Nil Admirari

“Marvel at nothing” – that is perhaps the one and only thing that can make a man happy and keep him so.

When I graduated from prep school at St. Andrew’s College in 1967 I was obliged to undertake a choice of studies which I would pursue in completion of my undergraduate Bachelor of Arts degree at Glendon Hall. For reasons which have never been entirely apparent (other than it was a decision which reflected what at the time was my earnest inquiry) I chose Philosophy as my so-called “major”.  It was, I can tell you, a resolve which met with a succinct rebuttal from my father who, upon hearing of my fixity of purpose, said only, “Well, it’s your bed; you make it, you sleep in it!”  Without engaging in futile analysis about whether or not he were correct (he had wanted me to study Economics instead), I will however observe that quite by accident I subsequently discovered when attending law school that a knowledge of deductive reasoning (characterized by or based on the inference of particular instances from a general law) was certainly not foreign to the appreciation of the constitution and legal codes, nor for that matter contract or tort law.

Philosophy inspires nonetheless a disparate world of thought. At their poles the acknowledgement of philosophy varies between logical and hypothetical; that is, sound reasoning or pretentious academic ostentation. It is admittedly a broad spectrum.  Even I, as a philosopher and Doctor of Jurisprudence, sometimes question whether my repeated philosophic enquiries are worthy illustration of life’s numerous perils and navigations or merely utter rubbish and imaginary conjecture such as that expressed in mathematics as,”the square root of a negative number”. Here, the term “imaginary” is used because there is no real number having a negative square. Naturally it is a potentially hurtful consideration, amounting to a laughable contradiction of everything one has learned (“Cogito ergo sum”), accelerated by Immanuel Kant’s reputed protestation after falling in love, “Everything I have written is false!”

In his doctrine of transcendental idealism, Kant argued space and time are mere “forms of intuition” that structure all experience and that the objects of experience are mere “appearances”. The nature of things as they are in themselves is unknowable to us. In an attempt to counter the philosophical doctrine of skepticism, he wrote the Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1787), his best-known work. Kant drew a parallel to the Copernican revolution in his proposal to think of the objects of experience as conforming to our spatial and temporal forms of intuition and the categories of our understanding, so that we have a priori cognition of those objects. These claims have proved especially influential in the social sciences, particularly sociology and anthropology, which regard human activities as pre-oriented by cultural norms.

To this day I continue to adopt a philosophic approach to life. My latest inspiration derives from Country Life magazine. In its inimitable way the editorial staff (headed by Editor-in-Chief Mark Hedges) has for the first issue of the New Year 2024 compiled a series of inspirational topics including “The best things in life”, “A positive step towards sustainability”, “Ode to Solitude (Alexander Pope)”, “Wait more, want less”, Auden’s prophesy “we must love one another or die” and “Let’s hear it for Britain”. It is in all a fruitful and uplifting collection of thoughts.  I confess too there is something innately prepossessing about philosophic ruminations even at my advanced age and curmudgeonly evolution. It may be simpler to remain off-putting about philosophic reflection (some of which I admit is far from digestible) but the mere possibility of these conclusions is at the very least entertaining.  The scope of philosophic thought impregnates another of the Country Life allusions, the remote literature of Geoffrey Chaucer (1400) whose “drasty rhyming isn’t worth a turd” was with good reason dismissed by posterity.  He was a “grete philosopher” profound in his understanding of human nature.

“The Empress of Blandings was a pig (Lord Emsworth’s prize sow) who took things as they came”, wrote P. G. Wodehouse.  “Her motto, like Hoarace’s, was nil admirari.”

Nihil admirari (or Nil admirari) is a Latin phrase. It means “to be surprised by nothing“, or in the imperative, “Let nothing astonish you“.

Marcus Tullius Cicero argues that real sapience consists of preparing oneself for all possible incidents and not being surprised by anything, using as an example Anaxagoras, who, when informed about the death of his son, said, “Sciebam me genuisse mortalem” (I knew that I begot a mortal). Horace and Seneca refer to similar occurrences and admired such moral fortitude.

Nietzsche wrote that in this proposition the ancient philosopher “sees the whole of philosophy”, opposing it to Schopenhauer’s admirari id est philosophari (to marvel is to philosophize).

I have to say that Anaxagoras’ blunt admission of mortality was initially disturbing.  How unfavourable it sounded to talk so upon the death of one’s son. But, upon deeper analysis, it is, while regrettable, a perfunctory nod to a dreadful and inescapable subject.  In this context I think we all have to agree that Nil admirari is not wholly without its substance.

Most haven’t the machinery to respond so immediately to and embrace so willingly such philosophic stature. Yet upon my recollection those whom I have known who have thus corresponded with life appear to have done so to their advantage.  Indeed the philosophic posture is in many respects the ultimate logic. It borders the axiomatic in the same way as asserting that if one does not permit oneself to be contaminated by care, one shall as a result be truly uncaring. And while in this instance I am tempted to draw the line, nonetheless as a member of the Opposition I struggle to advance the value of allowing oneself to be consumed by loss. The contrary provocation quickly falls into that persuasive category to let bygones be bygones.