Using free time sensibly
“People who lead a lonely existence always have something on their minds that they are eager to talk about” – Russian Writer Anton Chekhov.
No one has to be reminded that these are not normal days. For three months – and without promise for a quick end (except by a President perpetually in denial of reality) most of us must find ways to fill in hours of forced freedom at home, while the world rages out of control around us. What to do? For me: take advantage of the time to read and write.
Years ago I met an Irish novelist who said anyone could write a best seller about the story of one’s life; the trick, she said, is to make it as interesting to others as it has been to you.
Well, after years of encouragement, I began writing a Memoir – from childhood as the son of Lebanese parents who settled into a thriving Copper Country, and continuing through childhood memories about growing up here, graduating from Houghton High, then into the military during WWII, and after that, for a time, sampling life In New York City, then starting an academic career that would bring me back home. With our growing local College I took a chance, started teaching in the Humanities Department while adding a subsequent Doctorate from the U of Michigan, then back to our own groves of academe (now Michigan Technological University) for nearly half a century.
All of which is to say that, like most of you, I had a full, rich life, enough to fill volumes.
Meanwhile, I also have time to read. Reminded by philosopher Santayana’s famous statement, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and hoping to make some sense of our chaotic times, I selected a classic, Plato’s “Republic,” rediscovering the birth of Democracy as we (sort of) know it today, realizing that in these unsettled times are almost about to lose it.
Plato was an amazing Greek, one of many in his nation’s most productive years, five centuries BC, a time when he and other brilliant Greek scholars discussed, among many other things, a best possible form of government. Plato defined it as a society ruled by a “philosopher king” – a “benevolent man of knowledge, and by his very nature a just man who could rule wisely and justly.”
At the same time, he admitted, such a person might be difficult to find; therefore, the addition of what the Greeks and we now recognize as the most practical form would be democratic (“of the people, by the people,” etc.), the opposite of the worst form, Autocracy (rule by single individuals or mobs), warning that, “Democracy can go rotten by descending into autocratic and mob rule, which could only lead to chaos and the the end of a society.”
Thinking of our times – not just in America, but what is spreading across Europe, mainly by hoodlums autocratically taking advantage of valid anger, leading it to escalating chaos – I read on with increasing interest.
Plato also declaimed: “In a Democracy the larger a group the lower its common denominator,” suggesting once again the value of a democratic system in which any publicly selected citizen might govern for a time, chosen by his peers, and guided by a benevolent “philosopher king.” He pleaded, in light of the fact that there are always two sides to every issue, that our leaders must use logic and unbiased judgement to override emotions and ignorant prejudice. He also warned that a mediocre society generally resorts to extremes, never moderation.
Plato was remarkable. Mulling over his brilliance, I recognizing the tragedy we face should we neglect his theories and those of other nonpolitical geniuses in history to maintain our democratic status. Sadly, the study of history for some illogical reason is vanishing from our schools. If the trend continues, consider Santayana’s warning and the consequences!
So, I thought, knowledge is power; now we have the time to study history, to go back to Plato and the other democratic Greeks – but also to religious teachers like Augustin, Luther, Mother Theresa – to political leaders from Caesar to Lincoln – and literary masters from Chaucer to Chesterton – for the understanding of our present situation – and avoid tragic repeats.
Plato (and his teacher Aristotle) would argue that Ignorance is rarely bliss. Even now there exist, as always, false kings, waiting to lead us into destructive autonomy for their own gains. Knowledge leads to understanding, to the selecting of our philosopher kings in a voting Democracy, to find alternatives to destructive autocracy and thus create a better, peaceful world.
Plato today would say “Woah! Not “military men” shooting and tearing down statues with abandon, escalating chaotic action. “Go back to democratic rule,” he’d cry; “taking the law into your own hands has never worked before, and it won’t work now.”
So that’s what I’ve been doing over these three months – reading, learning, and writing.
My suggestion: With your free time, read, learn, and then write your own best seller.
What have you got to gain?