A man is determined to give up everything he owns, including his free will - but it turns out to be harder than he thought.
Well, anyone who has used the word "why" can argue that he is a philosopher. I want to be more than that. I want to be remembered as a philosopher.
One day I will be dead. People will look back at my life, and they might say I was a martial artist, for I have earned a seventh-dan black belt (in both karate and judo). They might say I was a musician, for I have composed successful operas (in three different languages). They might say I was a footballer, for I used to represent Italy (and scored twenty-seven goals for my country during my career).
But above all, they will say, he was a great philosopher.
The difference between a hobby and greatness is total immersion, to the sacrifice of all else. I must devote my entire life to this pursuit; I must give up absolutely everything for this cause.
I assumed that giving up my material wealth would be the easiest part of this quest, but it is proving not to be straightforward.
Yesterday, I hired a removal van and packed it with all my possessions, leaving my house utterly bare. I drove out to the public common and unpacked the van, laying every item out upon the grass.
I labelled my bank cards with the relevant PIN numbers. I labelled my bicycle lock with its code. I labelled my house keys with their address, and my car keys with instructions for finding the car. I abandoned the rented van, for liabilities are also proprietary.
Finally, I stripped the clothes off my back and folded them into a neat pile. And I walked away.
It was late by then, and cold. I decided to defer the next part of my mission until the morning. So I wandered the streets, looking for a warm place to sleep for a few hours.
No haven was forthcoming. The few warm corners I did find were barred to me by people who I suppose took issue with my nakedness.
I ended up walking aimlessly all night, to keep from freezing. As the sun rose and the pre-dawn chill passed, I found myself approaching the common again - my subconscious mind had guided me in a large circle back to where I started. The soft, dewy grass soothed my aching feet.
I walked up to the pile of my belongings. There were a few people staring at it as they passed, mostly early-morning joggers and peripatetic tramps.
Not a single item was missing.
Ashamed as I am to admit it, my first reaction was to feel hurt that nobody had valued my possessions enough to claim them; but of course I did not indulge my misplaced pride.
I waved down a passing cyclist and asked him why he had not stopped to take something.
"This stuff is yours?" he asked.
"Not any more," I replied. "I wish to give it all away. Would you like to take something? Perhaps this stylish Armani duffle coat? It is a cold morning, after all."
He looked at me, and then glanced all around him as if looking for a candid camera. "No thanks." He frowned, and cycled away.
I noticed a vagrant inspecting the pile of goods, and I approached him. "Would you like some help carrying a few items away?" I asked.
"Jumble sale, is it?" he mumbled, his eyes still ranging over the assortment of household wares.
"If you like," I remarked, "except that every item is free of charge."
"Just looking," he grunted.
I mentally shrugged my shoulders and prepared to walk away, but an irresistible impulse to see the job through to completion compelled me to do one more thing.
I walked over to my writing desk, which was on the grass between my mixing deck and my unicycle, and I pulled a bullet-tip pen out of the top drawer. I carried over a large imitation Caravaggio I had knocked off during primary school (perfect in every detail, of course), and propped it against the desk so that the back of the frame was facing outwards. I wrote across the wood in bold lettering: "EVERYTHING FREE. HELP YOURSELF."
"Excuse me, sir," came a voice from behind me. I capped the pen and turned around. It was a policeman. "Is that your van, sir?"
"No," I said, looking over to where the rented van was parked.
He sensed he would have to be more specific. "Did you rent that van, sir?"
"It's illegally parked, sir, you'll have to move it at once." The policeman surveyed the pile of personal property laid out on the ground in front of us and his brow creased. "Are these things yours, sir?"
"They are your things, sir. Look, this golf bag has your name on it. You're that footballer - played for Italy, didn't you?"
"I am a philosopher," I retorted.
"I'm afraid you can't leave these things here, sir."
"They're not my things any more. I've given them away."
"Regardless, sir, you can't leave 'em here."
"I will leave them here. You'll have to arrest me."
