An Apology for My Life: A Mercifully Short Version
Who am I?
Back in the 19th c., Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote a heartbreaking, intellectually and spiritually honest book called Apologia Pro Vita Sua, which translates as “An Apology for My Life.” By “apology,” Cardinal Newman did not mean he was “sorry” for anything or “apologetic” in the sense of repenting of something – no, he meant it in the older sense, the legal sense of a defense of his life and choices; he meant to share what those choices were and show how they were good ones, better than the alternatives.
Cardinal Newman had been an Anglican Priest and an Oxford Don, one of the greatest minds of his age philosophically and theologically. But his studies and his conscience led him, step by step, to become convinced that truth rested in the Roman Catholic faith – and so he converted, at great cost. Catholics could not hold post at Oxford in those days due to the foolishness of prejudice, so his conscience cost him probably the thing in this world he held most dear next to his faith. In the Apologia he writes movingly, in a brief passage, of his last glimpse of the university, now as an outsider, an outcast, never to return.
But he also ably defended his conscience and his choices and beliefs; he valued Oxford immensely, but he loved truth, inasmuch as he could see and hold to it, infinitely more. He staked everything on it; it was who he was – he could not do otherwise and be who he was.
Integrity counts for everything in this world, having some grasp on who you are, what you believe, and who you have to be, and thus what is never negotiable. You are what you stand for and what you live.
If you hold to things blindly and dogmatically, you are a dogmatist, even if you have what you think is integrity – you run the danger of mistaking mere ignorant stubbornness for integrity. If one has haphazard and inconsistent beliefs, one becomes a haphazard and inconsistent person blowing with the wind, no matter how insistent on those beliefs one becomes. If one strongly holds to morally repugnant beliefs and persists in them in the name of integrity, one is simply upholding evil while blindly believing oneself good.
It is the quality of one’s beliefs and one’s willingness to examine and re-examine them, and the willingness to inform one’s conscience by reasoning, as best as one can, that determines the quality of where one stands – the willingness to consistently submit one’s beliefs to the test of justice and mercy; and it is courage and one’s enactments of courage in defense of one’s central convictions, often in a thousand small things, that spells out whether one can really be said, meaningfully, to have integrity.
Ultimately, the meaning of a human life can be summed up by the answer each one of us gives to the question: “How cheaply can you be bought?”
Some sell-out quickly for material trifles; others sell-out at length for peace of mind, assurance they are absolutely “right” and other more sophistical comforts. But some, that bothersome few, will make the bastards pay to the point no man or woman will ever be able to afford their price or force them to abandon the one pitiful, minute scrap of truth that has been entrusted to their care.
Socrates, once, was put on trial and had to make a defense of his life – the people of Athens intended to have him killed for the sin of his beliefs and for practicing philosophy, asking questions, and being a general nuisance. (As is usual with philosophers under assault, one of the charges against him was “atheism” or unbelief in God as understood by most people of his day.)
Socrates turned the tables and refused to see the trial as so much a threat to his physical existence as an attack on his integrity, on what he knew and believed to be true and good, a strike at that for which he stood – in short, it was an assault on his life, not his mere survival.
So he clearly drew out the boundaries of his life, took his stand, and defended that for all he was worth. Athens killed his body for it, but they never touched the core of him. His integrity remains, to this day, unstained and irreproachable. I believe in Heaven; and in Heaven, if anyone is there, I think St. Socrates sits radiant in his integrity, questioning and wondering as always.
As the great Christian humanist Desiderius Erasmus used to pray, I pray today: “St. Socrates, pray for us.”
Just what did Socrates say in his own “apologia pro vita sua”? It pays to read a little of it, as preserved by Plato:
“Someone will say: And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a courseof life which is likely to bring you to an untimely end? To him I may fairlyanswer: There you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought notto calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whetherin doing anything he is doing right or wrong - acting the part of a goodman or of a bad.
“Whereas, according to your view, the heroes who fell atTroy were not good for much, and the son of Thetis above all, who altogetherdespised danger in comparison with disgrace; and when his goddess mothersaid to him, in his eagerness to slay Hector, that if he avenged his companionPatroclus, and slew Hector, he would die himself - "Fate," as she said,"waits upon you next after Hector"; he, hearing this, utterly despiseddanger and death, and instead of fearing them, feared rather to live indishonor, and not to avenge his friend. "Let me die next," he replies,"and be avenged of my enemy, rather than abide here by the beaked ships,a scorn and a burden of the earth."
