(A Tongue-in-Cheek Dialogue)
I was standing in front of the library wishing for the old days, a smoking campus, a campus that had not banished Lady Nicotine, when I saw him approaching: Socrates.
He had on his usual garb, a dark knit cap, a green flannel shirt under ancient bibbed jeans. His heavy work boots had soles with peculiar wear — no doubt the product of his awkward duck walk, each foot falling as though pissed with the other and determined to find its separate way. He grinned when he saw me, a Socratic grin, half-ignorance, half-knowledge, and he waved.
“Kelly,” he started, the rare cold morning air in Auburn making his exhalations visible against the threatening dark sky, “what are you doing outside the library? Wouldn’t you be better off inside?”
I eyed him cooly. He was always asking questions with multiple meanings but he would never own up to it. He just smiled a Cheshire Cat smile while the question, with its hidden questions, vanished away. I wasn’t sure what question I wanted to answer so I kept my mouth shut and endured the vanishment.
He laughed at me, as he often did, but there was a dollop of frustration in his laugh, since he couldn’t work his magic if I wouldn’t give him words. He waited for me to speak but I took off my backpack and unzipped it, hunting around in the bottom. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, just looking, just hoping he might let his question suffice and move along.
After a moment, the silence seemed to move him to further speech instead of a change of location. “So, are you writing these days?”
I looked up at him quizzically. This had always been a sore spot between us. I wrote. He didn’t. I had tenure. He didn’t. Never would. He could wipe the floor with me philosophically, but I had a windowed office while he had a darkened carrel in the library, if he was lucky. I knew he had written a little poetry, but he resisted my one request to see any of it and I never asked again.
“I am — but mostly fiction. I have written no philosophy. Not lately.” I stood up and glanced down at my tennis shoes, “Maybe never again. Who knows?”
He grinned again at that. “Not me,” he noted, “I’m not one of those teachers who knows things. And how goes the fiction? Are you troubled by the thought of writing about what-is-not instead of what-is?”
I groaned and only afterward realized I groaned aloud. He seemed tempted to smile and then did, and I smiled back. “Let’s not have that conversation again, Soc, okay? You studied with Elias Stranger at Princeton — and you did that plenum post-doc at the Parmenidean Institute. You can tie me in knots of what-is-not or knots of what-is, maybe even knots of what-is-and-is-not.”
A flash showed in his eyes. “Is there anything that is-and-is-not, or is there not?”
I donned my backpack instead of answering. After a moment, I gave him a teasing glare. “You know, there’s a reason why the other profs hate you.”
We both laughed at that. “So,” he added, after the laugh disappeared, “how do you keep yourself at it, fiction writing? I’ve never been able to get myself to stick to the blank page, to screw my philosophical courage to that sticking-place. I like conversation — philosophy with no pretensions to draw the limits of things, or to occupy their center, or to have achieved some War Eagle-eye point of view. I like the on-the-spotness of conversation, the circumscribed, improvisatory exercises of a kind of human wisdom.”
I nodded. I’m been improvised on often enough, shown to lack a kind of human wisdom, dragged dizzy and dithering from Socrates’ vortex of dialectic. But even so, I couldn’t help liking the guy, even if he was a pain in the ass.
I threw caution to the wind— it’s that tendency that made me into a philosopher — and I bit: “I guess I keep at it because I’m disciplined.”
He smiled and leaned in. “You know, I have often wondered about discipline…”
I groaned but kept it wholly internal this time. I set the hook in my own jaw: “And…”
He leaned further, one of his eyes drifting outward as it often did when he concentrated, as though he was focused on me and lost in thought. It was disconcerting. I braced myself for a beating.
“And I wonder — is discipline just habit or is it more than a habit, or is it habit at all?”
We stood for a moment in low-hanging cumulus clouds of our visible breaths.
