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.