“Had Achilles any thought of death anddanger? For wherever a man's place is, whether the place which he has chosenor that in which he has been placed by a commander, there he ought to remainin the hour of danger; he should not think of death or of anything, butof disgrace. And this, O men of Athens, is a true saying.
“Strange, indeed, would be my conduct, O men of Athens, if I who,when I was ordered by the generals whom you chose to command me at Potidaeaand Amphipolis and Delium, remained where they placed me, like any otherman, facing death; if, I say, now, when, as I conceive and imagine, Godorders me to fulfill the philosopher's mission of searching into myselfand other men, I were to desert my post through fear of death, or any otherfear; that would indeed be strange, and I might justly be arraigned incourt for denying the existence of the gods, if I disobeyed the oraclebecause I was afraid of death: then I should be fancying that I was wisewhen I was not wise. For this fear of death is indeed the pretence of wisdom,and not real wisdom, being the appearance of knowing the unknown; sinceno one knows whether death, which they in their fear apprehend to be thegreatest evil, may not be the greatest good.
“ Is there not here conceitof knowledge, which is a disgraceful sort of ignorance? And this is thepoint in which, as I think, I am superior to men in general, and in whichI might perhaps fancy myself wiser than other men, - that whereas I knowbut little of the world below, I do not suppose that I know: but I do knowthat injustice and disobedience to a better, whether God or man, is evil and dishonorable, and I will never fear or avoid a possible good ratherthan a certain evil.” [Apology, from The Dialogues of Plato, translated by Benjamin Jowett, http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html; emphases and some paragraph breaks added by me.]
These words of Socrates: that fear of death is a “conceitof knowledge, which is a disgraceful sort of ignorance” – a conceit, an imagination that one accurately sees something when one manifestly does not – and “that injustice and disobedience to a better, whether God or man, is evil and dishonorable, and I will never fear or avoid a possible good ratherthan a certain evil”, were a perplexing thing for me to hear the first time I read them. They have not become any easier to bear over the years, as they are weighty and have hidden, perilous depths.
These are words that are difficult to reject when understood and equally difficult to accept. And they are far more difficult to live with any consistency.
It has taken me 45 years, so far, to gather some sort of idea about the place and things God has given me as my own task to defend. It has taken me 45 hard years to have some notion of my own pitiful, small scrap of truth and goodness that is my problem to attempt to understand and uphold.
As a child, I imagined that the truth of all existence was my business, stretching from Heaven to Hell, God to Satan, through the whole cosmos and from the beginning of time to beyond its end. This was vanity and foolishness.
As the years passed, my vision contracted somewhat as I found myself increasingly unsure whether I actually knew as much as I thought about all these matters – and with this contraction, I found myself standing in a vast field with mountains stretching off over the horizon and the endless night sky unfurled overhead. Surely, I could see these matters clearly, so they represent my own kingdom of truths, the one I was to rule over.
Oddly, however, I found myself rooted to one spot, no matter how much I glimpsed far off. I could make no progress towards the lofty constellations of ideas no matter how I reached; I could make no progress across the plains to climb the mountains of understanding that forever undulated leagues away.
Instead, I found myself on an increasingly small plot of ground, a tiny square, and that was immensely dissatisfying as it did not match my overblown opinion of myself, my abilities, my “destiny,” and imagined accomplishments. Certain issues and topics recurred that I could not escape dealing with, things I felt were beneath me; and they were beneath me – but in a very surprising way, it turned out.
These issues and topics turned out to be the very ground I stood on and ignored and dismissed: The common grass and dirt of my immediate experience and life I ignored while looking up and around for years.
So eventually I got down on my hands and knees and started looking at each blade – each year and memory; and then I dug in and smelled the soil – the stuff that nourished and caused those experiences, the good and the bad.
I did that a very long time, mainly in silence and solitude, somewhat embarrassed by my reduced state. Once in a while, I found myself looking out towards the smoldering stars at night or imagining the tops of the fuzzy, far away mountains, or even the workings of Heaven and the Mind of God; but, making no progress there, would always return to learning the odor of different soils and nutrients and manure and poisons, and the quality of the grass.
