wondering, wandering

Wanderer“The presence of the observer in the landscape changes everything,” comments one interpreter of this iconic image (“Wanderer Above the Mists“) so often associated with Nietzsche but actually produced by David Friedrich (1774-1840), before Nietzsche’s birth.

“Changes everything,” indeed. The wandering observer is above all a questioner, a challenger of convention and authority, a re-arranger of mental landscapes, a shaker-up of status quos. That’s a pretty good first-draft definition of “philosopher,” and a fitting place to begin a chapter called “Philosophical Questions.”

The landscapes philosophers are most interested in surveying are initially  interior, having to do with our various estimations of value and how those judgments play out in the quality of our respective experiences of life. The allegorical image of a thinker mounting a peak and gazing upon altered perspectives is enticing and, as Nietzsche would have said, bracing. Not everyone welcomes the opportunity to see things from an unfamiliar vantage. Surprisingly many of us consider it bad manners or ancestral disrespect, even for a moment to entertain a different point of view. Not so Mr. Keating of “Dead Poets Society” (and Montgomery Bell Academy).

I’ve complained about Rodin’s immobile Thinker. The Wanderer is clearly in motion. He agrees with Nietzsche: “the best thoughts come while walking,” and climbing. (Depending on your own locomotive predilections, you might also like to add pedaling.)

So my message to Intro students today is: be brave, dare to pose a new question, look at it from fresh angles, and really wrestle with your response.  You show no disrespect to family and forebears by exercising your special birthright, as a young representative of the Questioning Species.  Climb up, look around, see things in a different way, find new ground and your own voice…

…and then tackle at least a couple of these Big Questions:

*If you had only a few minutes (days, years) to live, what would you do with them?

*What’s the purpose of your life?

*Which is more “real”–the chair you’re sitting on, the molecules that make it up, or the sensations and images you have of it?

*How could you prove that you have thoughts, feelings, and a mind?

*How, without contemporary astronomical evidence, could you prove that the earth moves ’round the sun?

*How do you know you’re not dreaming right now?

*Have you ever made a decision that was entirely your own, free and unconditioned?

*Do you have a good reason for wanting (or not wanting) to have children?

*Would you like to step into the happiness box?

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