Introduction: Your ‘beach’ opportunity
A holiday beach is a strange phenomenon. For the ancient Hebrews the sea symbolised chaos; the deep out of whose dark depths the world had originally been created, the home of Leviathan, an unformed, threatening and untamed mantle thrown round the solid earth. It was something to be approached with trepidation. Yet observe a holiday resort and you see people turning their backs on the land of their everyday life. They sit on a beach and stare out over the sea to a near-featureless horizon, lulled by the sound of the waves into a soporific state in which even the arrival of a seagull becomes a significant event. Flesh creamed and eyes shaded, they lie out in rows, absorbing the warmth of the sun, seeking to avoid the sensory overload of home and work by luxuriating in just a few sensations. They attempt to relax and clear their minds.
Whereas at home they would choose to eat on a clean table, here they are prepared to risk getting sand in their sandwiches. The comfortable sofa is exchanged for the folding chair, a blanket or simply a stretch of sand hopefully free from litter or the needs of the doggy fraternity. They are drawn out here to the margins of something into which they can (literally or metaphorically) do little more than dip their toes. They may, of course, paddle boats on it, windsurf, water or jetski across it, entertainingly skimming the surface. For some, the snorkel or scuba kit take them further away from the land, immersing them in a wonderful world which has not been their natural home since the first amphibians crawled out onto the land 400 million years ago. Few would choose to venture further down into the sea’s murky depths and it only takes a few seconds of rhythmic bowing from cellos and basses to remind us of Jaws.
All human life is here. People parade up and down through the shallow water – observing or keen to be observed. The beach is a place for sexual display. It is also the place where the sheer variety of human physicality dampens sexual ardour. Little knots of people, burning in the sun or shivering in the cold, stand staring out to sea, while around them children amuse themselves by moving sand from one place to another, and creating castles that the tide will soon overwhelm – providing them with a valuable and necessary image of life. Next to them, parents stand and stare, and perhaps wonder how they can defend their own domestic sandcastles against the inevitable tide of time.
But if the beach is, for the purpose of our title, used as an image of what a holiday is all about, it certainly does not exhaust that phenomenon. Nowadays we take adventure holidays, climb mountains, struggle with foreign languages, try new foods (although a diminishing possibility in a world where diet is globalised). We may choose to take to a canal, throbbing along in a narrow boat at 4 miles an hour, until the rhythm of the diesel engine soothes us into a relaxed state in which every moorhen crossing the canal commands our willing attention.
But whether you are backpacking, engaging in life-threatening activities, or simply sitting by beach or pool, holidays provide you with an opportunity to stand back from your life, consider who you are, and perhaps make resolutions about what you will do on your return. It is a time when relationships are threatened (rivalled only by the stress of Christmas) or love re-affirmed, when families come together or blow apart. It is time of heightened awareness. When did you last spend time just staring at a beautiful scene? It is a time when you can ‘be yourself’ or (if you don’t much like yourself) pretend to be someone else.
It is an opportunity to think about who you are, what you believe and what you want to do with your life. It gives a longer perspective on your work, your family, your values. It may be the wine, the heat, the fact that my mind is freed from routine hassle, but it seems to me that holidays are the ideal opportunity for a bit of non-routine thinking. And just as the slightly inebriated sense that they have glimpsed the meaning of life, even if they cannot articulate it when sober, so – with the mild inebriation that comes from being on holiday – we may find that our intuitions and thoughts give us insights that would not occur in the daily routine of home. Freed from everyday pressures, the mind sees things new.
But of course you don’t need to be on holiday to benefit from a bit of distance. Problems often clarify only once we step back from them. Sleep on it, they say, with good reason. Take a break; stop the meeting; bring in the coffee; take a walk to clear the mind – we all need our ‘beach’ moments, when we relax and wait for a new set of ideas to arise.
If that’s the way it is (or could be) for you, then you are in good company. Many of the greatest insights have come once the mind is removed from the routine. Archimedes is famously said to have jumped out of the bath shouting ‘Eureka’ – he had found it! Leaving aside the inevitable crude jokes, or the unlikely story that, in his excitement, he ran naked into the street in Syracuse, his moment of insight is instructive for us. His answer came when he stepped back from the problem of slicing shapes in order to calculate their volume, and had gone to take a bath. Archimedes had wrestled with the problem of finding the density of an irregular object – in this case a votive crown in which the gold had allegedly been replaced with an equal weight of silver. He knew the weight, but only the volume would tell him the density and thus if the crown were solid gold. The displacement of water in his bath gave him a practical solution to his problem. An alert mind in relaxed state is open to both intuition and ingenuity.
Sometimes it’s a matter of finding the right place to relax. In 1637, the philosopher Descartes published his famous Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting one’s Reason and Seeking the Truth in the Sciences – hardly a catchy title but absolutely to the point! At the opening of Part 2, he says that, while returning to the army (he had become a gentleman officer) after attending the coronation of the Emperor, he found himself delayed by winter weather in a small village in Germany where, with no other diversions, he spent the whole day shut up in a stove-heated room with leisure to pursue his own thoughts without distraction. Whether it was by that stove that he came up with his famous, indubitable claim ‘I think therefore I am’ we cannot be certain. What we do know is that he sat there and quietly reviewed his habitual way of thinking, resolving to set all pre-conceived notions aside in his quest for certainty; the ideas he developed were to set a trend in philosophy that was to last for the next three centuries.
Finding the right spot to think is one thing, having the determination to stay there focused on one’s philosophical questions is quite another. The Buddha sat beneath a Pipal tree and vowed that he would not move until he had discovered the secret of life and the cause of suffering. That does seem a bit drastic, but it clearly worked. After a night of struggling with all manner of distractions and temptations, his insight came with the dawn. This book will not necessarily recommend that you determine to stay on holiday until enlightenment comes!
One thing is certain; it’s difficult to be creative when tired – the best ideas come, almost accidentally, when relaxed and receptive. So, to get an intellectual and personal focus on your life, what better place than the beach – of course, there is no need to take that literally, your ‘beach’ may be a mountain track, or a woodland walk, or a deckchair in the back garden. You may be in five star luxury or camping in the corner of some French farmer’s field. You need not even be on holiday to find your ‘beach’ – it is just a metaphor for taking a break from the routine of life and asking yourself What do I really think? What makes sense? What am I looking for in life?
These personal, existential questions are not of course the whole of philosophy. Much that is practised in university departments is highly abstract, analysing meaning, language and logic to a degree that would not be appropriate on a beach. But that does not imply that the more general, existential questions are any less important. Many of the ancient philosophers, from whom we have received the whole tradition of Western thought, were absolutely committed to the question of how we live and what is worthwhile. Plato, the Stoics, the Epicureans, all expected philosophy to make a difference to ordinary life. And in modern times, philosophers such as Hume and Kierkegaard have clearly lived out their philosophy and others, particularly the existentialists, made the question of human significance and meaning primary. Marx was not the only thinker to argue that his task was not merely to understand the world but to change it. Every worthwhile philosophy presents a challenge, always intellectual but sometimes also personal and social.
But clear thinking requires a basic framework and questions to get it started. That is what this book seeks to offer you. Each short chapter will introduce a question; some of these will be more personal, others more abstract. All are designed to challenge habitual ways of thinking.
So this is the moment to dig your toes into the sand, put on your shades, and let your mind freewheel along the gentle undulations of an intellectual path.
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