Older Daughter and her cohorts in the High School class of ’13 were treated yesterday to something I regret having missed in my own ancient secondary schooling: exposure to a flesh-and-blood living American philosopher. Most of them probably didn’t know how lucky they were, but to her credit she later pronounced John Lachs a “cool dude.” She’s right.
Lachs is the distinguished Centennial Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt, a pre-eminent authority on American philosophy (especially George Santayana) and a philosopher of the first rank in his own right. He founded the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, and he’s educated generations of grateful Vanderbilt students (including me) since arriving from Yale (by way of McGill in Montreal, where he says he lost his hair to the cold) in 1967.
While we were chatting in the wings before he took the stage, a young woman approached to pass along greetings from her Dad, one of his innumerable former students . You must get that all the time, I remarked. Yes, he admitted, from their children and grandchildren. He’s still much too youthful for that to seem likely, but lots can happen in 44 years.
Older Daughter also approached to pay her respects. She finally got to express in person her gratitude for the gift of There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly that Mrs. Lachs had been kind enough to send a dozen or so years ago.
Dr. Lachs then delivered an animated talk on being “In Love With Ourselves,” a condition likely as he says to distort vision and engender arrogant self-regard. Self-confidence is a good thing, narcissism something else again. Love life, love people, try to be worthy of their love, respect yourself.
The danger we all face is that when we fall in love with ourselves, we lose all sense of our limits. We begin to think that we can do everything and that we must pronounce judgment on all manner of things beyond our competence. Some fall in love with the sound of their voice and claim the right to serve as arbiters of taste or paradigms of virtue. Others become indignant if people fail to defer to them and seem reluctant to acknowledge their excellence. “Do you know who I am?” they say, pulling themselves up to their full height, but forgetting the great comic, W.C. Fields’, follow-up line of “Isn’t there someone here to tell you?”
If that doesn’t put a self-important person in her place, maybe the cosmic perspective will. Cue the Galaxy Song.
By one estimate, there are six hundred billion galaxies in a world that has existed for roughly fifteen billion years. The eighty years I can expect to live on a minor planet of a middling star in one of hundreds of billions of galaxies is not likely to yield memorable results on a cosmic scale.
Dr. Lachs concluded his remarks with a borrowed greeting card caution: “Do not accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful.” Good advice. But I also like my bumper sticker’s categorical imperative: “Be the person your dog thinks you are.” Shoot for the stars.