Some overheard conversation

Is there or is there not authority?

There appears to be authority….

Yes, but is it real? Is it legitimate?

Is this a Habermasian question?


Never mind….

Here’s what I’m driving at: there is the constant temptation to anarchy, the denial of authority.

Is that what anarchy is?

That’s a good enough understanding for the moment. Lots of people set them up as authorities over others, but my question is whether that is ever legitimate?

Why are you wondering this?

I am an egomaniac. It’s all about me. I want to know whether I can live a meaningful, authentic, decent life in the current situation. I live in a beautiful home, modest by some standards, palatial by others. I have a very flexible work schedule, doing a job I mostly love, that may very likely be meaningful. But I am afforded this relative luxury because I lucked out. I was born into a system that made it possible for me to have all this, but the system makes it possible for me to have all this only by immiserating multitudes of others. This misery is produced in a way that I almost never witness it. But too late! I know it is going on now. So the question is: can I live knowing that my relative ease is possible only because others suffer?

I don’t see how you can.


No, not really. Look to your left. Look to your right. All around you, life goes on. You are like Arjuna. This is your fate. This is your destiny. There is the truth all around you, but that truth does not tell you what to do…at least it does not demand that you do things differently. Clearly, it is not demanding that, because when you close this laptop you will enjoy a beer on your deck, watch the Phillies on tv, pet your cats, kiss your wife when she gets home from her equally privileged life which she is not questioning like you are, and you will forget about these questions for a while. And you will sleep in relative peace.

Are you saying, tough shit for the losers of the world?

Are you saying you can picture a world wherein there are no losers? The truth of it is there have been winners and losers since there have been humans – even before, in a sense, because the whole of natural history could be understood in terms of winners and losers. Evolution, creative destruction.

Wow. Social Darwinism?

That’s a construction. That’s an attempt to absolve yourself of your responsibilities for your life and for your world. It is just not as simple as that. Nevertheless, you find the feathers of beautiful birds on the ground beneath your feeders, feeders you put out to help nurture the birds of your neighborhood, feeders that attract both birds and their predators – which are also birds, I might add.

But humans are different.


We have reason. We are moral beings. We can decide well or poorly how to handle our appetites and desires. We are responsible for our actions in a way a raptor is not.



I’m not so sure. I think our rationality is a way of doing exactly what raptors do. It is a tool to help us survive, to thrive. Thinking is our way of eating the small birds, if you will. If push came to shove, would you not do whatever it takes to save yourself and your family?

Yes, if only my own cowardice did not get in the way.

That’s my point. You are thinking that because life is peaceful and good at the moment for you, you have the luxury of considering the plight of the poor, the downtrodden, the losers. You feel, since you know the cause (do you??) of their plight, you are obliged to do something about it. And the “something” is supposed to be obvious – but is it? Is it marching in protest? Taking hostages? What? Can it not be teaching? Can it not be showing others what is going on? Is everyone supposed to be a warrior (because that is what it’d take to change things)? Nope. Put it this way. Your “penance,” call it that, is to witness the suffering, to have some idea (however imperfect) of the causes of it, and to have to think about it, and live with the fact that you will continue to live a nice life (perhaps) in the face of all that. It is already a kind of suffering.

You are talking nonsense.

No. The poor campesino suffers. The residents of Kandahar suffer. The sweatshop workers suffer. And perhaps even the stinking rich capitalists suffer, just not in the way you do. All is suffering. And also joy. You have no idea how much joy can be had in a war zone, a barrio, a favela, a shantytown.

I don’t want to know.

See? That’s what I’m talking about. It’s good enough here, now…isn’t it? You fool around writing notes to yourself, read books on revolutionaries and spies, basically just watch the days go by in relative good health with a nice wife and loving family. Why be ungrateful for that?


Yes. Ungrateful.

But I am grateful for all of this.

No you are not. You are – as always – looking for a way out…or at least wondering what it’d be like not to be here, not to be you. You know, though, deep down you do get it. You get what you are all about. You play dilettante with joining this or that, converting to this or that. But the truth of it is you get it: you are just you. This life is the right life for you because it is yours. You aren’t a catholic, a conservative, a communist, a revolutionary, a mogul, a warrior, a hero, scholar (even). You are a guy who likes to go for a walk, eat, drink, and (if you’d let yourself) be merry, read some books, have some fantasies, listen to some music, learn a few things. That’s it. That’s just it. That’s why you never commit to anything. As soon as you try it enough, you realize it’s not you and you move on. Because “you” aren’t any of those things. You are already you, and there is nothing particularly different you need to do to become you…because you are already you.

I’m already me.


And who is that?





You are the guy who asks, who am I. That’s you. That what you do. That is your reason for being, your raison d’être. Sisyphus pushed the boulder up the hill just to have it roll down again. Yours is not to do or die; yours is to reason why. That’s what you do. When you try out these conversions, all that is is an attempt to get a fuller view, a broader perspective, to ask the questions from a different angle. It is not a serious attempt at conversion. Your misery is produced because of a faulty presupposition. You think you are supposed to find the thing you are supposed to be but are not, and then to become that thing. But that is just a bad presupposition. You are a philosopher, brother. That means questions, not answers. Yes, people want answers. They ask questions in order to get answers. Even you want answers…but not in your professional capacity, not according to your vocation, your calling. To be authentically you is to dwell in the questions. Yes, that makes you a Hamlet, a coward, a neither-fish-nor-fowl, an in-between-er, an all-over-the-map-er. Tough luck if you don’t like it, but there it is.

