I knew a spunky old doctor who held a philosophy discussion circle in her home.
Once a month, members gathered to ponder and debate the baffling riddles of existence. Some sessions employed tape recordings or videos by university scholars. When she finally had to move into a care home, the group met in an assembly room there. After she died, the circle continued in her name. I was a member for decades.
Socrates, Aristotle, Baruch Spinoza, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre — the deepest thinkers the world has known, who tried to fathom the meaning of life but never quite unraveled it — were analyzed year after year.
Our group included chemists, physicians, psychologists, housewives — some aging. Most of the members were churchgoers, yet they craved answers beyond church explanations for the profound questions of reality: Why is nature so cruel, with predators endlessly ripping smaller creatures apart? And why is the vast universe so violent, with stars exploding into supernovas and black holes gobbling solar systems? If the universe has a compassionate creator, why do earthquakes, tornados, volcanoes and hurricanes kill so many?
And the ultimate question: Why is anything here at all?
Session after session, we delved into such insoluble riddles, knowing that we couldn’t find answers, but feeling impelled to keep searching — we were seekers, but not finders. We explored all the “isms” — empiricism, logical positivism, humanism, phenomenalism, scholasticism, idealism, neoplatonism, etc. — including some so long dead that they’re “wasms.”
Personally, I’m drawn to existentialism: We and the universe exist, but we can’t find solid evidence of a cosmic purpose, so we each must form our own values and goals.
It reminds me of a Zorba the Greek passage in which the burly, uneducated foreman confronts his bookish, intellectual employer one night as they relax after work. It goes like this:
Zorba looked at the sky with open mouth in a sort of ecstasy, as though he were seeing it for the first time. …
“Can you tell me, boss,” he said, and his voice sounded deep and earnest in the warm night, “what all these things mean? Who made them all? And why? And, above all” — here Zorba’s voice trembled with anger and fear — “why do people die?”
“I don’t know, Zorba,” I replied, ashamed, as if I had been asked the simplest thing, the most essential thing, and was unable to explain it.
“You don’t know!” said Zorba in round-eyed astonishment, just like his expression the night I had confessed that I could not dance. … “Well, all those damned books you read — what good are they? Why do you read them? If they don’t tell you that, what do they tell you?”
“They tell me about the perplexity of mankind, who can give no answer to the question you’ve just put to me, Zorba.”
The perplexity of mankind — that’s the bottom line for philosophy clubs.
The old physician knew that we’d never find ultimate answers. But she knew that the search is rewarding anyway.
This column is adapted from a piece originally published in the Charleston Gazette on Nov. 23, 2002.