Back when I was studying for my A-levels, in an English lesson studying King Lear a fellow student took issue with what he perceived as the play’s relentless misery and suffering, my English teacher, Brian Merrikin Hill (an extraordinary man of whom I have written elsewhere), posed a question to us. “Given only the two-way option, what”, he asked us, “would you rather be: an ignorant but happy pig or a wise but unhappy Socrates?” Largely unthinkingly, responding more from current hormonal urgings, the hedonists and soccer jocks plumped for the former, the chin-stroking intellectuals the latter.
Little, it seems, has changed in the many decades since I pondered the question, stroking my chin the while. I asked it of my Theatre Studies classes when presenting them with those three sisters always yearning plangently for a one-way ticket to Moscow. And the split is much the same now as it was way back then.
I’ve just rediscovered a little Larkin parody, written some years ago with Brian’s question still very much in mind. I’ve sent it to my musical oppo Steve Moorby as a potential song lyric so maybe there’ll be the opportunity to ask it of a new generation of on-the-spot philosophers!
From the fastness of our dreams
where no clouds obscure the view,
we put aside our petty schemes
and envy deeds that others do.
Is there more to life than this?
we ask at break of every day.
The morning call, the goodnight kiss,
the foot upon the primrose way?
Safe or sorry, choice is clear:
not pig in sty but Socrates.
Or yield to ignorance and fear,
and live life in parentheses.