Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Examined Life

by Michael Dymmoch

One of the required philosophy courses I had in college was non-traditional. Instead of Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Spinoza or Nietzsche, we studied Catch 22, J.B., The Last Temptation of Christ, Mother Courage and other “contemporary” works of art. My instructor’s premise was that no one sits down to write philosophy anymore. Contemporary philosophers write fiction—prose, plays, screenplays, and music trying to make sense of the universe.

Independence day is a good time to think about philosophy. Nominally, we live in a democracy, an idea our founding fathers borrowed from ancient Athens. Back in Athens, only free men were allowed to participate. Women and slaves were SOL. America’s first efforts pretty much emulated that model. I like to think we’ve improved on it. Today women can vote if they will. Slavery is officially illegal. Banning books results in increased sales. Victims can sue when their unpopular ideas get them fired or demoted. Hemlock is reserved for mass murderers.

Socrates insisted that the unexamined life is not worth living. He had the courage of his convictions, too, electing to die rather than quit “corrupting” the youth of Athens by encouraging them to think. American society doesn’t ban thinking, but seems to discourage it by filling up every moment with noise. Some of it’s disguised as entertainment, much of it is advertising. Cradle to grave. Maybe that’s why literacy is vanishing and books sales are dropping.

But some of us are still trying to get through, to persuade people to revisit their philosophies. My first real exposure to homosexuality was the 1970 film The Boys in the Band. My parents hadn’t ever mentioned the subject, so I had no entrenched beliefs. The movie made me realize that people are more alike than different. So did Moscow on the Hudson, an entertaining but sympathetic look at immigrants and a reiteration of the melting pot concept of America. As soon as he was old enough to understand them, I introduced my son to Catch 22 and The Prisoner. I’m still pushing them on nieces and nephews. Some of the authors who corrupted my youth were James Baldwin, Mark Twain, Ray Bradbury, Dick Francis, Harper Lee, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

Who influenced you?

4 comments:

Steve Malley said...

Robert Heinlein, John D MacDonald, and pretty much everyone who wrote one of my dad's Fawcett Gold Medals.

Actually, my single best moment in subversive literature was my dad signing a note allowing me to check 'adult' books out of our local library. I really, really wanted to read 1984, but I was only eight years old...

The Home Office said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Home Office said...

The usual for me: Heller, Vonnegut. And a little bit of Raymond Chandler, for teaching me to look for what's growing on the shady side of every swimming pool, and that catching the bad guy does not always make for a happy ending.

Jean Sheldon said...

JD Salinger's short stories blew me away. I wanted to be Esmé—with love and Squalor