"I'm not going to arrest you, sir, although I will insist that you put some clothes on and pack these things back into your van."
With frustration, I intercepted an attractive young woman who was pushing two children in a pram. "Excuse me, madam." I smiled. "Can I interest you in a proposition?"
The woman stopped and eyed me with suspicion. I continued: "I would like to give you everything I own, and in return all I ask is that you take responsibility for it. You see, this policeman here insists that I must move it all away, but I don't want anything to do with it."
"Don't be silly," admonished the woman.
"But these commodities are worth hundreds of thousands of pounds!" I appealed.
The woman cocked her head and scratched her chin. She surveyed the paraphernalia on offer, and her brow furrowed as if conducting a challenging mental calculation. At last, after a full minute, she spoke: "I'll give you ten grand for the lot."
I sighed. I might even have rolled my eyes. "You can have it for free," I clarified. "All of it."
"Well, if you're gonna play hardball, no deal," she huffed, and stomped away.
I turned back to the policeman with an exasperated look. He glared at me as if he were a teacher expecting an apology from a naughty pupil. "Well," I said, "if you're not going to arrest me..." And I walked away.
My attention turned fully to the task at hand. The path to greatness is total sacrifice. To be a philosopher, all I need is my mind and a pen. Everything else must go.
I intend to make the ultimate living sacrifice: I will give away my free will.
With no distractions, I will achieve a purity of mind more complete than anyone has achieved before me. And the consequences of my sacrifice will be the subject of my study.
Then I will be, above all, a philosopher.
It has now been three days since I gave away my free will and my experiment is not going well.
Before I decided to relinquish my freedom, part of me was concerned about the degradation and humiliation to which I would be exposing myself, for if I was commanded to do housework in a bikini for the rest of my waking life, I would do it. That is a natural risk of devolving my decision-making.
And another part of me hoped with eternal optimism that, unfettered by laziness or lack of self-belief, I would be able to reach my full potential, for if I was commanded to colonise the moon I would devote every fibre of my being to that purpose until it was achieved. That is the divine potential of forgoing free will.
These extremes of possibility excited me. And I felt certain that whatever happened, I would be inspired by the insights into the human psyche that this noble pursuit would provide.
However, I find myself neither in heaven nor hell, but a cramped and lifeless purgatory.
I gave away my free will at random so my ego would not contaminate the decision. I asked each passer-by if he or she would accept responsibility for my decisions until one of them said yes.
After many rejections, a tall, dark-haired, smiling man stopped to consider my proposal. To protect his identity, I will call him Leo.
"So I'd make all your decisions," Leo confirmed. "I could make you do whatever I wanted? Even -"
"Yes, even that," I interrupted. "The lone exception is that I reserve the right to make one recurring decision: While you're asleep I may choose to muse and write, for I wish to be remembered as a philosopher."
"What do you expect me to decide to do with your life?" he asked. "What if I mess it up, or waste it?"
"You can do whatever you want. It's not my place to say. Even if you feel like you're wasting my life you'll be doing me a great service, for by taking away my responsibility for making decisions, you're freeing my mind to think more clearly and deeply than ever before."
"For how long?"
"If you accept, that is not for me to decide."
He asked a number of practical questions such as where I would live and how I would eat, and each time I replied with a similar answer. It would all be up to him.
"It's quite a responsibility," he said at last. He surveyed me with considerable curiosity.
"It is likely to be a significant commitment of time and effort," I admitted. "But I have no expectations, so you have no responsibility to me in that sense. If you desire payment, you can make me work for you in whatever way you want."
"Well, if I can make you decide any time to take back responsibility for your own decisions, then it's zero risk for me... I have just one more question."
"If I told you to, would you kill yourself?"
He took me back to his home, a claustrophobic one-bedroom flat in a converted Victorian terrace. The place was tidy enough, but structurally questionable. The fading patterned wallpaper had the occasional inexplicable dent or damp patch in it.
He briefly showed me around and then gave me some instructions.
