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Columns

June 17, 2011

Up On Hawthorn Hill: Wisdom

I do not know about anyone else, but I tired of selfcongratulatory political talk a long time ago. Fact is, I have never liked it much. One candidate interviewed yesterday had nothing at all good to say about the present administration. In the process of lambasting its record on just about every front, this individual never once offered any specifics as to how he would go about creating jobs, ending Medicare fraud, or terminating these idiotic wars that we seem intent on embroiling ourselves in.

As he considers his imminent death, Socrates declares that entering into the political arena never appealed to him because he was too concerned with discovering and telling the truth. Admittedly, his dialogic approach to unearthing the truth of such things as justice and friendship can at times be a bit dizzying, but he figured, rightly, that he needed the freedom of an apolitical life in order to sustain and nourish his lifelong journey in search of wisdom.

I have some trouble accepting his notion that it is when the soul is ultimately freed from the body that wisdom is finally achieved. Be that as it may, his aversion to partisan politics makes a great deal of sense, since truth seems as elusive and unwelcome to most politicians as the plague.

One of the attractions of Socrates is his uncanny ability to force us to reconsider our most basic assumptions.

Questioning one’s assumptions requires character. It is easy to put on blinders and happily cruise along through life feeling so certain about things that periodic reexaminations of one’s beliefs become anathema. I feel pretty certain about some things. For instance, I know that every day at about six in the morning and four in the afternoon my dog Gabby will pester me to feed her. Her stomach is a pretty reliable clock. I am as certain as I can be that our seven new chickens will fare well if I take good care of them. It is also fair to assume that given human nature’s penchant for digging itself into ideological corners, the culture wars that characterize contemporary life will continue.

The question is, what is one to do?I wrestle with that all  the time. I wish I could devotethat time to other more rewarding mental pursuits.

In his “Confessions,” Rousseau writes of the interminable and unavoidable conflict between the individual and society. Ideally, a society would provide for the harmonious coupling of both.

An individual is married to the society in which he finds himself, like it or not. Any relationship, if it is to not only survive, but flourish, requires both hard work and compromise.

Right now there are too many people hard at work finding ways to divide us. And compromise, as an effective strategy for the achievement of harmony, has fallen prey to selfishness, blind adherence to ideology, and a culture of impassioned distrust that should have anyone familiar with history a bit worried.

Perhaps we can arrest what sometimes feels like a freefall into disaster if we start to think of ourselves as individuals living together in a community whose existence depends on our collective ability to give more than take. Unfortunately, we live in a winner take all society where the rights, feelings, and inclinations of those who find themselves in a numerically significant minority are routinely maligned and ignored.

That makes possible a tyranny that serves no one while undermining us all.

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