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Daryn Green takes a satirical swipe at philosophical disengagement.
Percival Veneer and Felicity Tangent had been close companions for many years. Such was their long-standing attachment and mutual affection that it was hardly surprising that amongst their circle this had given rise from time to time to the question as to whether they were secretly an item. But theirs was a purely platonic relationship – which, in view of their overriding shared interest, was somewhat apt. For they were both devoted – utterly devoted – to the harmless pastime known as ‘philosophy’.
“We’re a couple of philosophy nuts, aren’t we?” Felicity would say with a quirky smile as she poured Earl Grey tea at the round table, upon whose embroidered tablecloth would sit an array of philosophical works and periodicals, among the flowers in a vase and the tea things. They would be thus ensconced in her spacious Victorian conservatory almost every afternoon, the table positioned centrally, close to the large rear window, so as to catch the best light, and overlook her sparely but tastefully designed and neatly manicured garden.
“Yes my dear, there’s no doubt about it,” Percival would reply with a contented air, sipping from his bone china cup and leisurely perusing an article of his choice.
“We are so lucky to have found this great interest of ours,” Felicity would sometimes additionally comment. With only half his mind on his words, Percival would reply, “Yes… fortunate… to say the least.”
“Much better than any practical subject, don’t you think? Practicality is so vulgar.”
At this Percival would slightly knit his brows as he replied, revealing his own strength of feeling: “Yes indeed. Most vulgar.”
“At least one can rely on philosophy to be quite useless.”
“Yes. Quite useless,” Percival would continue to respond, in agreeable but dismissive tones. Then his concentration would return to the work before him.
They thoroughly enjoyed sessions such as this. But their philosophy get-togethers were by no means always conducted in bookish vein. Sometimes the main ingredient of their pleasure was their engagement in lively conversation and repartee. Each, in friendly turn, would try to outdo the other in apparent mastery of whatever ideas happened to be in vogue – on top of which they would try to add impressive-sounding juxtapositions and embellishments of their own. Felicity, being the more demonstrative of the two, would sometimes get into such an excited whirl about the sheer range of possibilities and her own mental travels amongst them, that she would jump up, clap her hands together and exclaim, “I’ve thought of something clever! I’ve thought of something clever!” before stating the shining gem that had formed in her mind. All the while Percival would look on with fond approval, before trying to match, if not better, her exultant contribution.
Their lives continued happily in this way for some time. They enjoyed many weekend mornings and various evening soirées together, always sharing clever ideas and bon mots, never failing to keep abreast of the current philosophical debates and intellectual fashions. If only they could have gone on forever, uninterruptedly, with this comfortable, outwardly uneventful but nonetheless cerebrally most enjoyable lifestyle. However, there came a time when, as luck would have it, a long line of diverse, bizarre and deeply troubling misfortunes happened to befall them.
The first blow came in the form of the news that Percival’s job at the Ministry of Superfluity was to come to an end. The national, indeed international, economy had taken a terrible crash (caused, ironically, by the near-universal belief that there could not, under any circumstances whatever, be a crash); and as Percival’s role at the Ministry was more superfluous than most, with regret, the management had no choice but to ‘let him go’. At about the same time Felicity’s financial circumstances also took a drastic turn for the worse. She had, for a long time, effectively been kept by a doting yet extremely wealthy aunt; and so it was both a great emotional and also a great practical blow when she found out that this aunt had died intestate. How was she to keep her house, and cover her expenses?
And so it was that both Percival and Felicity found themselves chucked unceremoniously into what Felicity rather quaintly called ‘the jobs market’.
Perhaps because his was the more conventional and reassuring curriculum vitae of the two, it was Percival who first found work. But it was a far cry from the sort of employment that he desired. His new role was part manual, part clerical, working in a factory not too far from his abode. The drop in salary was just bearable, and the job itself need not have been so bad but for the fact that the management contrived to make the working conditions far worse than they need have been.
The owner, a Mr Arkwright-Ponsonby, was a strange man in many respects. Unusually for the twenty-first century he always wore a black top hat. He also sported a silk waistcoat, into which was inserted a large Victorian gold fob watch, to which he regularly referred in order to berate any perceived tardiness in his employees. He always referred to the factory, in all seriousness, as “tut mill,” even though otherwise he had a plummy southern accent, and even though the building itself was situated in the home counties and was a plastics moulding factory.
