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The Big Question
Can the great philosophers of the past help us to answer the questions that really matter to us? A short story by Mark Noonan.
The evening started badly. I passed some drinks around, but no one seemed too willing to make conversation. Sartre and Camus were huddled in the corner, muttering to each other in French and gesturing in a restrained sort of way. Bertrand Russell was leaning against the kitchen hatch, reading a book he had brought with him – maybe he knew something I didn’t. Kierkegaard was sitting on the couch, grinning that insane grin of his, staring at my mother’s framed picture of the Pope just above the fireplace. Popper was in the kitchen arguing with Freud (he had brought the old faker along, even though I’d specifically asked him not to). They were going through some photograph albums they had liberated from the cupboard in the dining room: nothing is sacred with Freud in the house, especially your privacy. On any other occasion I would have given Karl a sound kicking for the liberties he was taking, but tonight was different. Not exactly special, but different.
Of course, Socrates was late. He had probably stopped to talk to some losers on the corner of the street and forgotten about the time. He finally showed up about an hour after the arranged time mumbling something about the “impiety of youth,” and took a seat next to Kierkegaard.
After a few strange looks from Freud as I retrieved the photograph albums, I managed to get everyone sitting down in the living room.
“I’d like to thank you all for coming here tonight,” I began, “I know you must be very busy.” No response, apart from Kierkegaard nodding slightly, in a rather patronising way I thought. I continued: “The reason I’ve invited you all here tonight is that I need the answer to a question.”
“Well I’m sure at least one of us can help,” said Popper, “even though some of us claim to know very little,” and he shot a disparaging look towards Socrates.
“I would say that it is a simple case of fishing for compliments where our Greek friends are concerned,” said Freud slyly. Supercilious bastard. I knew he’d cause trouble.
“Personal grievances aside, my question is not a matter of knowledge as such,” I said, mainly to stop Socrates from launching into a lecture on the subject of prejudice or whatever. He’s not exactly famous for his witty, succinct repostes.
“Well what is your question a matter of?” inquired Russell, finally dragging the conversation back to its original course.
“I’m not sure exactly,” I replied, “but it is mainly to do with personal feelings and instincts.”
“So much for the French contingent,” whispered Freud to Popper, loudly enough for us all to hear.
“Any more cracks like that and you’re out, Sigmund.” I shouted. All he did was smile as if I’d just proved a point he was trying to make.
“Please, gentlemen, please! We are not men of violence, are we?” began Socrates. I can spot one of his beginnings a mile away. I had to get control of the proceedings before he had a chance to begin one of his monologues.
“Anyway,” I said, “my question.” Good. They all shut up and turned towards me. “My question is this: do you like me?” Every one of them grimaced as if to say, what kind of question is that? Everyone that is, except Freud. He just sat there looking like a lost soldier who has finally found his way back to his own territory.
Russell was the first to speak: “Define ‘like’,” he demanded, the beginnings of an intrigued gleam in his eye.
“It’s not something I can easily define,” I said, spreading my hands to show my confusion. “I’m groping around in the dark, and that’s why I need your help.” I gestured to indicate that I included them all in the last statement.
“I like you,” said Kierkegaard, causing a few of us to jump: we’d practically forgotten he was there.
“Yes, but Søren,” said Russell, a conciliatory look on his face, “you have great difficulty finding something derogatory to say about anybody. You like everyone, even people you have never met.” Kierkegaard nodded and grinned through all of this, and I think I can safely say that I was not the only one in the room who suddenly felt the desire to count the knives in the kitchen.
“Do you feel like an outcast?” asked Camus. “If you do, I know how you feel. To be liked is so very important to us all, and yet, in a universe as vast as ours, it is of very little significance.”
“Albert is of course right,” said Russell, “if a little sombre. We all place far too much importance upon our social standing and how we are viewed by our peers – this is only natural – but ultimately we all die, and the memories we leave behind succumb to the impartial force of time. Well known historical characters are now merely names in books, remembered by few, admired by even fewer, and for the most part, we are so unmemorable as to be non-existent. Now then, who’s for a cup of tea?”
His question jerked me out of the depression he had been slowly sending me in to, and back to normality. “We’re a bit low on milk,” I warned, “so go easy, eh?” He nodded, took out a small notebook and pen, and started taking orders for tea and coffee. He returned a few minutes later with a tray laden with cups, saucers, pots, and spoons. I waited until everyone was comfortable again, and then continued where we’d left off. “I agree with everything Albert and Bertrand have said, but I’m not dead yet, and I don’t really care what people will think of me when I am. I’m only concerned with the present: do you like me?”
