Essays About


Watching an airplane gain altitude after takeoff, I marvel at the feat of flight. But on second thought I correct myself: my marveling depends on taking gravity for granted. Would it not be equally reasonable to marvel that a broken plane plummets to earth? If I strip my thoughts of custom, cutting my brain to the bone of ratiocination, I find no first principle of logic dictating that objects must fall.

We call facts like flight extraordinary because they violate ordinary facts like gravity. But ordinary facts are only extraordinary facts we have grown used to.

If we took nothing for granted, there would be no dullness to highlight the wonderful. Wonder rests on lack of wonder.

A paradox of philosophy is that, having originated as the pursuit of knowledge, it has mainly led to skepticism. Aristotle sought rational meaning in nature and humanity, but philosophers since him have steadily given up, culminating in the twentieth-century existentialists who deny the meaning of life, and deconstructionists who deny any meanings beyond the mere wizardry of words.

Yet what do philosophers accomplish by their denials of meaning? They gain for themselves professorship and authorship; they define an idea they can embrace and base their life upon.

Humans are so needful of meaning, we find it even through denying it.

I enjoy going to wedding receptions more, the fewer people I know there. My own wedding, where I knew everyone, was such a blur of congratulations that, for all the planning I put into the evening, I scarcely got to see how it came off. But at a friend's wedding with whom I share few mutual friends, I can watch the night unfold from a well-chosen table, interrupted only by the waiter who comes occasionally to refill my wine glass. I would rather watch a conversation than listen to one; I prefer observing mirth and merriment to making them myself. A groomsman with too much to drink is flirting badly with a pretty bridesmaid; the sweating photographer is lumbering under his hundred gadgets through the crowd; the disc jockey is trying third-rate jokes on the captive audience. Chatting would interrupt this study of types. A good sociologist must be a recluse.

Packing up my belongings when I move always causes me a small existential crisis. Suddenly, the walls are bare. Nail holes rather than photographs line the hallways. My feet, accustomed to the soft pile and bright pattern of an Oriental rug, touch a hard, cold floor. My empty bookshelves no longer cloak me in an aura of culture and history. My speakers are boxed up, and the quiet disquiets me. I have, in preparing to move, already moved into a house devoid of color, warmth, and resonance. Is this the same place I was living all along? Seeing my familiar home stripped and emaciated feels like seeing the skeletal figure of a friend on his death bed. The bare, unsignifying walls seem like a hidden truth I had papered over with my belongings. I worry, was the old life and color a lie? Is human meaning a poster on the white plaster wall of nature?

The one who first states a case seems right, until the other comes and cross-examines. -Proverbs 18:17

In politics, everyone has a reasonable point. And because everyone is right, everyone is wrong-headed.

We assert the need for spending cuts while condemning cuts to programs that affect us. Our convictions rest on sound arguments applied inconsistently. We do not so much only care about our favorite programs as only know about our favorite programs. Thus we apply a specific logic in defense of them—the good they do—while applying a general logic against unknown programs—the overall need to trim deficits.

In abortion debates, opposing sides do not so much disagree on an answer as compellingly answer different questions. Pro-life advocates depict a battle between a woman and a fetus, in which no human has a right to decide if another should live. Pro-choice advocates depict a battle between a woman and the government, in which no senator has a right over a woman's reproduction.

The rich protest the estate tax unfair because it taxes the same wealth twice. The poor protest it unfair that they have no estate to tax.

Nothing hinders a fair hearing for truth like cogent arguments. No sooner are we convinced of the merit of our logic than we close our minds to the merit of other logics. In college, I wondered how great thinkers, reading the same map of world facts, could reach such contradictory conclusions.

Skeptics are right to doubt the dogmas of the convinced, but for the wrong reason. Truth eludes us not because there are no certainties in life, but because there are too many.

When I need to think, I think out loud. Silent reflection is a lonely interior affair, whereas saying one's thoughts audibly splits the self into speaker and listener and turns monologue into dialogue. Nor is any dialogue quite so enjoyable as a dialogue with oneself. This is not a matter of vanity but compatibility. Who else besides me always and unfailingly desires to discuss exactly the same subjects I do? We start from shared premises, hold equivalent interests with equivalent passion, get bored at just the same moment and, without the awkwardness of hinting, simultaneously move on to another topic.

Each of us is our own perfect match.

Every day, strangers look at our face—our brows, cheeks, lips, and lashes—but all we have ever seen of ourselves, while closing one eye, is the blurry lump of our nose. Were it not for mirrors and photographs, we could not tell if we had Cleopatra's looks or Socrates'. Oddly, we know others better than ourselves, for we observe their reality, but only copies of ourselves.

Faces are like assumptions: we see with them, we do not see them.

At weddings, when flutes and violins make women's cheeks wet, I often roll my eyes because crying at weddings seems mawkish and predictable, and I could never give in to such a routine. But if I call myself a thinker, I ought instead to envy their tears. While those mascaraed ladies meditate on youth and beauty, loneliness and love, time and till death do us part, I sit stiffly and self-consciously in my pew, thinking not of the human condition but of my own superiority. Nothing is shallower than pride.

If women cry more than men, as they are stereotyped, they are the deeper sex, plumbing life's magnificent sorrow while the sports-watching, business-traveling, engine-fixing men live practically, that is, practically don't live.