Philosophical Beginnings, Civilizational Endings
One of my most resonant childhood memories is from elementary school, perhaps third or fourth grade. I was walking home for lunch (my school was near my house) with a few friends. One of them, Jimmy, had gotten much lower scores than the rest of us on his recent tests. While we were talking about our scores, Jimmy said, with insouciant bravado, “I don’t care if I fail.”
Even then, as a nine-year-old boy, I immediately grasped, at an emotional level, why Jimmy had said that. He was afraid he might fail, and wanted to save his pride by telling us (and himself) that he wasn’t really trying to pass. I’ve always remembered that, partly because I used to think that way myself sometimes as a boy, as most of us probably do from time to time. From that day, however, every time I ever caught myself falling into such a state, in effect saying “I don’t care” about some embarrassing or disappointing outcome or prospect, I heard Jimmy’s declaration in my head, and immediately saw myself more clearly. “I do care, but I’m too frightened or ashamed to admit that I care.” Self-understanding in a nine-year-old boy!
As I look back on it, that was probably my first philosophical thought. That is to say, I had consciously made the essential, life-altering leap from recognizing the mask of rationalized vanity in another to recognizing it in myself.
And as I look around the modern landscape, in its political, artistic, academic, and moral dimensions, I see a lot of Jimmys, and not a lot of self-awareness. In a nine-year-old boy, however, this posture — “I don’t care if I fail” — is an understandable defense against the fear of embarrassment. In political factions, artistic movements, educational approaches, and moral arguments, this posture, in its infinitely varied forms, bespeaks advanced nihilism and the fundamental spiritual weakness that engenders irrationalism, collectivism, and submission.