Waxing Philosophical Part V: I Take the 2016 “Bac Philo” Exam

Where Else But France Would You See This?

July 20, 2016By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
ParisUpdate-CestIronique-Philo Fortune Cookies Blue
These are actual fortune-cookie fortunes that I got at a Chinese restaurant in Paris, one with a quote from Nietzsche. Makes me wonder if all those “No Exit” signs in public buildings are actually just erudite allusions to Sartre.

France is, in many ways, a much more egalitarian society than the United States. Wait — that’s not quite right. I’d better start over: France is, in one way that occurs to me without thinking about it much, a slightly more egalitarian society than the United States.

Here’s why: in the United States, men, as a group, have acquired a reputation for condescendingly overexplaining things to women. It’s such a futile annoyance that there’s even a word for it: “mansplaining.”

Things are different here in France. We still have lots of condescending overexplanation (in fact, probably more), but not just from men — women do it too. “Fransplaining” — it’s still futile and annoying, but at least it’s gender neutral.

And the reason for it can be summed up in four words: high school philosophy class.

Note to American teenagers: Yes, I just said “high school philosophy class.” Four words that you probably never dreamed could be lined up in that order.

As I have uncondescendingly explained in previous installments of this annual feature (last year’s article contains links to all the previous ones), philosophy is a required course in French secondary schools. As a result, many people acquire quite a taste for philosophizing and retain it well beyond adolescence. Hence all the fransplaining.

This particular form of intellectual grandstanding is so popular that the philosophy questions from the annual baccalauréat exam — the grueling, comprehensive, week-long standardized test that all secondary-school seniors have to pass to graduate — are published in the papers, allowing armchair philosophers of all ages to relive fond memories of their youth.

“Ah, high school!” they say. “I remember it well: petty but draconian rules, terrible cafeteria food, even worse (if any) sex, and the constant threat of violence from hoodlums for no reason other than that they enjoy being jerks. Those were the days!”

And then they add, “Oh, and parsing the ramifications of hermeneutic ontology in early Heidegger. Now that was fun!”

My personal feeling about philosophy is that I can take it or leave it. So, since I have the choice, I take it: every summer I take the “Bac Philo,” as it is called, answering the essay questions from the latest test. Which this year were…

Is desire by nature unlimited?

I think this is a trick question. The person who wrote it was probably expecting teenagers — especially boys, who essentially never think about anything else — to immediately think of sexual desire. Which when you’re a teenager seems indisputably natural and supernaturally unlimited.

But there is, in fact, a limit to desire. To illustrate with a concrete case study, let us consider the night, some years ago, when I drank an entire pitcher of margaritas.

Desire seemed to be keen at first, and even to increase for a while, but eventually it waned dramatically and even, ah, reversed its course. In a manner of speaking.

So, to answer the question, no. And I’m sure that everyone who was with me that night would agree.

Must a thing be demonstrated in order to be known?

Here again, no. Not only is this not true, but if it were true it would not be desirable at all.

Take the example of needing to go to the bathroom: when you excuse yourself from a social gathering, everyone knows what you’re going to do. They don’t need a demonstration — or want one, unless someone is harboring a rather unsavory perversion.

On the rare occasions, as in the case study cited above, when there is a kind of demonstration, so to speak, although it could indeed increase other people’s understanding of the situation, I think that everyone would agree that this type of knowledge is what philosophers call “TMEE” (too much empirical evidence).

Do we always know what we want?

No, but we always think that we know what we want. And the reason for this is that we want to think that we know what we want.

Now that I have clarified that, we know that we want to think that we know what we want. Or at least that’s what I want us to think. You know?

Need one merely obey the law to achieve fairness?

No, absolutely not. Here’s a point-by-point explanation:

1) We posit that simply obeying the law is tantamount to fairness.

2) If this were true, then every law would have to be fair for everyone.

3) If this were true, lawmakers would never pass statutes that blatantly serve their own self-interests.

