048 - On Word Games And Worthy Matters - Moral Letters for Modern Times
You ask me to study your lengthy query, and I worry that your hand grew as weary as my eyes as you piled up the pages. I shall be at leisure in my review, to give you a reply worthy of your own effort. Though I will not reply in kind, at least when counted in words. Rather, I will deliberate with care so that I may respond decisively. In this I seek to be the good man that Confucius meant when he said:
Does not the difficulty of deciding what is right to do necessarily imply slowness to speak?
And when it comes to what is right, let us remain a moment with Confucius to distinguish further:
Better than one who knows what is right is one who is fond of what is right; and better than one who is fond of what is right is one who delights in what is right.
There are many who delight in word play, and they mistake their cleverness for wisdom. I am not overly fond of these, my dear Deuteros, and neither should you be so easily amused.
When used to gain unfair advantage over the unwary, words of influence are a stealthy tool in the hands of the adept. But an audience brought to your side by trickery is like a nest built high in a swaying tree: it rests on an unstable platform, and can be swayed again when the winds blow from another direction. When your fragile point tumbles to earth, not only do you lose the high ground, you have also given the crowd reason to question your own reason. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
“But,” you say, “I am not talking about words used to convince, but rather to entertain.” If you spend any time with words, you will surely appreciate being brought to smile by virtue of words being brought together. I think of the words from the Irish band U2 in their song Running to Stand Still:
You’ve got to cry without weeping, talk without speaking, scream without raising your voice.
Although entertainment can be serious business, Deuteros, such word games are rarely the mark of a serious student. What they offer is but a distraction, and it is not harmless to distract yourself, let alone others. The business of philosophy is to help man master reason, not to lose it.
People spend their time in want and worry, and their earnest efforts are destined to futility because they are working towards ends that can never make them happy. They want possessions, promotions, and power, and worry that what they have obtained will be taken from them. They are bothered by what others think, and say, and do. They have time and waste it, good friends they take for granted, and have let luxuries deprive them of the enjoyment of simple pleasures. They turn a cold shoulder to the guests in their living room as they twitch the curtain aside in search of the ones they invited who do not arrive. Both responsibility and its absence torment them, and illness and death await, unbidden but unavoidable.
For all of these challenges philosophy holds an answer. Shall we not dispense with play and get to the business of discerning what is right reason? Knowing what is right, shall we not make sure that we climb down the ladder of our own desires to not only fondly consider the right path but to delight in leading the way?
You undermine both your case and yourself when you spend too much time in the company of word games. It is not hurtful to tell the truth to those seeking wisdom; the real cruelty is keeping truth to yourself for fear it will go unheeded. And even though none hear your words, let your life serve as an example for any who are watching, now or later.
If you could wear a billboard about your person, and stand in front of the doors of the bank, the car dealer, and the shopping mall, what words would you put upon it? “It won’t make you happy …” deserves to be writ large on your front, and “The end is nigh!” upon your back. Knowing that all things end, end your attachment to things, and you will find yourself on the path to happiness and nothing external can dislodge you.