Fly on the Wall—Bergson and Cato

Deconstructing the Flow of Core Beliefs

We’ve all stepped in a puddle of spring rainwater.  It’s like a dark and stormy night, and “once upon a time” implies repetition of a series of attendant expectations.  An inadvertent puddle splash connotes an oopsie-doodle moment and then, insidiously and almost imperceptibly, water wicks its way up our pantleg inducing uncomfortable sensations as our calves and thighs moisten.  Rainwater may bring joy to gardens and a lovely petrichor aroma to sunlit air as the clouds clear and colours brighten, but the results for comfort can be mixed.  A romantic rain-soaked moment is one of many potentially positive forms of getting soaked.  We might note, then, that academic progress depends on learning to accommodate multifarious interpretations of reality and the texts that carry their meanings into our minds.

Water is our core resource for life and homeostasis; water is the most essential vital fluid on our planet and it metaphorically parallels consciousness as the common denominator of human beings.  Henri Bergson, a famous philosopher 100 years ago, especially in France, was sure that a vital essence (elan vital), animated our all-too human life force.  Essential to his version of creativity and consciousness and corporeality as a unified flow was his belief that “we sense the ‘flow’ of life as a primary inner experience” (Goudge, 287) Like the water that oils our innards, our flow of awareness is the key to our finding and projecting meanings onto the world.  These meaningful projections are personal and based on beliefs we hold fast to.  Education allows us, if we let it, to question these formative opinions about the world and society.

Bergson even suggested that a vital essence formed and moulded all animate and inanimate earthly reality.  Of all animals, humans are best able to symbolically conceptualize reality and this skill depends upon us attaining certainty about what we feel to be true.  We can’t relearn how not to step in a puddle over and over or we’ll never get anywhere.  However, pure stimulus-response mechanism, or rote belief in what we’re told by cultural authorities, is too simple an explanation for the ways and means of human experience.

A particular philosophic goal of Bergson was to overcome the loggerheads achieved by epistemic disagreements between rationalists and empiricists.  The latter, who see sense data as the baseline for understanding the world around us, tend always to begin with what can be physically measured.  The former, and we might as well out the original rationalist by name (Plato!), believe that at the core of human reality is the ability to think our way through, around, and out of the flighty mess that is our sensory inputs.  The mind is a special tool, an organ invisible to brain and microscope, yet one with a magical, even mystical, eye that leads to all the wondrous achievements of human consciousness.

Enter Cato: Core Beliefs as the Memes of our Being

Yet wait, there’s more.  There always is; it’s like seeing plants thrive even while the soil seems dry.  Water is everywhere even when our eyes fail to find it.  Water, like ideas and beliefs, has to be dug for.  Excavated.  Once we discover it on the surface water becomes clear as the life force, the magical manna, that abides in more and more places.  Memes too, from the French word meme that means same, express core cultural beliefs and ideas in repetitive form.  And if we go back, way back, to Republican Rome in the 3rd century BC we find, perhaps, the first meme.  At the end of each speech, drawing on his experience in the Punic wars that over many campaigns led to the obliteration of Carthage on the north Africa coast (a three days sail from Rome at the time), Cato the Elder would state: “in my opinion, Carthage must be destroyed!” (Kiernan, online).  Honest and humble of him, and the anticipated repetition of this memocratic slogan at the conclusion of his oral discourse no doubt elicited cheers from hawkish Senators in attendance.

In behind Cato’s core belief in the necessary destruction of the Carthaginian empire was a deep certainty in the impossibility of equality or peace between peoples and their economies, social, libidinal, or otherwise.  Like water itself, the unseen certainties of life (for empiricists and rationalists these core epistemic beliefs frame their interminable disagreements about what is and what can be known), may rarely but fruitfully be expressed in statements simple and trenchant.  So behind Cato’s famous rejoinder at the conclusion of his orations was perhaps an even more crucial belief that he held.  It went like this:

“Suffer women once to arrive at an equality with you, and they will from that moment become your superiors.” (Cato, online).

Nasty stuff, we might opine!  Yet, let us to remember that the water of our life beliefs may today carry equally deep some cultural certainties that history shall judge to be wholly unreasonable.

Critical thinking, and creating juicy essay ideas, depends upon us thinking away from the mainstream of cultural certainties.  At the very least, we’ll give our professors and our listeners a chortle.  Demonstrating that nothing is self evident (recall that, for most of history, leeches were seen as a solution to maladies rather than humble blood transplants) may just allow us to divert life’s vital force in our own minds such that we create and discover new fluid channels of academic joy.

Cato the Censor.  (215 BC).  ‘The World’s Most Famous Orations.  Rome 218 BC – 84 AD).  (1906).  In Support of the Oppian Law’.  Retrieved from
Goudge., T.A.  (1967).  ‘Henri Bergson’.  The Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Macmillan Publishing Co., & The Free Press.
Kiernan, B.  (2004).  ‘The First Genocide, Carthage 146 BC.’ Yale University: Diogenes.  Retrieved from
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