Poore Richard's Really Poore Almanack

The last two years worth of “hometown newspaper” columns from Dahlonega, Georgia
that led to Richard Van Ingram being banned from the only news and opinion organ in the county.

How to Lose Friends and Influence No One
December 2004

"That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees--
Those dying generations -- at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect."
William Butler Yeats
From "Sailing to Byzantium"

It was about 20 years ago and she was this stunning girl at North Georgia College. Bright, happy, a good actress – of course I thought she was wonderful, wonderful to the point I joined the theater group as a set designer and eventually as an actor just to be near her. So there I was, on stage, acting the lead role in a play – me, terrified of speaking in crowds, tongue tied even in casual conversation, all just to get this girl’s attention. Which I did.

She consented to go out with me and like any young man getting a date with a woman he likes, I was electrified with anticipation. We both dressed up and went to Caruso’s on the square. A friend waitressing there had saved us a window table, and the golden light of the setting sun on the old buildings was bringing a perfect spring day to a gorgeous end; I couldn’t have asked for more from life at that moment.

I ordered chicken marsala and she had a pasta dish with alfredo sauce. Our conversation was of the type that transpires between young people getting to know one another – we talked about the theater, our common acquaintances, classes. I lied about my knowledge of ingredients in Italian food to impress her, desperate as I was for her approval and a chance at that all-important second date. We laughed, had a good time, no uncomfortable pauses in the talk.

And then we got to discussing what we were reading for pleasure.

I had gotten interested in the Platonic Dialogues in my World Lit class and had begun to read them on my own. Socrates, star of the dialogues, amazed and confounded me – still does, always will, I suspect. He didn’t care much for the sorts of things normal people did, like wealth, fame, power. Instead, he was obsessed with seemingly simple questions such as "Who am I?" and "What is the Good?"

It seems he’d gone to the Delphic Oracle (Socrates lived in Athens, Greece c. 2,500 BC) and was presented with the same admonition everyone who consulted the Oracle was given: "Gnothai Seauton," Know Thyself. And then the Oracle, meeting Socrates, said something she had never said before, namely that Socrates "is the wisest man in Athens."

Yet this confounded everyone since it was well known that Socrates professed to know absolutely nothing. In fact, most of Plato’s dialogues present the figure of Socrates having conversations with various people who profess to be experts at this and that, and who claim to "know" what things like goodness, justice, truth, and beauty are; but little by little humble – and sly – Socrates shows them they really don’t know anything, that all they have are common opinions they’ve inherited without asking whether they’re really true or not.

These people, like most of us in similar situations, discover they are hard pressed to offer a rational account of what they really believe and why. Socrates does his work almost entirely by asking questions and pointing out where his companions contradict themselves or where they are assuming things they wouldn’t normally have noticed. And when each person arrives at the point where they have to admit their basic ignorance of the principles they once thought they knew so well, Socrates invites them to join him in the search for the truth about these matters, especially about Goodness and what it means to live a good life, since he, too, doesn’t know but is searching.

I told the young lady about all this the best I could, as enthusiastically as I could, and expected old Socrates and his method to hold her as enthralled as they did me. Nothing of the sort. As I revealed the story of someone I thought marvelous and holy, the look on her face grew increasingly sour until, at last, she interjected and said that "this Socrates guy" sounded like a pain (except her language was stronger). Then she added the kicker: "Who in the world would want to be like that?"

Oh, at that instant I learned just how deeply one’s heart can sink. I continued to act interested in this girl, but it was just that – an act. The glorious nimbus of perfection my heart had projected onto her was gone; she no longer seemed divine, but common. She had insulted Socrates, and worse, she had lightly dismissed this odd activity called "philosophy" I had so recently become aware of. It seemed that, in my dark, silly, and stumbling way, I had chosen, at least in that instance, to "love Wisdom" rather than someone or something of this world.

It was then I dimly realized that to pursue truth (the real thing, not merely rhetoric or power), or to even want to do something so bizarre as pursue it, immediately throws one outside the brunt of humanity. It lands one in the outer darkness where only fools voluntarily wander around in search of a bare glimpse of a far off, unseeable Light. A treasure worth more than gold, guns, glory, …or girls, but one which will get you nowhere with any of them.

I pretended to listen to her conversation. I bought her New York-style cheesecake and coffee, took her back to the dorms and said good night.

There was no second date.

Some 20 years have passed now and I, as a serious student and practitioner of the vile and aggravating art of philosophy, have learned to be more patient and less judgmental with those who find dear old Socrates and his tradition mysterious, dangerous, or just a plain waste of time. When I write a column for The Nugget, what I mainly aim to do is introduce a philosophical perspective on contemporary issues and explore the theoretical assumptions being made by decision makers and normal citizens. I go wherever I think truth lies and I share what I find as best as I am able in the space graciously given me; but being a philosopher, I have no wisdom, I only love wisdom, and as Socrates said, we love what we lack. I am a mass of imperfections – hence, I love Perfection.

My columns are usually more of an invitation to civilized discourse than a final pronouncement, though I pronounce things as clearly and strongly as I feel confident. Over the past two and a half years of writing here, my hope has been, above all, to have set a good example and to invite my readers to lay down their everyday beliefs and trade them in for a few moments of wonder.

I pray my voice has, in its own weak way, tempted some to look up from the everyday to the "monuments of unageing intellect." For the rest, as I claim to be nothing much more than a fool stumbling around in the darkness, maybe I have been entertaining. If not, I promise I’ll try harder next time.





Richard Van Ingram
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