Edmund yanked George’s little hand as they plodded along the covered walkway. The evening was already dark. Rain dripped off the tiles above them and dulled the patter of their steps. “Come on, George!” he said. “We’ll be late for dinner.”
George’s head lowered, but he didn’t speed up.
They came to a high gallery. A lamp hung above them and reflected off runnels of water that leaked onto the sidewalk. Suddenly George jumped and landed with both feet in the largest puddle within arms’ distance.
Edmund gasped as the cold water splashed up his pants. “George!” He threw down the boy’s hand and bent to brush off what he could. “Why?”
George didn’t answer. His gaze lifted to the ceiling. “How is that lamp staying up there?”
Edmund glanced up. “It’s on a hook.”
“Why can the hook keep it up?”
Edmund narrowed his eyes. “Because.”
Edmund stood and crossed his arms. “I’m not playing this game. It’s silly.”
George’s eyes widened. “What game?”
“You know what game. The ‘Why’ game.”
The little boy smirked. “That’s ‘cause you always lose.”
Edmund sighed and put his hands on his hips. “There’s a link above the hook.”
“Why can the link keep it up?”
“The link is hanging from another link.”
George raised his eyebrows. “Why is that link staying up?”
Edmund put an arm around his shoulder and resumed their course. “Another link is holding it.”
“Because they’re connected, and that link is on another link.”
“Because…” The game continued. Fifty links later, when the lamp was out of sight and home was steps away, Edmund said, “Because that link is hanging from a hook that’s attached to a board that is part of the building.” He put his hands on his hips. “Ha!”
George grinned. “Why does the building stay up?”
Edmund’s mouth dropped open. “How am I supposed to answer that? I’m not a builder!”
George shrugged. “Then I win.” He rushed inside and closed the door without looking back. Edmund stomped after.
The Beginning of Wisdom
Children are philosophical stimuli. The more answers you give, the more questions they have. There’s always another “Why?” Their determination seems like a game, as it is for George, but it can prompt real thought. “Because” shows an order in the way things really are.
When the boys looked at the chain, every question took them a step closer to the real cause of the lamp’s stability: the building. This structure of causes is important; those closer to the building are less dependent and, therefore, more certain. If a single link is broken, the part of the chain and the lamp below it are lost. Everything above it, however, stays. The first cause, the timber in the ceiling, is least likely to fall.
Your philosophy also forms chains. Using the same game, we can trace each rule back, with as many in-between steps as necessary, to the first “Because”. This first cause is called the “principle” or the beginning. Just like the ceiling, the principle is the most important cause; without it, the others mean nothing, and our philosophy would crash.
Since all the other rules hang on the principles, it is necessary to examine them most carefully, so that you can hold them most certainly. By them we judge every other thing, every other thought. Noticing this built-in hierarchy is first a matter of knowing yourself. It helps you know what you think is important, why you do the things you do and like the things you like.
Second, it will give you an opportunity to change or revise your principles. If they are false, fix them or get rid of them. We must not hang onto a principle without examining it.
Third, it helps us keep in mind that others have their own principles. As we read their works or discuss important topics with them, we should try to see what their principles are. This allows us to understand their opinions and either learn from or reject them.
As Edmund noted, the “Why” game isn’t a very adult practice. Yet in this, too, we can learn from the boys. They have a persistence and courage that can overcome the fear of foolishness. Such stubbornness and bravery is demanded of true philosophers. These traits served Socrates in the development of his philosophical habit of questioning, as we see in Plato’s Apology.
During his defense, Socrates relates the story of how he came to be so hated. He says that a friend went to the Oracle at Delphi, renowned as the mouthpiece of the immortal Apollo, god of prophesy. The friend asked the oracle if there were any man wiser than Socrates. The priestess answered that there was no one wiser.
Socrates was disturbed to hear it; he knew that many men were called wise, and he did not count himself among their number, much less at their head. But he was convinced that Apollo could not lie. So he saw it as his god-given mission to speak to the wise men to determine what the god meant.
Eventually, he was convinced that, like himself, the wise men knew nothing. The only difference was that Socrates knew and openly admitted his ignorance. The “wise” men, however, falsely believed that they knew; their ability to learn was crippled by their pride.
In this way, Socrates saw that his true wisdom was in humility. He said, “I am wiser… what I do not know, I do not think I know.” He found that to be wise is to truly question, with tenacity and fortitude, so as not to be fooled by seeming-truths. We must be open to the possibility that we’re wrong. We must also be wiling to take the words of the wisest with a grain of salt. Socrates supplied that grain of salt; he was willing to look childish for the sake of wisdom.
As you play the “Why” game, you will find something surprising; you don’t know all the principles behind your rules. You didn’t choose them all. Some come from society, history, or your parents. That’s as it should be. People aren’t as independent as they like to think; the best things we have were given to us. Realizing that is a beautiful beginning to philosophy.
It also helps us strive for the humility Socrates advises. We must not pretend we know those things that we hold only by faith, and we must be prepared to let them go if we are given a sufficient reason. On the other hand, we must not be disheartened by those who claim such faith is wrong. Everyone holds something by faith, though they may not be humble enough to admit it.
Society’s rules have been gathered throughout the history of man. They are age-old truths that we would be foolish to ignore. For example, we don’t need to try murder or feel its effects to know its destructive power. Society–at least until recent decades–encourages us to live by these rules, and to follow them is to have the best chance for happiness.
Our parents also pass on rules. Following them when we’re young is like getting a head start; it allows us to form correct habits before we know why they are desirable. My mom taught me to clean the bathroom. My dad insisted that I go to ALL my brothers’ baseball games. I (eventually) had faith that those were good, so I (eventually) followed them.
The steep part of growing up is figuring out the principles behind our faith. We ask “why” and find the answer: Mom wanted me to have a habit of responsibility for household maintenance. Dad wanted me to have a habit of supporting my family. These principles help when I face much bigger problems. Now that I have my own place, I keep it clean. When my brother was going through a dark time, I was there for him.
Once we see the principles behind our faith, we can assent to or reject them. Only then can we make them our own, and only when they are our own have we truly grown.
In Secondhand Lions, Hub’s “How to Be a Man” speech expresses the rules of his philosophy:
“Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things that a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power, mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, love… true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.”
We saw, through the stories that his brother told of their adventures, that young Hub lived those rules. He admits that he believes them by faith, whether experience agrees or not, because life means nothing without them. He has discovered and assented to the principle behind his faith: Life has meaning.
And, although principles are called first causes, George is right; you can continue to ask “Why?” Philosophy will always lead you to something beyond itself, if you let it.