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Waxing Philosophical: I Take the "Bac Philo" Exam

Wise Answers to
Thoughtful Questions

Paris Update Bac-Philo-Pour-Nuls

In France, even dummies take the standardized high school philosophy exam. So I figured I could, too.

The French have an unreasonable fascination with reason. Not with being reasonable — with the process of reasoning: they love to philosophize. And apparently I have an unreasonable fascination with their fascination, because I have mentioned it in not one but two previous articles, in 2011 and 2009.

As both a cause and an effect of this phenomenon, teenagers in secondary school are required to study philosophy — and to demonstrate their grasp of the discipline on the grueling, comprehensive, multi-day standardized final exam they have to take to earn the baccalauréat degree, which one could call the equivalent of a high school diploma in the United States.

That is, one could call it that if more American high schools actually required their students to acquire anything resembling a substantial body of knowledge, starting with knowing how to speak in complete sentences not inflected as questions and in which the word “like” accounts for less than 40 percent of the content.

The much-dreaded “bac” test is given and taken at the end of the school year every June and always includes a philosophy section consisting of essay questions that would put most American high schoolers into catatonic shock.

The questions are new every year, of course, and the same for everyone all over the country. And since so many French people are so fond of “philo” (and of shortening words), the questions for the bac are pub’d in the newsps and mags aft the tst is ov.

There were six propositions selected for this year’s exam, two for each specialty (the bac is divided into three specialties: science, economics/social sciences and literature). With no further ado — other than to insert a totally useless, time- and space-wasting cliché as a facile introductory device into what would otherwise have been a perfectly simple, straightforward sentence — here they are:

1) Is it our duty to seek out the truth?

2) Would we have more freedom without the state?

3) Can natural desires exist?

4) Is the only purpose of working to be useful?

5) What does one gain from working?

6) Is every belief contrary to reason?

Since I’m being so cynical about my young countrymen’s ability to handle this type of intellectual challenge, I have decided, purely as a public service, to set a good example by taking the bac philo myself.

Teenagers of America, let me show you how it’s done:

1) Is it our duty to seek out the truth?

Humankind has been endowed with a capacity unique among all living beings, namely to make distinctions between things that lesser organisms cannot distinguish: right and wrong, moral and immoral, Kim and Kourtney, truth and fabrication.

On the other hand, humans also have a capacity unique among all living beings to fabricate falsehoods. Unless the trees have been putting us on all this time. Maybe apples aren’t really good for us after all.

As I recall, it was Schopenhauer who said, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” an obvious falsehood if there ever was one. Garlic and vampires, on the other hand, now that’s a whole ’nother story. As we learn from “Dark Shadows,” there’s nothing like a big jar of aioli to keep your neck tissues intact. A truth like that can literally save your life.

But is it our “duty” — our legal, moral and/or ethical obligation — to seek out truths like this one? I would have to say no, because if that statement is true, then its opposite must also be true (Nietzsche’s principle of das alte Zschwitcheroo): if it is our duty to seek truth, we must also be under no obligation to spurn falsehood. And if that in turn is true, then I’m doing really well on this test so far.

2) Would we have more freedom without the state?

The state of what? Autonomy? Then no. Arizona? Probably.

Oh wait, I get it: state as in national government. As in “I am the state.” When Louis XIV said that, he had plenty of freedom to do pretty much whatever the hell he wanted.

Despite wearing high heels, tight hose, lacy clothes and a wig that looked like a poodle had died on his head, dude had like 20 mistresses or something and no one ever gave him any grief about it. Not even Mrs. XIV.

In this case, Louis himself would not have had more freedom without the state because he would not have existed. But it was a different deal for the people under him, who enjoyed less freedom than he did—for example, the freedom to hit on one of his mistresses.

The same principle holds true today: those with the most wealth, power and prestige have the most freedom, and those in lowlier positions have less. If all government suddenly ceased to exist, along with its mechanisms for maintaining order, aggressive and influential people would be able to seize the liberties (plus goods, chattels, allowance money, etc.) of the less powerful, exercising more and more freedom until they run into someone more aggressive and influential than they are. Or better-armed.

This process would continue until one person emerges as the single most powerful force in society, no doubt some hulking, belligerent, congenitally pissed off dickweed like that Kirk guy in my gym class. That person would then have every imaginable freedom. He would also be the state.

3) Can natural desires exist?

Well, let’s see. It’s the middle of June and I’m sitting in a hot classroom trying like mad to concentrate on an important test even though Cheryl Steinwelt, whom I have had an incandescent crush on for two years, is sitting across from me right by the window, and it looks like she’s not wearing anything under that gauzy linen blouse and HEY! I’m 18 years old here! “Natural desires”? Are you freakin’ kidding me? Next question...

Or rather next two questions — numbers 4 and 5 are so similar, I’m going to address them together.

4) Is the only purpose of working to be useful?

5) What does one gain from working?

It depends on what is meant by the term “work.” In science, it is the result of an effort applied to a point over distance in a given direction, measured in ergs. In economics and sociology, it is the result of getting a job. But in literature it is more generally understood to mean making an endeavor for the purpose of achieving a goal or receiving a reward, monetary or otherwise.

By the latter definition, the most work I have ever done in my life has been trying to convince Cheryl Steinwelt to go out with me. For the past two years, I have been applying a near-constant effort to the point of getting her to move a distance of 4.5 kilometers in the direction of the Lawnview Mall CinePlex, there to view the film of her choice followed by dinner in the food court, all to be paid for with profits accrued from my part-time job at GimmeBurgers.

Since I have yet to achieve my goal or receive any kind of award, even in the form of the time of day, I would have to say that this example of working has not been useful at all, and that I have gained nothing from it. My feelings about this can be summed up in a single word: “erg.”

6) Is every belief contrary to reason?

I believe so.

Time! Please put down your pencils, turn in your notebooks and walk quietly out of the room. And into the rest of your life, the course of which has just been determined by your performance on this test. Too late now!

David Jaggard

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Catherine and François De Bortoli, who have a wonderful B&B in Arles, for the setting and subject of the photo. And my nephew Andrew Li for the eloquent phrase “congenitally pissed off.”

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Reader Elaine Breakstone writes: "David Jaggard is one of the funniest, spot-on writers I've ever been lucky enough to discover. He is so welcome in these dreary times. Merci mille fois."

Reader Kathy Mattern writes: "I love your columns, and this one had me chuckling out loud; my French friend and I debate these philo questions and I inevitably lose, being the American who is so similar in attitude to the one presented in your column.... Thanks for the grins!"

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