David Pastor Vico: ‘Philosophy can help you avoid a trip to the psychologist. Plus, it’s free’

The Spanish philosopher — born in Belgium to immigrant parents — lives and works in Mexico, where he has published ‘Ethics for the distrustful,’ a book for teenagers. He recently returned to Spain for cancer treatment

David Pastor Vico
The philosopher David Pastor Vico.Bernardo Pérez Tovar
Luz Sánchez-Mellado

I spoke with David Pastor Vico by video call, as it’s impossible for him to move from his house in Utrera, in the Spanish province of Seville. He is currently cancer-free, but is receiving immunotherapy — he also just passed a very painful kidney stone. “I’m so fucked up, it was like giving birth,” he says. Known as “Vico” to his students, readers and followers, he doesn’t mince words.

On the right side of his skull, a circular scar reminds him of the operation he underwent — he takes note of it each time he looks in the mirror. We’ll get to the disease that almost killed him, but we primarily got together to speak about his book of practical philosophy, which is dedicated to young people and adolescents.

Question. Your twin girls are three-years-old. Will your book help them when they reach adolescence?

Answer. [The Spanish philosopher] Ortega y Gasset used to say that generations succeed each other every 15 years, but that the big changes happen every 30 years. That’s why grandparents love their grandchildren very much, even if they don’t understand them. I hope that when my daughters grow up, it will still be a good read for them. I know I probably won’t make it to see my grandchildren, though.

Q. Is it harder to be a teenager today than when you were growing up?

A. Yes, because today, it’s difficult for them to naturally integrate into a group. We were lucky to have urban tribes — we were lucky that social media didn’t exist, that we didn’t have cell phones, that there was no Instagram. We had to go out, walk, ask questions, have fun, develop social skills… [All of this] is essential at that stage of life. Today, teenagers are spread out in an immense ocean looking for each other. They feel what human beings have always felt: anxiety, depression, uncertainty… But they don’t know how to deal with [these emotions]. My book can help them.

Q. Is social media so terrible?

A. I don’t know if it’s so terrible… The problem is that we don’t really understand it. Kids think they do, but they use [social media] in a mechanical way. Even the inventors [of social media platforms] are banning their children from screen time; they want to return to analog education. Social media isn’t the devil, but we don’t know enough [about the effects] to affirm the contrary.

Q. At what age will you let your daughters have a cell phone?

A. I haven’t planned a date. At the moment, I don’t even let them play on my own cellphone. When the time comes, I’ll just get them flip phones. They will be the laughingstock of their class, but they will say that their father is that weird because he is a philosopher, and, if they get annoying, he will come to school to give a lecture and, maybe, he will convince their parents not to let them use cellphones either.

Q. You’re not afraid they’ll be fodder for bullies?

A. Bullying isn’t a problem of self-esteem, but of socialization. Bullying occurs because there is no group [to defend you]. My ambition is for my daughters to play with everyone, interact with everyone and, if I don’t let them use my cell phone, they can tell the rest that it’s just the way their father is, and they’ll still be respected. I, too, was an outcast as a child. For being a nerd, for being chubby, for being weird. But I had social skills that saved me. [Being able to] approach a group of people. In my case, it was heavy-metal that saved my life in various complicated episodes of my youth. Without friends, we’re nobody. Friends are part of us. There is no humanity without friendship.

Q. Is someone who doesn’t have friends not human?

A. Those who do not have them do not know the harm of not having them. It is like a blind man who does not see the sky, but imagines it in his own way. No, sorry, if you can’t see the sky, you don’t know what it’s really like. Friends are your real personal patrimony. The tragedy is not having friends and believing you don’t need them.

Q. What is solitude?

A. Unwanted loneliness is a disease and a condemnation. Of course, sought-after solitude can be satisfying, but unwanted solitude makes us sick and can kill us. In fact, when we want to punish someone, we put them in jail, and, if we really want to fuck them up, we isolate them.

Q. Do young people suffer more today than in the past? Are they fragile?

A. Maybe, but it’s all due to a distortion regarding how they perceive themselves. That’s why it’s so important to know yourself. If I’m clear about my failures and my positive aspects, I may still have bad moments in my studies, my family, my life… but at least I’ll be armed.

But if no one has told me that this self-knowledge cannot be done in solitude, that I am not the only one in the world to whom this happens, I will be a prey to the evils of the spirit. I say to know oneself, not to conform. I hate the “be yourself,” the “who follows, gets it,” the “if you want it badly enough, it will happen.” If you don’t know yourself and don’t act, shit doesn’t happen. We are so small, and we are at the mercy of so many things. Look at me, I’ve been pissing a stone all fucking week.

