what a piece of work is man

In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me. — Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2

If there is anything virtuous, anything worthy of admiration, think of these things above all else. — Paul to the Philippians

I am currently reading both the Phaedo and Joyce Carol Oates’ A Garden of Earthly Delights. I’ve been plowing through the short collection of Socratic dialogues that holds the Phaedo with great delight. Re-visiting texts that I wandered through my foggy freshman year with the new clarity of knowing how these words and ideas of Plato’s have trickled down through the past 2,500 years of conversation is grounding. What is a soul? How can we know we are immortal? What good is a body? What is virtue? What is learning? These aren’t the first iteration of these questions, but to visit these early instances of questions that still dog philosophers is refreshing.

Oates’ book, on the other hand is about as refreshing as the Hieronymus Bosch painting with which it shares a name. Oates is a glorious writer. But reading about Carleton Walpole and the other sharecroppers with whom he works and drinks his days away is depressing. Carleton would probably love to sit with Socrates and discuss what virtue is, in fact, he believes himself capable of doing so. But he was never given the chance. Or, perhaps, he would be one of the many learned men of Athens voting to punish the philosopher-gadfly with death. It’s hard to say if people, given the opportunity to be good, will take it.

Juxtaposing Carleton Walpole with Socrates may be a futile exercise, but it’s been the chief activity of my mind the past few days. Their images of what a man is and can be seem not diametrically opposed but simply incommunicable to one another. They are on different planets, it appears.

Which one of these visions, I want to know is correct. Which one is true of most people at most time. Who is a human and what is a person and which writer is telling me the true story of what it means to be a person? Who should I be expecting upon entering the world: a Carleton Walpole or a Socrates?

Carleton Walpole is subject to all sorts of passions: bursts of temper, drunkenness, sexual affairs, violence, that he cannot seem to control. Being at the mercy of his passions seems to make him, many philosophers would say, less than human.

Is a human only capable of achieving what it means to be a human with some kind of education, some kind of learning? It seems, according to both books, that education is vital for a human being to stop being an animal and to start being human. This is troubling, at first, to me, because most people in history have not had access to school rooms or lecture halls.

But there are many places to learn that aren’t a formal school room or a university. There are books, yes, but there are also fables and folktales. There are fairy stories and nursery tales. There are social mores passed down in communities, there are familial relations, there are elders, there is the wisdom of experience. There are a lot of places to learn, traditionally.

And part of me wonders if the fate of Carleton Walpole and his beleaguered family is one that is specifically tied to their itinerant lifestyle. They are pulled away from their family home—a place of sweetness and a vision for a happier life, enshrined in the framed wedding photo—into a life of chasing down work and spending long days harvesting crops that are not theirs among people who are not their own.

Education, in this context, comes in the form of a sharp schoolteacher battling with their children, struggling to get them to learn, but without much of a goal for their learning. And, as anyone, including Socrates could tell you, without a goal, without a telos for the work, work itself is mere drudgery. Even something enjoyable in its own right, like reading. But there are no books to read in the sharecroppers’ cabins, there is no conversation they are ushered into with their new-found literary prowess. The Waloples exist in a non-society, an apolitical reality that doesn’t allow them much more than mere survival.

So much of our own society seems to operate this way. To give so many people no other choice than to live in the scramble of daily subsistence, without the ability to form deep relationships in a place or with a people, without the ability to learn and educate one another in what it means to be who and what we are.

Even spaces of education are often experienced as a series of necessary hurdles a student diligently bounds over in order to try to survive—to land a partner who is equal in socioeconomic status and intelligence, to get a job, to make money, to pay the bills.

The liturgy of education is oriented toward money. Money is the ultimate goal, rather than wisdom. Giorgio Agamben describes capitalism as a cruel religion oriented toward perpetual guilt and indebtedness rather than hope and forgiveness, and completely devoid of any substance. We exchange a currency that has no value in an of itself, and from the emptiness at the heart of our social fabric, Agamben argues, our words become vapid (words exist only to encourage you to spend money that you rarely touch and is mostly a signifier of debt, which is lack of money).

We are a society, like the sharecropper shanties, full of empty speech, which falls short of being either silence or philosophy—both modes in which man can encounter himself.

Words words words, Hamlet screams. The rest is silence.

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