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Philosophy Shorts

Philosophers on Baths

by Matt Qvortrup

‘More songs about Buildings and Food’ was the title of a 1978 album by the rock band Talking Heads, about all the things rock stars normally don’t sing about. Pop songs are usually about variations on the theme of love; a track like Van Morrison’s 1976 hit Cleaning Windows is the odd one out.

Philosophers, likewise, tend to have a narrow focus on epistemology, metaphysics and trifles like the meaning of life. But occasionally great minds stray from their turf and write about other matters, for example buildings (Martin Heidegger), food (Hobbes), tomato juice (Robert Nozick), and the weather (Lucretius and Aristotle). This series of Shorts is about these unfamiliar themes; about the things philosophers also write about.

Archimedes famously said Eureka! We all know that, and we might also remember that his exclamation came when he was stepping into a bath and realised that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the part of his body he had submerged. Archimedes might be better known as a mathematician – but as he was included in the Monty Python football team of Greek philosophers playing German philosophers, we will make an exception.

In any case, many philosophers are keen on being clean. In his recently published notebooks Ludwig Wittgenstein recorded evening visits to the baths in Kraków though added that “my moral standing is now much lower than it was at Easter” (Private Notebooks 1914-16). Maybe we should consign speculation about that to silence, to paraphrase the great man.

In other cases it was more straight forward. “I have a bath in the evening”, said Simone de Beauvoir, “I find it relaxing” (interview with The Observer March 20, 1960). How many of us get great ideas in the bath – or while having a shower? No, I don’t have a statistic ready to hand. Schopenhauer too was a fan of having a soak, though he pointed out that, “what is required is…a cold bath”, as this would be “calming down…the blood circulation and the passionate nature” (The World as Will and Representation II, 368, 1844).

Baths have prompted a fair few great mind to engage in deep reflection or to reflect on the absurdity of things. Bertrand Russell was puzzled by those who “conceive of the Deity as a Peeping Tom, whose omnipotence enables Him to see through bathroom walls, but who is foiled by bathrobes”, he wrote (An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish, p.7).

The Greeks and the Romans were keen on public baths, yet there were exceptions. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus (55-125 CE), for one, was not particularly relaxed about diving into the baths: he worried about “the splashing of water, the crowding, the scolding, the stealing.” He was tempted not to go, but thought better of it, and adopted a, well, stoic approach, counselling his readers,

“You will more steadily engage in the activity if you frankly say ‘I want to bathe and want to hold my will in accordance with nature’. And do the same for every activity. So if any impediment arises in bathing, readily say ‘I did not only want this, but I also wanted to hold my will in accordance with nature; and I will not hold it like that if I am annoyed about what happens.” (Enchiridion Ch. V, 223).

Hannah Arendt, writing on (nearly) the same subject, was not so concerned about the chaos at the baths and preferred to dwell on happy memories, “Thanks again for the bathing oil”, she wrote to a friend, “and let’s remember our glorious evening” (Hannah Arendt to Sonia Orwell, March 17, 1967).

Certainly, being clean can lead to serene tranquillity. G.W.F Hegel (1770-1831), for this reason admired the Egyptians for “they wash and bathe much,” which, he added, “points to a condition of settled peace” (Philosophy of History, p.224).

© Prof. Matt Qvortrup 2023

Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University.

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