Reading Philosophy in French

Ever since I read it, I’ve been mulling over an article that appeared in the Times earlier this week. Like a persistent musical tune, it won’t go away. A psychiatrist described a man in a homeless shelter who lived “a life apart, without a home, friend or regrets.”

“The staff at the homeless shelter where I worked for several years had long worried about him. He sat in the day hall, well tended and polite, reading chemistry textbooks with calm comprehension. At the moment, he was in the middle of a book written by a French philosopher in the 1930s; he was reading it in French.”

I wondered, what is there to worry about this fellow? The psychiatrist reported he had said, “My goal is equanimity. I’m not pursuing what the world calls success.” Well, good for him, I thought.

The members of the staff had described him as a man of thought but without feeling. Again I wondered how could they be sure of that, how could they know what was churning below the surface.

The article went on to describe the following incident: Before he moved into the shelter he had shared an apartment with an alcoholic. As he was leaving the apartment one morning “he passed his roommate slumped over the kitchen table. He did not pause to check on the man.” I thought that seemed perfectly reasonable; the guy was an alcoholic, was he not, and might have had similar experiences more than once.

“When he returned in the evening, his roommate was still slumped over the table. If he had not been dead earlier, he was now.”

The homeless man drew two conclusions from this experience—he was often wrong in judging other people and, because of that, he ought to distance himself them. I thought he was being needlessly hard on himself. He had every reason to believe his roommate was simply in a temporary stupor.

The psychiatrist who wrote the article drew another conclusion. She asked him for another meeting in the belief that he might achieve some sort of understanding of the incident and that he had no reason to “absent himself from the world…”

The man calmly rejected the invitation saying he wasn’t interested in getting involved with the rest of the world.

I took him at his word, that for whatever reason he has chosen to live a solitary life with his books, that the world was a messy and complicated place and he simply didn’t feel the need or the desire to enter into it.

I did not choose to look for anything deeper, to view him as a man in need of help, or that his rejection of society gave anyone cause for worry. I did not assign him to any clinical disorder or view him as disturbed. Of course, I knew virtually nothing about him or his previous history.

He had made his choice. It was not an altogether uncommon one. He isn’t the only one who feels and acts that way. There are person of renown in the arts and sciences who live such a solitary life, although they assuredly have more financial resources.

Let him be, I thought. Leave him to his books, to his chemistry and French philosophy, to his rejection of society and what in his view are it demands. He seeks only a state of calmness.