Monday, March 06, 2023

Bad Algebra (or, Why I'm Reading Plato)

When I went back to school to get my Computer Science degree, I took a Calculus course. It was sort of a spiritual awakening for me: but never mind that for the moment. Sometimes the instructor would put a problem we'd had trouble with up on the blackboard. He'd work through it, get through the parts we already understood, and then, right at the most confusing moment, he would stop. 

"And the rest is just algebra," he'd say, toss the chalk back into the tray, and move on to another topic.

This happened a couple times. When the students began to ask him to work out the algebra, too, you could see a light going on for him. It was the algebra we were having trouble with?

"Look," he told us, very earnestly. "You've got to get your algebra nailed down. Your bad algebra is going to kill you."


He was right. There's nothing particularly difficult about calculus: its reputation for difficulty comes of the fact that you have to be comfortable with algebra in order to do it, and not many of us learned our algebra all that well. 


Today, I think, "my bad philosophy is going to kill me."


When I was young and impressionable, growing up in hick town in a backwater state, I decided that philosophy was useless. I actually had pretty good reasons for deciding so. I wanted to know how to live: and the only philosophers I encountered assured me that they could not help me. Each individual created his own meaning, they said, and he committed himself to it: reason could help him neither to find meaning nor to clarify it. (I don't even know who these philosophers were: I got their ideas mostly second-hand, and I was a young innocent. People pontificated about Sartre and Camus a lot in those days: it probably had something to do with them.)

So. If philosophy and reason were useless in figuring out how to live, it seemed to be that the next best thing was case studies. Novels offered case studies: what sort of life do you have if you set your heart on this, or cultivate that? Philosophy had no answers, maybe, but fiction had lots of local, provisional ones. So I read fiction, and wandered into literature, and basically made a life of it. Not a bad choice. I don't regret it.


But I had made a large mistake. I had thought that I could just leave philosophy alone, and as it turns out, that's not the way it works. Ignoring philosophy doesn't mean that you don't have ideas about who you are, what the world is, and what you should do in it. It just means your ideas are bits and pieces absorbed from anywhere, unexamined and contradictory. You build your life on these notions: you can't help it. And you find yourself then at age 64 asking once again, "how should I live?" and realizing that this is a problem that you don't have even the minimal tools for addressing.

Your bad algebra is going to kill you.

So: start over. Learn the basics. "What good is Plato going to do you?" someone said to me. "He's wrong about everything important." Maybe so: but you have to start somewhere.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Yes, indeed. Czesław Miłosz: “. . . only in the middle of the twentieth century did the inhabitants of many European countries come to understand, usually by way of suffering, that complex and difficult philosophy books have a direct influence on their fate.” (I found this in Timothy Snyder's The Road to Unfreedom.) I'm not sure the U.S. will ever make the connection.