Philosophy and Alienation

Diogenes by Jean-Leon Gerome

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book X:

Happiness extends, then, just so far as contemplation does, and those to whom contemplation more fully belongs are more truly happy, not as a mere concomitant but in virtue of the contemplation; for this is in itself precious. Happiness, therefore, must be some form of contemplation.

In one of the earliest memories I still have access to I am probably 5 years old, fully awake during kindergarten nap time (I always was), eavesdropping on the teacher and aide as they discuss their plans for the next few days. “I think tomorrow we’re going to do some”—here the teacher pauses, scans the dark classroom, notices the open eyes on the mat next to them, and continues—“M-A-C-R-A-M-E…” With an excited gasp, I leap up, and in a loud, hoarse whisper declare, “Oh, I love macramé!”

I was a bright, curious kid. In my youngest years, this inspired me to do things like take apart household objects and put them back together to figure out how they worked. As I got older, however, it became a source of frustration and alienation. Always being steps ahead of every grade-school lesson made me an object of suspicion for most of my peers (“nerd” was not a term of endearment in the 90s); and my work ethic completely disintegrated after a few years of tedious school projects that sought to train principles I comprehended after only a few exercises. Of course, in all of this I was only the instance of a type: “the gifted kid,” that detestably predictable creature of the late 20th century, marked by a quick wit and a penchant for half-assing and smug self-assurance.

But unlike my peers in the gifted programs I was eventually recruited into, I grew up poor. My classmates dwelled in the suburban cul-de-sacs that curled labyrinthine about the edges of Orlando; I inhabited a double-wide in a swamp. The muddy lot our trailer was parked on had been a patch of palmetto and cypress trees, and the thousands of hand-sized wolf spiders displaced in the clearing took up residence with us, their webs blossoming between the wooden planks of our home’s cheap interior paneling. A family of enormous raccoons dug a burrow in the insulation under our floorboards, lured by the promise of two meals a day for the low price of having to fight off our five cats. (My mom’s airsoft rifle eventually raised the stakes.) Our tap water was full of sand on account of a poorly-dug well, which gave us a wonderful excuse for drinking nothing but Coca-cola. And though it never occurred to me to ask why I always visited my friends’ houses and not the other way round, I did regularly wonder why their homes were free of wild arachnids and mammals. (Eventually I decided it had something to do with the fact that they all had dogs.)

Nothing I learned in school mapped easily onto my home life. Our home was organized around television, not learning; our Sundays were spent contemplating NASCAR, not, say, the mystery of God in Christ. At school I endured my teachers’ dispassionate presentations of history and literature, and at home I drained cans of Coke to a daily succession of Batman cartoons and prime time sitcoms. But all the while I wondered—albeit in an indefinite, directionless way—about what might lay beyond the limits of my little world, populated by its spiders, raccoons, Final Fantasy, and sugary soft drinks. I puzzled over the things my family talked about, wondering what of what they referred to was real or not, what was or wasn’t important. I wondered, as all young people do at some point, whether life had a purpose. But unlike others my age, I failed to find an easy answer to this question, and my concern for it refused to be buried under the quotidian tasks of day-to-day teenage life.

So curiosity turned to agony as I grew into adolescence, and my dissatisfaction over my ability to adequately answer the riddles of the universe grew into a teenage melancholy that gripped me through the entirety of high school. I won’t bore you with the messy details. But though I was a promising student, I spent three years in a fugue state of resentment and self-imposed distraction, passing classes while paying barely attention and spending my free time pirating music on the internet and reading books. (All I recall of my entire high school curriculum is falling in love with—and eventually memorizing—T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, and collapsing into an existential coma in physics class after my teacher spent a day demonstrating the pointlessness of human life in the face of an overwhelming and indifferent cosmos.) After graduating in 2005, I briefly attended university on a full scholarship, but dropped out after my first semester because I had no idea what purpose college—and, by extension, institutional education at large—was supposed to serve. I spent a few years as an anarchist agitator and environmental activist, moved to a farm in southern Kentucky to retire from politics, and eventually went back to college in 2016 because I could do it for free and wanted to find people to talk to who read books and thought about things. Even there I was confronted by a world of people concerned mostly with the acquisition of prestige and profit, and spent the following four years mostly studying alone.