"Right," he asserted. "If you're hungry, you're to eat bread. If you're thirsty, you're to drink water. If you need the toilet, go. If you're tired, sleep. If there's danger, you must get away from it. Those basic rules last forever, and take priority over any other decisions I make for you, unless I specifically override them. Do you understand?"
"Yes," I nodded. Inwardly, I felt pleased that he seemed to have grasped his new role quickly and with intelligence.
"Excellent." Leo smiled. "I'm late for work now. Stay in here and watch TV till I get back."
"What channel?" I asked.
"Channel one," he ordered, and turned to leave, bolting the door behind him.
For nine hours I obeyed, absorbing inane daywatch with all its empty rhetoric.
I felt a frisson of excitement when I heard him come back in - now the game would really begin. But I was to be sadly disappointed.
His opening words were: "I thought you might've tried to steal everything." I shook my head in response. "You're serious about this, then?" he asked, without needing an answer.
Then he set about his evening rituals, barely acknowledging me at all. I had not been given any other decision beyond watching television, so I continued to watch as he showered, ironed his shirts, prepared supper, called his mother...
He gave me a portion of food and told me to eat it, and three hours later he went to bed. That was it. No scintillating conversational exchanges. No deep analysis of the potential of my sacrifice. No bizarre or daring decisions. No imagination whatsoever.
Time passed until I felt I could safely assume he was asleep, but I was too discouraged, too brainwashed by hours of dullness, to take up a pen and begin my philosophical musings. So I tried, unsuccessfully, to sleep.
The next day, yesterday, I hoped for better things. But the same tedious scene was played out; and again today.
I have subjugated myself to a dolt.
I am this man's puppet, yet he plays me with no imagination, no art. Without imagination, a puppet is an empty thing, but with imagination, all the world's a stage. If only he used me with a bit more creativity, then we could achieve powerful things.
Even if he abused me I'd prefer it, provided he showed a little flair.
But it is clear that this man will not catalyse my mission. He is incapable. Now I must focus on training my mind to think more deeply, so that it doesn't matter what my body is doing. I must start writing my philosophical masterpiece.
He is asleep now, and the pen is in my hand.
Six months have passed, and my life has changed forever. All concern I ever had for the direction and meaning of my life has faded away. My past achievements mean nothing to me any more. Even my philosophical opus, although I still think about it sometimes, has fallen by the wayside.
And I'm happier than I've ever been.
My master, Leo, is wiser and more cunning than I suspected. Those first few days of dullness were merely his way of helping me to appreciate the consequences of being a creature without free will. I laugh at myself now for having been so arrogant.
On the eighth day - it feels so long ago now - I confronted him. He had just returned from work and started his usual routine (I was watching television of course), when I blurted out: "I'm bored!"
"Then decide to be happy," he ordered.
"But how can I? You've been given an opportunity that is unique in the history of humankind and you're too much of an imbecile to do anything with it."
He raised his eyebrows, and let a silence hang in the air for a moment. "Did you just decide to say that? To insult me? Did you decide off your own bat?"
"No," I objected, "I've been bursting to say it for days and I was no longer able to hold back."
"Fine. Keep watching television."
"But what will that achieve?"
"You tell me," he countered. "You're the one who gave up your free will."
"Yes, but -"
"But what?" he interrupted, splaying his arms in the air. This was the most animated I'd seen him. "You told me it didn't matter if I wasted your life. You told me I had no responsibility to achieve anything with you. So, tell me, why are you doing this?"
"I gave away my need to make decisions so I could focus more of my mind on deeper thoughts," I explained.
"You're so full of yourself! Can't you see how ridiculous that is?"
"I'm a greater person than you'll ever be!" I yelled.
"Really? What makes you so great?" he shouted back.
"I have the achievements of several lifetimes behind me, and you still live in a crappy flat and call your mother every day!"
"Well, now I control you, so you're only as great as me. If you don't like that, then leave! Every day I come back from work and I expect you not to be here, because you've given up - because you've decided to make your own decisions again and get out of here. Why are you still here?"
