The Santiago Pilgrimage by Jean-Christophe Rufin

A few weeks ago my mother invited me to a talk by one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders. I’d never heard of him before but was immediately interested in checking it out. The talk went for an hour and I was engaged the whole time. Obviously he’s much more successful than me, but all the same he was a man after my own heart. Clearly an unsettled sort of fellow that had found a temporary measure of public peace through intense inner work. Knowledge, wisdom, travel. These appeared to be his values. I can’t help but think he isbn9780857059987-detailbecame a humanitarian not out of compassion, but out of the philosophy that it was the best thing one could do with their life.

He spoke briefly about his humanitarian work, being the French ambassador to Senegal and the immigration situation in Europe. He advocated less immigrants which I was surprised about but also agreed with. Mostly though he spoke about a pilgrimage that he made through Spain. From somewhere I don’t know to Santiago de Compostela. He took “the Northern Route” through the Basque country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia. It was an ancient pilgrimage first made by King Alfonso to visit the remains of St James the apostle. No one knows how those remains got from the holy lands to Spain.

I instantly swooped in at the idea of purchasing a copy of his book and getting it signed. We waited in line for a few minutes as he sat at the table signing books. It would be the first time I’d ever spoken to a “famous person” before. He’s the sort of famous person I admire because in my opinion he has done everything in his life that I would like to do. Become a doctor, travel, lead an organisation, write a book, make a positive impact. There aren’t many people to my knowledge who have “done it all” like that. I was actually quite star struck even though I’d never heard of him before and impressed with his energy. There was nothing too special about the moment we spoke, if anything a bit disillusioning because he was just another person – I’ve seen many of them already. He seemed to simultaneously abhor the encumbrances of social status yet had just made a talk to many people about his accomplishments. Contradictions can exist in nature; and especially in complicated personalities. He signed the book although I can’t read what it says (I think that’s the fashion). It’s now become very valuable to me.

The book is a lovely hardback with quite thick, luxuriously spaced pages. It’s gorgeous to look at because of the distinctly Spanish cover art, richly contrasting colours, the obvious subject matter of a pilgrimage and the prestige of the name on the front. It’s about 230 pages. I’d say it was written in the tradition of Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. It seems to have that enlightened quality to it. And of course it’s a book of the travel genre too. There were some laugh out loud moments and it painted a picture of the various places along the way pretty well without overdoing it. It wasn’t too challenging or rigorous – it had the tone of someone who had transcended beyond valuing intellect. And of course, it was originally written in French. It seemed to maintain its French aspect. English always seems quite utilitarian by comparison.

There was nothing too surprising about it. No big twists or anything. It was merely an anecdote of the 800km pilgrimage he took by foot. Being a travel book it was quite sensuous: a sore foot, the sound of snoring, visual features along the path. It was spiritual in intent. He was alone much of the time but also with people at various times too: so there was a balance of inner thoughts and interactions. He walked for several weeks, it was hard, there were places along the way, he went through different stages.

This wasn’t an idle story meant for entertainment I don’t think. This book is meant to teach something. It was rather unique and authentic in the sense that it doesn’t presume to uncover any huge secret or anything. The lesson is in the story itself. Lessons of learning to let go of what’s unnecessary. To live in the present. Peel away layers until you get to deeper truths. Then when he finished the journey it was a little bit disappointing – he hadn’t gotten some big change which would be his salvation. Having been on a few journeys myself this matches my experience – it was good that he risked telling it exactly how it is despite it being disenchanting. Soon enough things went back to normal with the addition of some golden memories. Yet, and I can attest to this, one is subtly changed by these sorts of journeys in ways that emerge over the course of a lifetime. Perhaps even, it was a spiritual journey taken as a young man which seeded the wisdom to found Doctors Without Borders or write books.

“His anecdote helped me reconcile two contrasting realities hitherto incompatible: the splendour of the Christian liturgy and the primitive simplicity of the Way.”

