How to Lose Friends and Influence No One
"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
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
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.