It is dawning on me that one of the least productive activities in retirement is second-guessing the past. Are there things I didn’t do but should have? Yes. Are there things I did and wished I didn’t? Yes. Are there things I could have done better? Yes. Was I an ass too frequently? Yes. Was I noble too seldom? Yes. Yes to it all. But it’s past; let it go. I find that facile advice comes more easily when you perceive there is enough time to right the wrongs you committed and blot out regret with action.
This subject came up yesterday in a discussion with my dearest friend, Chris. He is five years younger than I, and of Western Kansas German farmer stock. The picture of robust health and with as inquisitive a mind as I have ever encountered. But on Tuesday, he had open-heart surgery to duct-tape a leaky valve. When he and his wife got home, I greeted him even before his adoring dog, Jake. As we talked all afternoon, he nodded off from time to time, and only with Chris would I not suspect it to be a subtle criticism of the conversation he was enduring.
We both like to travel, and prefer to do it independently. His big regret was that he had never learned a foreign language so that he could interact with the people and their culture without an intermediary. Chris is a great interactor, a word that spell check tells me does not exist. It does now. He is fast friends with a Chinese friend of our Lao-He, even though neither of them knows a word of each other’s language. To see them together, but out of earshot, you never suspect it, since they very clearly are communicating.
My contribution to what might become our own private little regretfest was that, while there were omissions in my life that would forever remain incomplete, there are some moments in my life that were so extraordinary that savoring them had the effect of making the regrets dissolve from my consciousness. I mentioned visiting The Great Wall, three times. Most westerners have never been there once, and each time I go the effect on me is physical, emotional, intellectual, and very personal. Regrets turn out to be pretty puny when compared with that.
So, you ask, when does he start giving us the steamy stuff about corrupting the youth? Let me tell you, I wish I had something for you in that regard. But I don’t, in the tawdry way you might leeringly imagine. Come on: how could leeringly not be a word? Maybe WordPress is a little too prim for my purposes. But here’s what I do have. It comes about through the minor tempest caused a few weeks ago by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, in an interview with a softball-pitching devotee. Tyson, who has given a rebirth to Carl Sagan’s great series, Cosmos, decided to offer some gratuitous slander in the direction of my discipline, philosophy. His main gripe, in comparing philosophy to science, his turf, was that philosophers get so tied up in endless questioning and obsessing about language that they (we) just don’t ever accomplish anything. For all our pedantic questioning, when do we ever come up with an answer?
The philosophy blogs I frequent quickly lit up with defensive posturing and incredulous whining And that was just the tenured professors. Actually, there were some excellent, well-reasoned defenses of the usefulness of philosophy, the best that I saw being from Massimo Pigliucci in the blog Scientia Salon, here on WordPress. The author is learned in both the sciences and philosophy, which beats Tyson by one. However, the response I most like, and the one that sticks in my craw, came from robinjames, a philosopher, in the section called Cyborgology, on the web site The Society Pages.
Taking the example of Socrates in his trial, the thought is that the “job” of philosophy, or what philosophy is all about truly is corrupting the youth. That’s what we should be doing, not all the “‘splainin'” (Tyson’s term) that science does so well. The behavior of Socrates in his trial, behavior that sometimes seemed downright puzzling for someone trying to be acquitted, was precisely to be found guilty as charged. That he was so beloved by many in Athens might obscure the fact that he was a philosopher, and corrupting the youth is what we do. And when we become too beloved, or too chummy with the mainstream, or become an icon found on t-shirts and bags like Chairman Mao, we betray ourselves and the life we claim to revere. Socrates saved himself by showing the unsavory, obnoxious side that is inevitable if you are a source of corruption.
The Socratic question is also a personal one, summoning the dull pain of regret once again, a regret the vistas of the Great Wall cannot blot out. Before the hemlock finds its way to my glass, can I say I have corrupted the youth I touched? The brightest of them are intent on giving their minds and bodies to the machine Socrates despised. I have done nothing to dissuade them, it seems. If I have not corrupted at least one, my life is but a vanity with a pension at the end.