Belmont, NC. In my elder, more invulnerable years, when the Untied States had finally established a formal E. Unibus Pluram, I was appointed by lot to assume the position of SAT (Self-Actualizing Therapist[1]) at Saint Thinkery University for Unlimited Personalized Execution. I was, to put it modestly, two happy palpitations away from cardiac arrest. For years, since teaching had become the purview of artificial intelligence, millions of us humanoids awaited a chance to do some work. Even those who bagged groceries for an hour a day were targets of grumbled envy. And here I, a useless old man who has overstepped the recommended age of euthanasia, had the prospect of educating (or, as I was soon to learn, entertaining) the impressionable youth.

Once a small, reactionary school of Catholic predilections, Saint Thinkery had long been bent on the ancient clichés of “liberal learning” and “humane letters”—the victory of the dynamo and the ascent of automatons notwithstanding. But the Servile State of Noplace had passed new legislation: Act 010101 for the increase of Careers and Compassion. The bill required all Universities receiving Servile funding to produce at least eighty percent machine-tenders per graduating class. An old senator (a Replica himself) adamantly insisted that this mass gain for machinery needed a counter-narrative lest humanoids lose heart. His recommended sub-clause included a news-ready heartmelt: without exception, all institutions of Higher Liberation had to demonstrate outcomes of sustained tenderness toward elderly humanoids. Given the recent fits of violence enacted by restless and highly intelligent octogenarians who had been educated before the Great Complexification, it was evident that these senile citizens needed to be disarmed, made harmless, and helped in a manner that could be highly-publicized. And so, as STUUPE© was tiptoeing, like a hunched Methuselah, toward the Drone Race of Reality, they hired me too.

The position opened at the early death[2] of one of the school’s mandated Replicas, a distinguished robot named Manfred who had sacrificed every chip and bit, every bolt and bleep, for the furtherance of STUUPE© customers’[3] “experience.” (In the dread latter days of the United States, colleges had kicked any remaining “Cartesian[4] inclinations” in the head once and for all in a stunning Total Knock Out of the Mind / Body Problem: enough books, enough elevation of literacy as a “code” for cultural superiority. Nonsense. Customers came to the campuses to gain one thing, albeit sampled in as many ways as there are dishes in the state-of-the art cafeteria: the delicious and diaphanous experience of delayed adolescence. Customers endured classes as the price paid for laissez-faire morality.)

I confess that the interview at STUUPE© had been peculiar. It was less a demonstration than an indoctrination. Cutting edge technoglopoly cast three-dimensional blips upon the whiteboard. Reclined in cushioned seats, students watched Meaningful Social Behaviors of a diverse range of cultures—from the miniscule Lilliputians to the barbaric Yahoos. At the end of each clip (none of which lasted longer than 40 seconds, in order to accommodate attention spans), the class was prompted to click and choose from a veritable zoo of emoticons in order to answer the blinking neon question that flashed upon the screen: AND HOW DOES THAT MAKE YOU FEEL? (While there was no “right answer,” the senior SAT told me, the school uploaded all data and sold these results to Non-Governmental Organizations and Multinational Corporations everywhere in a quid pro quo of precious demographic information for multi-million dollar “donations.”)

My first day teaching was a travesty. The classroom architecture forbade SATs from interfering with the school’s ambitious attempts at educational de-centering. Still, from a tinted box in the back of the room, I was permitted to screen the movie that a terrified and over-qualified SAAS (Self-Actualizing Assistant-Surrogate) had helped me forge from the internet ether. Delusively, I decided to start with Phaedo, Plato’s account of Socrates’ death, his wrestle with the soul’s immortality. The SAAS had selected the title: Plato for Fun. “Death for All,” an unsettling earlier draft had read. That one had been suggested by an algorithm after “it” read Plato’s dialogue.

