I still recall the terror I felt writing my first philosophy paper.
I had just gotten off a major road gig, where most of my time was spent staring out the window of a Prevost tour bus into the darkness, speeding towards the next concrete and steel stadium or arena, where the routine mirrored the twenty-five nights previous. The shadows of road signs and mile markers flashed by like green metallic ghosts mocking my apathy. Alcohol deadened the obvious: I was stuck in Plato’s traveling cave. Good times! But Aristotelian change was in the air.
The crisp January cold seeped through the windows of the James Union Building’s now defunct Room 304, where I sat in anticipation. That rear corner seat did little to conceal my senescence, where the numerous scars and scratches on my black leather Harley jacket proved older than most of my fellow students. Our professor, Dr. Magada-Ward, introduced herself and asked if anyone in the class had been through customs. I raised my hand and noticed about twenty other students, most of whom were freshmen, raised their hand. A well-traveled group of youngsters—these Philosophy students, I thought to myself. The girl next to me—she was probably pushing 19—looked at me and chuckled. “You went through customs?” she asked.
“Oh yeah…many times,” I said. I pulled the lapel of my leather jacket a little closer to my neck to block the chill radiating from the window. A large gray squirrel danced in the oak tree outside. I got out my notebook and wrote Republic: Book I at the top of the page.
“Book I is critical,” Dr. Magada-Ward said. I wrote that down and underlined it. I had no idea what that meant, although I would find out later that “customs” is an orientation process for incoming freshmen who might need a bit of direction because they’re away from home for the first time. For me, “customs” was the possibility of a body cavity search during a bag and passport check in order to gain entry to a foreign country. Chuckle noted. I was making progress.
My plan for my first paper was simple: I would scour the text, find the answer to Socrates’ question “What is justice?” and write a well-crafted essay about it—quoting sections of the text as argumentative support. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to be the way the Republic was written.
What we get is a stroll through a city were, apparently, no one really knows the answer to the questions except—and this is a maybe—the philosopher-king. The real answers were beyond space and time. Boy, I’ll say. Fine! But how in the hell am I supposed to write a dang paper about justice? I’m four freaking weeks into an Intro class, I have no idea what’s going on, and somehow I’m expected to come up with five pages of philosophical enlightenment. Fortunately, after much wringing-of-hands and gnashing-of-teeth, everything worked out okay.
That was my “intro” to philosophy. Baptism by fire, if you will. Today, I would like to think I’m a bit more enlightened than that first day. Then again, I have my moments.
Now I’m left wondering if they will attempt to kill me with their chains when I return to the bus. I guess that depends on whether I return with questions or answers—in the spirit of Socrates or Plato. I should probably bring beer—just in case.