Philosophy – which literally means “the love of wisdom” – was very important in the life and thinking of Flannery O’Connor. Although O’Connor was herself a deeply devout Christian and a professed Roman Catholic, and although she read widely in theological works, she was also intensely interested in philosophy, especially modern philosophy.
O’Connor’s interest in philosophy is especially apparent in her short story titled “Good Country People.” One of the main characters of that work, a young woman originally named Joy who changes her name to Hulga, actually has studied philosophy at the graduate level and even has a Ph.D. in the subject. In other words, Hulga should ideally be a very wise, thoughtful, intelligent, and reasonable person. Her study of philosophy, however, has only given her one more reason to consider herself superior to other people. Instead of enhancing her humility by teaching her how much more there is to know than she already thinks she knows, the study of philosophy has, in Hulga’s case, merely exacerbated the pride that O’Connor thought was innate to all fallen human beings. Rather than being a true searcher after truth, Hulga uses philosophy as a way of reinforcing her already massive ego.
To make matters worse, Hulga seems to have embraced a particular kind of philosophy – nihilism – that literally means a belief in nothing (from the Latin word nihil). Nihilism is a radical form of skepticism that denies the possibility of knowledge and truth (and is, for that very reason, afflicted by the very kind of self-contradiction inherent in almost all forms of skepticism: how can one claim to know that there is no knowledge? How can one claim that it is true that there is no truth?).
During the course of the story, Hulga meets a young man with the wonderfully memorable name of Manley Pointer – a character to whom she at first feels smugly superior but who ultimately humbles her in ways she could never have predicted. Ironically, it is only by being humbled that Hulga will ever (in O’Connor’s view) enjoy the possibility of being a true lover of wisdom, a true philosopher. Rebuking her at the end of the story, Manley Pointer speaks words whose sting Hulga will probably find difficult to forget:
“. . . I’ll tell you another thing, Hulga,” he said, using the name as if he didn’t think much of it, “you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!”
If Hulga can indeed accept that she “ain’t so smart,” she may actually begin to acquire some true wisdom.