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Beam Aphorisms

A few of Montaigne's aphorisms engraved on the ceiling beams of his castle.
A few of Montaigne's aphorisms engraved on the ceiling beams of his castle.

1) Introduction

My favorite French teacher at the Petit Séminaire de Québec, Father Benoît Garneau, had struck my imagination when he told us about the aphorisms (or mottos, adages, proverbs, maxims) Montaigne had engraved on the ceiling beams of his castle. What a great idea!

For many years (including all those where I was studying Philosophy at Laval University), I lived in a beautiful little apartment that I called my "Earthly Paradise". It was a one-car garage, which my Mother had had converted into a miniature house. The ceiling was supported by real beams of bare wood, so of course I printed out some philosophical and religious aphorisms which I then stapled onto these beams. It inspired me a lot, and made my visitors laugh!

But why aphorisms?

2) The Strategic Point

Antonin Eymieu in his admirably titled book The Government Of Oneself explains the importance of controlling one's thoughts (pages 175-179, Volume 1):

To govern ourselves, we must, above all, govern our ideas.

Our mind is like a crossroads where all kinds of people go through, led there by the most diverse motives. If we have a bit of common sense, we'll only stop people of acquaintance or those who are duly introduced to us among this passing crowd. We'll pay no attention to the others; at the most, if they look weird, we'll carefully avoid their contact, or, if they annoy us, we'll get rid of them as quickly as possible. This is what we must do with the ideas of all shapes and origins that pass through our head; it's the only way of passing through peacefully and avoiding bad encounters; the only way to avoid creating, for any reason and for no reason, ridiculous situations that can turn sour.

It isn't necessary, nay it's even very harmful to stare at thoughts that seem harmful, to come to grips with them, to start a discussion with them, to embrace them in order to expel them. It suits their purpose, but not ours. To stare at them, to "lock eyes" with them, is to remember them, it brings them into the imagination. It intensifies their hold on us, it makes this influence drag on, by the habit that this attention starts to produce, or by the association of images which is formed during the quarrel. There is only one good way, the one we've pointed out, the one we use every day in a crowd, when dealing with untrustworthy strangers: we just pass by; we brush against them as little as possible; and if they approach us, we get rid of them with a gesture; we go on our way.

With a little vitality of mind, it's easy to keep your attention on the ideas of your choice, and everyone knows this must be done if we are to avoid living our lives otherwise than like puppets. But we must not underestimate vain or absurd ideas, even though it might be more difficult to defend one's mind against them. Yet it's all the more necessary; for it's such ideas above all which turn heads to all winds, and acts to all follies. What makes the difference between the wise and the foolish, between saints and villains, is not that saints never have temptations or that the wise never encounter foolish ideas; but it's because they do not accept them.

Choosing your ideas, those to be welcomed and above all those to be rejected: that in itself is great wisdom. This is also the great art of being master of oneself, and the main use to be made of one's freedom.

As we have said, matter enslaves us, but thought makes us free.

It's high up, as far as possible from the senses, that freedom stretches its wings, calm and strong; this is its natural place, its command post, from which it directs the maneuver most effectively. And it's into ideas that we must take the fight; it's the strategic point to be held, the favorable narrow passage through which the enemy must pass and where it can be crushed with certainty, without danger and almost without fighting; at least this is where victory is easy and decisive.

If we do not defend this passage, if we allow temptation, the crazy and harmful idea, to advance towards the organism, to descend into the heart, in the senses, it will be a battleground to be regained painfully step by step, a horrible war to be waged in which we will have to suffer even if we win, against an enemy with whom no peace is possible and whom no concession disarms. "It's easier, said Franklin, to resist the first desire than to satisfy the ones that follow it." It is easier to dismiss the first thought than to suppress its consequences. It is easier not to plant the acorn than to rip out the oak tree. And it is also much more efficient! After a lot of effort to pull up an oak, there will always be traces left over, or we'll have to deeply disrupt the soil all around to eliminate those traces.

Ideas are the seed from which the oak evolves; the seed, good or bad, from which arises the harvest of deeds. Attention can sift through these seeds: it is therefore the first thing to do, if we do not want to leave ourselves fallow and rely on mere chance for the harvest to be collected. Ideas are like the narrow passage through which everything that enters our consciousness passes: so this is where we must establish the checkpoint and, if necessary, fight the battle. The idea is the light which broadens our horizons, the agile wing which, tearing us away from the fatalities of matter, makes us soar above the various possible directions: we must place ourselves in this light to see clearly and to will wisely, it's from these heights that we must govern our life, it's the strategic point to occupy in order to remain master of oneself.

3) What aphorisms and how to display them?

Index cards hung on little screws.

My aphorisms are here in a text file.

How should we display them? When I had to move out of my beautiful apartment, I tried to imitate this arrangement by printing out my aphorisms on sheets of paper (in large enough letters to be able to read from a distance), cutting out each aphorism and sticking them with something that doesn't damage the paint. It does the job, but of course you always have to take everything off when you leave.

These days, I prefer little 3x5 index cards, with a hole to hang them. Those cards are cheap, and it's easy to take them off, so you can vary your messages. You just need to choose places where your eyes often end up.

Since I spend most of my days staring at my computer screen, another possibility is putting those sayings on a screen saver program that displays them a few seconds after I stop typing. Less romantic, but more portable!

I'd would love to have a very basic, "open source" screensaver, which displayed aphorisms randomly and without repetitions (in other words, it would make a list of aphorisms, draw one at random, display it, and then note that it shouldn't re-display it before having shown the others), in an easy-to-read font. I haven't found such a program yet (please tell me if you know of one!).

Currently, I use a closed source software for Windows, which is no longer supported by its author Ernst Klöcker (who doesn't respond to my emails), which I can no longer even find on his website, and which comes with a file of morally questionable aphorisms. It's here on my website.

After installation, go to "Start/All Programs/Words Screen Saver/Configure Words Screen Saver" and choose the aphorism file you want to display (and delete the file of questionable aphorisms that comes with it). The "readme" file which is in the same location gives more information.

4) Conclusion

whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
[Ph 4:8]

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