Nature or Nurture?

Everyone has their favourite infantryman of the First World War,  mine is Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein’s Military I.D. Card

Although you will know him for his catchily- titled  best- seller ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’, he was a much – decorated soldier.   He  served with distinction in the Austro-Hungarian Army during the First World War on the Russian front. I have searched high and low for a cycling reference, or picture of the man proclaimed by his philosophical peers to be the ‘greatest philosopher of the twentieth century’ on two wheels, but have failed.  Instead, I can offer you the next best thing – a picture of him on a rocking horse in a dress.

Even though he was not a wheelman, Wittgenstein certainly knew a thing or two about depression.  Three of his brothers committed suicide, and he himself was suicidally depressed for a year between the summers of 1918 and 1919.

It is unclear whether the winner of the 1998 Tour de France,  Marco Pantani’s  drug-related death in 2004 was suicide.  However, one thing we can be sure of is that he was not the first, and by no means the last, suicidally-minded cyclist to find insufficient compensation in success at the highest level of the sport.

So, I hear you ask, if three of Wittgenstein’s brothers topped themselves, and the author of one 75 page volume of inscrutable philosophical musings in German, also suffered from The Glums, is it Nature or Nurture?

As someone genetically programmed to discard all evidence, and make my own mind up based on a whim, I like to sit comfortably on the fence on this one.  Since I am related by birth to someone who has spent time as a guest of psychiatric services, both in the N.H.S., and the private sector, I will call him Wackford Squeers, for the sake of confidentiality.  Furthermore, his brother, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (not his real name), also spent time in Bedlam back in the 20th century.  Going back a generation, their Dad was a psychiatrist.

Given this illustrious lineage, wouldn’t it be the natural thing to throw up my hands and accept the Nature argument?  Shouldn’t I learn to live with the humourless truths offered by biology, genetics, or whatever jumped scientific mumbo-jumbo the men – and it is usually men – say is what decides our moody fates?

Before staggering through the only book of philosophy Wittgenstein had  published in his lifetime, I was bound to have agreed with Lewis Wolpert* and the rest.  However, the former soldier, primary school teacher, gardener, and professor of philosophy changed my mind in the last but one paragraph of his argument that he (and others) thought had solved philosophy.  It is worth quoting in full:

‘My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually reconises them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them.  (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see them aright.’**

Clear as mud?  Here’s his point:  once someone recognises the ascendency of genetics (for example)  s/he can  – must – discard its shackles and write a new script for themselves.

There is a certain inevitability to the poem I have chosen to accompany this somewhat overly philosophical (for a cycling blog) offering.  No offence meant – I’m a Dad myself.

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn

By fools in old-style hats and coats,

Who half the time were soppy-stern

And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as early as you can,

And don’t have any kids yourself.

Philip Larkin (1922-1985)


*developmental biologist and author of the surprisingly persuasive book Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Sadness

**translated by D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuiness

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