The Philosophical Commencement Address

The commencement speech is one of the few times when students, faculty, and illustrious members of the community are asked to state their philosophy of life.  The assignment is not phrased in those words, but that is the gist and result because the commencement speech asks what is important in life and how life is best lived. That is eudemonistic philosophy in a nutshell. I heard a number of commencement addresses recently. I found some advice thought-provoking or inspiring, such as the analogy of navigating the demands of a corporate a job to the rigors of national diplomacy, and the simple advice “to be not afraid.” The words of these speeches aspire to wisdom, at times slump into platitudes, or simply go awry. On that last score, I heartily disagreed with one student speaker who declared that one should “chase joy.” Chasing joy is in my book the last thing one should do.  Joy comes as a by-product of meaningful endeavors; a life spent chasing it would be unfulfilling and wrought with frustration.  At best, if you were ever to get your hands on one of those plastic rabbits, the result would be, in the words of John Keats, “a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed, a burning forehead and parching tongue.”

In commencement addresses, one also must hear a great deal about “passion,” as that word must raise its insipid head anytime college and young people are in the picture. I object to passion as being at all important; why this insistent advocacy of enslavement to desire or dreams buoyed by that insidious and much touted state of hopefulness. The answer is, I think, that those advocates of passion have not thought it through and the word has become a stock phrase that unfortunately has not lost all of its meaning. Instead, I would suggest, if I were ever to be at the front of a field of caps and gowns, that interest, reasonable enthusiasm, and a nimble mind, able to leave one path for another as need be, serve one better than passionate devotion. Not to mention what happens to that high pitched emotion once it deflates—a likely possibility since the “success” it envisions might well not materialize. Obviously that is a basic Stoic idea, and one could draft a speech entirely from the values of Roman Stoicism. I would do so if I had the chance. Such a speech would emphasize the following:  use reason, be moderate, exercise intellectual self-sufficiency, create something of your own, learn for yourself without reference to external goals, remember that death is for everyone at any time, and comfort yourself because complaining to others assumes that you are suffering more than your hapless listener. Those phrases are all starting points, but our job in living is to understand and expand on those liminal ideas. But what about that other really big word in the commencement lexicon—“altruism.” No day at graduation exercises omits the call to do for others. Is there room for that in a Stoic commencement address? In living a life in accordance with the basic Stoic precepts just listed, the net effect would be a boon not only to yourself but others—our immediate inmates and associates would be spared excessive and unreasonable emotion, complaining, and would have the example of a moderate, intellectual, honest individual in their midst. That is of great value. Further, here is the truth about altruism that is shoved behind the curtain; nobody does anything without self-interest. Albert Schweitzer fulfilled himself and his interests in pitching his camp in Africa; every missionary that ever got on a ship to an unknown land was fulfilling his or her own agenda. In fact, the truth of self-interest at work in altruism comes out when people promote altruism by pointing out how much one will benefit and how good one will feel in helping others.  Therefore, a philosophical plan that focuses on the self is as likely, or more likely, to lead to altruistic acts as any other—unless that system counsels sitting in a cave and meditating. I don’t see that promoting anyone’s wellbeing, from the meditator to others.

One last realization that graduates must face that does not typically take center stage at graduation—there are impossibilities in this world. Despite all the goals one is supposed to strive for, heedless of failure, there are things that will never take place, such as being called upon to deliver a commencement address. As a Stoic, I know that not receiving that invitation is all right.  I have written my own — here it is — with the words of Seneca in mind on the topic of undertaking creative pursuits without regard to the external world –“Don’t ask why you did such things, you did them for yourself.”

I enjoy graduations more than any other ceremony we are from time to time called upon to attend. I could put that in even stronger terms; they are for me important and memorable and meaningful.  Unlike any other convocation it marks academic accomplishment and a turning point in life; it reflects on the past, present ,and future all at once.  It celebrates learning and fosters inter-generational warmth and goodwill. It calls upon us for an hour or so and maybe longer to be philosophical.

Salve et Vale Class of 2014.