Hi. I'm Kieran.
Like many, I came to Shimer through a circuitous, non-traditional route. After High School, I spent a few years finding myself, then a few years out in the “real world” (which I can’t wholly recommend). In that time I took classes at Harold Washington College, part of Chicago’s city college system. I took whatever classes caught my fancy and fit my schedule, while listlessly working towards some vague goal of a degree. It was through Harold Washington that I was introduced to Shimer; last spring six students from HWC’s burgeoning Great Books program took a single course at Shimer. Any of you who’ve spent time at both types of institutions can imagine a bit of culture shock. I don’t mean that statement to disparage HWC in any way. I expect some of my classes there will remain fond memories of the life-long variety, and I must admit that Professor Richardson’s Existential Lit class formed the entire basis of my Shimer admissions essays. But learning at HWC often proceeds somewhat a posteriori. Of course Aristotle will tell you that all learning and teaching must proceed this way, though I suspect Aristotle’s predilection for analyzing posteriors was perhaps not entirely decent. Regardless, we usually knew where we were going, so figuring out how to get there wasn’t much of an issue.
So to suddenly find myself sitting around a an octagonal table with 12 other people, all actively breaking apart and digesting the profoundly obtuse phrases of the pre-Socratics, was a little frightening. Yet even more unsettling was the realization that we weren’t necessarily working towards any concrete, final answers. Certainly we were gleaning a better understanding, and in that understanding finding some answers. But those answers inevitably asked more questions than they resolved: you know that feeling of lingering anticipation you get when a musician leaves off at a 7th interval? This sense of incompletion was further compounded by Harold Stone’s impeccable knack for asking simple questions that thoroughly rattled any perch we might try to cling to. So then, how could we climb a peak with no summit? To be so confronted with a seemingly infinite distance between myself and that mythical land of universal answers and platonic forms and rainbows and unicorns was beyond frightening. How many times in life do we use a grand totality, a sweeping absolute, to put off the dread that life’s terrible uncertainty fills us with? The experience brought to mind Socrates; not Socrates the guide who gently leads us to a better life through examination, but Socrates the smug jerk lurking around the corner, ready to confound our most firmly held beliefs.
Flashing forward half a year to my first class as an official full-time Shimer student, we are discussing none other than Socrates’ dialogue with Euthyphro. And we’ve just raised the question of the pragmatism of the Socratic method; as my classmate Ben succinctly put it, “Why hit the forms?” Will we really live a better life through constant self-examination, or will we just descend into endless navel-gazing, lost in Daedalus’ labyrinth? At some point, someone’s just gonna have to take out the trash because it stinks, without first finding the true nature of either stinkness or trashiness. It doesn’t seem that we can live in a world without absolutes, and yet it doesn’t seem that we can ever reach those absolutes.
Then the words of Socrates came blaring into my thoughts (oddly, in my mind Socrates’ voice sounds just like Steve Buscemi’s): “I prefer nothing, unless it is true.” If we read these words without the smarminess usually assigned to the man, there is something insightful in them. If we consider truth as a tantalizing object, always just out of reach, these words compel us always forward towards that truth, even knowing we might never find it absolutely. It’s not the ends that matter here, as there’s a certain periodicity to it; when you get to the bottom of something you find yourself back at the top (hmmm, someone should write a song…). Suddenly what was terribly frightening before became terribly comforting; what before seemed the height of futility now appeared infinitely purposeful. We climb the mountain not to find the summit, but to make the ascent. It now felt a little clearer why it is so important that we each make the ascent ourselves. What was it that Goethe said? “Let everyone sweep in front of his own house…” I can’t vouch that this will make the whole world clean, but at the least it is a first down payment on the debt of our humanity.