4) Tax cuts for the rich.

5) I rest my case.

Are our moral convictions founded on experience?

In the case of the Pope banning birth control, obviously not.

Some moral convictions are based on experience and others aren’t. In the former category, I could cite an example concerning the classic “moral vice” of gambling: I have a coworker who is now convinced that it’s morally wrong to bet €1,000 on France to win in the Euro Cup final.

As an example of the latter, most of us live by the moral conviction that it’s wrong to kill another person, but this does not mean that we’ve all reached that conclusion by stabbing someone in the neck and then thinking, “Whoa — that was wrong!”

Since this is a test for teenagers, I’ll underline my point with another example from my own teen years: back then, my deep moral conviction in favor of premarital sex was based on no experience at all.

Why should we study history?

We can learn much from the ancient Greeks. I believe it was Sisyphus who said, “Those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

Presuming that this is true, I would like to announce to the world at large that I learned absolutely nothing from the following episodes in my own personal history:

• That first weekend with my girlfriend in graduate school after she had started reading Anaïs Nin.

• The time an ATM gave me an extra €200 that was never debited from my account.

• Every meal I’ve ever had in a Michelin-star restaurant.

• Especially when someone else picked up the tab.

• The second weekend with my girlfriend in graduate school while she was still reading Anaïs Nin.

Are we always able to justify our beliefs?

And, for that matter, the third… Oh! Sorry — I believe I got a little distracted there. No justification for it. What was the question again?

Are we always able to justify our beliefs?

It seems to me that being able to justify one’s beliefs is an acquired skill, and one that can be financially, if not ethically, rewarding in certain professions. Examples include bond salesman, politician, celebrity defense lawyer, medicine show huckster and ARGH! To hell with it!

Like all French teenagers in July, I’m sick of spouting pseudo-philosophical bushwa, so instead I’m going to use this space to give those youngsters some actual useful advice…

Kids, pay attention: never try to hold hands in a movie theater on your first date.

I know! It’s the most innocent of fleshly interactions and might be the most action you get all month. Or year.

It might be the culmination of weeks of effort and the result of a series of circumstances that have all finally fallen into place, your first opportunity to initiate a little low-level carnal contact with the object of your unlimited natural desire (see above).

But just hold your hormones. Don’t do it. At least not until way toward the end of the show.

Why? For three not-very-philosophical reasons: duration, perspiration and implication.

A movie is long. In all likelihood, you’re going to be sitting there for the better part of two hours. I know that you think you know you want to (again, see above), but, take my word for it, you will not enjoy holding anyone’s hand for that long.

That’s the “duration” part. Now you see where this is going.

Very soon, your two palms will be damp, if not swimming, with sweat. You will wonder if it’s yours.

It is. Maybe even more than half of it. After about five minutes, regardless of how much ill-repressed affection or raw lust you might have for each other, handholding loses its charm.

Then the problem is how to get out of it. If you just suddenly pull away, your date might get the impression that all of your expressions of interest were either feigned or remarkably short-lived.

Especially if you wipe your hand on your pants. Even more so if you wipe your hand on your date’s pants.

The alternative, extricating yourself slowly and subtly from the clinch, is harder, and the implications are the same. Trust me, you will both be agonizing over how to end the finger fusion, to the exclusion of all other conscious thought, for the rest of the film.

Afterward, if you really want to know what happened on the screen, you’ll have to pay to see the same movie again. Can you afford that? Financially or emotionally?

I didn’t think so. Rather than spending all that time in physical and mental torment, you’re actually better off pondering philosophical issues. Like the final question of the 2016 Bac Philo:

Does doing less work necessarily mean having a better life?

I’m out of ideas here, so I propose to answer this one by conducting an experiment: in order to see if it improves my life, I’m going to reduce my workload by stopping the test here and making myself a margarita. Or two. Then we’ll see if anything comes up.


© 2016 Paris Update


An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”

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