Recently, I received an email from the person who’d inaugurated a Socrates Cafe years back in midtown Manhattan asking me and others, “who is your favorite person from history in the millennium immediately preceding Y2K?”
Some of the criteria he said we could use in making our pick included: “Pick someone you happen to like …
for any reason(s): their accomplishments; their intellectual or moral brilliance; their far-reaching impact upon society, culture, industry and the world in general;…..they inspired others; they were extraordinarily courageous; their mind was keen, their heart was pure, their imagination unbounded; because their ego was not inflated to a grotesque size despite the praise, contempt and envy heaped upon them as a result of what they did;”
I’m usually not one for such things; fun though they are, rather than engage in armchair mental masturbation, I prefer to do what I can and perhaps must to arrest the pernicious and ever more pervasive patterns of intolerance and distrust and downright mean-spiritedness that has taken over what passes for discourse in our society.
Be that as it may, I couldn’t help myself this time. Because I most always like to take advantage of an opportunity to let others know of that person in the 20th century who most influenced all I’ve been doing lo these last 20-plus years to bring people together and make our world more thoughtful, lovable and livable via the unique form of Socratic inquiry I propagate — Walter Kaufmann.
Though an academic and scholastic through and through, Kaufmann was so much more than that. He believed philosophy had a rightful and necessary place in the bounds outside the academic cloister, and indeed he didn’t think most philosophy profs were philosophers at all. They were profs, no more or less. Needless to say, that didn’t endear him to his fellow profs, and indeed made him a a pariah in the hallowed halls of higher ed. But it made him my hero — not just for that reason.
I’ve written about Kaufmann in all my books, so if you have the urge, you can see a lot more about what I have to say about him there. But I’ll share this quote from his stirring The Faith of a Heretic:
“The Greeks had considered hope the final evil in Pandora’s box. They also gave us an image of perfect nobility: a human being lovingly doing her duty to another human being despite all threats, and going to her death with pride and courage, not deterred by any hope – Antigone.
Hopelessness is despair. Yet life without hope is worth living. As Sartre’s Orestes says: ‘Life begins on the other side of despair.’ But is hope perhaps resumed on the other side? It need not be. In honesty, what is there to hope for? Small hopes remain but do not truly matter. I may hope that the sunset will be clear, that the night will be cool and still, that my work will turn out well, and yet know that nine hopes out of ten are not even remembered a year later. How many are recalled a century hence? A billion years hence?
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
(The Tempest, IV, i)
It is possible that this is wrong. There may be surprises in store for us, however improbable it seems and however little evidence suggests it. But I do not hope for that. Let people who do not know what to do with themselves in this life, but fritter away their time reading magazines and watching television, hope for eternal life. If one lives intensely, the time comes when sleep seems bliss. If one loves intensely, the time comes when death seems bliss.
Those who loved with all their heart and mind and might have always thought of death, and those who knew the endless nights of harrowing concern for others have longed for it.
The life I want is a life I could not endure in eternity. It is a life of love and intensity, suffering and creation, that makes life worth while and death welcome. There is no other life I should prefer. Neither should I like not to die.
If I ask myself who in history I might like to have been, I find that all the men I most admire were by most standards deeply unhappy. They knew despair. But their lives were worth while – I only wish mine equaled theirs in this respect – and I have no doubt that they were glad to die.
As one deserves a good night’s sleep, one also deserves to die. Why should I hope to wake again? To do what I have not done in the time I’ve had? All of us have so much more time than we use well. How many hours in a life are spent in a way of which one might be proud, looking back?
For most of us death does not come soon enough. Lives are spoiled and made rotten by the sense that death is distant and irrelevant. One lives better when one expects to die, say, at forty, when one says to oneself long before one is twenty: whatever I may be able to accomplish, I should be able to do by then; and what I have not done by then, I am not likely to do ever. One cannot count on living until one is forty – or thirty – but it makes for a better life if one has a rendezvous with death.
Not only love can be deepened and made more intense and impassioned by the expectation of impending death; all of life is enriched by it. Why deceive myself to the last moment, and hungrily devour sights, sounds, and smells only when it is almost too late? In our treatment of others, too, it is well to remember that they will die: it makes for greater humanity.”
I radically changed my life in part because of Kaufmann, whose every written word (or just about) I’ve pored over time and again. After the suicide of a dear friend, I asked myself what I needed to do to make sure I never reached similar depths of despair — and so I charted a new course for myself, breaking a lot of self-imposed barriers to live a creative and hopefully meaningful life, one fraught with sublime risk, one of some hopelessness tinged with great ambition, of a sort that might touch others also move some of them to live in a more autonomous yet socially conscious way.
Walter Kaufmann continues to be a seminal influence in the way I go about life and living, as I strive to have a kind of keen mind and pure heart that makes life not just more worth living for me, but for all those, of all ages and walks of life, with whom I have the honor and privilege to inquire.