I yielded. Spoke. “Well, I guess it depends. If you compare my discipline in writing to, I don’t know, a habit like smoking or nail-biting, it seems distant from that, but if you compare it to something like map-reading, it seems closer to that.”
“Yes, but map-reading is a skill, that kind of habit. Nail-biting, unless it is a tip of the finger form of topiary, isn’t. Some habits you just have: you can’t be good or bad at them. Others, skills, you can be good or bad at.”
I considered myself. “But if you are bad enough, can you be said to have the skill?”
His eyes shone — or at least the one focused on me did. I couldn’t quite describe what happened with the other.
“Good question. I think the answer is that only someone with the skill can be said to be bad at it, but that’s a discussion for another day.”
I blew out a breath in relief, hoping that maybe he had to be somewhere else. I had heard some gossip about him being called to the President’s office — some parent had accused him of uprooting her son’s faith in the God of the Presbyterians. Maybe I would be spared a long conversation after all.
He rocked back on his feet. Then he leaned in again. Shit.
“But isn’t it true that discipline is required to learn a skill?”
“Um, yeah, I guess, usually. Unless the skill is really easy.”
“Ah, yes, but if it is easy enough, does it count as a skill? You can zip your backpack; I just witnessed it. Is that a skill?”
I shrugged. “No, I don’t think so. I mean, it is something I know how to do, but not every knowing-how counts as a skill, does it?”
He gaped at me. “You’re asking me? Me? Why? You know I don’t know. I am an ignorant man.”
Jesus, I think, sometimes I want to punch him right in his good eye. Ignorant! He’s like an X-Man mutant. Doctor Ignorance. Maybe he could borrow half of Cyclops’ visor!
I realized I was being mean-spirited.
He believed all that ignorance mumbo-jumbo, I think, as much as he believed anything, or at least as much as anyone could tell he believed anything. At any rate, it was no overt parrot belief, no mere ventriloquized form of someone else’s words. It meant something to him; it was rooted in him. He said once it had something to do with his mother, but I couldn’t tell if that was some darkling Freudian comment or a was claim about the family business.
“Can’t we say, at least provisionally,” — and as soon as I used that phrase I sank a little inside, because I knew he had me — “that there are kinds of know-how that are skills, things we do well or poorly, and forms of know-how that are not skills, things we can just do, but where evaluation seems otiose.”
He stared at me for a moment. “Provisionally? I would rather like to know what you really do believe.”
“Yeah,” I added, and gave him a defensive, one-shoulder shrug, “I’d like to know what I really believe too, but I don’t. You’re going to have to deal in half-measures. No full-scale, ad hominem, you’ve-refuted-yourself in the offing today, Soc.”
He let me slide. “So, operating a zipper doesn’t seem like a skill even though it is a kind of know-how?”
“Yeah, at least around these parts.”
“So, is a skill then a kind of know-how that you need discipline to gain?”
“Let’s say, yes.”
I could tell he wasn’t happy about my flippancy, but, hey, no one — except him, apparently — could spend the day in argument.
“Ookay. So, could we say that discipline is the habit needed to gain skills?”
“Would that make it the habit habit?”
He chuckled. “And you complained about my is and is-not.”
He gave me a flat look, hard to do with one eye straying toward the heavens.
I sighed. This is how it always went, no steps forward, countless steps back, a marathon to the starting line.
“I dunno,” I murmured, finally, putting all my higher learning to work, “how can there be a habit habit — short of a nunnery?”
“Isn’t discipline taught? That was what I was taught back in my Marine training. Oohrah.”
I winced. I couldn’t seem to keep in mind that he was not always an academic, that he was a military man once, that he somehow tucked that lifetime into his other lifetimes as a bricklayer and as a programmer for Oracle Corporation before he became a professor. He seemed younger than his seventy years, didn’t seem to be unhappily married, though I knew he was, didn’t seem to be a father, although I knew he was that too.
“So, if I understand, you mean that my discipline, if I have it, started as someone else’s discipline?”