Little by little, I learned to bear being in my one, small place, to bear the surprising storms and the harsh winds and the longs days of burning drought. I learned to sleep on the ground and to avoid the jeers and kicks of the passers-by. And one day I awoke to the fact that, all along, I had been something different than what I’d originally imagined: I realized that I am a dog.
Nothing of high pedigree or breeding, just a common dog – not even large breed, but a sort of small dog, the kind that is low to the ground and unimpressive, with good digging claws – a terrier mix. Once upon a time, I believed myself like an angel, flying between the great distances with a thought; then I had the conviction I was a sort of king or aristocrat with a great land to subdue. Finally, though, I realized I had been improperly standing on my back legs for a portion of my life; four legs, for me, turned out to be more comfortable and useful for my labors.
That’s when I also discovered my eyes don’t work so well; a dog’s don’t. My eyes lie to me and when I rely on vision, I am often fooled. I am almost blind. I can be easily fooled, easily distracted. But I can hear things no one else seems to hear most of the time, like danger approaching from a distance. And I can smell things others seem to have no nose for: some small things are magnified for me and family resemblances between ideas are sometimes easy for me to spot because of a common odor or stench. I also found a small talent for sniffing out origins and histories and trails, and a real talent for digging for the tiny, tiny flecks of truth hidden under my patch of ground.
There isn’t anything profound hidden in my area – those things are for others, I think, and I quit sniffing for profundities a long time ago. But I have found valuable things, little bits of truth which, when added together, form the very small piece of reality, my convictions, that I have to defend. And this small, dirt-covered, homely bit of truth (an ongoing project as I always find a bit more the more I seek) is the thing that forms the core of my life and who I am.
Yes, I have many theories and suspicions about many things, but, in the end, these are guesses. Some of them are more learned and rational and likely than others, built on scholarship and research, but they are, in the end, guesses of a sort. Many things like this I would not stake my life on or argue about other than to help me clarify them – possibly so that they might give up a secret one day; these things, in themselves, though, are not my convictions.
I do have the conviction that it is my duty to continue to seek truth about such matters – this is something I must do in order to be myself. Socrates defended such and I fully grasp why. I do not believe this because Socrates believed it, but I have a deep conviction Socrates was doing the good in holding his post on the frontier defending the spirit of philosophy with his life. Theorizing and speculating is what I call digging – and by digging and piecing together what is found, sometimes a new conviction is formed or an older one strengthened or reformed.
I am with Gotthold Ephraim Lessing when he taught,
“The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to the Truth. It is not possession of the Truth, but rather the pursuit of Truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectibility is to be found. Possession makes one passive, indolent, and proud. If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left only the steady and diligent drive for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand, and say: Father, I will take this one—the pure Truth is for You alone.” [Anti-Goeze (1778)]
Once a person has discovered a position that explains everything, once and for all, that person has murdered his soul. He can no longer hear anything without using his intellect to either dismiss or reinterpret any other opinion or evidence so that it squares with what he takes to be Absolute Truth. He has gained what he takes to be the sole perspective from which to survey existence. But the only thing he has gained is fear and all he has gained is a false feeling of superiority.
Fear: fear of falling into error by seriously considering he may be wrong in some way; fear of the threat of death coming from some mysterious conspiracy; fear others having any fragment of truth; fear of another’s race or ethnicity or religion or culture or sexuality; fear and the cheap need to feel superior to others by defining them as somehow dangerous and less than human: less than himself.
My conviction is: None of these are the hallmarks of conviction, but prejudice. Prejudice is the beast that gives birth to a million hatreds, divisions between humans, with each group proclaiming Absolute Truth and the Blessings of the Almighty for themselves and themselves alone. And each hatred holds an iron key that opens the gates of violence.
No matter if the gates don’t open today; perhaps tomorrow or the day after, or a hundred years hence. Socrates will be slain again, and the gas jets at Auschwitz will roar once more. Someone will have to drink hemlock and someone will eventually have to burn, even if it only in the hidden basement of someone’s unconscious fever-dream desires. Maybe no one dies physically – oh, but suffering will be demanded of as many as someone’s hatred can touch.
This world’s Dark, Satanic Mills are not all physical in nature.
