The poem “There is ample metaphysics in not thinking at all” is one of the most popular by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. In “Philosopher’s Walk”, Conditioned Things brings the poem to life while highlighting an apparent contradiction: can a philosopher proclaim that it is best not to think at all?
What do I think about the world?
Who knows what I think about the world!
If I were ill I would think about it. – Fernando Pessoa
In Plato’s Apology, Socrates famously declares that the unexamined life is not worth living. In the poem, Fernando Pessoa contradicts this quintessential claim of philosophy, essentially classifying thought, or examination, as a pathology. And, to the despair of aspiring thinkers everywhere, he does so with conviction.
Why think about life when we can live it? Indeed, feeling, sensing, experiencing, are different concepts that speak more or less to the same quality of being human that, for Pessoa, is more essential to the human being than thinking.
It is no wonder, then, that the poem, which had long been one of my favourites, was the cause of certain despair during my undergrad. Afterall, the subject with which philosophy students preoccupy themselves a lot of the time is thought itself. Not only are they required to think, but also to think about thinking—undoubtedly a life that is not worth living.
But what does Pessoa express in the poem if not a philosophy?
While the poem does much to convey decidedly antiphilosophical points of view, they are expressions of a worldview that merely presents itself as an antiphilosophy. In reality, it is a philosophy like any other. For, in order to arrive at the conclusions that he did, the “antiphilosopher” of the poem had to make a distinction between different worldviews and compare them to one another in relation to his ethical values—by reflecting, in other words, upon concepts that are decidedly philosophical. How else can one conclude that this, and not that, is the best way to live life?
What I learned from the poem, and the ensuing existential crisis, is this: despite the first stanza, quoted above, Pessoa knows what he thinks about the world—he spends the length of the poem telling us about it! And this means that he, too, at some point or another, has suffered from the “illness” from which all philosophers suffer, even if he has come to find the cure, which, ironically, can only be derived from philosophy itself.