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The Story I Tell My Great Books Students

At the party, through the foyer, around the clusters of partygoers, past the buffet, and into the salon. There they are, arguing, discussing, pounding the tables with their open palms. You have come among the great authors who are conducting a conversation that began at the dawn of time. You have arrived.

You elbow through gray suits and togas toward the sound of a livid voice. As you sit down, a Greek man with a curly gray beard flashes an impish grin from across the table. You think he looks familiar, but your thoughts are interrupted by a squat German man.

“Which proves,” he yells, his beard shaking like a fan beneath his chin, “that all of life is material, nothing more. History is but the story of random, clashing atoms!”

The table erupts. Fists punch the air. Hands slap the table.

“Nothing but clashing atoms!” exclaims an Englishman, rising. “And what are we? Beasts to sleep and feed — no more?”

Beside you, a lanky German shakes his head and mutters: “A shallow ontology, such a shallow ontology.”

Ontology—you can’t remember what it means. But before you can remember (the study of things?), the kindly Greek with the gray beard quiets the shouting. He leans toward the squat German.

“Dear man, you speak of random, clashing atoms,” he says, patting the German on the knee. “But what is an atom? Might not atoms be purposeful?”

That’s Socrates! You recognize him! He’s one of your heroes. You open your mouth to reply to him, but it’s too late. The discussion splits in half. On the far end of the table, Socrates and a group of Greeks debate about debating. Your end of the table attempts to define the word ontology (the study of life?) but none agree as to its meaning. The yelling is interrupted by an earthquake:

“You all talk utter garbage!” screams a walrus-mustached German, eyes blazing. “Freighted full of Pferdescheiße! Meant to shift our gaze from the abyss!”

You want to respond. But the moment you open your mouth, the German grabs the edge of the table and attempts to flip it over. A handful of men try to wrestle him from the table. Your point is lost in the bedlam. The lanky German (all these Germans and Greeks!) mutters again: “Nietzsche isn’t a philosopher, he’s a spectacle!”

Nietzsche, another name you know! You feel confident. You belong here. Now is the time to make your vital point. You open your mouth to speak. But first, you lean toward the lanky German and ask: “Remind me, what does ontology mean?”

“What—!” he says, eyes wide. “What does ontology mean? Dear child, you are at the wrong table!” He whirls away from you, nudges a bespectacled man, and murmurs in his ear. The bespectacled man glances at you and raises his eyebrows. Both men shake their heads gravely.

You slide down in your chair. Your face reddens. You wish you could evaporate. You push away from the table and slip out the door.

Outside the salon, you dodge between the clusters of chattering men and women and arrive at the buffet. You load a small plate with pink shrimp, douse them with cocktail sauce, and pop one of them into your mouth. Why did you come here in the first place? Those Greeks and Germans with their beards and overinflated opinions! You shove another shrimp in your mouth. And hardly a woman among them! How did you not notice that before? Hardly a woman among them!

You slosh back a glass of wine. What a shame. They chased you out just as you were about to make a serious statement. Such a bunch of egoists! How do they expect anyone to participate when they belittle everyone? Absurd.

You feel someone step near you. “The shrimp are delicious, no?” A pale-skinned man with a silky crimson tie touches your elbow. “You came from the salon, no?”

You nod. He shakes his head.

“Phhht, all this yelling. And for what?” He spreads his arms over the buffet. “Did their philosophies make this? No. Did they build this expensive room, this beautiful house? No. Let them play their games. Meanwhile, we eat and drink and are gratified.”

He hands you another glass of wine and dissolves among the other guests.

You swallow the wine and gaze across the room. The people seem quite happy with their gold bracelets and their luxury shoes. They would make you quite content. They could speak to you of sports and newspaper headlines and chocolate mousse. No one argues about chocolate mousse.

From the salon, you hear another burst of shouting. You step nearer to listen. Another Greek voice. Probably yelling about ontology (the study of reality?) or some other nonsense. The pale-skinned man was right. The conversation produces nothing.

You step closer to hear. Someone declares he can demonstrate God’s existence. Ha, another grand claim. You munch another shrimp and turn back toward the buffet where the men and women are chatting. You could never set foot inside the salon again and begin saving for a Caribbean vacation. You’re confident you would be happy without ever participating in that conversation.

You walk into the salon. Your eyes fall upon a thick Italian (yes, an Italian!) who says that there is a final way to demonstrate that God exists. You swallow the last of your shrimp and edge closer.

“Even plants grow predictably. This cannot be due to chance,” says the Italian, “or they would behave with unpredictably. No, their behavior must be set. Set by what? Set by whom? This everyone understands to be God.”

As the Italian sits, the table erupts again. The fan-bearded German shouts “No No No!” with his hands atop his head. The lanky German sneers at you. But then you feel a pair of eyes from across the table. It is Socrates. He smiles at you. You smile back. You sit up straight. You pull in a deep breath and state in a clear voice:

“I have something to say.”

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