Heroes

I’ve been unable to maintain any consistency of effort here. I jump from subject to subject, from study to not studying, with the greatest of ease. I’m subject to fits of depression and ineptitude, and the occasional leap into competence and confidence.

But today I made a discovery, small in the great scheme of the universe, but significant in the little piece that my brain occupies.

I’ve often claimed, to myself and to others, that I have no heroes, have never had heroes. Even as a child I too easily saw the muddied feet of society’s heroes, and sometimes even their muddied minds. The prime directive in my mental/emotional system is ‘Trust no one’, and that still obtains.

But this morning I was reading the introductory chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Plato and I suddenly realized that I do have heroes, and that their feet don’t matter.

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Let me digress a bit. It’s germane. Back at Brown I became friendly with a fellow, a high school senior, if I recall correctly. I don’t recall the circumstances of our meeting or much else, but there is one image that has remained with me, not of him, but of his father, who was a professor of religious studies. I wasn’t a student of his, but only became acquainted through his son.

One day the father asked to see me in his office. The gist of the conversation was that his son was troubled, possibly in trouble, the details escape me, and he asked if I would keep an eye on him, sort of look out for him in a minor way. That was all fine with me.

As I was leaving I looked back through the glass pane in his office door, and the professor was absorbed in a text, taking notes and such. I watched for minute or so and then walked away. But even today I still see him doing that, see him bent over the book, writing notes on a legal pad, doing some of the things that scholars do.

Now, some forty years later, while reading an introduction to a scholar dead twenty-five hundred years, that image comes back to me, and I realize that I, curmudgeon, cynic, misanthrope, do have heroes.

I admire people of the mind. I admire people to whom philosophy – Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and on through two millennia – is important, people who spend their time poring over texts ancient and new as they seek to understand what these philosophers said and what that means in their scholarly lives, and our lives, in their actions today in the world.

I find it stunning to realize that thousands of years ago men started thinking through the things of philosophy. They worked from scratch, wading in the Water of Thales, if you will, and led us to what we are today, a world in which we have in large part forgotten what they studied, what they sought to do. It wasn’t just the Greeks, of course: the Chinese, the Indians, others, were making similar efforts.

But all that we are today rests on men thinking, men reading, men writing, men hunched over desks taking notes on texts in front of them. Some are famous, some are unheard of, many were wrong, many were right, but these are my heroes.

They aren’t just philosophers, but comprise all serious, true scholars. I admire their passion, their devotion, their perseverance in studying their interests, in following their passion as deeply as their life and will would allow.

I’m certainly not one of them, and I know that for certain. I am a wannabe, a fan, if you will, but without banners or enlogoed caps or emblazoned T-shirts. I try to follow the footsteps of their thoughts, with far less success than I’d like, and with far less dedication to the task than the task requires. And in an admission of my weakness in scholarly matters, I keep their books at hand: my shelves are littered with unread and partially-read volumes of Plato and Aristotle, with philosophers ancient and new, with mathematicians and historians and scientists.

When I hold in my hands my new copy of Plato: Complete Works, I am, for a moment, a shining moment, that professor at Brown hunched over that book as I walked away.

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