The Making of a Philosophy Professor

By John Kaag

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” What Socrates failed to tell us is that the examined one isn’t a whole lot better.

So he wasn’t the wisest of all men. Or if he was, he was a patronizing jerk. When I grew up, I thought to myself, I wouldn’t be a patronizing jerk. I’d tell people straightforwardly, without irony or obfuscation, what a pathetic ruse life was. I’d tell them that living was a euphemism for dying slowly, that life was an incurable disease that was ultimately fatal. So what if I was only 12?

This is what happens when your older brother, home from university, leaves his copy of Plato’s Apology on the back of the toilet. He goes on to become the doctor that he’s supposed to. And you become a philosophy professor.

I’m sure that I wasn’t alone in my understanding of life’s meaninglessness, but I remember being surprised that more kids didn’t seem affected by it. Maybe they, like Socrates, just didn’t want to talk about it. Did they not experience the monotony of class and lunch, class and lunch, day after day? Did they not experience recess as a sadistic lie? Sadistic because it was either too painful or too short (you pick), and a lie because it was meant to provide some respite from the monotony. If they did, they weren’t saying.

I sort of hoped that was the case. I hoped that my classmates silently worried about the bus crashing, or about getting hit by it, or about the monosodium glutamate in their ham sandwich, or about the pig that went into making the ham.

I did.

Bedtime involved an extended ritual that had to be performed with extreme care—a type of penance for the pig and everything else I felt guilty about. Exactly six—not five or seven—trips to the bathroom had to be made. Three ice cubes had to be placed into one glass of water, which was placed on one white washcloth on the right bedside table. One set of eyeglasses had to be set on that table and pointed toward the door. And that door had to be propped open exactly two inches (the width of my 12-year-old hand). That measurement had to be checked at least twice, although one was allowed to check more often, depending on what he had eaten for lunch.

I hoped that this ritual would somehow keep my universe intact. That hope, on most nights, let me get some sleep.

Let me be clear: I had a very pleasant childhood. My anxiety did not have any particular cause, which amounts to saying that it was true anxiety. Sure, my father drank too much (I am not divulging any secret here) and was generally negligent (again, not a secret), but he left when I was 3. So let’s not blame him. That would be too easy. Even at 12, I knew that no discrete situation could warrant the fear and trembling of my bedtime ritual.

My mother, like any good mother (she was great, by the way), was worried. Indeed, she worried about me almost as much as I did. She worried that my monkey mind and nighttime prowling would leave me tired the next day, and that if I was tired, I wouldn’t be able to make friends, and that if I didn’t make friends, I’d get depressed, and that if I got depressed, I’d lose interest in school, and that if I lost interest in school, I’d never get a job, and that if I didn’t get a job, then I couldn’t have a family, and that if I didn’t have a family, I’d be miserable.

At least her worries were reasonable.

And so she was terrified when I announced—at the age of 15—that I was going into philosophy. She knew me well enough to take me seriously, and philosophy well enough to know that it would not ease my mind. As usual, she was right.

Graduate school taught me two things. First, it taught me that I had been justified in feeling bad about that pig. (Thanks, Peter Singer.) Ham sandwiches would henceforth be placed on a long list of things that merited guilt and penance. Second, it taught me that I could do nothing about the suffering of the world; one could neither adequately atone for one’s existence nor make a meaningful attempt to escape it.

Unless you consider Camus, of course.

“There is but one truly serious philosophical question, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” If the answer to that question seems obvious to you, you’re lucky: You’re not a philosopher. Camus postulates only two possible answers, neither of which is much fun. He takes as a given that we live in a world that is completely indifferent to our human purposes.

For a long time, I was inclined to answer Camus in the negative: Life in a meaningless world was not worth living. But I realized that such a conviction would have pesky consequences. Answering in the affirmative was no walk in the park, either. It meant that you affirmed that life was an incurable disease, but that you had decided, resolutely and freely, to suffer through it.

Resolutely and freely. As a rule, philosophers are not dauntless. They talk a big game but are generally too worried about screwing up to actually do much of anything. Deciding to act resolutely and freely, therefore, is probably the least philosophical thing I’ve ever done. No, that isn’t quite true. Acting resolutely and freely is the least philosophical thing I’ve ever done.

So I stopped eating ham sandwiches. Maybe becoming a vegetarian doesn’t seem that significant to you, but it turns out that a little resolve can go a long way.

It also turns out that ham sandwiches come in many forms—living in an unhappy marriage; the desperate attempts to meet the expectations of friends, family, and colleagues; the impossibility of meeting your own. Of course, sometimes a ham sandwich is just a ham sandwich.

In any event, I stopped eating all of them.

When anxiety leaves you, or you decide to leave it, it’s very much like losing a certain kind of old friend—one whom you have come to hate. You still remember it in vivid detail, how it humiliated you, how it kept you up at night, how it wasted your time. But now it is gone. And suddenly you’re well rested, and you have lots of time.

My mother was right. She told me long ago that if I got enough sleep, I could make friends, and if I had friends, I wouldn’t be so depressed, and if I wasn’t so depressed, I’d do better in school, and if I did better in school, I’d get a good job, and if I had a good job, I could have a happy family, and if I had a happy family, I wouldn’t be miserable.

But here’s the thing about not being miserable.

Life is still a pathetic ruse: either too painful or too short. You pick.

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