Socrates (on living consciously, seeking goodness)

We all (sort of) know the famous “unexamined life” quote of the ancient Greek sage. I was glad recently to read it in context, as he offers a defiant self-defence against his accusations of sedition and corrupting the young. It goes like this:

“Perhaps someone may say, ‘But surely, Socrates, after you have left us you can spend the rest of your life quietly minding your own business.’ This is the hardest thing of all to make some of you understand. If I say…I cannot ‘mind my own business’, you will not believe I am serious. If on the other hand I tell you that to let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking, and that examining both myself and others is really the very best thing that a man can do, and that life without this sort of examination is not worth living, you will be even less inclined to believe me. Nevertheless, gentlemen, that is how it is.”

They didn’t agree. A cup of hemlock awaited.

Socrates, Athenian stonemason (maybe), teacher (possibly) and public irritant (almost certainly), c. 469 BC – 399 BC. Quoted in John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization, p. 71.

(Not) Marcus Aurelius (on reasons for goodness)

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

Marcus Aurelius, 2nd century Stoic philosopher and, for twenty years, Emperor of Rome. I love this statement of the sovereignty of goodness above hairsplitting and vain imaginings. It comes from the Meditations of Aurelius. Actually, I don’t know where it comes from. I’m no classics scholar, and I was nearly fooled. It sounded so good to be quoting a famous but under-read (including by me!) philosopher.

According to WikiQuote, there is no record of such a statement before 2010.

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Better Read Than Never: HOW TO BE GOOD

Twice during our China sojourn we have vacationed in Thailand. We went not primarily for the sun (though warmth in the midst of a northeastern winter was good), nor for the sights and the great food (both gorgeous and easily found), and certainly not for the sexploitation of Bangkok (not goin’ there). My wife and I, and even our almost-equally word-nerdy son, look forward more than anything to the books. In Chiangmai, a northern city we first visited in 2010 for sun and historical ruins and support for elephant preservation, we found several shockingly good English bookstores. This past February, we lugged about 40 pounds of books out of there, eventually shipping them home to Dalian.

I was a Nick Hornby fan, based on the reading of only one novel, High Fidelity. Poring through numberless shelves of the kind of books (in the kind of shop) we can only dream of in our middling Chinese city, I was arrested under the H by a new Hornby title: How To Be Good.

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KV Junior, I Miss You Already and You Haven’t Quite Left

I happened to pick up my hero, Kurt Vonnegut, on CBC Radio’s The Current this morning. He’s 83, and his combination of profound pessimism and dogged goodness continues to knock me out. He’s so appalled by all the dastardly things humans have done that he figures it’s about time we were done.


“Over! We’ve had our chance; we screwed it up. The dinosaurs are finished and I suspect they did a lot less to screw up the planet than we have.” He imagines a great voice from “the bottom of the Grand Canyon or someplace, saying ‘It is finished. These beings did not like it here. They were not happy.’” He advocates a “War on Petroleum” instead of the failed war on drugs (or war on terrorism, bien sûr), and ridicules the wealthy and powerful for their residence in the 51st state (“the state of Denial”). In one of his characteristic KV Junior  flights of bitter fun, he offers that driving a car is perhaps the happiest thing humans have ever found to do, and now we’ll keep on driving blissfully until there’s no fossil fuel left and the system falls for those who follow us. “And what do I care? I’ll be dead! What does a CEO care, ‘just fuel up my jet today ‘cause I’m going to be dead anyway.’”

I saw Mr. Vonnegut give a public talk years ago in Stratford, Ontario. We were all so delighted to laugh with him, so ready to rumble. He got talking about smoking, his status as an “old fart with his Pall Malls”, and laughed at the warnings on packages. “These warnings are ridiculous. ’Smoking can kill you,’ they say. So what? That’s the whole point?” Strangest thing I ever heard in a theatre: the audience rolled instantly into a good laugh, and halfway through it collectively realized the nihilistic point he’d just made. In midstream, the laughter morphed into a sudden groan. “Ha, ha-ooohh.” When Anna Maria asked him today about his smoking, he said he was planning to sue Pall Mall. “Their packages promise they’re going to kill me. But I’ve been chain-smoking unfiltered Pall Malls since I was 12 and I’m still alive! They owe me.”

He was on the radio, of course, to comment on the war in Iraq, to compare it with his Second World War experience as an American soldier in Germany, and the imprisonment that became so well-known with his classic novel Slaughterhouse Five. He has sworn off novels, but has a new book out called A Man Without a Country. As pessimistic as he so volubly is, he continues to stand and to write and fight for what he has called the greatest thing we can have, “a little human decency”. This dogged use of his despair is terrifyingly good, painfully inspiring.

“You’re awfully pessimistic,” the interviewer says with some surprise.

“That’s what my wife says. Imagine what my marriage is like!”

“If you were to speak on behalf of your generation to young people today, what would your message be?” I’m sure Ms. Tremonti expected some warm and emphatic clichés, but I didn’t. Without fail, he breaks my heart with his sadness and courage.

“I apologize.” There was a pause. “And love one another, what the hell.”

“Thank you for talking to us, Kurt Vonnegut.”

“Go jump in the lake!” He chuckled and coughed. What a voice we will lose when he is gone.