Fortunately, the poor working conditions were short-lived, for not long after Percival’s arrival the workers formed themselves into a union. Their retribution was terrible and swift. In no time at all the management actually had to doff their caps to the workers (cloth caps having been especially distributed for the purpose), and the workers were not allowed, on pain of exclusion from the union, to do more than press one button or lift one paperclip per day. All much more pleasant – although Percival found it a bit boring, and somewhat depriving of job satisfaction and self-esteem. But before these secondary problems really had time to bite, the factory went out of business, and Percival was once more out of a job.
As Percival left the building for the last time, a further disquieting thought struck him: it was almost as if some of these industrial shenanigans reflected some of the political and economic philosophy he’d read over the years. He quickly dismissed this as a mental aberration, brought on, no doubt, by all the stress.
Meanwhile Felicity’s search for work had finally borne fruit. And what fruit! With the help of an influential friend she had secured a job working in the offices of a tabloid newspaper – just the sort of employment where her verbal dexterity might be put to some use. She found it a terrible shock coping with the deadlines; but summoning all her ingenuity, somehow she held out, and eventually she did manage to find her feet, more or less, although it took quite a long time. It was just at this point that she began to suspect that there was a fly in the ointment.
Up until then her drive to succeed had been based not just on her desire to work and do well, but on a belief in the journalistic profession – the truth-seeking and educative function of the enterprise. Gradually, however, it became clear that in many instances her bosses were not so much interested in the truth as they were in reflecting the proprietor’s prejudices, or in analysing their readers’ demographic and feeding them what they wanted to hear. Her discomfort was exacerbated by the delusion that there was some sort of connection between this discovery and the moral philosophy with which she was acquainted. But her wrestling with these troublesome issues was cut short because, due to a member of staff leaving unexpectedly, the newspaper’s Head Arts Critic needed assistance at short notice. Felicity was asked if she could help, and of course she said yes. This took her away from political journalism, and frankly she much preferred studying the various creative media that were dealt with on the arts pages. It was only after she’d been helping out in this area for a few months that she began to again suffer the nagging sense of a connection between this new work and some articles she’d once read about aesthetics. But all of these concerns were swept clean away when disaster struck. Completely out of the blue, and despite being more than adequate as an assistant, she was dismissed! It was a complete mystery. The stated cause was that ‘her eyes were too close together’ – obviously a spurious reason, because her eyes were spaced quite normally.
Quite apart from the practical implications, there was a principle at stake, so Felicity felt she had no choice but to become embroiled in pressing a lawsuit for unfair dismissal. The process was long, expensive and gruelling, but in the end it was worth it because right prevailed: a misogynist boss was exposed, and she acquired quite a nice settlement. However, through the latter stages of the trial she kept experiencing those now-familiar niggling feelings: it was as if there was some almost mystical link between the legal proceedings and the content of books on the philosophy of jurisprudence she and Percival had read some time before – not to mention the spectre of an association with some feminist literature she had enjoyed. She was sure it was all ridiculous, of course, and contemplated going to see a psychiatrist.
Percival had had to endure an even more shocking trauma: whilst out walking one day, he had been attacked by a religious fundamentalist! It had taken all his considerable debating skills to placate the man and escape with his life. Only some time afterwards, when the zealot had been dealt with by the proper authorities and he knew he was completely safe, did he realise, with a deep sense of disquiet, and even shame, that he’d used arguments with the man that he’d picked up from some books on metaphysics and the philosophy of religion – just as if these had been pertinent to the case!
All these troubles left both Percival and Felicity rather bruised and battered, in Percival’s case literally. They both felt that surely they were now due some better luck and more peaceful times. But fate had not yet finished with them. There followed a spate of further vexations, of such a varied and particular nature and manifesting in such a short space of time, that had they occurred in a mere work of fiction the reader would simply not have believed them.
