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Fiction

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Philosophy Incarnate

Sheldon Currie watches Socrates take on the modern academy.

A reincarnated Socrates showed up needing work to sustain his eating and drinking habits, so he applied for a job teaching philosophy at a modern university.

“Not a lot of students interested in the liberal arts these days,” the Dean said. “But we do have a small group on a course, and yesterday the professor ran off with one of the secretaries. Where did you get your degree?”

“Athens.”

“Can we get a recommendation from your professor?”

“I don’t think so. He’s dead.”

“Our previous philosophy professor dropped dead himself last year – which is why we got his successor, who turned out to be a dedicated skirt hound. I’ll tell you what: We’ll give you a short term trial contract. Renewable if it works out. How’s that?”

“How short?”

“Pretty short. Until the student evaluations. A few weeks.”

“All right. I need the money. When do I start?”

“There’s a class scheduled for this afternoon. This semester the students are studying ethics, although what ethics has to do with philosophy is beyond me. I’ve got a PhD in Business. I’ll introduce you.”

“This is your new teacher, Socrates,” the Dean said, then left.

A young man in the front row let his hand drift above his head and asked: “Where you from, Soc?”

“Athens.”

“Wer zat?”

“We get to zat later. But let’s get started. Our topic today is murder. And we’ll start with a question: Is murder wrong? If so, why is it wrong? What do you think?”

Another student, in a far corner of the room, in a baseball cap with the peak pulled down to obscure his eyes, blurted out, “Definitely wrong.”

“Does everybody agree?” Twelve hands flew toward the ceiling.

“Okay. Why? Why is murder wrong? Please move your chairs to form a circle. Discuss the question ‘Why is murder wrong?’ Find an answer. I’m going to take a break, if you don’t mind. Gods know, I need a drink. I’ll be back for your answer in twenty minutes. Sometimes in philosophy there are multiple answers. Sometimes not. When you get the answer, or maybe answers, appoint a spokesperson.”

“Okay. Here we go. Who’s doing the talking?”

A tall young woman in short-shorts and a tank top raised her hand and stood up with a face full of confidence. “We decided on two answers,” she proclaimed. “First of all, no answer is necessary. Everybody knows murder is wrong.”

“Well,” Socrates said, “then everybody must know why. Or, at least, somebody – you, for example, must know, if everybody knows. So. Why is murder wrong?”

“Well… it’s in the Bible. The Commandments.”

“What’s the Bible?”

“The book God wrote.”

“Oh. Which god?”

“There’s only one God.”

“I don’t think so. What about the gods of history, music, war, and, well, dozens more?”

“They’re all rolled up into one. Jesus. And He wrote the Commandments.”

“Okay. So what do the Commandments say?”

“‘Thou shalt not kill’.”

“But does it say, thou shalt not murder?”

She thrust her hands out toward Socrates: “Murder involves killing.”

“Well, if you were a mother of two children and an intruder got into your house and threatened to kill your husband and abduct the two kids, and you’ve got a weapon and you kill the intruder to prevent it, is that murder?”

“I guess so. But it’s justified.”

“If it’s justified, it’s not wrong, then, is it?…”

“This is frustrating,” blurted out the young man in the cap.

“Is it?” Socrates smiled. “Good. So far so good. Let’s continue: If you’re the commander of an army unit guarding the capital, and the Spartans attack, what do you do?”

“The Spartans! You mean the football team?” the baseball cap man answered.

“No. I mean the army.”

“You have to shoot them, maybe kill them if they keep coming, don’t go away.”

“So. Is that murder?”

“You’re the teacher. You tell us. That’s your job.”

“Yes. I am the teacher. And I am doing my job, asking you questions. You’re the students. Answer the question. That’s your job.”

“I’m outta here. I got ball practice.”

“Okay,” Socrates said. “That’s all for today. We’ll try again next week.”

Socrates stood in front of the Dean’s desk. The Dean read the names on the piece of paper he held in his hands and asked: “That’s a list of all the students in your class on ethics?”

“Yes.”

“You failed them all? Why?”

“They didn’t learn anything.”

“I interviewed each one of them. They said you didn’t teach them anything.”

“That’s not true.”

“They said you didn’t answer any questions in class.”

“It was them. They didn’t answer any questions.”

“What questions?”

“The questions I asked them.”

“Well, that’s because you didn’t give them any answers.”

“That’s true. Why should I give them answers?”

“So they could answer the questions.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Really. So what did you teach them?”

“I taught them what they don’t know.”

“They already knew what they don’t know.”

“That’s not true. But they do know that now. That’s a start.”

“If the students don’t pass their courses, they won’t come back. Then they’ll never know. And we’ll be out of a job.”

“Is that so? That’s a pity.”

“So, here’s the thing,” said the Dean. “The students must pass, or the professor loses his job.”

The students did not pass. Therefore the professor lost his job.

© Sheldon Currie 2017

Sheldon Currie is a novelist and critic based in Nova Scotia.

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