18 Nov II. Rousseau’s take
With the abundance of road signs hailing a “better world”, street murals portraying iconic personalities of the revolution and newspapers titled “Juventud Rebelde” landing on the table at breakfast, it is only natural that a myriad of philosophical questions should storm into my mind like wind through a door left open during a tropical squall.
The events of Cuba – from the struggle to shake off the yoke of Spanish colonialism first, then of US neo-colonialism, to establish socialism and finally to reform it, are interwoven with some of the most critical questions about the modern age, or so I shall try to argue.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau once warned that abstract reflection impaired cosmopolitanism and stifled ‘pity’, intended as the necessary capacity to empathize which we need in order to be able to really engage with others as they are. “A taste for philosophy loosens all the bonds of esteem and benevolence […] Continued reflection on mankind, continued observation of men, teach the philosopher to judge them at their worth, and it is difficult to have much affection for what one holds in contempt.”
I am all too aware that the “ridiculous prejudices which have not died out even among men of letters” may alter my sight. This would be particularly risky when strolling about in Havana (Marco fell into a manhole on the second day), yet worse than falling into a hole, would be to defeat the purpose of our travels, which is contemplation, before reflection. During the course of our stay, we met three or more generations of Cubans and it is a strange fancy that we could penetrate their preoccupations and motives in life by juxtaposing them to ours. This is what Europeans who proclaimed their devotion to the ‘study of men’ all to often did and why Rousseau complained that “in vain do individuals come and go; it seems that philosophy does not travel”.