The other “great discovery” of my life as a freshman at Harvard College was Henry David Thoreau. Walden Pond and “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” was required reading in the freshman literature course I chose to take. For the first time in my life (for the Harvard experience offered a lot of firsts) I was literally in a conversation with a like mind who was not a football coach. I couldn’t believe this man had written these things some 130
years before. They clearly spoke to me.
I didn’t read his writings, I engulfed them. They became a part of me. Remembering the entire text became my mission. I carried ‘Walden” with me at all times. It became my bible. I began to survey my world for little glimpses of God and the nature of things. It was
a period of profound spiritual growth for me, my freshman year at Harvard.
I once stopped in a public restroom in the Boston Commons. And while I am not particularly enthralled by the musings of philosophers on bathroom walls, this one touched me, and has stuck with me for more than forty years: “I wish I was what I
wished I was, when I wished I was where I am now.” Pure poetry, and with a message we can all appreciate. But life is like that, I have come to believe. God speaks to all of us, all the time.
In the summer of 1972, I wrote the following before heading off to Harvard College:
“The good life is one that is inspired by love and guided by knowledge. As a man, I was placed here on this planet by God and my purpose is to succeed. I was not meant to be led; I was not meant to fail. This place, in which I find myself, is not merely Earth,
but a battleground, one in which my only enemy is my own laziness. I will work
hard, save my money (a part of everything I earn is mine to keep), and invest
only in those things of which I have first hand knowledge. I will engage in
charities that make the world better for children. Above all, I will have
malice for none, and charity for all.”
That was it; that’s my code, my mantra, and I wrote it on a 3×5 card and placed it
in my wallet. I would take it out periodically to remind me of who I was and
who I wanted to be. And I wanted to be successful, and kind, and contribute to
the community in which I eventually settled.
The writings of Thoreau took my mantra (and my beliefs) to a higher level. In a sense I became obsessed with self-sufficiency and his teachings and views on everything, from politics to the way a man should live his life. Three things happened my freshman year that changed m life for the better: I was denied a chance to play football because of heart disease; I met Laura Murphy who taught me about love and freedom; and I began to read Henry David Thoreau, who defined my philosophy.
The loss of football I was able to overcome through pure tenacity. I was finally
granted the opportunity to play after having tortured everybody involved. Gradually,
like the death of a loved one, I let it go. Over the ensuing two years I watched as the greater part of my life – up until then– slowly evaporated away, much like morning dew. Football had been one of the reasons I chose to attend Harvard. At that time there were no Black quarterbacks in the NFL and the “rap” was that they were not smart enough to play the position. My goal was to prove them wrong. I never got the chance, and that is perhaps where the lesson is to be found: accentuate the positive, don’t focus on disproving a negative.
Laura was a chemical reaction, and that was all there was to it. I never had a
chance. I loved her immediately, but somehow, life got in the way.There was
never going to be anyone else. But much like football, over the ensuing two
years, Laura and I slowly drifted apart too.
Henry, though, was here to stay. As I read Walden, every word became a part of me. I
knew immediately I wanted to be a philosopher. I wanted to teach men how to
think, not what to think. I was mesmerized by his clarity, and his conviction.
“The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved
only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves, nor one
another, thus tenderly … Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own
private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or
rather indicates his fate”.
Little did I know –forty years later – that would be the quote, and those would be the
words, that held it together for me under an onslaught of negative press? God does indeed give us what we need, when we need it.
In 1975, I read Ayn Rand’s address given to the graduating class of the United States Military Academy at West Point on March 6, 1974. Her goal was to describe how philosophy – which was being pushed aside in most college curricula – was an integral part of man’s everyday existence, and that the question was not the choice to have a philosophy, but rather which philosophy to have. The choice was simply whether your philosophy was conscious and logical and therefore based on reason, or rather it was unconscious and irrational and based on mysticism.
“Most men,” she wrote, “spend their days struggling to evade three questions, the
answers to which underlie man’s every thought, feeling, and action, whether he
is consciously aware of it or not: Where am I? How do I know it? What should I
Philosophy is the study of the fundamental nature of existence, of man, and of man’s relationship to existence. As such, philosophy is composed of five essential parts:
metaphysics and epistemology are the essentials. Metaphysics is concerned with
the nature of existence, and epistemology studies the theory of knowledge and,
more importantly, addresses the question of “How do I know it?” From these two
essentials one can then progress to ethics, or morality (a code of values),
politics (how men treat other men), and aesthetics (art).
I was quick to grasp the concept of epistemology, and for my mind, there could be no
substitute for reason, logic, and rationality. Metaphysics, however, was a most difficult one for me to grasp largely because it forced me to challenge a few concepts – which growing up in southwestern Ohio – you just didn’t question.
Metaphysically, the issue is this:
Is consciousness primary, or is existence primary? Was the world created by a
supreme being, or is the world the result of the evolution of natural laws
requiring no supreme being for its existence. The idea that consciousness, or a
conscious, is fundamental suggests that the universe is the product of a divine
(or human) consciousness. Man therefore gains knowledge by introspection
The opposite, the idea of the primacy of existence, means that the
universe (nature) exists independent of consciousness. Man therefore gains
knowledge by extrospection (looking outward).
I was born and raised in southwestern Ohio, the Bible belt. The notion of existence
without God creating it was something you just didn’t entertain. The accepted
view was not that life was in God’s hands, it was the only view. For much of my
life, I depended on divine intervention to get me through, as did everyone else
But even with that, there was always this nagging belief, that something’s just not
right here, something’s missing. It wasn’t faith though. I am firmly grounded
in the notion of GOD. It was more a need for it to make sense. My mother would
often say, “Make peace with God,” and my reply would be, “We have never
quarreled.” But in reality, we have been quarreling all along. I went along
with the status quo – first as a Junior Deacon at Mount Zion Baptist Church –
basically because, at the time, I was too young to fight back.
Later it was out of necessity because it seemed so fruitless to resist. You
weren’t going to get an open dialogue from active minds, so no real discussion
was ever going to take place. For my grandmothers, my other support group, it
had been their way of life and that, their beliefs, certainly weren’t changing
at this point.
I have resolved it simply as this: why could both theories not be correct? I can easily imagine a God who created man over a period of time, which in the context of the existence of the universe, is merely a blink of an eye.