At first things had seemed to be on the up, when Percival managed to secure an executive post working for a pharmaceuticals company. But he was immediately beset by all sorts of sticky problems: negotiating with Marxist workers, dealing with sloppy chemists, battling with environmental activists, calculating present versus future benefits for all. Then Felicity had to care for a close relative who had suffered a complete loss of identity following a head injury. Then Percival had to leave his job to deal with his elderly grandfather, who said he wanted to end it all. Then they both kept being pestered by some old friends who wanted them to come and live in a commune. Then Felicity was drawn into a great battle to get her niece into a decent school… The onslaught of events was relentless. But for Felicity and Percival it was all far worse than the casual onlooker might have supposed, for not only did they have to cope with the strain of these many troubles, they also had to cope with what for them was the even greater burden, that these tribulations seemed to have some sort of bizarre relation with the philosophy of history, the philosophy of science, logic, social philosophy, decision theory, philosophy of mind, medical ethics, and the philosophy of education.
In the end they could stand it no longer. They resolved to consult the experts, to have the matter settled one way or the other, once and for all.
Percival was the first to act. While off visiting a friend who lived in a university town, he managed to beg an interview with one of the university’s philosophy professors, who was most obliging. And so he finally found himself sat face to face with someone truly in the know, and asking the question, “Surely philosophy can’t be like mathematics – abstract and useful; informing the structure and aims of practical thinking, mostly at some kind of… meta-level. Can it?” Percival winced at his own devilish construct.
But now we come to the most elusive and perplexing part of our history, for no matter how Percival approached the question, he just couldn’t make sense of the professor’s no doubt learned responses: something about the uncertain categorisation of the philosophy of politics; something about the difficulty of bridging the divide between the professional and non-professional; something about the importance of urbane thought in a civilized society… After some time, exhausted, and completely baffled as to what sort of political complication there might be to expressing an overt opinion, Percival decided to pay attention to the subtler signals being given out. However, it eventually became clear to Percival that he wasn’t going to get any straight answer concerning the uses of philosophy, so he gave his thanks and left.
Only a few days later Felicity organised a similar appointment, this time at a university closer to home. Knowing of Percival’s experience, she was fervently hoping for a more direct response. But once again, the philosophy professor wouldn’t give a straight answer, However, this time, as Felicity was leaving, the professor’s parting comment, although still quite vague, was “Perhaps doing philosophy is worthwhile for its own sake?”
When Felicity and Percival discussed the matter at length afterwards, they found that that phrase was the clincher: that as practical as philosophy may (or may not) turn out to be, the usefulness of the discipline wasn’t really the core issue. And that these professionals must know what they’re talking about (and would never renege on any basic responsibilities to the wider community, would they?) Having decided this, our two worthies breathed the most enormous sigh of relief, as you can imagine.
And so it was, one afternoon not long after, that fortune found Percival and Felicity comfortably seated in Felicity’s conservatory, the worry lines now erased from their faces. All their recent worldly trials and tribulations were resolved – in fact, towards the end, they had just seemed to melt away, like the figments of a bad dream. They had found good jobs, their health was good, their finances were in order, family matters were sorted out. And to top it all, their special interest, after being posed some rather difficult questions, had emerged unsullied by any of the sordidness with which for a time it had seemingly been embroiled. All was cosy. They even had some friends round to celebrate the resumption of good times, and so a light party atmosphere prevailed. Felicity was organising tea and cakes at the table, and chatting about day trips she was planning, now that everything was back to normal. It was springtime, and the garden was looking bright and lovely, with a range of birds vying for the food she had put out on the bird-table. Looking out, a guest observed, “It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.”
“Or bird-eat-bird!” chimed in another. Everyone laughed.
“Life is tough for some creatures,” agreed Felicity. Then she added rather wistfully, “It was even tough for us, for a while.” The friends commiserated with agreeable murmurs. “But all’s well now,” she continued. “We have our good lives. And we have our lovely pastime – philosophy. And as they said, philosophy is good purely for it’s own sake.”
At this, Percival raised his teacup, as if in praise both of their happy collaboration and the providence which had given them their shared hobby. “Quite so, my dear!” he said.
© Daryn Green 2013
Daryn Green is a carer, and also works as a supply teacher in North London.