I have a little anxiety over my current assignment in philosophy. I remember school anxiety from 25 years ago, but it was different then. I was failing completely, and was never particularly concerned about assignments, because I simply was not going to do them. My anxiety was either absent or total, depending on the day. School was a mostly silent fight between a simple institutional process that was indifferent to me, and me, who was indifferent to the process. First lesson of adolescence: you are not The Process, you are the input. And if you don’t take your place, The Process will forget you faster than you can say “gym class traumatized me.” So, on those days when my anxiety was total, it was because I knew without flaw, I knew completely, that I had removed myself from The Process, and it had forgotten me.
My current anxiety works a
little lot differently. I have climbed back into my seat among The Process, so assignments matter. By Monday I have to write a very short paper about what I believe to be the first, foundational principle of human existence. My personal version of Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. Normally, I could whip out three pages with one hand on the coffee mug and the other on my son’s neck. But for some reason, with this I cannot shake the weight of its significance. As if it is to be my magnum opus, and I’ll be defending it at Oxford for the rest of my life. It isn’t, of course. It’s a 200 level University core requirement, and most of the people in the class aren’t even humanities students (and I’ll never be at Oxford). It’s almost all nursing and engineering students. One of them, who not only called me old, but seems to be giving my age sole credit for my success in the class, is writing her paper on our responsibility to protect the environment, because without an Earth, we cannot survive. So, as you can see, we don’t necessarily need to be machining humanity’s very first nut for the universe’s bolt. We don’t have to try to answer THE QUESTION, or anything.
My initial thought for the paper was that we cannot know the first principle. I do believe in firsts – that there is no such thing as infinite regression. Everything begins. But for reasons you’ll know when I post my paper, I don’t think we can find it. I am prepared to write on that. Stakes, implications, counterarguments, all of it. Too easy. Then I see on the list of Sven(!)’s possible topics that that very idea is listed at #11. First thought: Bummer. It’s not original. Second thought: Of course it’s not original. People have been doing this stuff forever. Third thought: Why did Sven(!) put an asterisk on that one? Let’s find out:
*If you choose 10, 11, 12, or 13, you and I must talk about your choice because they can be particularly tricky.
Great. Of course. I called him on our recent snow day to discuss, and he called it the agnostic approach and philosophied all over me until I wanted to just throw it all up and say FINE IT’S LOVE WE’RE FOUNDED ON LOVE (that’s #8 on the list, btw. No asterisk). But I won’t do that, because this, anxiety and all, is fun. Depending on the course of my schooling, which obviously means “depending on money,” I want to lean on Philosophy pretty hard. My focus will remain literature and writing, because my God it’s awesome. But the way literature and philosophy shake hands and dance and brush against each other like a couple of languid cats is just magical. My essay for British Literature is going to be an application of Plato’s allegory of the cave to Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott. I was surprised as we discussed Shalott in class that Plato never came up. It seems pretty clear to me, so much so that I’m afraid to Google it until after I write the paper. Surely it’s been done before, just like my silly agnostic approach to our first principle paper.
The other new anxiety is that I care what the teacher thinks. I also care what that other student thinks, as she seems to hold me to a pretty high standard: “How’d you do on your paper? Are you ready for the test? What did you do to prepare?” Friday she asked “What did you think of the test?” I really, really wanted to say “Aced it. Sven(!) called me to talk about it. What did he say to you?” She would have lost her mind. Alas, I haven’t the meanness in me to string people along with things like that. I always feel that I am committing some huge crime of character. So I just said “I’m pretty confident about it.”
And I am. Hopefully Sven(!) is not disappointed.