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A good idea from ... Rousseau

I WAS feeling a bit glum the other day and a well-meaning friend of mine said to me, "You know Elaine [he has difficulty with my name], your problem is that you think too much." Later, it struck me that there are two diametrically opposed views about problems and thinking: some people suggest that we think a lot when we have a lot of problems. Others suggest that we develop a lot of problems when we think too much. Where should one stand?

The Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was most forceful in proposing that thinking gives us headaches. Did Hamlet think so much because he had problems, or did he have problems because he thought so much? Rousseau would have said the latter, for he judged thinking to be a disease that predated and precisely initiated the problems it pretended to be able to solve. Thinking was a form of psychological hypochondria - only when Hamlet thought he might have a pain was a pain actually felt. Rousseau argued that things that happen without human, rational intervention are far superior to those polluted with the meddlesome touch of civilisation. A wild waterfall in the Swiss Alps is superior to the rigid classicism of a French garden, the common sense of a ruddy farmer has more to teach us than the great books of philosophy, an emotion left to flow unfettered by thought is richer and deeper than its analysed cousin.

Paradoxically for someone whose collected works ran to over a dozen volumes, Rousseau was of the view that books gave people pains they didn't know they had: "In instinct alone, man had all he required for living in the state of nature; and with a developed understanding, he has only just enough to support life in society." "Our first impulses are always good," he declared - only social life and the intellect had robbed us of our spontaneous virtues. He pointed to the example of a murder committed at the window of a philosopher who had only to "argue with himself a little to prevent nature identifying with the unfortunate sufferer." By contrast with this unwholesome academic, Rousseau argued that, "The honest man is an athlete, who loves to wrestle stark-naked."

It's a lovely idea: that we are at heart simple machines, but we overcomplicate matters and so make ourselves unhappy. It suggests that if we only turn the brain off, we will be guided by instinct towards a harmonious and contented life - one that animals and ruddy farmers enjoy.

Clearly this is rubbish, though we must be grateful to Rousseau for being naive and idealistic enough to propose it so forcefully. There is such a thing as thinking too much: essentially, this means "thinking badly," or "thinking but getting nowhere." Yet we should never blame thinking per se - it is the way we think that causes problems. A good workman should not blame his tools.