Extracts from :
Themes and Variations
VARIATIONS ON A PHILOSOPHER
"(...) “O why was I born with a different face !” It was a question that, in the course of his daily soliloquies, rose over and over again to Biran’s lips. He was painfully aware that he had not been “born like the rest of his race,’’ that he was a foreigner, far from home in an environment he did not like and with which he was congenitally unfitted to deal. But whereas the poet’s unlikeness to his fellows was due to an excess of imagination and intuition, the philosopher belonged to that more numerous class of aliens, the temperamental introverts.
A portrait of Biran at twenty-nine reveals one of those slender, small-boned, thin-muscled persons, in whom the nerves and vital organs are imcomfortably close to the surface. Such persons are as a rule sensitive to excess and have a tendency, in mere self-protection, to turn inwards, away from their surroundings, which they experience as a standing menace to their well-being.
Like the world of all extreme cerebrotonics, Biran’s universe was primarily that of his own inner experiences and only secondarily that of other people and autonomous objects. He knew that, whereas he was an alien, most men were more or less at home in the world and that some had an all but infallible instinct for finding their way through life. To make up for his own lack of this instinct, he was gifted (as most of his fellows were not) with “a rapid tact in regard to what is going on within me.” In his own eyes it was this tact which, above all else, qualified him to be a psychologist and a metaphysician.
An extreme cerebrotonic can never be a successful behaviourist and, conversely, an extreme somatotonic or extreme viscerotonic is organically debarred from the psychology of introspection. By nature Biran was quite incapable of behaviourism, and this incapacity was, by systematic exercise, converted into a state almost of solipsistic preoccupation with the inner life.
His Journal Intime is consistently intimate; it contains no anecdotes, no descriptions of other people, no speculations as to their motives, their modes of thought, or the reasons for their idiosyncrasies. Biran had an opportunity to meet 'almost everybody who was anybody’ and was, as we have seen, on intimate terms with some of the most remarkable men and women of his day. The Diary merely records their names; of their appearance, their behaviour, their character, our philosopher says nothing.
He dines with Mme. de Stael, he meets Chateaubriand; but what he thought and felt about those rather alarming forces of nature disguised as human beings, or whether indeed he thought and felt anything about them as they were in themselves, we do not know. He merely states that he saw them and proceeds, if the meeting took place on one of his good days, to describe his own euphoria, if on one of his bad days, to analyse the psycho-physiological causes of his melancholy or his sense offrustrated inadequacy.
Human beings are not all of one kind, but vary continuously between the viable extremes of a tri-polar system. Any individual is a mixture, in varying proportions, of three physical and closely correlated pyschological components. The exclusively introspective psychologist has it in his power to discover the characteristics which are common to all human beings, together with those peculiar to himself and to all the other individuals, who stand in the same relation as he does to the three co-ordinates of the classificatory system. Of the traits which distinguish men and women standing in a different relation to the three co-ordinates, he cannot, merely by looking into himself, discover anything at all. To acquire this kind of extensive knowledge of psychology, he must learn the, to him, rather difficult art of looking outwards.
Conversely the born outward-lookers must, if they are to have an intensive knowledge of the human soul, learn how to examine and dissect their own. Introspective methods require to be supplemented by those of behaviourism; behaviouristic methods by those of introspection. Biran, as we have seen, made no effort to overcome his native incapacity for outwardness. The results were what might have been expected. “In the practical affairs of life,” he sadly remarks, “my psychological knowledge does not help me at all.”
The introvert, who is ignorant of the outer world, is not for that reason unaware of it. Though he knows very little about his fellows and the social order, he constantly feels them, and feels them with discomfort, as alien and often hostile presences. Hence his sense of inadequacy, of being alone, inferior, born with a different face. Like the rest of his species, Biran suffered all his life from an excruciating shyness. When, as a middle-aged man, he had his first interview with Louis XVIII, his knees trembled, his heart palpitated and his poor stomach was so painfully affected that he almost disgraced himself by being sick at the royal feet.
Biran’s sense of being alien and inadequate found expression in an almost systematic avoidance of conflict and refusal to insist on his rights. Such was his dislike of argument (except on philosophical matters and then only among friends) that in a hostile group he would either keep silence or give a polite and somewhat hypocritical assent to opinions which were not his own. Where money was at stake he always preferred loss to haggling, his own disadvantage to a batlle with opposing interests. To those who asked for a loan he found it almost impossible to say no, and from those to whom he had advanced money he found it no less difficult to demand repayment. His account books show that not more than one in ten of the neighbours whom he had thus obliged ever paid him back. The rest were evidently of the opinion that one should “never give a sucker an even break.”
