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The Philosophy Of Winter

If there is any positive benefit to be had out of winter it is benefit of a purely philosophical kind. That is to say that winter, which is so unpleasant physically, may have something to teach us intellectually. Let's consider, as we begin the last week of February, what we can learn from winter that will improve our frozen minds.

First, winter reminds us each year that we are living in the wrong place. Humanity originated in Africa, and civilization began around the warm shores of the Mediterranean. Some people claim that it has never moved from there, but that's another issue. The point is that our bodies and our brains were not designed to function in icy darkness, and they don't. Winter is a time for hibernation, as many intelligent animals know. There's no point in fighting nature. Cats know all about winter. On a February morning they peer through the window at the outdoor thermometer, then climb on to the bed and stay there, which is what we should all do.

Winter in this hemisphere is a northern phenomenon. Historically the north has been associated with darkness and barbarism. Homer speaks with fear and revulsion of this desolate land of cold, mist and clouds at the end of the civilized world. He had a point. Why does the compass point north? So we know which way to go, namely south.

In Homer's Odyssey which is at least as true as anything you see on television, the crew of Odysseus's ship did exactly that. When they finally reached a warm climate, the land of the Lotus Eaters, a sort of primitive Florida, they refused to sail north again. Homer gives them no credit for this sensible decision.

The barbarian hordes came from the north, as did the warrior Vikings. In medieval times all evil was thought to come from the north, and the most terrible part of Dante's Inferno is not fire, but ice. Hell is an eternally frozen lake.

Language betrays our deep feelings. To "chill out" is to become emotionally indifferent. Ice maidens are not friendly. A freeze is a kind of death. Shakespeare's imagery of winter is about as negative as any you can find in literature. It is the season of sadness and nastiness. "Here we feel but the penalty of Adam," he wrote. In other words, the wages of sin is winter. One thing we can say for certain about Shakespeare: he hated winter. No snowboarding in Scotland for him.          

Yet geography is no longer destiny. We can go anywhere in the world, but we don't. We stay right here in the land of ice as if the cut-price airline had never been invented. So what does that say about us? It tells us that we love it, we love to suffer like the members of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club who plunge into the freezing ocean every Sunday.

In a word we are masochists. We want to be disciplined, and winter is a discipline, like a strict monastic rule. The main rule is that nobody should have a good time, and nobody does. The weaklings and the wealthy may run away to Bora Bora or Dubai, but we stay here being miserable, and virtuous, and cold. It shows that we are as brave and at least as smart as the penguins in Antarctica. If they can do it, we can do it.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.