I found myself reflecting on my history after listening to this wonderful conversation between Jennifer Frey, professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, and Zena Hitz, a tutor at St. John’s College, the author of the wonderful new book “Lost in Thought: On the Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life,” and someone I consider a friend. Toward the beginning of their talk they discuss what led each of them to philosophy, and in both cases it was largely a matter of disposition colliding with opportunity: a shared melancholic madness, smug self-assurance, and propensity for questioning that separated them from their peers and made the normal things of life difficult was transmuted from a curse into a blessing by the alchemy of education. Before Zena finished high school she was admitted into St. John’s College by an audacious dean (God bless Eva Brann), while Jennifer followed the more traditional graduation-to-university route, landing at Indiana University in Bloomington. And both of their stories involve meetings with high school college counselors or sympathetic mentors who recognize the promise in these otherwise depressive young women and help show them paths that might be available.

Like them, my propensity toward inquisitiveness and contemplation has been a source of frustration and pain. Like them, when I finally found philosophy—genuine philosophy, after years trying to comprehend abstruse post-Frankfurt-School critical theory without the background to make sense of it—I took to it like a desert wanderer to an oasis. But unlike either of them, my acceptance of philosophy as a way of living never transformed into a source of worldly comfort, and the discomforting gap between thinking and living never closed. And this has been the case for so many people I’ve befriended over the years: the contemplative life hits them as a kind of sudden derangement, ripping them out of the fabric of life they were previous woven into and driving them into libraries and bookstores and open-to-the-public campus events in a desperate effort to whet their intellective appetites and (perhaps more importantly) to make connections with others who speak their same language. But more often than not, their eccentricity and roughness—from a lack of training in academic gentility—makes them alien to their fellows, and isolation persists. Many have struggled with—and far too often, succumbed to—drug and alcohol addiction; others, such as myself, continue to battle crippling anxiety and depression.

I don’t think any of this disproves Aristotle’s contention that happiness is a form of contemplation. Nor do I think that any scholar of philosophy worth their salt would disagree that a life dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom rarely reaps worldly goods. (The Athenians, of course, condemned Socrates.) But I think it’s important to be honest about how radically alienating such a life can really be for those who are already locked out of the kinds of aristocratic circles willing to receive individuals possessed by the madness of philosophy, who live in worlds where being an eccentric is greeted with far less understanding. The stakes are often immeasurably high: refusal or inability to abide by the merciless logic of economy—to suck it up, turn the mind off, and flip burgers—can mean isolation, institutionalization, homelessness. (How many homeless guys have I spoken with who spend their days reading magisterial history books in the library, or wandering the sidewalks in rags contemplating the form of the good like out-of-place desert fathers?)

Serious consideration of this asymmetry of conditions and stakes often leads concerned, charitable souls to push for an expansion of the university, to use some of its enormous capital reserves to bring in more members of the underclass. This response, I believe, flows from a lack of either imagination or courage: either we can’t conceive of what education might look like outside of the highly professionalized, radically compartmentalized research universities, or we can but lack the courage to make it happen. Ivan Illich, in his 1971 polemic Deschooling Society, argues for the “deinstitutionalization” of education such that learning and wondering can be suffused once more through the entire grain of human life, freed from its confinement within the time of the school-day and the gray walls of the classroom. (It’s a thrilling and weird book that could only have become popular within the optimistic social ecology of the 1970s; I highly recommend reading it.) I feel the urgency of such a view every day, and increasingly so as higher education becomes more endangered by the approaching double-edged crisis of finances and social trust. As we begin to imagine—and hopefully, to realize—alternatives, it is of the utmost importance that we take into consideration those lone thoughtful souls shining like beacons in the night, desperately trying—and failing—to find one another.

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