Searching, searching at the philosophy club

(The Charleston Gazette, Nov. 23, 2002)

By James A. Haught

EVERY human is unique, but Henrietta Marquis was more unique than most. The spunky little Charleston doctor, who died last year at age 93, is remembered for her many exuberant involvements in the community.

One of her involvements still is alive and ongoing. It's her philosophy club. During the years when she lived in a green-shrouded Kanawha City home, she developed a circle of friends who met regularly at her house to discuss philosophy. Gradually, the group became systematic, following written and tape-recorded courses at university level.
Socrates, Aristotle, Baruch Spinoza, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre - the deepest thinkers the world has known, who tried to fathom the meaning of life, but never quite unraveled it - were analyzed year after year.

When Dr. Marquis grew too old to live alone, and moved into the Edgewood Summit community, her philosophy club moved with her. It was adopted by Edgewood Summit as one of its sponsored activities. After the founder died, her creation continued.

I'm part of the circle. Twice a month, 15 or 20 of us sit around a tape player and listen to a professor's interpretation of a philosophical school of thought. Then we plunge into discussion. The sessions are a bit odd, because our talk leader, Dr. Michael Petersen, moved to a hospital job in Wheeling. He calls on a speaker phone, and we debate his disembodied voice. After a moment, we hardly notice that he isn't in the room.

The group includes chemists, physicians, psychologists, housewives - some aging. Most of the members are churchgoers, yet they crave answers beyond church explanations for the profound, baffling questions of existence:

Why is nature so cruel, with hawks killing field mice, sharks ripping seals, foxes devouring rabbits and spiders snaring flies?

Why is the vast universe so violent, with stars exploding into supernovas, and black holes gobbling solar systems?

If the universe has a compassionate creator, why do earthquakes, tornados, volcanos and hurricanes kill thousands of people? Why does leukemia kill children, and breast cancer kill women?

And the ultimate question: Why is anything here, at all?

Session after session, we delve into such insoluble riddles, knowing that we can't find answers, but feeling impelled to keep searching. We're seekers, but not finders. We explore all the "isms" - empiricism, logical positivism, humanism, phenomenalism, scholasticism, idealism, neoplatonism, etc. - including some so long dead that they're "wasms."

Personally, I'm drawn to existentialism: We and the universe exist, but we can't find solid evidence of a cosmic purpose, so we each must form our own values and goals. As Martin Heidegger put it: We are doomed to live and die without really knowing why we are here.

It reminds me of a passage in "Zorba the Greek" in which the burly, uneducated foreman confronts his bookish, intellectual employer one night as they relax after work. It goes like this:
Zorba looked at the sky with open mouth in a sort of ecstasy, as though he were seeing it for the first time....
"Can you tell me, boss," he said, and his voice sounded deep and earnest in the warm night, "what all these things mean? Who made them all? And why? And, above all" - here Zorba's voice trembled with anger and fear - "why do people die?"
"I don't know, Zorba," I replied, ashamed, as if I had been asked the simplest thing, the most essential thing, and was unable to explain it.
"You don't know!" said Zorba in round-eyed astonishment, just like his expression the night I had confessed that I could not dance.... "Well, all those damned books you read -- what good are they? Why do you read them? If they don't tell you that, what do they tell you?"
"They tell me about the perplexity of mankind, who can give no answer to the question you've just put to me, Zorba."
The perplexity of mankind - that's the bottom line at the philosophy club.

Dr. Marquis knew that we'd never find ultimate answers. But she knew that the search is rewarding, anyway.