Q. But we always want to protect our children from suffering.

A. That’s in our nature — we’re the only species that wants to take care of children for life. And the law of life is that they need to fly. Let them fly! The problem is when children stay at their mom’s house until the age of 40, and we’re happy about it.

Q. What would you say to a lady who suffers from “empty nest syndrome” because her 25-year-old daughter has left home? I’m asking for a friend.

A. I would tell her to fuck more (laughs). Seriously though, I would tell her to be happy because her baby [is flying] and to fill her life with other things.

Q. It’s probably easier to get laid than to find a friend.

A. That’s very probable. Thanks to the change in morality, sexual issues are taken as a natural thing — there are even apps that can help. In my day, it was much more difficult to find a [sexual partner]... Now, it’s difficult to make friends, because we’ve given ourselves so much importance. Fear of failure or rejection prevents us from getting closer to others. Or having bad experiences. I always say the same thing: if you had a bad meal, don’t stop eating. If a friend betrays you, keep trying until you find [true friendship].

Q. Why do you curse so much?

A. My language is very casual because I need to establish an immediate connection with readers…. When a philosopher says “shit” instead of “excrete,” he’s doing humanity a favor.

The philosopher David Pastor Vico.
The philosopher David Pastor Vico.Bernardo Pérez Tovar

Q. You’ve said that you’re only alive because of a miracle. How did you find out that you had cancer?

A. While combing my beautiful curly hair down to my waist. One day, when I was 45, I burst a mole I had had since I was a child. I started to bleed a lot, I was cured but, a week later, I had a tumor as big as a mushroom. I got scared. I went to the dermatologist. Six millimeter implantation melanoma. If you have one, you can be cured. With six, you’re really screwed. And even more so with an irradiated lymph node, as I had. The statistics go down to six months of life — a year at the most.

Q. Did you freak out?

A. I left the clinic [in Mexico] and made three calls. One, crying, to my wife. Another, to my father, in Spain. By the third, I pulled myself together. I went through all the phases of mourning in half-an-hour. They told me I was late and needed to rush. The surgeons operated on me in Mexico and left me with this scar — like the bottom of a Coca-Cola can — and the worst part is that my hair won’t grow back there, because it’s a skin implant from my leg. The operation was a success, but afterward, the alternative was immunotherapy, and I couldn’t afford it in Mexico. I had to go home. It turns out that the Spanish public health system [managed to] keep me alive in a hospital next to my childhood home.

I was born in Belgium because my parents emigrated, to be able to eat. I returned to Seville at the age of six. I grew up and migrated to Mexico, because in Spain, I couldn’t find a job as a philosopher. The National University of Mexico invited me as a professor and, just when I imagined that country as a home, I had to return to my hometown, literally to stay alive. I’m a survivor.

Q. Why should people buy your book?

A. It’s a tool. Not to be happy, but to not suffer. It is not a Satisfyer, nor a Lexatin, because that is temporary and the philosophy remains. It raises ideas that can change your mind, your way of thinking, and if it changes your way of thinking it changes your way of living. I’m not the one who says that… Plato, Aristotle and Epicurus say it.

Q. Is classical philosophy still alive?

A. A good philosopher — good philosophy — can save you from going to the psychologist. It can save your life. And that bothers a lot of people. I have to say it: philosophy seems boring because many teachers are very boring. Ancient philosophers divided philosophy between the analytical and the curative. There were no psychologists or psychiatrists — the doctors healed the body and philosophers healed the soul.

Q. What is the future for you now?

A. A possibility that has been given to me. I have had such dark days. I have been so scared that I live every day as a gift. Besides, I live in Seville and that is priceless. It’s the best land in the world.

A “heavy” philosopher

The philosopher David Pastor Vico, 46, doesn’t seem like a philosopher. Not, at least, in accordance with the preconceived ideas that we tend to have about the profession. His bushy beard, leather jackets and black t-shirts (covered in writing) bring him closer to the urban culture that, he says, saved his physical and emotional skin during adolescence. “Heavy stuff,” he notes. 

Vico – who is a professor at Mexico’s National Autonomous University – is the son of a humble Sevillian family that had to emigrate to Belgium. After studying philosophy, he dedicated himself to giving classes and lectures online and in auditoriums. However, cancer changed his path and he had to return to Spain for treatment. Now, he’s published a book titled Ética para desconfiados [Ethics for the distrustful] and is working with local TV programs to promote philosophy. 

Any medium is useful, he says, to try to help people avoid suffering and understand the classics. “Happiness,” he explains, “is another thing.” 

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