Anyhow, here is how the lesson went (I admit that nearly none of the Phaedo found its way into the fun):

Death. 1. The termination of life. The expiration of life. The end of life. (These conventional definitions of death are, finally, contingent upon the definition of life. There is no consensus concerning the definition of life.) 2. The definitive and undying termination of all bodily processes essential to vitality. (There is no consensus concerning the definition of vitality, nor any authoritative explanation of essentiality.) 3. Common law considers death “an absence of spontaneous respiratory and cardiac functions.” (There is no consensus concerning “absence,” especially as absence can in a certain sense increase presence, as in the saying “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”)

We[5] recommend that you think of the aforementioned definitions of death as a multiple choice test in which there is no wrong answer. The difficulty with there being no wrong answer is that there is also no right answer. Please do not cry. Although the common law still bids us inform you that you will die, you are free to disagree with each of the above definitions, because what “life” means is for each person to determine. There is no consensus. You will understand, then, that whereas good manners would have us send our sympathies and condolences, doing so would be to manipulate you into the assumption that your father has definitively died in a manner that implies disadvantageous loss and thus prescribes mourning. Think of it this way: when you die and pass away, you may have been (please note the emphasis on may, an accentuation of possibility as opposed to certainty) no more than a collection of perceptions and feelings and disparate deeds. You may have been nothing more than the convenient reduction of an overwhelming multiplicity to a single so-called “individual” (or alternately a person, a self, etc.) Identity may well be a synonym for despair. It would appear that the same holds for the rest of us.

Some of the most successful recipients of this test have recognized it as equally plausible that the atoms which were previously trapped into the configuration of a single mind-body form are now free to scatter with great vitality to the ends of the earth and even, with some luck, beyond the boundaries of the demarcated cosmos. But again, life and death are ultimately a matter of personal preference. Some of us are not so adventurous. Confronted with the apparent termination of what we have grown accustomed to calling “life,” “vitality,” or “cardiac function,” others find solace in shouting an earsplitting dirge that climaxes in an Aeschylus Aiee! Aieeeeee!, accompanied by some variation of shattered glass, slammed doors that unhinge from their jambs, Job’s potshards scraped against the skin, followed by squatting in sackcloth, staring judiciously at the scattered ashes, “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, Blessed be the name of Lord.”

AND HOW DOES THAT MAKE YOU FEEL?

Two days into my time at STUUPE©, I received a communique from The Furtherer.[6] The Facilitator’s[7] phone had become a hotline of complaints. Students in my classes had rallied to request total refunds for the useless, “boring content,” which was anxiety-inducing to boot. The Facilitator was disinclined to evoke his executive powers, which permitted him to erase my name from the annals of The Servile Noplace and replace them with a series of 0101010101010, or, in the case that he considered me a grave threat to customer experience, 0000000000000. But the Facilitator was a benign man who occasionally twitched with sympathies for reactionaries. On account of the constant threat of metamorphosing viruses, he wore a presidential Hazmat suit that hid these twitches and in fact all evidence of feeling, opinion, or humanity more broadly. I was worth preserving, he said. I was an indispensable incarnation of the Outdated, carrying in my ninety-two-year-old bearing a quaint antiquarian charm. Thus, the Facilitator had appointed the Furtherer, whose sole purpose was the advancement of self-actualization, to help me perfect my ways. His motto was “Listen, Live, and Let Live.” He insisted that I speak to him for seventy-seven hours straight, spelling out with utter forthrightness my most impassioned ideas concerning what the ancients called “education.”

Three days later the Furtherer knocked on the glass door of my office. (Everything at STUUPE© was “see through,” in accord with the Shameless Honesty Provision of 2056. Everything, that is, except for the old “Basilica,” which had been built by “noble-savage” monks so long ago, and which the Servile Noplace preserved as a matter of cultural and historical interest. Seven times a day, an actor dressed up in a morbid robe and a hood that hid his face entirely and, climbing the bell tower, he swung from the rope like a chimpanzee, rapt in ecstatic otherworldliness as he whooshed, imitating the primitive rituals of “monks,” which, our history books tell us, had to be outlawed on account of their antipathy toward private property. This swinging monk tolled the signs of the times, told us how far we had come, and whispered a healthy worry of what humanoids might devolve into again without the constant aid of Furthering.) The Furtherer stepped in, all grin. He whispered some instructions into my ear. He backed away and studied my response. “I hope I’ve been faithful to what you hold dear,” he said, scratching his head and then wiping from his nose what could have been tears.

