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“Inquisition of Joan of Arc,”   Fred Roe, 1893


I will not cease from Mental Fight

Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green and pleasant Land.

I’ve been in a number of fights in my life – to keep my job, to save the college’s core curriculum, to have legal access to my father’s papers, for instance – and haven’t lost ‘em all. Despite experts forecasting that I must lose, I did win some.

After one notable win I was asked, at a meeting of academics, what technique or approach I had used.

 “I have no method,” I said candidly. “God helped me.”

The academics smiled.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. It’s not predictable. Not for one moment.

If I look back and ask what I did that achieved my aim, or – more accurately, what I did without which the success would not have had a chance – some things come to mind.

First, something happened that struck me as intolerable. Lots of intolerable things happen every day in the world but this was – for my sense of a meaningful life – not to be borne.

Second, I’d no idea what to do. So I groped around, trying to make clear why I thought this was unacceptable, while asking this and that person what they thought. Out of the suggestions that were thrown up randomly, I picked the response best suited to my capabilities and position on the map of conduct. I had no notion that, if I stepped up to the plate and swung in that way, it would repair or undo the situation that was intolerable. It was just the first thing I found to do.

Third, what I did clarified the field of combat somewhat. It provoked reactions, condemnations, accommodations – often all of these at once.

Fourth, on that clarified terrain, some came forward to ally themselves or were sought out by me as allies. At that point, the combat acquired the beginnings of the method or the politique that belongs to an assembly of relatively like-minded souls. I omit the innumerable somersaults that belong to human relations, especially under pressure.

Then there are the bystanders and their kibitzing. And I quote:

“It’s all gone, lost, the fix is in.”

“I’m taking early retirement.”

“You’ve become obsessed and are

neglecting more important obligations.”

“I want you to know that many of us

are so glad you’re doing this and

we’re right [yeah, a block and a half]

behind you.”

And lastly, after the occasional (unforeseeable) win:

“It would have happened anyway.”

“It would have been prevented anyway.”

“You were just lucky, since you never had a leg to stand on.”

About mid-way through one of my combats, I asked myself, Was I nuts? All I’d had to do was cast one itsy bitsy vote in a departmental election (or hell, call in sick on election day!) and I could have spared myself grief-with-no-end-in-sight. I “coulda been a contender.” Instead of normal career life, I’ve got this combat that swallows up the present and the future. Why did I do this?


In the ordinary sense of prudence, there is no prudential answer. The only answer – and no one can give it for another – is that without having taken this particular stand, or fought this fight – so small on the cosmic scale of things – I would have left myself behind.

No career success could have made up for that loss,

that loneliness.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to “Combat”

  1. Judy says:

    So re: Combat. Sometimes, it seems, there is no choice, because you really would be leaving yourself behind. And the methodology of the combat indeed can be unclear, unfolding as you go along.

    Our transformative, many year battle, against PECO, as the center of “Friends of Branch Creek” was all-encompassing at times. And the main results for our lives were not at all expected.

    The main one being personal! Instead of being stranger in a strange land, we found our county-wide community of environmentalists, activists, hippies, intellectuals, etc. I have just spent a week in Tucson with one of those persons. And the flow of her life since, and as a good part a result of that combat, has been amazing.

    I guess it can come down to the necessity of acting from your deep self, thinking you know the reason you are doing it. But the results may be much other, or in addition to, than what was intended.

    We were lucky that the combat was not one of violence, so no one was damaged or killed. (Except for the peeper frogs, and other fauna and big trees, etc. that PECO and Bucks county power-holders cared not a whit about.) Lucky us.

    • Abigail says:

      What you say here, clearly as a “veteran,” rings many bells. I had forgotten one of the tremendous “side effects” of entering such a combat. Peace-loving types do not seek these situations of conflict. We do not get off on them. In no sense are we looking for “a good fight.” What I like best is a quiet life, hours spent writing or thinking my way into writing, looking at lovely things in museums — the relief of meeting friends in a nice cafe, one on one, for a heart-to-heart — and stuff like that. For me, getting into one of these righteous combats feels like THE END of the enjoyment of life on the personal level. And yet, and yet, often enough, that’s not what happens. The allies, the people who will step up and stand by you and pitch in, turn out to be the best of it. Friendships formed or solidified in such circumstances become unpretentious and candid. And — at least some of them — lasting!

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