December 15, 2009
The derivation of the word ‘philosophy’ comes from the Greek words meaning ‘love’, ‘philo’, and wisdom, ‘sopho’; ‘philosophos’ in Greek, means ‘lover of wisdom’. So, when I finally landed in the philosophy department at Penn State, I was determined to find some actual wisdom...whatever that might be . And, I succeeded beyond my most fervent hopes in doing that, but, not before I had to learn that much of what comprises academic philosophy is tantamount to a frolic through the weeds of abstruse and arcane, but solidly logical, thinking.
As I made my way through the ‘dead Germans’, I knew that I had found a chem-free sleeping aid. I marveled at how a page, or even a particularly labyrinthine sentence could be so utterly boring that it knocked me right out. I would re-read such a passage, again and again, still not clear on exactly how this dense-packed thought train would ever be applied to actual living. But, I wasn’t there to play their game by their rules. I was a Vietnam-era veteran, with a wife and a child, and my intent was that college was to be something inspiring, that it would be a time for discovery and for opening up parts of myself that had long lain neglected, dormant or as yet unexamined. I was in no mood to suffer high-falutin bull-slingers. Fortunately, I took a course from Dr. Ernst Hans Freund, a professor emeritus who was approaching retirement but was teaching Phil 3, entry level ethics. Looking back, I believe he enjoyed encountering new students, who had not yet taken on the pretensions of ‘higher learning’.
When the course was over, I approached Dr. Freund and explained that my intent was not to become a philosopher and acquire the depth of intellectual knowledge that this implied, but that I was in search of practical wisdom that I could use for the rest of my life. He was a gentle soul, had studied under Martin Heidegger in Freiburg, been arrested and thrown in a concentration camp (Sachsenhausen) briefly and then fled Germany before the war. He was vastly over-qualified to be teaching me, and I have no doubt that he never considered that before he took me under his wing. ‘Ernst Freund’ translates as ‘Serious Friend’, by the way.
For the remaining two years of my degree, I took individual study with Dr. Freund and I wrote a paper a week, about 450 pages in all. I would go to his tiny office at the Phil department, sit and listen as he read my paper paragraph by paragraph and we would discuss it. That was it. But, it was enough, more than enough, and I consider it the jewel of my entire academic career. We talked of ‘right and wrong’, of selfishness and selflessness, idealism and practical matters. He met me where I was, and instead of imparting wisdom, he gave me the tools to recognize it when I encountered it. He taught me to fish.
And, he taught me to love wisdom. What is wisdom? Here is the dictionary meaning: “the quality or state of being wise; knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action; sagacity, discernment, or insight.” But, take away the verbiage, and what remains is the simple and oh so elegant knowledge of right and wrong that is embedded in every living soul from birth. We know it when we encounter it.
And our challenge in these times is to remain true to that quiet voice that comes from deep within, in the face of all the noise and blather made by the ever growing mob of nattering nabobs out there.