It’s hard to give our environment the right importance. Sometimes we assign it too much weight, sometimes too little. Examples of the former are plentiful: for instance, when we project our inner dissatisfactions on to the world and come to believe that if only we moved to a new house, city or country, everything would be fine.
At times, this strategy can work. If you hate living in the city, a move to the countryside might really make things better. On the other hand, if your patterns of dissatisfaction are deeply ingrained, they will be eminently portable and likely to accompany you wherever you go. Needless to say, you take you with you, and a move might not change a thing.
There are times, however, when a change of environment can be crucial — if you have acquired a problematic habit such as heavy drinking, for instance. Since habits exist in a context, in order to shift them it is often necessary to change that context. By moving away, you avoid passing your local pub on the way to the bus when you are at your most vulnerable, until such time as the new habits become more established.
But a change of environment is usually only part of the process. While it may be sufficient in some cases — if you’re suffering from seasonal affective disorder, a move to a sunnier climate might be just what’s required — more often than not you will also need to address the problem in other ways.
In theory, we may be able to tell whether a change of environment is just what we need or whether we’re deluding ourselves that simply moving will resolve all issues. In practice, it’s often a little harder. One way to begin thinking about it is by looking at our individual patterns. If we have a tendency to run away from problems, we’d do well to question our motivation in seeking a change of scene; if, on the other hand, we tend to get stuck in the status quo, perhaps a little push to make a move wouldn’t go amiss.
The French are great believers in terroir: the way in which the flavour of wine is imparted by the particularities of soil, climate and topography. One Frenchman, however, went further, suggesting that a kind of terroir creates the distinctive characteristics of the human mind. On his travels around Europe, René Descartes observed, “the very different character which a person brought up from infancy in France or Germany exhibits, from that which, with the same mind originally, this individual would have possessed had he lived always among the Chinese or with savages”. Just as the quality of a grape is rooted in the earth in which the vine grows, so “the ground of our opinions” is the human environment in which we are raised.
This is all too evident in the appalling prejudices that mar the works of even the greatest philosophers. Aristotle, for instance, declared that “the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; the one rules, and the other is ruled.” He also replied with a resounding “yes” to the question: “Is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right?” Even the universally admired Hume, known as “Le Bon David” by Parisian intellectuals, was “apt to suspect the negroes and in general all other species of men . . . to be naturally inferior to the whites”.
It would be foolish to think we could fully rise above our own cultural conditioning when even the most universal and timeless of thinkers are grounded in particularities of time and place. Even when we embrace exotic world views, we inevitably see them through lenses of culture that we have become so used to wearing that we mistake them for natural sight. Think, for instance, of how Californian Buddhism is often just another form of westernised self-actualisation.
Of course, we should do our best to correct our vision but we must avoid the hubris of believing we can change our fundamental focal point. Rather, we should embrace the humility of accepting that our philosophical terroir is responsible for both the virtues and flaws in our modes of thought.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in south-west England.
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Illustration by Laura Carlin