No ‘Cogito’, ergo no ‘Sum’

This short story piece was actually, believe it or not, inspired by a dream I had last night. It’s a bit of a rush job, so I didn’t really have time to edit it. It’s a scene from a dystopic coalition of states. The theory behind it is a slightly exaggerated, sci-fi big-brother version of my country… They say write what you know, so I did.

Cogito ergo sum – “I think, therefore I am.”

-Reneé Descartes

I enter the class with only my slate.

Over a hundred younger eyes look at me expectantly, good-eyes and silver-eyes wide open. They hush to acknowledge the primacy of my position.

I glance at the LEDboard; it hasn’t been cleaned yet. I let it pass.

The previous lecturer obviously left it crowded to prove that he didn’t think much of what I teach. According to the Manual of Rank, Status and Authority, he is higher than my immediate boss by virtue of age, and higher than myself by both age and position.

For a people of higher status, high ranks can be remarkably juvenile.

“Good afternoon, class.” I say briskly, and as loud as I can. The address system is broken again. Manpower will have to do.

“Gooood aaafternoonn siiirr.” The class choruses in return, a cacophony of voices in different timbres and moods.

I gather my thoughts as I look at my slate. Over a hundred young souls; well, much closer to two hundred really. Most of them had high rank simply by virtue of birth.

It wasn’t in any Manual that one, ‘primacy by birth”, but everyone acted as if it was.

I was supposed to be teaching them ‘Philosophy and critical thinking’. What a farce! The system they had been pushed through up to then had methodically and progressively destroyed creativity and original thought.

I look over them as I mull. Each and every one of them has the smooth grey plastic of a torc around their neck. Each also has a single eye with a silvered pupil.

‘Right-eyes and left-eyes’ we called ourselves, depending on which eye had been replaced in our infancy. As if it were something to be proud of.

“Oh to hell with this!” my mind rails fiercely, “I’m not going to feed the machine today.”

“How many of you have read the Manual of Rank, Status and Authority?” I start.

Almost the whole class raises their hands. Those in the rows at the rear are turning to each other with slightly confused looks. They didn’t hear.

I squeeze my diaphragm muscle and tummy as I repeat again, louder.

“How many of you have read the Manual of Rank, Status and Authority?!” My voice squeaks a bit towards the end. I so detest myself when it does that.

This time the whole class raises their hands.

“Lovely. I see we’re all good citizens.” I keep sarcasm out of my voice, even though it remains in my mind. A listener tapping in through my torc might run it through his/her machine, and put a mark against my name for closer watching.

“Now, don’t put your hands down.” I raise my own right hand to demonstrate.

“How many of us have read the Manual of Morality and Conduct? …” Not a single hand drops.

“The Manual of Family and Procreation.” Again all hands remain upheld.

I change tack. They’ve obviously read everything they’re supposed to read. These students are the crème de la crème. I bet they could even quote from the Manuals.

With a wry grin, I ask, “How many of us have read or heard of Dante’s Inferno?”

Only three hands remain upheld. One of the students whose hand is up, a close shaven, big boned boy with a monocle on his good eye, looks about him nervously and slowly drops his hand.

“How many of us have heard of Plato, Aristotle, Niccolo Machiavelli or Renée Descartes?”

Just over half the class raises their hands.

Of course. The manuals claim they are based on philosophical principle. In more concise versions, the names of several greats are tossed about in the footnotes.

My throat is already getting a bit dry already. I lubricate it with saliva before speaking up again.

“How many of us actually know of their theories and works?”

Not a single hand remains upheld.

I pace behind the granite lectern. My sensible shoes make a soft, “clop clop clop” sound as they strike the hardwood floor. I ruminate on my next move.

My brain takes the moment to go off on an irrational tangent. “Isn’t it odd?” I think, “My shoes are ‘clopping’ as I ‘ruminate’. Have I become some sort of two-legged equine?”

On a whim I ask the class, “What is the scientific name for the Horse?” A few in the class grin confidently. This finally, was a question they could answer. However none of them raise their hands.

I grimace internally. Of course they won’t raise their hands. Even if they know the answer, they’re afraid to be told they’re wrong.

Fortunately I already have a solution for that.

“I’m going to give each of you a code. The row closest to me is the A row, those next closest to me are the B row and so on.” Next I point to my left, “The first person on the right of each row is number one, and the next is number two and so on.”

The class murmurs and frowns. They already see where this is going, and they don’t like it.

I pick up my slate and open an alphanumeric randomizer. “E10, what is the scientific name for a horse?”

The girl sitting at E10 is tall and has a severe hairdo. Her blouse has long sleeves and is in a drab mud-like grey color: perfect and proper citizen dressing.