So are you absolving me of responsibility for global injustice?

Do I look like the Pope? And did you hear the question you just asked? Seriously?

So I go back to sleep, forget I saw how this sausage of a reality got made and just try to have as much fun as I can before the axe falls?

And that’s bad because…?

But won’t other people look at me as some kind of a hypocrite, a coward?

Yes, some will. And you know what? It’ll be like they’re looking in a mirror. Because none of them is pure. None. What revolutionaries do you know? Members of philosophy faculties? Hah! Perhaps your protesting sister-in-law?

Hey, leave her out of this. She’s an excellent person! She means very well.

Sure she does. She is an excellent person. But my point is that it is as much about cobbling together a meaningful life for her as it is for the artist that gives up family and fortune for the sake of his work or the captain of industry who has all the money in the world and still despises the fact that he couldn’t just play baseball like he wanted to. It is all a big play. Don’t take it so seriously. The end is always the same: you die. So if you want my advice…

Not really.

…just look at it more like a comedy than a tragedy. It is a very good thing that bombs are not going off all around you. It might happen that they will sometime, and then you’ll have to deal with it. But no sense stirring that up needlessly.

But there is a need.

Bombs here, bombs there. There’ll be bombs. Always have been. “The poor you will always have with you” – I have that on good authority. If we cure cancer you can bet there’ll be a new virus that’ll get us. Or we’ll slit our own wrists when we just don’t die of old age. It ends the same: you die. Stop fucking worrying.

No need to be crude.

Yes, need. Because you have to snap out of this. Here’s how: write a book, put it all in there, the philosophers, the hypocrites, the saints, the sinners, the warriors, the cowards. Put it all in there. It won’t be a good book at all if all of the characters are good and there are no injustices, right? Real snooze, that’d be. Well, guess what? Life is like that exactly. So write a book about life, real life, this life. The one with all the shit you are focused on AND the sweetness, too. Otherwise, you’ll be lying. Lying novels suck.

What about teaching philosophy?

Look, I think you have it. I think what you’ve been doing the past couple of years is really getting into the right space. All the ambiguity, the richness. It is really a good space. Learn from yourself. Stop being like your teenage students. You know that Wallace Shawn piece, “Why I Call Myself a Socialist”? You know how he says that actors on stage are not “faking” it, that they’re really finding truths about themselves in their “acting,” and realizing that their off-stage life is also acting in various roles? That’s the ticket. You are “acting” the role of a philosopher, true. But there is also deep truth in your living out that role in your authentic way (which I really think you are getting into…). It is not just “fake.” It is both real and fake, both being and seeming. And all of it is always like that. And then you die.

You keep bringing up death when I haven’t.



Because you need that memento mori sign before your eyes at all times. It focuses the mind.

Isn’t that morbid?

Weirdly, life is morbid (aimed at death), but the thought is the opposite. It is aimed at life. Because only the living can be aware of and remember its mortality. When the living forgets its mortality it becomes oblivious to its vitality…i.e., it’s as good as dead. It starts sleepwalking through its roles, forgetting they are roles, thinking it coincides with those roles. But life is in the différance, between “life” and “death”, coinciding with neither.

Sounds heavy. Sheer heaviosity.

Hey, laugh if you will! That’s my point: laugh.

It’s a comedy.

It is.

All the wars and sweatshops and oligarchy and poverty?

Yep. Hard pill to swallow, isn’t it?


Swallow it anyway.

But what will people think?

They’ll think it’s a fucking joke…at least they will if they know what’s good for them.

So do nothing?

No, do what you are doing: asking questions.

That’s ineffectual.

Is it? Your job is to ask and ask and ask. That is your mission.

But I want answers, too.

Tough luck. Not to be. Just like you won’t play point guard in the NBA, lead guitar on the big stage, or even professor emeritus at Harvard. Just like you won’t get to hold your own flesh and blood child in your arms. Just like you won’t get to be Pope. Just like you won’t sit on the Supreme Court. Just like you won’t speak fluent Mandarin. Just like you won’t get elected President of the USA. Just like you won’t be a Navy SEAL. Just like you won’t be a martyr for Jesus. Just like you won’t be a revolutionary. Just like you won’t be a Hassid, a hacker, or a haberdasher. You are a philosopher and a philosopher asks questions and that’s that. Deal with it.

You mean I don’t get a choice?

No. You no longer get a choice.

You mean I had a choice?

I don’t know, but I know you don’t have one any more.

That’s crazy. I could chuck all this…the adjunct teaching, the books, the blog…all this shit and get a job in industry and make some real money and learn Mandarin on the side.

Sure you can, sure you can. Let’s see you try….

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