This morning while sorting through the wall of books that wrapped around my one-room apartment, I re-discovered in an obscure critique of Kant an irregularly folded page of handwritten text. It wasn’t dated, but it was in the same hand that had inscribed “George Glover / Knox College, 1923” on the inside cover of the book.
As a graduate student, I’d found the book in an antiquarian bookshop near campus. The notes were an interesting, if not important, artifact because as far as I was able to determine, this was Mr. Glover’s entire achievement in philosophy.
In our highly evolved being we have become objective, remote, and godlike. Having reached our evolutionary apex, we reflect back on ourselves as if looking at something beneath or behind us. We have become the anthropologist who sees but is not seen, who questions but is not questioned, who judges but is not judged. We have exposed the superstitions of our primitive selves and replaced them with an incorrigible system of truth. We have removed the nearsighted empathy of the human animal and have substituted for it the omniscient perspective of absolute mind. We have become our own gods.
To a rebellious and unsatisfied young mind, that had been the stuff of truth—liberating and intoxicating and potentially dangerous. For three decades, I was consumed. I ate, drank, and slept philosophy, and I searched avidly for the unknown and the unappreciated genius in the dead and in the living.
As a professor, I imagined I had a legacy to pass on. I did, but it wasn’t what I had in mind. Three years earlier, it was a young man and last year a young woman. They took my course in 19th century German philosophy. Only in retrospect did I recall his tortured writing, which at the time struck me as unusually beautiful if not technically accurate. In contrast, her scholarship was impeccable, but I recall that she wrote from a disturbingly dispassionate distance.
For some time, I stayed on, even pretended I was a latter-day Socrates … of sorts. But that rang false. Worse, it rang empty. I was no Socrates, and my accusers were only one, but he was vicious and unrelenting.
“How could I have known?”
“How could you not have anticipated?”
“There are upwards of 40 students in my fall class. How can I know what each one is thinking?”
“How can you not consider the intellectual shock, particularly for sensitive, intelligent types?”
“This isn’t an immersion experience. I don’t expect students to lose themselves in the subject. It has to be studied, analyzed, and evaluated, not lived.”
“You think your students can match your experience and knowledge when it comes to practicing the archaeology of philosophy?”
“I see where you’re going. I do know the cases, and I rely on Leopold and Loeb among others when I lecture on philosophical distortions.”
“And that satisfies you?”
It didn’t. What had been my bread and butter, as Clarence would put it, now came back up half-chewed. It left a burning rawness in the back of my throat that reached all the way down to my gut.
The buzzer interrupted my packing. “Clarence?” I shouted into the intercom. “Yeah,” he shouted back. I buzzed him up. Clarence is a friend. He offered to help me sell off the contents of my room. He can’t read, so I’ve numbered the boxes. It just makes it easier when we get to the book dealer.
He enjoys helping people. We met at the mission. He knows everybody that comes into that place.
When asked, he said he’s never had a problem with indigestion. And the other? Never thought about it—too busy.
It occurred to me that maybe I could teach him how to read, just—
On second thought, I decided it would be wrongheaded … as wrongheaded as the auto-da-fé I had once contemplated consuming my library.
Peter McMillan is a freelance writer and ESL instructor who lives on the northwest shore of Lake Ontario with his wife and two flat-coated retrievers.