“What would you do if we said we didn’t like you?” asked Socrates, as hypothetical as ever. I rolled my eyes and shrugged.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure I even care. Just tell me whether you like me or not “
“But we must weigh up the consequences of our replies,” explained Popper, “otherwise, what are we to base our judgements upon?”
“I’m not asking you to judge me,” I said, “I just want an answer to a very simple question: do you like me?”
“Why are you asking us in particular?” asked Camus. I stood up, exasperated.
“I’m asking you because you’re all meant to be insanely clever,” I said, and I wasn’t on my own when I glanced in Kierkegaard’s direction.
“What has being clever got to do with it?” said Freud. I could almost feel myself reclining onto a couch as I answered him.
“Well, if clever people like me, they will probably have very good reasons for liking me. If I asked the postman if he likes me, he’d probably say yes just to get a decent tip at Christmas. You are all people who have devoted your lives to reason and thought. If you like me, it will be for good reasons, hopefully.”
“What would you consider as constituting a good reason?” asked Socrates.
“Christ, I don’t know,” I said, desperately. “Maybe that I’m basically a good human being, or maybe that I bring happiness to others. There are any number of reasons that could be considered good.”
“Ah well, you see,” said Russell, “you’ve just broadened our discussion once again: philosophers still haven’t reached any real agreement as to what constitutes goodness, and happiness is just as elusive.”
“You’re dodging the question,” I shouted. “I don’t want to get into a debate about goodness or happiness, I just want to know whether or not you like me!”
“So, you would prefer that we avoid the subjects of goodness and happiness?” crooned Freud, steepling his fingers and staring at me over the top of his spectacles.
“Listen you, just shut it, now!” I pointed at him with one hand and made a fist with the other. “I’m sick to death of being half-analysed by you. You’re just a jumped up, snot nosed-” I was stopped by a knock on the back door. I lowered my hands and went to see who was there. I knew that bugger would get to me in the end, I’m just lucky I was interrupted when I was, otherwise the sod would have probably made a book out of me. I opened the back door, only to be confronted with the one man who I liked even less than Freud: Wittgenstein. As a neighbour, he’s the philosophical equivalent of the funny old woman who lives at the end of the road and smells of cats. He was standing stiffly to attention wearing an old overcoat buttoned all the way up. “Good evening, Ludwig,” I said, still half panting from my argument with Freud, “what can I do for you?”
“I have come to ask if I may borrow some milk,” he said, with only the faintest of accents. “I’m absolutely gasping for a cup of tea, and all the shops are shut.” “Certainly,” I said. I’d long ago resigned myself to having Wittgenstein as a neighbour, so I turned and headed for the fridge. Just as I got there, I remembered that we’d finished the milk a short while before, and without thinking, I turned back to Wittgenstein and blurted, “Sorry, Ludwig, but Bertrand used the last drop only half an hour ago.” Shit.
“Mr Russell is here?” said Wittgenstein, “I must speak with him at once.” And he pushed past me into the living room. This could only happen to me, I thought. I deliberately avoided inviting Wittgenstein for one reason: he’s a weirdo; and then I go and tell him that Bertrand Russell is in the house. Well, I thought, I’d better go and sort things out. I made my way to the living room where I found Wittgenstein being brought up to date by everyone else. I was a bit embarrassed.
“Listen, Ludwig,” I began, heading towards him, hoping I might be able to smooth things out before they got out of hand. He cut me off.
“Please, do not bother to explain. You did not want me here tonight, so you omitted to invite me. Also, you have no milk, so I must go without my cup of tea. I cannot stand that powdered stuff.” Everyone nodded in agreement. “As for your question, no, I do not like you. You are lacking in manners as well as milk. Goodnight.” He turned and left.
Everyone in the room was looking at me. “Look,” I said, a pleading tone edging its way into my voice, “it’s not that I don’t like him, it’s just, you know, he’s a bit strange.” No one answered. “Oh come on, you’re not going to hold this against me are you?” One by one they were starting to leave. Socrates went first, followed by Popper and Freud. Russell helped Kierkegaard into his coat and then they too left. Camus went to the front door and waited for Sartre, who was gathering his things together. As he walked past, I said, “You haven’t said much tonight, Jean-Paul.” He turned to me then.
“That’s because I didn’t like you in the first place,” he said, and with that, he left.
© Mark Noonan 2000
Mark Noonan studied philosophy at the University of St Andrews.