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Excerpt: 'The Philosopher's Apprentice'

Chapter One

This begins with a butterfly. The insect in question, a monarch, was flitting along a strand of morning glories threaded through the chain-link fence outside my first-floor apartment, systematically dipping its proboscis into the powder-blue cones. It was a warm, fecund morning in August, and I was twenty-seven years old. Contemplating the Danaus plexippus through a gash in my screen door, I was utterly mesmerized, transfixed by the creature's ethereal antennae and magnificent orange wings limned with black stripes as bold and stark as the leading in a stained-glass window. How numinous it must have appeared to a lesser insect: a cricket's epiphany.

Inevitably Lao-tzu's famous riddle crossed my mind—"Am I a man dreaming he is a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he is a man?"—and I performed a thought experiment, mentally trading places with the monarch. I don't know whether the butterfly enjoyed being an impoverished philosophy student with a particular interest in ethics, but my lepidopterous condition delighted me. The sun warmed my wings, the nectar sated my hunger, and the perfume gratified my olfactory organs, located in, of all places, my feet.

The telephone rang: a representative from my bank, recommending that I go further into debt. I slammed down the receiver and attempted to reenter my Taoist reverie, but it had evaporated. No matter. The butterfly had served its purpose. Thanks to that fragile creature, I'd finally acquired the hook on which to hang my doctoral dissertation. Mason Ambrose, embryonic ethicist, would write about the imperatives entailed in humankind's connection to Danaus plexippus, and to insects in general, and to everything else in the world boasting wings, legs, tentacles, talons, tusks, claws, scales, feathers, fins, fur, or flesh. With a rush of joy, I realized that this Darwinist stance would appeal neither to secular Marxists, for whom moral lessons lay exclusively within history's brute curriculum, nor to evangelical Christians, for whom a naturalist ethics was a contradiction in terms, nor to middle-class mystics, who detested any argument smacking of biological determinism. A philosophical position that could simultaneously antagonize the collectivist left, the God-besotted right, and the Aquarian fringe must, I decided, have a lot going for it.

"I've even thought of a title," I told my long-suffering adviser, Tracy Blasko, as we shared a pitcher of sangria in the Pettifog Café that afternoon.

"That's half the battle," Tracy said. In recent months she'd begun to despair that I would ever find what she called, not unfairly, "a topic sufficiently pretentious to hold your interest during the writing phase."

"I want to call it Toward a Materialist Deontology," I said.

"Sounds like a goddamn doctoral dissertation," Tracy said, unsheathing her wickedest grin. She had a round, melodic face whose softness belied her gristly intellect. When the renowned deconstructionist Benoit Tourneur had visited our campus earlier that year, Tracy alone had summoned the gumption to dismantle, publicly and definitively, his ingenious apologia for Heidegger's Nazi affiliations. "But whatever you call it," she added, looking me in the eye, "the topic is eminently worth wrestling to the ground."

"Will the committee agree?" I said, all aglow.

She nodded. "I'll call in a few favors. Congratulations, Mason. You've cracked the first nut—the fruitcake can't be far behind. Shall we order another pitcher?"

"Love to, but I'm late for a class." I rose abruptly, kissed her on each cheek, and explained that in prelude to my Darwinian explorations I was auditing Ben Glockman's legendary Biology 412: Monkey Business: Sexuoeconomic Transactions in African Primate Communities.

"One more thing," Tracy said as I started out of the café. "You should call it Ethics from the Earth."

For the next two years, I taught English at Watertown High School by day and wrote Ethics from the Earth by night, laboring to convert my status at Hawthorne University from ABD— which at most schools stood for "all but dissertation," though Tracy preferred "Aristotle be damned"—to genuine doctor of philosophy, and so it was that, raisin by raisin, currant by currant, the fruitcake took form, until 382 manuscript pages lay in my hard drive. And then disaster struck.

Tracy Blasko, dear Tracy who was half in love with me and I with her, poor Tracy went to pieces, checking herself into the Boston Psychiatric Center for clinical depression and alcoholism. The task of shepherding me through the final revisions fell to the innocuous Carol Eberling, a glum Hegelian who boasted none of Tracy's acid humor or affection for audacity. But for me the real catastrophe—and I'm afraid this is how graduate students construct these matters—was that the person selected to round out my committee was certain to cause me trouble. The nemesis in question was the celebrated post rationalist theologian Felix Pielmeister, newly arrived from Notre Dame.

There are certain coordinates on this planet, spatial and temporal, where one is well advised to avoid antagonizing the locals. The Lower East Side of Manhattan at three o'clock in the morning, for example, or Fenway Park during the bottom of the ninth with the Sox trailing the Yankees by seven runs, or the philosophy department of a major university any day of the week. I never found out how Felix Pielmeister came to visit my Web site. This scholar who'd delivered the Gifford Lectures, published eighteen books, and routinely communed with St. Augustine's shade—why would such a man waste his time picking through the dregs and dross of cyberspace? I suppose he went slumming one day, ordering his search engine to display all notices of his newest book, an anti-Darwinist screed called The Algorithms of Immortality, and suddenly, voila: the blistering review I'd composed to amuse myself during the gestation of Ethics from the Earth.