In contrast to her frame, her voice is small and tinny, and it quavers a bit as she squeaks, “Horse…uhh … the proper scientific name is Equus ferus. The domestic…that is the common horse is … umm … Equus ferus caballus.

“Thank you.” I nod towards her. “Now that wasn’t so hard was it?” I append mentally.

“That had nothing to do whatsoever with todays topic, I was just ruminating on something and that came up.”

I grin at my own wordplay, but none of the students pick up on the pun. Then again, I have been told that I have a rather dry sense of humor.

“Today I will be talking about Morality.” The students take out their slates and start tapping.

I frown, annoyed, this is a class on thinking and all they’re going to be doing is recording?

“Put your slates away. There will be no tapping today. You can all barely hear me as it is.” I request calmly, trying to keep the command as light as possible.

The shuffling sounds of slates being reluctantly slid from tabletops fills the class. I wait till the sound subsides and silence reigns once again, until I can almost hear the slight hum of the antique low energy bulbs.

“Good. Now, in the nature of the first philosophers we will consider things through questioning.” I pause to take a sip from my tempered glass filter-bottle before I add, “Nothing complex, we’ll keep it light today.”

“First question to…” I pause as I glance at the randomizer app, “B5. What is the basis of morality?”

B5, a skinny chocolate complexioned beanpole of a lad in a shirt several sizes too large, answers by rote,

“Morality is the standard of proper conduct, conducive to natural and common law within whose framework we define what is right and proper to do. Its basis of course, is the Manual of Morality.”

I do my possible best to keep the disappointment out of my voice, and plug on

“M7, is this right? Does this mean prior to the Manuals there was no Morality.”

M7 is slightly confused by the question. He stands up slowly. He’s one of the few in the class whose name I know, Daniel, vice-president of the class.

“Yes sir.”

He’s so sure of his answer that it would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

“P12, do you agree?”

He does.

“A1, the basis of the Manual of Morality is from pre-Republic philosophers. Does this mean they had no morality themselves?”

She’s slightly thrown. Her monocle hangs on her blouse. Her rather mature sounding voice slowly and carefully answers.

“Sir…I think…maybe they theorized on the nature and form of morality. Morality was established by the first Leaders and codified for the masses of the Republics in the Manual of Morality.”

I open a document on my slate and read several choice phrases “Respect the elder. Do not oppose someone absent. Despise evil. Do not boast of might. Pursue harmony.”

I pause and look up at the girl, she is round in both face and body. Right now that round face is slightly pensive.

“A1, are these statements moral by the Manual of Morality?”

She answers hesitantly, “…Yes sir”

“I see… These statements are actually selections from the Delphic Maxims, codified about 600 years before Common Era. Grecians in that age followed as much as possible the letter and spirit of the Delphic maxims. Are they not morality?”

She’s quiet, confused. Some part of the mythos of the ‘Supremacy of the Republics’ is shattering in her mind.

Again I ask Daniel. “Is morality truly only based on the Manual?”

His soft response in the negative is almost inaudible.

“Can someone try again to postulate a basis for morality? G6, can you share your thoughts?”

G6 is fit and quite heavily muscled. A pin on his shirt shows he’s in the class by military scholarship. Means he’s probably not a proper citizen yet. His silver eye doesn’t move in sync with his good right eye: a botched implantation. He’s definitely born of low status.

G6 speaks in a shy, coarse, baritone, looking straight ahead as if to avoid the gazes of his better-born classmates.

“Uhhh…Morality is…it can be said to be such a life that does harm to neither self, neighbor nor society.”

I’m not sure but it sounds like a quote from one of the past Leaders of our Republic, I’m a bit impressed. I don’t think it is recommended reading at any level.

“That’s a nice concept. Let’s apply it to something for a moment. Say…” I tighten my lips and look up at the roof as if in deep thought.

“Homosexuality.”

The uproar in the class is not held back by concern for my primacy. A number of faces are outraged. A few, at the furthermost rows, grin mischievously. Several huddle or lean over to make comments to their friends. I hear one person make some rather ‘immoral’ curses.

It takes several precious minutes before the class quiets down again.

I continue as if nothing is amiss. “going by what G6 said, where does homosexuality fall?”

E10, she of the squeaky voice and severe dressing stands up without a prompt. Her voice is definitely not apprehensive now.

“Sir, Homosexuality and sodomites are against the law of nature! They are pustules that herald decadence. We are not like those… imperialist pig… people in the West!”

I raise an eyebrow and she subsides, settling slowly into her seat, eyes downcast.

“With all due respect sir.” She adds meekly.

“Let’s try and be a little objective please.” I say, in a voice that I am pretty sure doesn’t get to the far rows. “This is a discourse.”

A1 raises her right hand calmly. Her good eye is like cold steel.

“Good, at least this will get them thinking!” I exult.

I nod towards her, and she stands, pushing herself up with her stubby fingered hands on her desk.