In society Biran was always intimidated by bigwigs and successful men of affairs. Even the basest of them, even the dullest and stupidest, had power to impose on him. In their presence his self-possession evaporated; he seemed to lose his moral independence, his very reason; he found himself saying things he did not believe, doing things of which he disapproved. And all to no purpose; for they were not gratified by his abjection; they merely despised or ignored him.
With their wives and daughters our philosopher was generally somewhat more at ease. His manners were exquisite and, like his formal clothes and powdered hair, of a vintage anterior to 1789. His intimate conversation breathed a Rousseauesque sensibility. He was seductive and yet safe, charming but perfectly reliable. But even more than the society of women our philosopher enjoyed that of his intellectual equals. Here he felt himself, and was acknowledged, the first among his peers. When it came to a philosophical discussion, this frightened underling knew how to be authoritative, this dumb and trembling orator commanded an eloquence now subtle, now incisive, now persuasively brilliant.
But finally what a relief it was, when Parliament went into its summer recess, to go home to Perigord ! Here he was genuinely and unquestionably important — important, too, without effort, just because he was his grandfather’s grandson, and the deputy for Bergerac, and the only metaphysician within a radius of three hundred kilometres. He did not have to make odious comparisons between himself and those younger contemporaries who were already cabinet ministers, peers of France, millionaires, Members of the Institute. He was Maine de Biran of Grateloup, whom not to know argued oneself unknown — at least at Bergerac. At home, as in the little town, nothing ever happened to make our philosopher feel inadequate or inferior.
Biran’s dread of an audience extended even to the reading public. He hated to be exposed to the unsympathetic gaze of the vulgar, and hated it even when the exposure was only symbolic and on paper. Concerning his first book he wrote to a friend that “it is not without a certain terror that I find myself condemned to be printed alive.” This terror remained with him, and to the end of his career publication was an ordeal to be undergone with extreme reluctance and only after long delays and a succession of second thoughts. His fear of exposure was heightened by the consciousness that he was not a born writer. He composed with difficulty, phrasing and rephrasing his ideas, but never finding a form that completely satisfied him. The right word was always something to be looked for — generally without success; it was never gratuitously given. Sentences and paragraphs did not come to him ready-made and perfect; they had to be laboriously pieced together, without inspiration and without pleasure.
The product of his labours is a prose that merely permits itself to be read, never exhilarates or delights. Biran regarded his incapacity for expression as something both to be deplored and to be proud of. He lacked the gift of style and was sorry for it; but at the same time he was thankful that he was not as other authors were — mere juggler of words. Most people, he remarks, use their minds only with the idea ofletting others know the result of their labours. They never have an idea without immediately clothing it in brilliant and striking language.
“The whole business of their life is the arrangement of phrases; they do all their thinking within the world of grammar and logic, and are much more concerned with forms than with substance. . . . My own sensibility,” Biran goes on, “reacts but little externally. It is occupied either by confused inward impressions (this is its most habitual state), or by the ideas which strike me and which I shut up within myself to be sifted and examined, and all without feeling any need to spread them abroad. I neglect the problem of expression; I never make a phrase in my head; I study ideas for their own sake, in order to know what they are, what they imply, disinterestedly, without reference to self-love or passion. This disposition makes me eminently fit for the inner life and psychological research, but unfits me for everything else.”
Here, once again, we catch our introvert in the act of expressing simultaneously a sense of inadequacy and a conviction of intrinsic superiority. He laments his inability to embody his ideas in suitable language, but rejoices at the same time in the fact that he has ideas which are worth expressing, that, unlike his successful rivals, he is concerned with substance rather than form and that his concern, unlike theirs, is wholly disinterested. Comparisons are odious and painful; and yet, when they are made with sufficient care, we discover that it is the other fellow who has the worst of it.
Even if he had been physically healthy, Biran would have found himself a very difficult man to live with. But he was not healthy. (...) Our philosopher complained a great deal of his want of health, but at the same time was aware that sickness may have its compensating advantages.
“Except the sickly,” he wrote in 1794, “few persons ever feel themselves existing. Those who are well, even if they be philosophers, are too busy enjoying life to investigate what it is. The sentiment of their own existence does not astonish them. Health impels us towards the outside world, sickness brings us home to ourselves.”
In other words, sickness conspires with the introverted temperament to create the only kind of philosopher for whom Biran had any use, the kind of philosopher he was himself — an empiricist of the personal life on all its levels from the physiological to the spiritual.