A Philosophical Discussion

Ben H. Swett
Shaw AFB, SC
2 October 1969

It was just another mandatory party at the Officers' Club, by invitation of the base commander. I was at a table with one of the flight instructors and his wife. He wanted to talk philosophy. She was bored. I was tired. He said he had a Master's Degree in philosophy, and started teaching me Existentialism. After a couple of attempts to get a word in edgewise, I stopped talking because he wasn't listening; he was lecturing.

After awhile, she looked at me and very concretely conveyed the thought, "Please ask me to dance." However, at just that moment, another thought popped into my mind, "Keep listening to him." So I smiled at her and turned my attention back to him.

As I rather expected he would, he talked his way down the slope from disillusionment with the ideal of absolute, certain, objective, universal principles, right past empirical realism without even noticing that omission, through skepticism into cynicism, and wound up in the pit of existential despair. It took him about an hour and a half. His concluding statement was, "Life sucks."

I was not in a mood to play with this stuff, but from this point on, a series of thoughts popped into my mind and I relayed them. I recognized the first thought as potentially risky, but went with it anyway: "Well, if life sucks, why don't you commit suicide?"

His wife jumped in her chair as if she had received an electric shock and looked at me with a terrified expression in her eyes. Apparently this was not a new thought to her. He frowned: "No ... No, suicide's the coward's way out. You have to keep struggling."

"Why? Because Sartre says so?"

He shrugged. "I think Sartre sucks."

I laughed. "Okay, I might agree with you there. But in all your study of philosophy, did you ever get around to Plato? Socrates?"

"Of course." The corner of his mouth drew up in a sneer of contempt at the question.

"Do you recall what Socrates said about beauty?"

"Beauty is only in the eye of the beholder." And there it was again -- the trademark of cynicism -- the characteristic contempt that separates cynicism from skepticism.

The next question was accompanied by something like a private explanation for me: [Socratic method. Two set-up questions, then...]. Delivering it felt like pulling a trigger: "If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, where is ugliness?"

He looked astonished. His wife giggled. I continued: "Now, when you tell me you think life sucks, you don't tell me anything about life, but you do tell me a lot about yourself. I think what you need is an optorectomy."

"A what?"

"An optorectomy ... a surgical procedure to sever the nerve between your asshole and your eyeball, to correct your shitty outlook on life."

His face turned red and he started to get angry, but then he stopped, lowered his head, shook his head and laughed: "I never heard it put that way before..." After a moment, he looked back up at me with a somewhat rueful grin on his face: "Thanks. That's a pretty good line of argument, from Socrates ... I'll think about it."

The next message was another private instruction for me: [Quit talking. Now.]. So I grinned back at him, waved my hand at their two empty glasses, and asked, "What are you guys drinking? Are you ready for a refill?"

When I brought their drinks back from the bar and set them on the table, she asked, "Aren't you going to have a drink with us?"

I said, "I'm sorry. I'd like to, but I already had my limit. And I'm scheduled to fly in the morning, so I have to leave pretty soon ... but before I go, would you like to dance?"

While we were dancing, she said, "Thank you for what you said to my husband. I've been worried about him. And I never saw anyone get through to him like that before."

I said, "Yes, I knew you were worried about him. And I know what existentialism can do to people." Then I changed the subject.

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According to Webster's Dictionary: Skepticism is unwillingness to believe, and often a predisposition to doubt. Cynicism is a contemptuous disbelief in human goodness and sincerity -- and, I might add, a characteristic contempt for gullibility, because the over-reaction that produces it is usually: (1) gullible, (2) deceived, (3) cynical. The next misstep is misanthropy, which is a deep-seated distrust or hatred of people in general.

I agree with a lot of the factual insights of existentialists, but I don't agree with their value-judgments.

They emphasize the fact that every human being must continuously decide what is true and what is false; what is right and what is wrong; who to trust and who not to; which standards to accept and which to reject -- with only limited knowledge and time to decide, and with no way of knowing in advance precisely what the right choices are. So? What's new about that? Uncertainty is the normal condition. I wonder why some people want certitude so desperately. It isn't all that hard to make a decision as best you can under the circumstances and get on with it. People do it all the time.

But existentialists label responsibility as "the dark side of freedom" and say humans are "condemned to be free." That's typical of their major mistake. They keep looking at the dark side, and that view leads to its usual conclusion: "Life sucks. If you think otherwise, you're just deceiving yourself." Contrary to their doctrine, the realization that we are each responsible for our own decisions, actions, and beliefs does not necessarily lead to anxiety, or anguish, or rejection of freedom and responsibility, or self-deception. I -- for one -- enjoy my response-ability (ability to respond) and am not that afraid of making a wrong decision. "If only I had known" is futile self-flagellation.