“For several months after my return, I tried to apply my reflections on my fears to the whole of my life. I calmly examine what I carried on my back. I cast off many things, many projects, many constraints. I tried to lighten my load to make it easier to bear the mochila (backpack) of existence.”

Philosophers’ Zone Podcast: Martin Buber and Pascal’s Wager

I’m a big fan of Ayn Rand’s two main novels: Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. In Atlas Shrugged, it’s revealed that Rand thought a person should study physics and philosophy. The heroes in her book studied philosophy, physics or both when they were in university. I’ve studied some basic physics but never much philosophy. So I decided to learn some philosophy (whatever that means) by listening to the podcast Philosopher’s zone.

I began with the oldest podcast they had, it was called: Jewish Philosophy: Martin Buber. “Martin Buber was born in pre-Nazi Austria and emigrated to Israel in 1938 where he spent much of the rest of his life. He grappled with Zionism, Jewish thought, secular philosophy and politics and the result is a body of thought very much based on relationships.”

I learned just as much about this man’s world view from his life story as from what his ideas were, probably more. One story was told of how his mother left him as a child and he couldn’t get her to turn around when she was leaving. This had a big impact on him and therefore his philosophy.

Another story told how a young man came to ask his advice one morning and he spoke to him for 30 minutes before work and advised him, but the very next day the young man killed himself. This was portrayed as an important factor in his “relational” sort of philosophy. The guest of the podcast explained how this caused an epiphany in Buber in which he saw the need to connect with things viscerally.

I don’t really I understand what exactly this philosophy is actually about. Can it all be reduced to a few essential quotes? If so then I don’t remember what the quotes were. It’s almost as if to write about it you need to have read or heard something other than the podcast.

Wikipedia says that he is best known for the philosophy of dialogue, a form of existentialism centred on the distinction between the I-Thou relationship and the I-It relationship. Apparently in philosophy there are two fundamental ways of relating to things in the world: I-Thou and I-It. The wikipedia definitions are very complicated and the podcast didn’t explain it well but essentially it’s the different between how we relate with a thing and an entity. Martin Buber founded this concept.

The second podcast I heard was: Pascal’s wager, betting on god. This was a lot more understandable to me. Basically Pascal who was a famous scientific mind became very religious later in life, Jansenism was his specific sect of Christianity. It was at this time that he described his famous wager, which would later be almost seminal to studies of probability, decision-making and more.

The premise is that there are only two possibilities: there is a God or there is not a God. We don’t really know exactly which is true. If there is a God (and Heaven and everything is true as well) then the best thing to do would be to live in compliance with religious principles so that we may get into heaven. This may involve a lot of abstaining from life’s pleasures but ultimately leads to eternal bliss.

On the other hand if there is no God then the best thing to do would be to live as best we can here. Since there is nothing to look forward to other than this life. However if we do everything we want to do and live an awesome life then we might not get into Heaven.

Thus we have a choice. Do we decide to live as if there is a vengeful God or as if there isn’t one. Pascal argued that it was always better to choose the possible eternal bliss. This is because it’s infinitely greater than the trade-off of a lifetime of religious adherence. If we choose pleasure in this life then that’s a much smaller payoff if we’re correct.

He said that even if there’s an infinitesimal chance of eternal life being true it would always be better to take that chance. I can see how mathematically this makes sense but it still doesn’t make me want to devote my life to religion. Perhaps that’s because I value life too highly?

The main argument to Pascal’s wager was that it was a false dichotomy. In truth we have a lot more than two choices. There are many religions and many variations of religions. The guest’s advise about what conclusions we could make was to think and research (and be wise about what you choose to think and research). I guess that’s pretty common for people that love learning and it seems almost intuitive to me, but I guess not everyone does it so maybe they could benefit much more greatly from this than me.

I believe that from listening and writing these concepts, a new understanding has formed in my brain which by itself is academic and not useful – but I feel that on the whole, it’s abstract conceptual purity has added to my wisdom in general. It may be best to start learning earlier philosophy since later philosophy appears to be based on many esoteric premises.