He shrugged. “Yes, although when you put it that way it seems more paradoxical than it is. If you are lucky, your parents were disciplined people and instilled that discipline in you, raised you to be disciplined, rewarding and punishing you when you were too young to be reasoned with concerning the need for discipline, later explaining to you why the brief displeasures of discipline were key to life’s durable pleasures.”
My childhood had been about discipline; I was unconvinced that ‘brief displeasure’ was quite apt as phrases went, but I left it alone. I got the point, his point, as I got my father’s.
The point was that we have to internalize external discipline — that’s the making yours mine part of it — and all too often, parents didn’t have enough of it to pass it onto their children. Luckily, there were other sources, but it was still unlucky when that normal source turned out to be empty.
“This all sounds like Aristotle to me,” I finally said, a non-sequitur of truly non-stunning non-grossness.
He blinked. “Aristotle? Must be a new guy. Should I read him?”
Another shrug, my gesture of the day. “I don’t know. He’s a student of that student of yours, Plato.”
Socrates shakes his head. “Don’t blame me for Plato. Like you,” he says, glancing at me and narrowing the eye focused on me, “he can’t decide if he is writing fiction or philosophy. I tried to beat the fiction out of him, you know, dialectically, but he’s hard to pin down. Who knows what he actually thinks?”
“But in that,” I say, and somehow felt the gleam in own my eye, “isn’t he a chip off the old brick? After all, he says he’s your disciple.”
Socrates shakes his head more emphatically. “I don’t have disciples. How could I? I have got nothing to teach.”
I pressed my lips into a line, sealing in a string of curses.
He seemed to expect a comment. “Well?”
“Well,” I echo, pausing, “isn’t your sort of ignorance itself a discipline? It’s not like you just don’t know, like a child just doesn’t know — and you know it.”
He closes his eyes and seems to drift off into existential abstraction, communing with his Unknown God. I waited, no interest in interrupting his moment, glad for a moment to recollect myself.
It took a little while, but Socrates returned to where he was. “I suppose,” he said in a slightly concessive tone, “that you are right. I know that I’m ignorant, I’m not just ignorant.”
“Yeah,” I added, “but even that’s not enough. You know it and you…embrace it, or something like that…Anyway, you don’t seem alarmed by it or ashamed of it…Being ignorant the way you are requires discipline, right, is itself a discipline?”
We stood there for a moment. He shifted his weight from one foot to another, an externalization of some inward motion. “You can’t learn if you think you know.”
“True,” I say, nodding, “but you won’t learn if you think you can’t.”
He seemed to agree with that, and I fought down a sudden desire to follow-up my remark with, “It must be so, Kelly,” to philosophize with myself in the third-person.
“But you shouldn’t confuse my ignorance with skepticism; I’m no skeptic.”
“No, you aren’t simply ignorant and you aren’t a skeptic. You’re in-between.”
He seemed to like that phrase although his quick grin turned down just as quickly. “Yes, but don’t plot me in two dimensions, I’m both in between them and behind them.”
“Thanks for that, ” I say, thanking him for nothing, “it’s a big help.”
He ducks his head a bit and shrugs and smirks — a mockery turtle. “I guess I have to go. I have to meet with President Gogue. Some well-meaning parent claims I made her son impious.”
We stood there for a moment, him delaying, me unsure what else to say. I glanced at him.
“Do you ever tire of philosophy?”
He scratched his scraggly beard, shaking his head. “I have to be about my father’s business.”
“Your father?” I asked, confused.
“Apollo.” It occured to me for the first time in several minutes that I could see his answer and not just hear it.
“Hell, Socrates.” I shouldered my backpack into a more comfortable position. “Good luck with the President. I’d…um…keep the Apollo stuff to myself.”
We parted company. I headed toward Haley Center. He headed toward Samford Hall.
Gogue fired Socrates later that dark, cold day.