In order to remain at STUUPE©, he said, I would have to inhabit a Cave located beneath the campus sewers. No student would be required to attend any of my “specialist” seminars, and those who did would realize that this was an “ungraded” elective in Cultural Anthropology—more a study of me as curious hangover of a bygone stage of humankind, with its fanatical insistence upon unquantifiable wisdom and its dangerous promotion of that unhealthy adage attributed to the Oracle@Delphi™: “Know thyself.” If at any time my class became more burdensome than enjoyable, students could drop without consequence. In every age, one absolute truth remains constant: the customer is always right.

The Furtherer flailed his hands and outlined the substance of my class for me. Upon entering the room, I was to walk around the Cave with a tablet, reading the rights of those who would contractually agree to be chained to their couches for the next fifty minutes, soliciting thumbprint signatures, and asking if anyone had allergies to dairy, so that we could provide popcorn with margarine for the deprived. All who withheld the sacred signature would need to be escorted out of the Cave posthaste. Once all contractualized customers were comfortably chained, I was to dim the artificial halogens and open a custom window designed to gather piercing sunlight through prismatic glass. The glass would project flaming illuminations against the darkened wall, but these brilliant lights were just the background to the heart of the lesson. For forty-five minutes without ceasing, it was my duty to choreograph a constant trot of diverse shadow puppets unfolding “in meaningful ways” across the Cave wall, shifting shapes every forty seconds to accommodate the easily distracted and asking in a crooning tone AND HOW DOES THAT MAKE YOU FEEL?, passing out popcorn in order to perk up slumping bodies when minds began to wane. Novelty was key. The shapes had to shift each class. I could rely on algorithms to provide recommended puppets, and all of the shapes had to contribute toward the Global Village’s project of increasing self-confidence through celebration of singularity and individuality.

In the case that the physically-inclined were interested in taking my class but needed to become “enculturated” into such foreign intimidations, I was permitted to section off a corner of the Cave for these souls of good will, attaching copies of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Physics to the ends of barbells and supervising the aspiring as they enlarged their biceps with philosophical curls and ate, in place of protein supplements, chocolate-flavored pages of the book, so that by semester’s end they would be lifting nothing but binding as light as straw. This, in fact, was what the physically-inclined would chant ceaselessly, according to Gregorian rhythms: “It’s all straw,” but in the Latin lest they be depressed by the terrible truth: Id est paleas.

Then the Furtherer hesitated. Tongue-tied, he contorted his legs, too. “Tell me the truth,” I said. He did. A simulation-run of the “program” had demonstrated that when the fifty minutes ended most of the customers would not want to exit the Cave, “The shadowpuppet show must come to an end. Scare them if you need to. Shake some scary figures on the wall. Tell them some Grimm’s Fairy Tales if nothing else works. They might imagine you the wicked old woman who lives in the woods, trying to fatten them up. Offer them more popcorn. They’ll be back, following the buttery crumbs that fall from their hands as they curse your class under their breath. They’ll be back. We all come back to see what new shape’s they’ll take–the same square centimeters taking infinitesimal silhouettes. Look. You seem like a nice man. Do you have what it takes to put fear into the customers? Do you have what it takes to defend yourself? They might mutiny. You’re to unloose their chains anyway. Do you grasp what I am saying? You aren’t that cranial. This ‘experiment’ could have catastrophic consequences. It could—” He halted, his index finger resting upon his bit lips. “It could quicken your mortality.” Seeing my sobered eyes, he turned to leave. I rummaged in the cobwebbed cellars of childhood Church, fumbling for words of courage, but stuttered like a sham when I strove to say, “Where, O Death, is thy Sting?” 

With sweating hands I formed a swan, as though in preparation for the forthcoming puppet show. What could I do but plagiarize Plato?

But men, because they are themselves afraid of death, slanderously affirm of the swans that they sing a lament at the last, not considering that no bird sings when cold, or hungry, or in pain, not even the nightingale, nor the swallow, nor yet the hoopoe; which are said indeed to tune a lay of sorrow, although I do not believe this to be true of them any more than of the swans. But because they are sacred to Apollo, they have the gift of prophecy, and anticipate the good things of another world, wherefore they sing and rejoice in that day more than they ever did before. And I too, believing myself to be the consecrated servant of the same God, and the fellow-servant of the swans, and thinking that I have received from my master gifts of prophecy which are not inferior to theirs, would not go out of life less merrily than the swans.

