The Beginning of The end of The end of The World
By Joseph Felser
One day, after class, a student I'll call Cathy approached me in the hallway, as I was preparing to make my exit down the stairwell.
"Professor," she said tentatively, "do you mind if I ask you a question?"
"No, go right ahead," I replied. "Shoot."
Cathy was always the first to raise her hand in answer to a question, or to ask one of her own. She was bright, energetic-a quick study. I figured she wanted to know something about Plato, or perhaps she was worried about the upcoming midterm. But I figured wrong.
"What do you think of all this End of the World stuff? I mean, do you really think the world is going to end?" she asked.
I was stunned.
Cathy couldn't have known that I had just resumed work on this book after a long hiatus. Nor could she have known that, in a recent e-mail to a friend, I confessed how strange it was that suddenly all sorts of individuals I was encountering in my everyday life were bringing up the subject of apocalypse. I'd joked to her that I was becoming some sort of "doom magnet."
But I could tell from the look on Cathy's face that, to her, the subject was no joke. She was serious-deadly serious. I knew that I had to choose my next words very carefully. I didn't want her to think that I was belittling her or her concerns.
"No, I don't think that the world is going to end," I replied. "But why did you act as if you were afraid even to raise the question?"
"Well, it's just that someone in my astronomy class asked the professor about all these apocalyptic prophesies, and he got real angry. His face turned red. He said there was absolutely nothing scientific in them and quickly changed the subject. But I wanted to know what you thought."
"Since you've asked me a question, is it all right if I turn around and ask you something?" I replied. "If you really thought that the world were going to end, what would you do differently?"
Cathy paused, her face scrunched up in thought. "I think I'd just stay here in Brooklyn, with my family," she answered.
"And if you didn't believe that the world were about to end?"
"I'd transfer to another school-somewhere else, out of state, to finish my degree," she stated firmly, without missing a beat. "Then I'd go to law school," she added. "That's what I really want to do: I want to become an attorney. But I don't want to practice law. I want to go into politics. You know, make the world a better place, and all that. If it doesn't sound too corny."
"Not at all," I replied. Raising my arm with hand outstretched, I gave my professorial imitation of a sacred benediction.
"Then go and become a lawyer," I intoned reassuringly. "Don't worry. Do what you really want to do. Don't act out of fear. The meaning of ‘the end of the world'-it's not what you may think."
A look of relief washed over Cathy's face. She thanked me profusely as we said our hasty goodbyes and went our separate ways.
But as I trudged down the stairwell toward my office, I wondered: Was Cathy really convinced by my hearty reassurances? Or would her doubts- and fears-linger? How many of her generation were like her? How many more out there were living with an unchecked, and perhaps unexpressed, anxiety over a prospective cosmic cataclysm?
The mere thought of it boggled my mind.
Gadflies and Deep-Sea Divers
Plato's great teacher, Socrates, famously stated that a philosopher must be annoying to be effective-like a buzzing gadfly that wakes up a sluggish horse catching a nap on a hot summer's afternoon. A society requires an irritant to wake itself up, to become aware of its destructive patterns, and-if it's not already too late-to initiate a change. It was too late for Athens. Is it for us?
The task at hand is not merely to "speak truth to power," but to question the core beliefs and values of our culture. Not only the attitudes of the elite, but also the prejudices and assumptions of the average person, are fair game. For most of us, as Socrates well knew, operate according to custom, habit, and tradition most of the time-that is, unthinkingly, with little or no critical reflection. Autopilot is our default position. We don't even know who set the controls or where we're going.
But what Socrates didn't quite reckon is that there is a much deeper source of culture than our rational intellect. Our consciously professed beliefs and values are but the tip of a vast and potentially dangerous iceberg. To be truly effective, it is not enough to be a gadfly; one must become a deep-sea diver. Not wings, but fins are what we need to grow if we are to get to the bottom of things: the myths.
Socrates more or less openly mocked the myths of his day: the philandering Zeus, the intra-Olympian warfare among the gods, etc. Centuries before television advertising, video games, and the World Wide Web, he fretted about the superior power of images to mold, influence-and, yes, corrupt-young minds unmoved by mere words, empirical evidence, and rational argument.