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053 - On Knowing Your Limits - Moral Letters for Modern Times

Awkwardness, thy name is Smalltalk! And to know that I will inflict myself on an unwitting dinner table with my unwitty remarks makes me wish most fervently to return to my hermit’s cave.
Traditional alpine farmhouse - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

If you are looking to convince me of your latest pet theory, Deuteros, you should make the attempt now, for I was recently convinced to once again attend a social dinner. It was an honor to be invited; the attendees counted select law school faculty and local legal luminaries. The occasion was a lecture arranged by the EuropaInstitut, and if I should manage to stick to the public portion of these events I would be a happy man.

I was drawn from my solitude, lured once again by the outstanding quality of the speaker, though I knew well what giving in to this temptation would entail: the pre-talk private meet and greet, presenting a chance to shake hands and perhaps get a favorite volume signed; and even more enticingly, the post-talk dinner for invited guests, and the forced intimacy that comes from assigned seating.

No, I will not say which event it was, for that would not be fair to any of the participants. Suffice it to say there are few opportunities indeed for one such as me to be put face to face with Ambassadors, Federal judges, and even Justices of the United States Supreme Court. Perhaps to the layperson the names Alito, Ginsberg, and Scalia call to mind only thoughts of vague European heritage, but to the constitutional lawyer they are blazing stars in the night sky.

“Sounds delightful,” you say, “and yet I detect a hint of complaint. What am I missing?” Truly I am an ungrateful wretch, but I will tell you that these events make me wretched, for all that I cannot stay away. Imagine how you would feel meeting a genuine inspiration, a hero whose works you have studied and admired from afar. My stomach flutters and my intestines are tied in knots. Prone to sweating from the lightest of exertions, I become a sticky mess affixed to my place by the buffet table. To avoid acting the fool and not just looking one, I raise my glass and join the toast. The last thing my gut needs is food and drink, which just roils my belly much as my thoughts and emotions are already roiled.

Social trivialities in the presence of such weighty persons and ideas seems the greatest waste to me, but I never seem to navigate safely the path between banalities or a boring inquisition on something significant but out of place in this setting. Awkwardness, thy name is Smalltalk! And to know that I will inflict myself on an unwitting dinner table with my unwitty remarks makes me wish most fervently to return to my hermit’s cave.

I venture forth each time for the same reason, Deuteros: nowhere else are the chances better of hearing unvarnished truth and wisdom. These speakers and judges are at the peak of their careers, brimming with knowledge, experience, and insight. They are also typically near the end of their careers, and because Federal judges are appointed for life, this means they are near the end of their lives. I’ve often thought the invitation to speak at these series is like an advance copy of one’s obituary. Considering how many have passed away not long after speaking, I’d be superstitious about not passing up an invitation to speak.

They have gained confidence because of their age and experience. More importantly, they’ve typically gained wisdom, not least in having learned not to care what other people think. Consider what happens if you are presented daily for decades with opposite sides of every issue and forced to decide which is correct, or whether neither is correct and a third way is appropriate. This will make you very good at deciding, and to stay sane you must also believe you are making good decisions. Remember, at the level of the Supreme Court there is no further appeal, so yours is the last voice. For us to hear such learned people speak their mind without regard to what others think, and with neither the intent to flatter nor offend, is a rare blessing.

Philosophy holds out this blessing to each of us, without the agony of gilded invitations to pre-talk toasts or post-talk parties: the chance to hear and understand the unvarnished truth, for any whose eyes and ears are open to the message. Yes it is uncomfortable to be confronted with one’s failings and frailties. To not look away because there is no hiding from oneself, no higher court to take up the appeal. But to admit a weakness is to put a name and a face to that weakness, which is a first critical step to overcoming it and becoming stronger.

Philosophy helps us not because it tells us that we are perfect, but in holding up a mirror to our faults. By helping us recognize our limitations we can most profitably direct our efforts to where we need them most. Are you warned to be wary of wants? Then pay attention to the signs indicating you are wanting more than you need. Are you plagued by worry over what other people think? By ordering your mind to understand the true nature of things you learn that ignorant opinions carry no weight, and so should not burden you. Philosophy ultimately arms us against all that ails us, but we must first let her indicate that we are ill.

Be well.

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