“By the basis just stated sir, I would say homosexuality is immoral. It corrupts society.”

She sits, rather pleased with herself… until I ask, “What do we mean by corruption?”

A see of blank stares meets me I cast my gaze over the class. They had used words like ‘decadence’, ‘corruption’, ‘wrongness’ and ‘primacy’ since infancy without actually giving thought to their meaning.

I remember my grandfather telling me of a time, far before his, when Technickon and Professional Schools were places for free thought.

He even confided, in the speech of gestures of course, that higher institutions were often powder kegs for revolution and protest.

The Leaders of the United Republics had been wise. Within less than a generation they had transformed Higher Institutions into the finishing grounds for indoctrination.

I’m pretty sure no one has an answer for the question, so I steer to safer ground, relatively speaking.

“D3, are all the manuals equal.”

He gives a textbook answer, of course.

“They are equally with respect to content, but certain manuals have primacy over others. Just as persons… I mean certain people, have primacy over others by virtue of education, age and rank.

“Perfect!” I exclaim. He smirks, pleased. I continue the line of questioning.

“Which of the Manuals has highest primacy?”

He doesn’t miss a beat.

“The Manual of Morality.”

“Thank you.” I nod to him and he takes his seat.

I quote from a copy of the Manual on my slate. I’ve never been able to learn it all by rote.

“Above all things, the Republic considers, in the spirit of community and equality, that all persons, regardless of sex, birth or wealth, be given equal opportunity to the access of the basic necessities of food, labor, shelter and education.”

I swipe across the slate to throw the fragment of text onto the LEDboard.

The quote hangs over the diagrams and notations left there from the previous class, like some sort of odd digital palimpsest. I adjust it until it is as large as it can possibly be.

I turn to face the class and lay my slate down on the lectern. How many of us believe this to be true?

A sea of hands rises. Some students are slower than others, apprehensive, probably wondering which part of their worldview I was going to shatter next.

“How many of us have parents at below Rank B?”

Only one hand remains upheld, G6.

I clone the LEDboard to my slate and clear it, sliding the now ominous quote to one side of the board. I write a summary of the most recent Rank statistics:

A: 2%, B: 15%, C: 25% D&F: 58%.

“The total size of this class is 157. 156 of you are children of rank A and B parents, however Rank A and B are only 17% of the total population.”

I pause to motion to G6 to lower his rather muscled arm. He’s looking rather uncomfortable, but he’s not the only one. Some students even avert their eyes from the board.

“G6, be honest. Being honest is, after all, moral. Do you believe Morality has precedence over Rank.”

Morose, he shakes his head slowly.

The timer on my slate indicates time is almost up. We only have a 45minute slice of time each week for this course.

I give them their assignment. A two page thesis on how precisely homosexuality is against the principle of morality and one page to explain how it corrupts society.

The bell dings when I’m done and they rise and bow before I leave.

***

My dean calls me to his office a week later. He is sorely agitated and he lets me know it in several not so moral phrases delivered with great choler.

157 silver eyes and my own torc have recorded video and audio of a doctoral candidate of his Institute ‘fomenting rebellion’.

After the initial tirade he gulps rather heavily from a short glass containing a clear liquid we both know isn’t water. He squints a bit as the contraband vodka goes down.

“Oh yes, we’re all terribly moral we high ranks.”

“You have to watch yourself,” He says dutifully, Listeners are definitely watching and listening in. “Any more strikes against you and will have to be disciplined. We don’t want this to get to immolation my friend.”

“Immolation,” I think to myself, “Such a fancy name for public incineration.”

I nod dutifully in return and reply with suitable gravity “I am very sorry Dean, I honestly thought I was merely educating their minds. It will not happen again.”

He nods, satisfied by my response. “I know you were educated in the Republic of Bretagne, but they are very close to several corrupted states, especially the Imperialists of the Americas and Europe. They are less… strict with the Principles and Manuals.”

He stands indicating the meeting is over. I stand and shake his hand.

It’s quite a reach, over the minimalist steel football field that is his desk. His blank slate in its stand and the crystal glass of ‘water’ are the only things that break its smooth surface.

He grips my hand firmly and I get goose bumps.

The goose bumps are not a function of the Siberian clime produced in his office by the climate control system. His grip signs <<Beware>>.

He’s speaking in the tongue of gestures!

I don’t look down, but my careful grip acknowledges receipt of the message.

He continues, in the tongue of gestures, <<Your father’s rank can only protect you to an extent. We must pursue change carefully. >>

I nod, “Thanks for the talk sir.” He claps me on the shoulder.

“Good man,” He sounds relieved. But the fingers on my shoulder and those wrapped around my hand sign, with all seriousness:

<<You are not alone… REVOLUTION!! >>

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