On Being Good
Today, at the university, I ran into a colleague who is more an acquaintance than a friend. I have, for example, never seen him off campus nor, in the seven or so years of knowing him, spoken of things more personal than his pet cat. I was passing his office, today, and felt the rare, irresistible urge to be social. I asked, not insincerely, how his day was going. We laughed and proceeded to talk about books, film adaptations of books, and the looming grunt-work of final exams. When the conversation was over, we went our separate ways, but not before he told me, coolly, to “be good”.
Since he said this, I have thought a lot about these two words. What an intriguing valediction! An imperative, really. Conversation, the fusion or synthesis of different beliefs, holds an important place in hermeneutics, the philosophical study of interpretation. But perhaps even more interesting than conversation is how conversations end. What do we say when we don’t want to say any more? Why must we say anything? It’s ironic that in many faith traditions “quieting the mind” involves speaking the same word or phrase—a mantra, the rosary, etc.—over and over again. Speech becomes a kind of vaccine against speech.
The pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides recognized the fundamental connection between language and ontology: as if from the mouth of God, he thought, every word brings something into being. Nothing, or negation, doesn’t exist (because if it did, it would be something), and so even when called to think of “not-elephant”, we think, invariably, of something, maybe even of “elephant”. Conversation, therefore, even the end of conversation, even silence, is conversation. Conversation happens first within the self—the language of thought emerges and develops dialectically—and then extends, also dialectically, beyond the self to the other and then beyond the other to possible others. What this means, then, is that talking to a colleague is always already talking to oneself about oneself.