He had started pacing around in front of me as he said this, like a buzzing mosquito. I felt disproportionately annoyed at him, and I was determined to swat him away. "If you want me to leave, tell me to leave. Tell me to choose another master."
"Why should I? It makes no odds to me."
"Well then, leave me alone, so I can get on with my thinking. Your shallow little brain is sapping my thoughts away."
"You're full of crap. Show me one deep thought you've written since you've been here."
"I've not yet committed anything to paper."
"Then tell me one deep thought you've come up with since being here."
"No!" I whined.
"Ha! A-ha! That's not your decision to make," he asserted, with some degree of glee. "I'm deciding that you will tell me all of your deepest thoughts."
"I -" I started, but then I realised that I had to comply. I had no free will, and I had been given a direct order, so I had to comply.
I opened my mouth, ready to dispense some searing piece of wisdom that would quieten him at last, but with a horrible sinking feeling in my stomach, I realised that I could not think of anything at all.
The sinking feeling grew into a mental panic. That was the turning point: I realised that I had not had a single deep thought since the day I gave away everything I owned at the public common.
I had not written a word of philosophy since this experiment began. And it was my own fault, not Leo's. That single revelation, the possibility that I was failing because I was inadequate, terrified me to the core. I stayed silent.
"There you go," Leo said calmly. "Now watch television and think about what you've done. Think about what you want. I'm going to bed."
As he left he added: "If you're not here in the morning, goodbye."
But I stayed. I was too shaken to move on. I didn't even have anywhere to go - and now I could see that I might have given it all away for nothing. Had I ever had a deep thought in my life? The more I thought about it the more it scared me. I was all success and no soul.
I watched television all night, numbing my brain to the emptiness of my situation. Leo did not say a word to me in the morning as he got up and left for work.
I cried. I wasn't even sure what for.
I had to think. Leo had ordered me to think about what I wanted. Without really being conscious that I was making a decision to do so, I left the flat and went for a walk.
I inhaled the crisp sunshine air as I approached the common. I cast my eyes over the scattered people jogging, walking, chatting, sitting; and I asked myself, "Why?"
Why was I here? Why had I done all the things I had done? Why was I unhappy?
I was back in the flat when Leo returned from work. The television was off.
"How are you feeling?" asked Leo.
"Lost," I admitted. "I would like to stay, if I may."
"Sure." He nodded sympathetically. He studied me for a while, and I think the corners of his mouth raised into a half-smile, but only for a second. "I'm going out for a couple of beers with some friends of mine. Do you want to come?"
"If you say so," I whimpered.
I got to know his friends in the weeks after that, and I began to rediscover myself. I had never had that kind of companionship before - it made me see things in a different way.
These new friends did not judge me for what I had done badly, or for what I had not yet achieved. The people I used to call friends were only friends while I was successful, but these new friends had no expectations of me, and they included me in their lives without conditions.
These friends became a sounding board for my thoughts and worries, an earthly touchstone for my life rather than having to measure myself against the entire cosmos. I came to value them above all else.
I took a gardening job and started paying Leo some rent. Of course, I had to start making some of my own decisions again, but only small ones. The big decisions, about where my life was going, or how I could inject meaning into it, did not trouble me any more.
Leo became less of a master and more of a mentor for me. I grew to view him very fondly. And what surprised me most was the realisation of how lonely I had been before.
My friends, and Leo - my best friend - have helped me to appreciate the small things in life. The most important things. Now that the burden of aimless ambition has faded away, I can work with them to build a quieter purpose in our lives.
One day I will be dead. People will look back at my life, and they might say I was a martial artist; they might say I was a musician; they might say I was a footballer.
They might even say I was a philosopher, for now that my personality has become less broad and more deep, my thoughts have become deeper too. Recently I have felt the feathers of philosophical inspiration tickling my mind, and it won't be long before it becomes clear enough to commit to paper.
But I think I would prefer it if they said, above all, he was my friend.