Everywhere the same words in so many words when fear of the stranger rules: Conform or I will cast you out.
First fear and false absolute knowledge; then superiority; and then humans, mere humans who are always only on-the-way to glimpses of understanding, at best, take it upon themselves to ascend the Judgment Throne to separate the sheep from the goats and assign each to Heaven or Hell.
And that path has never led us any closer to goodness, any closer to brother- and sisterhood, any closer to peace and mercy and justice, courage, decency and honor. Not one inch closer. Instead, it has ruined us, individually and collectively, poisoned our souls and minds, and puts us off the scent of goodness.
This little thing, then, is something I will not waver on, something I cannot depart from and remain myself: That humans should love one another and meet one another with tolerance and acceptance and be fast to grant mercy and goodness and kindness even and especially to the stranger in one’s midst. For no other reason than they are our brothers and sisters on a journey from a far off land bearing news of God of which we have no notion otherwise.
They are on a journey to the House of God, where they are His invited guests; it is not my place to reject anyone He has invited. As God’s dog, it is my task to bark welcome and stand guard over them at my insignificant spot along the path.
We know nothing of God except through the faces of strangers. And we are all strangers to someone.
This is the boundary line of my tiny scrap of earth. My Master placed me, his little dog, here to guard just this much. No, I am not big enough to fight off the intolerant and threatening, but I have no tolerance or fear to show intolerance. It is my task to bark and snarl loudly and bite to give the warning of danger – and I can smell the dangers from afar as they approach – and to report the nature of the attacks and the lies as I can hear the subtext of some arguments very well.
As the hateful approach, it is my task to stand my ground, not to debate this one thing with them, as if my mind could be changed, but to defend my bit of truth, my conviction that love is better than hate, that justice and mercy are better things than the cowardice of fear and the useless desire to punish any who are different.
I am not open to arguments that want me to admit that “conceitof knowledge” is somehow not “a disgraceful sort of ignorance”. Not, mind you, the sort of ignorance, the normal sort, that can be relieved through study and thought and discussion, but the sort that believes itself to be Absolute Truth, the sort capable of calling black white and accusing victims of being the true victimizers in this world; the sort that asserts the hated deserve to be hated simply because they are of a different belief or practice than the Absolute Truth demands: The beliefs that presume to judge humanity in the place of the sole Just Judge, Who Is the Almighty.
I am not going to cower before anyone who calls my convictions by this or that name, or ascribes to me this or that motive. I am, after all, not much; but what I stand for is of more importance and value than me. Socrates’ words echo in me and give me guidance: A person “ought only to consider whetherin doing anything he is doing right or wrong - acting the part of a goodman or of a bad.”
A good man does not claim the right to despise his brothers and sister or to reject them. A good man hungers and thirsts after righteousness and is more apt to judge himself and experience his own failings before ever judging another; a good man is just and treats all humans as equally human, equally and infinitely valuable in all their variety; a good man is merciful and as quick to forgive the shortcomings of others as he wishes to be forgiven, and he strives to avoid giving the worst interpretation to the beliefs of his brothers and sisters; a good man is courageous and stands for his convictions and understands there are things to be more greatly feared than death; a good man seeks wisdom because he understands exactly how far he always is from wisdom; and he fervently searches for truth because he does not have The Truth, and small glimpses of truth are literally more valuable than all the glittering trash of this world.
I know this for certain: “wherever a man's place is, whether the place which he has chosenor that in which he has been placed by a commander, there he ought to remainin the hour of danger; he should not think of death or of anything, butof disgrace.” Anything less means the death of my soul; and in my apology here, I have discovered my place.
If I am very, very fortunate and God is very, very merciful and decides to overlook my many failings: my general worthlessness, barking pointlessly at the neighbors going about their business, my days of chasing my own tail and lying in the sun, scratching my vain curiosities like fleas – I will be allowed in to the Mystery of the Great Wedding Feast between Divinity and humanity at the End of Time. And while others have desired to sit at the right hand of the Master or the left, I will quietly sneak down beneath the table and take my place somewhere near His feet, just a dog doing what dogs do.
I like to fantasize the Master might absentmindedly pat my head once and acknowledge that I am there, too.
And Socrates might slip me something from his plate and give me a sly smile. That would be Heaven.
Richard Van Ingram
18 May 2011
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