On Being Good

4/23/15

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.  

         Parmenides c. 500 BCE

        Parmenides c. 500 BCE

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.   

***

So why was “be good” such a brilliant way to end our conversation? Because, as an end, the comment said more, to more people, and continues to say more to me now as I write this, than the rest of our conversation did. Only eight hours later, I have largely forgotten what both of us said about the final exam.

      An illustration of The Little Prince in Saint-Exupéry’s novella

     An illustration of The Little Prince in Saint-Exupéry’s novella

“Be good” served, as far as I can tell, two rhetorical/philosophical functions. The first, and perhaps more obvious, is strictly unilateral, originating with my colleague and reflecting back on him. Remember, from his point of view, he is talking first to himself (about himself, for himself), and then to me, and then to anyone in earshot, which, at the time, was a few students and an administrator or two at the coffee machine.

                       An illustration of King   in   Saint-Exupéry’s novella

                     An illustration of King in Saint-Exupéry’s novella

The “be” in “be good”, the invisible you of the imperative, communicated to my colleague, to me, and to anyone else listening that he is the kind of person who can give directives and have them obeyed. Who, after all, would disobey such a simple order? The order, for just about everybody, is a foregone conclusion. Like the king in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella The Little Prince, my colleague issued an order, but it was an order I never planned to defy, anyway (thus, the words cancel themselves in their saying). In the novella, the title character asks the king at one point if he may sit down. Once the king knows it’s the little prince’s wish to sit down, he gathers his ermine robe and “orders” him to sit down. The little prince is rightly “puzzled”, and the scene is humorous because the “order” is entirely post hoc. (The king, always fetishizing his power, always leading retroactively, is a metaphor, I think, for politicians in general, but this is a discussion for another time.)

Then, of course, there is the “good” in “be good”, the comment’s second rhetorical/philosophical feature. Here, by a stroke of dialectical genius, my colleague managed both to create a friendship between us, one in which he knew me well—not just the good but the bad also—and to convince me, however briefly, that I was cool, “bad” in a good way, on the edge. By his imperative, he created a rogue and by that same imperative bridled him.  

In the end, “be good” turns out to be a valediction both of hegemony and of camaraderie. Now, of course, my colleague intended neither of these. He’s a good guy. However, the very fact that these two features can coexist in one and the same moment, and do so dialectically, ought to teach us something about the power of charisma, and the charisma of power.