The Furtherer and I locked eyes, laughter lurking at the edges of our mouths and threatening to unravel the solemnity with play. In the same breath we bellowed, so loud you could hear us beyond Noplace:

“AND HOW DOES THAT MAKE YOU FEEL?”

“Could you kindly consider demoting me to the role of ‘monk,’ instead?” I asked.

“For historical and cultural preservation only?” he asked, feigning a casual smile. But the words came out inquisitorial. “Was all your talk about philosophy being a preparation for a good death just a pound of pleasant fictions, really, old man? Or maybe you’ve had enough of this place. I mean, not STUUPE©, but earth itself. Who could condemn you for an about face at your age? The true shape of things starts to come into focus, or so I’ve heard. Truth puppets into your consciousness like a shadow you can’t clap, can’t pretend away. No coercion whatsoever, none at all, but the University’s Happy Death committee could arrange for a wide variety of ways to go gently. Swinging yourself dizzy from a bell pulley–that wouldn’t be one of them.”

“A true monk is already dead,” I said. “But, yes, of course. The monastic role would be for cultural and historical preservation,” I said, thanking the Maker of Heaven and Earth for the gift of double meanings.[8]


  1. Editor’s note. In the year 2022, the appellation of “professor” was replaced by “Self-Actualizing Therapist” according to the results of a federal referendum.

  2. Also known as “transcendent malfunction,” a total and irreversible phenomenon

  3. Editor’s note. In the year 2120, the appellation of “students” was replaced by “customers” by parliamentary decree.

  4. Descartes was a thinking man who defined human existence by means of thinking (“I think therefore I am,” he declared) playing down the importance of the body and even contributing to a dualistic division between body and mind.

  5. I had been instructed to employ “We” instead of “I” at all costs. “We” conveyed a sense of collaboration and unity, which studies had shown to increase reported levels of comfort among customers.

  6. In the Attainment of Happiness Al Farabi advises as follows: the supreme ruler should have at his disposal two groups of subservient underlings—one comprised of capable men who can persuade the people verbally, and another comprised of goons groomed to achieve the ruler’s ends by means of coercion. At this late stage of philosophical furtherance, high-ranking humanoids intent on inter-cultural dialogue rediscovered Al Farabi’s wisdom and improved upon it, or, “furthered” it—blending coercion and persuasion into a single person. Thus, all leaders’ main assistants have come to be called “Furtherers.” (Some dissenters say that ‘Furtherers’ are so-called on account of their sole purpose being the evolution of all perfectible things, that which the present has failed to achieve—thus the early and awkward ‘Futurers’ gave way to the soft and soothing—even feathery—‘Furtherer.’

  7. It had become fashionable to call Presidents Facilitators.

  8. For the logician, equivocations are solely sources of sloppy thinking. It is not an accident that Aristotle starts his treatise on Logic by tackling them: “Things are said to be named ‘equivocally’ when, though they have a common name, the definition corresponding with the name differs for each. Thus, a real man and a figure in a picture can both lay claim to the name ‘animal’; yet these are equivocally so named, for, though they have a common name, the definition corresponding with the name differs for each. For should any one define in what sense each is an animal, his definition in the one case will be appropriate to that case only.” I know now that my conclusion concerning double meanings was misguided, but do not think my punishment is too small. Every day, swinging from the bell tower, I do penance for sins far worse than ill logic while customers push me back and forth like a pendulum, passing time. Even when they yank at my beard I must exude Dark Age joy. My “role” mandates a vow of silence, a via negativa by which STUUPE© teaches all comers the unlimited powers of personalized free speech.

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Joshua Hren
Joshua Hren, Ph.D. is founder of Wiseblood Books as well as co-founder and assistant director of the Honors College at Belmont Abbey, teaching and writing at the intersections of political philosophy and literature and Christianity and culture. Joshua has published numerous essays and poems in First Things, America, Commonweal, Crisis, Touchstone, New Oxford Review, and LOGOS: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture. Joshua's first scholarly book is Middle-earth and the Return of the Common Good: J.R.R. Tolkien and Political Philosophy. His first collection of short stories, This Our Exile (Angelico Press) received an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Christianity and Literature Book of the Year Award. His second collection of short stories, In the Wine Press, was published in May of 2020. In January of 2021, TAN Books will publish his book How to Read (and Write) Like a Catholic.

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