It was Dr. Eberling who alerted me to Pielmeister's displeasure.

"He's livid, you know," she said. "Really, Mason, you ought to send him an apology."

"I will not eat crow," I replied. "Nor any other bird Pielmeister would put on my platter."

What most infuriated the Augustinian, I suspected, was not my essay's sarcastic tone, savage rhetoric, or unkind cuts. My sin was that I'd caught him in a logical error. Pielmeister's argument reduced to an assertion that the acknowledged incompleteness of the evolutionary model (paradigm A) meant that divine creationism (paradigm B) must be the case. In other words, he was telling his readers that not A equals B, a lapse in rationality of a sort normally granted only to incoming freshmen and aging department heads.

It's a particularly bad idea to make academic enemies when the school in question is Hawthorne. At the turn of the millennium, our eccentric president, Gaylord Boynton, since retired, inaugurated a forum that endures to this day: dissertation defenses staged in a large auditorium and open to the general campus community. Boynton believed that such a practice would increase both the quality of the dissertations and the intellectual vigilance of the sponsoring faculty. Did this in fact occur? Hard to say. I know only that the innovation makes the average Hawthorne Ph.D. candidate feel less like he's explicating a thesis in early-twenty-first-century Boston than answering a charge of necromancy in late-seventeenth century Salem.

So there I was, striding through the foyer of Schneider Auditorium in prelude to mounting the stage and holding forth on my Ethics while several dozen students and professors stared and salivated. Perhaps a heated argument would break out, complete with red faces and projectile epithets. Maybe Dr. Pielmeister would ask a question so devastating that the candidate would faint dead away. Conceivably the event would turn physical, the professors assailing each other with half-eaten doughnuts. You never knew.

My abdomen spasmed. My bowels went slack. I gritted my teeth, decorated my face with a grin, and entered the arena.

My passion for philosophy traces to an unlikely source. When I was ten years old, a subversive baby-sitter allowed me to stay up till midnight watching The Egyptian on American Movie Classics. This 1954 Cinemascope spectacle stars stolid Edmund Purdom as Sinuhe, an abandoned infant who rises to become the most famous healer of his generation, physician to the pharaoh Akhenaton. It's not a very good movie, being overlong, ponderous, and badly acted. I love it to this day.

Early in The Egyptian, Sinuhe's adoptive father, a master of the trepanner's art, opens up a patient's skull. "Look, this tiny splinter of bone pressing on the brain," the old man tells his son. "When I remove it, he will speak again, and walk, and live."

Young Sinuhe asks, "Why, Father? Why?"

"No one knows."

Cut to our hero, still a boy, walking beside the ancient world's most philosophical river, meditating on the mystery of it all. "From the beginning I kept to myself," Sinuhe tells us in voice-over. "I used to wander alone on the banks of the Nile, until the day came when I was ready to enter the School of Life."

Cut to civilization's would-be elite prostrating themselves before a basalt idol, among them Sinuhe, now a handsome adolescent.

"In the School of Life were trained the chosen young men of Egypt, her future scientists and philosophers, statesmen and generals," Sinuhe continues. "All the learning of Egypt lay in the keeping of the gods. For ten years I served them in the school, that I might earn the right to call myself a physician. I learned to bend my body to them, but that was all. My mind still asked a question: Why?"

From the moment I saw Edmund Purdom impersonating piety in that Egyptian academy, I was hooked. The inquiring and defiant mind thriving within a begrudgingly reverent posture—it all made sense. Bow before Isis and Horus and Thoth, perhaps even believe in them, but give them no sovereignty over your thoughts—that was the way to be in the world. Sign me up. Call me Sinuhe.

At Villanova, I took every undergraduate philosophy course I could squeeze into my schedule, and soon I'd set my sights on the doctoral program at Hawthorne. Late in my senior year, I went through a crisis of doubt when my provisional girlfriend, a willowy physics major named Morgan Piziks, informed me at the end of our fourth date that anybody seriously interested in the question "Why?" should look not to philosophy but to the physical sciences—to cosmology, quantum mechanics, molecular biology, and the periodic table of the elements.

My mind went blank. Try as I might, I could contrive no riposte. I felt instinctively that Morgan's claim enjoyed the nontrivial virtue of being true. What could I say? What counterblast was possible? By what conceivable stratagem might I send her worldview tumbling down when I couldn't even get her to sleep with me?

A few weeks later, I chanced upon a quote from Wittgenstein that renewed my faith in philosophy: "At the basis of our contemporary picture of the universe lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena." Today that assertion strikes me as glib at best, but at the time it saved my sanity. Science could merely describe a phenomenon; it could never tell us the purpose of that phenomenon. The seminal question "Why?" still sat squarely within philosophy's domain. So I continued to think of myself as the post-Aristotelian Sinuhe, exploring the banks of the Nile, wandering and wondering and idly tossing stones into the water.

Excerpted from The Philosopher's Apprentice by James Morrow with permission from William Morrow/ HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright (c) 2008 by James Morrow.

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James Morrow