07/13/2010 12:26 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

In Praise of Christopher Hitchens: A Paean for a Life Well Lived

The phrase has been repeated until it has lost all meaning except to the honest intellectual: 'the unexamined life is not worth living.' Thus spoke Socrates before the city that would decide shortly, and as all know too well, terminally, on the question of his life. His sentence was death, but his words have gained more life after his bodily expiration than he could have perhaps ever hoped. Socrates, the teacher, is far more immortal than nearly any human has ever been. He is certainly ahead of the world's dead dictators who etched their mark into stone and ground in futile rage against the fragility of life and slow release of aging. It seems plain that some intellectual power transcends time. Thus Socrates lives on while the dictators are lost to all, except the most erudite historian.

Hitchens himself said something to a similar effect. When confronted with the lack of perhaps a strong historicity of Socrates in a spirited debate, and thus with the possibility of Socrates' non-existence, Christopher said strongly (and I condense) "I do not care if he never lived, it is in his ideas that he was strong. The man is the conveyance." Indeed.

During the week of this essay's writing Christopher Hitchens' diagnosis with cancer had just been made public. His illness is of a serious sort that has a tendency to ignore the efforts of modern medicine. I want to make it plain, this is no eulogy, right now Hitchens is very much alive. Although his pen is calmed during this therapy there is little doubt as to the fact that when given a particle of health the polemic genius will return. Until then, at this difficult time, I would like to take a short moment and extol a man worthy of more praise than he has received thus far in his life. That is the goal of this essay.

It is a cheapened reward to be given full recognition for the good life after its natural conclusion of death. This is especially true as there is no personal afterlife to be enjoyed; only ideas and works live past the grave of their authors. While Christopher is alive we need to take a moment to explain why he has done well, and how we appreciate his life's work; we are in his debt, let us work to absolve that debit.

Christopher Hitchens is an author, journalist, essayist, literary critic, polemicist, and both public speaker and intellectual. Usually it seems that when a person's job listing runs past three slots they are fluffing their resume for one reason or the next. In this case what I have listed is only a fraction of Christopher's accomplishment and capabilities.

Mr. Hitchens has written (through the recent Hitch-22) some 18 books, edited a collection, co-authored or co-edited another seven works, was a partial contributor to three more, and has written numerous introductions to popular books of a different authorial vintage. If that is not enough to impress, Hitchens is also a famed orator whose lectures and participation in debates have gained him a reputation on television, at the university lectern, and on the large stage as a voice of reason that will not give one inch to any bit of illogic or, as he has said, 'piffle.' He is the bulldog of the logical and has often been the popper of the 'bubble reputation' in the regular world. A longtime critic of the literary, and a biographer of the excellent, Christopher has promoted the best, protected the regular, attacked the overrated, and torn down the weak and limited idea as just that: lesser and not capable.

Christopher is a friend of the weak, an ally of the intellectual, a fervent critic of fraud, and an anti-theist. Perhaps you may know him only as the latter, and that is too often the shame. His life has been so much more than the last five years in which his 'god bashing book' brought him new fame. His prominence, it is impossible to say, has not suffered by his branding along with the other so called 'new atheists,' but to merely affix that sticker to Christopher's forehead is to skip the story, read the executive summary, and then to miscomprehend the shortening; surely Hitchens is an anti-theist, but that is merely a theme in his life, not its aggregate.

Christopher Hitchens evokes anger, pain, love, war, calm, peace, strife, extravagance, and one thousand other emotions that are too myriad to contain on these pages. All that a person can do is to read his words, listen to his voice, critically examine his claims and attempt to ascertain when Christopher has a point perfected and when it could be improved. It does nothing for the legacy of a contrarian to treat their work as gospel; nothing Hitchens has ever written should be let go without a firm drubbing of verification, I imagine he would want nothing less. Come to your own conclusions on the merit of what Christopher has said so far, but on my recommendation do not miss what he has to say.

When confronted with the question 'what is truth,' Hitchens took the softball pitch and hit it so far out of the park that no one ever found a shred of the question. To paraphrase, "I could describe the search for it [truth]. But I would be skeptical of anyone who claims to have found it." Yes, that is core the idea of the Enlightenment perhaps better than it has ever been previously put.

And so to Christopher Hitchens we can all raise a glass and thank the living man for his contributions and say that yes, despite a few physical activities that most of us cannot stamp out, this is a man of personal courage that we should attempt to emulate on our own, and a man whose principles we should teach: intellectual curiosity, voracious reading, a constant pursuit of knowledge, and deep self-examination to find in ourselves our weakest ideas that we just may hold dearest. We all have it at least partially wrong, and we will never find out what is true, that is, not without those listed principles.

This is an adapted version of a longer essay that can be found for Kindle here.