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Fiction

Philosophical Differences

Valentin Sawadsky commentates on the gulf between minds.

“Oh, give me a break!”

That was my teenaged nephew, who is staying with me. He was reading the sports page. “They fired the coach of the football team!”

I looked up from my volume of Schopenhauer, but said nothing.

“He was the best coach they ever had!”

“Why did they fire him?” I asked. I was just being polite – I don’t follow spectator sports.

“It says here… the coach and the manager had been having… phil-o-so-phi-cal differences.” The boy wrinkled his nose, as if he had come upon a bad smell.

“Philosophical differences!” I put my book aside. “Well now! What was the nature of these differences?”

“It doesn’t say.”

“Let me have the article!” I said, reaching eagerly for the paper. I could hardly contain my excitement. I could see it all: he masquerades as a football coach, but in reality he’s a philosopher! What a marvelous disguise. And while the raucous fans are howling and chanting, he is thinking deep and subtle thoughts. Why, at this very moment, he might also be reading Schopenhauer.

I had long admired those hidden philosophers, who disdain fame and fortune and devote themselves to truth alone. Like the tortured Nietzsche, living in obscurity, publishing his radical books at his own expense and selling six copies a year. Or the noble Spinoza, peacefully grinding away at lenses while working on his esoteric masterpiece. I had even thought of writing an article on this theme. But after hearing about the football coach, my thoughts took a more profound turn. There arose before me the image of another kind of thinker, one who takes renunciation to the next level: he does not even deign to write down his thoughts!

No, I am not talking about that windbag Socrates. He, of course, did not write. Why should he? He had Plato scribbling down his every word. No, the philosopher I had in mind doesn’t talk much. He lives quietly, working as an accountant, a short-order cook, maybe even a football coach. Most people will not even notice that they’re in the presence of a deep thinker. He guards his privacy and his wisdom. He is elusive and cunning, like wild game.

And with that, I had the idea for my article. I even had a title: ‘Stalking the Hidden Sage’. I found the title so exciting I could hardly wait to begin writing. But first I had to do some research, and bag my quarry. People who have been unjustly fired are usually happy to talk about the experience. So I simply called the coach and arranged a short interview for the following day.

When I arrived, he was cleaning out his office. He strode toward me, a big hand stretched out: crew cut, T-shirt over a barrel chest, whistle hanging from his neck. ‘The spitting image of a coach,’ I thought to myself. ‘And to think that he’s actually a philosopher in disguise.’

Almost the first thing he said was: “Yeah, they fired me. But I try to be philosophical about it.”

I almost chortled with delight. This was my man alright. My plan was simply to keep him talking – sooner or later he would give himself away.

“So, would you say that the coach’s job is getting harder?”

“Good question,” he said. “The job shouldn’t be hard, because this game is really so simple. What does it take to win a football game? I can tell you in six words.”

“Really?”

Punching with his fist for emphasis, he said: “Put – The – Ball – In – The – Net.” It was awesome how his razor-sharp mind was able to penetrate to the heart of the matter.

“Nonetheless, the job is getting harder,” he continued. “I’m tired of trying to satisfy everybody. And that’s why I think…”

I was suddenly very alert. “You think!” I said. “What do you think?”

“I think, therefore…”

This was too good to be true. “Yes, yes” I said urgently. “You think, therefore you –”

Now he became thoughtful and hesitant. “I think, therefore, I am… going to move into a different line of work.”

I let out a deep sigh. “Is it really that bad?” I asked.

“You know,” he said, “these days, we coaches and managers – we just don’t know what to do. Sometimes I think that we’re totally in the dark. It’s like we’re living in a cave.”

“A cave! Oh yes, a cave! Tell me more about that.”

“Well,” he continued in that thoughtful way of his, “there’s just darkness all around, and nowhere to turn.”

“But, tell me,” I said. “In this cave – aren’t there any shadows?”

“Come again?” He looked at me strangely.

“But haven’t you heard Plato’s story of the cave?”

“Plato…” he said with a look of concentration. “Is that the new coach of the Greek national team?”

Time for a new approach. “So, um… you’re looking for a new career then, are you?” I said.

“You know,” he said, “in itself, the thing is… how shall I put it…”

“What was that? The thing in itself? Have you been reading Kant’s Critique?”

Again he gave me a puzzled look. “Sorry,” he said, “I don’t know that magazine. I only read football magazines. But like I said – the thing is, in itself, not all that serious. I received a good severance allowance, and that gives me a year to consider my options.”

He looked at his watch, and I realized that our time was up. He had outsmarted me!

“Well,” I said. “I hope you get a new job soon. Then you will have a salary on top of your severance pay.”

“Oh, yes, that would be great, wouldn’t it? That would be the best of all possible worlds. Have a good day!”

I swear I saw a glint in his eye. Well, no point in mentioning Leibniz, the rascal would just play dumb again.

© Valentin Sawadsky 2010

Valentin Sawadsky is a mathematics instructor living in Vancouver.

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