I hate August in Oxford; it’s the peak of the tourist season in my city and the pits for intellectual stimulation (my Harry Potter tours aside ;-). The students have gone for their long vacation or forever. The city has the feel of a boxing ring at the end of a sixteen-round lightweight boxing match as the dregs of the language students depart for their own countries, “Oxford English” now embedded in their souls. Lectures are a very rare treat after the surfeit of term time when I often have to make difficult choices. Even the music scene is at low ebb though I did score a double whammy on a recent Saturday evening: a writer’s drinks party followed by an upbeat performance by the Pete Fryer band in a working class pub (yes, they do exist in Oxford) – what a contrast.
Praise be that one thing does survive the desert of the eighth month: Philosophy in Pubs – philosophy is perhaps eternal. The subject for discussion is usually chosen by Ben, our erudite and urbane host, maitre D and convenor. This time Ben was sporting a newly shaped beard (beards are in at the moment, though I fear the word ‘in’ isn’t in) and wearing his distinguishing philosophical hat. He had chosen an Everest of a topic: The Meaning of Life!
At first, I seemed to be the only person at the Thames side Isis Farmhouse pub, but I linked up with another lost person and suggested that tonight’s topic was too daunting for the regulars or perhaps they already knew the answer. He was a young prison officer from the local magistrate’s court which led directly to a discussion of Jeremy Bentham’s ‘panopticon’ a prison design that allowed all prisoners to be viewed from the centre. “Ah, a miscreant masturbating over there,” I quipped to my new acquaintance.
“If that was the worst thing they got up to my job would be easy,” he said sadly, and then explained that he was looking elsewhere, the job was too demanding and unsatisfying. I could see that he needed to find new meaning in his life.
Ben arrived at last and drew us together at tables in the garden. One man in our group sat at another table and shouted a series of complex words to us that I did not comprehend and said so. He responded with another stream of rare and presumably philosophic terms. Too much philosophic knowledge kills open philosophic discussion, so I changed tables.
I think that I am usually the oldest (but not the wisest) attendee at Philosophy in Pubs (PIPS), but the man I then sat next to was near my age and accompanied by two content King Charles Spaniels: they both knew that the meaning in life is stroking and food. He, the owner, struck me as having interesting views on our topic, but his argument led directly to god or something like god; oh and love, lots of love. Those spaniels can get you that way. A much younger man took me to task as I banged on about the meaning of life being personal, related to personal happiness and satisfaction and the need for others to be happy and satisfied in order to create a society in which I, and they, can be happy and satisfied. He maintained that since I did not believe in life after death my life did not have meaning. I admitted that he had a point, but later after a few more pints in another pub which had live music I thought of the answer. So, I now know the meaning of life – my life.
That young man was studying for a doctorate of music. His interests lay in the structure and meaning of music, including its relationship to complex mathematics. He maintained that the shared enjoyment of music takes one beyond the personal and gives life meaning – interesting. Later, on another table, someone suggested that searching for meaning is futile: it is the journey though life that provides its meaning. At that point I timidly suggested that the inclusion in the American constitution of the phrase ‘the pursuit of happiness’ may be the answer, then left to do just that in another pub. Hence, I do not know if PIPS agreed on a meaning for life that evening. I rather doubt it. It’s personal you see.