solutions must also impact the individual… the question that remains is whether they must also start at the individual level and work their way up again, or can be instilled at the societal level and traverse back down again. Whichever, we can only hope that the solutions travel faster than the problems.

    Now, to ponder… that one person’s solution may be another’s problem, and vice versa.

  2. It is said, “Character is who you are when no one is looking.” I am paraphrasing here, but it seems to work as well for an individual as a society. Are we looking? Do we like what we see? Are the laws of spirit written in our hearts? What spirit is leading our lives…our world?
    Thank you for sharing and for provoking these timeless questions and “ponderings”, Mr. Tully. I believe there will always be people who carry the philosophical torch throughout the ages. Blessings to you for being one of them.

  3. A few thoughts…. Laws and regulations are only as just as the people who write and enforce them. Government will always require “buy-in” from the population at large. As OMG’s are working toward correct behaviors and positive social and cultural norms, much of society wants legalized marijuana, policies that protect their toys (even if those toys are dangerous automatic rifles), and high paying jobs while they continue to shop at stores that buy from foreign slave labor that undercuts American labor. What is next, ghastly tattoos at the tax payers expense. Governments are reactive to a crazy world. We must never discount the value of individual responsibility in the shaping of laws and regulations.
    Let’s lead the way in which they should go.

    1. Excellent comment, Dario. Thank you. The buy-in concept is important, even as we ‘invest’ in our own beliefs through our actions. – BGT

  4. Thank you for yet another great the post, Byron. It proves – either explicitly or implicitly – that everything, every little thing, boils down to culture(s). And to our willingness to understand, accept, and embrace them. But, first of all, it brings to mind timeless lines, by Immanuel Kant: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence.”

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