Saturday, May 10, 2014

My Love Letter to Philosophy

Yesterday was commencement at the University of Colorado. I love commencement so much. It might even be my favorite thing about my entire career as a professor of philosophy. I love the pageantry, the centuries-old ritual reenacted yet again. I love donning my regalia and seeing my colleagues in theirs. It's so jolly and comradely to be there in the corridor of Hellems Hall fluffing each others' hoods and trying to remember which side the tassel on our caps should go. I never fail to get teary as "Pomp and Circumstance" plays and the graduates file in. I love meeting their parents afterward and telling them, truthfully, how wonderful their children are.

I love every single thing about it.

The university still holds big mob-scene commencement ceremonies in the stadium, but it's the departmental graduation ceremonies that are most meaningful. The Philosophy Department is just the right size so that our ceremonies fill up a lecture hall that seats 150 or 200; we have 50 or 60 undergraduates and 8 or 10 graduate students, and their friends and families. We hire a violinist and classical guitarist to play for us; flowers adorn the front of the room; and we have a commencement speaker of our own each year as well.

This year the commencement speaker was me.

The usual task of the commencement speaker is to reassure the anxious parents that a degree in philosophy is a most useful career-boosting credential. So speakers sing the praises of philosophy for training students in critical thinking skills that will prove handy in a wide range of professions, as well as fitting them for engaged citizenry and more generally for life as a thoughtful, reflective person.

I did some of that, but then I said that the real reason we were all here in this room on this day was that, at some point in time, all of us fell in love.

In preparation for my talk, I interviewed all of my colleagues to find out where and when and how they fell in love with philosophy. It was fascinating to me to collect their stories. Three of them fell in love with the work of Bertrand Russell. Several had their first love end up being their ultimate academic specialty: the man who first fell in love with St. Augustine has published many books on medieval philosophy; the man who broke a promise to his father that he'd never take a philosophy course in college fell in love with puzzles about the existence of God and now teaches philosophy of religion. One colleague fell in love with philosophy as he knelt by the window as an eleven-year-old wondering where the universe ended, and what was on the other side of it when it did end.

As for me, I picked up a Modern Library edition of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers at a Walden Books sale table when I was in high school and read this line from Epictetus: "What say you, fellow? Chain me? My leg you will chain, yes. But my will? Not even Zeus can conquer that."


“Go then and act your tragedy, but I will not do so. You ask me, 'Why?' I answer, 'Because you count yourself to be but an ordinary thread in the tunic.' What follows then? You ought to think how you can be like other men, just as one thread does not wish to have something special to distinguish it from the rest: but I want to be the purple, that touch of brilliance which gives distinction and beauty to the rest. Why then do you say to me, 'Make yourself like unto the many?' If I do that, I shall no longer be the purple.”

I was slain.

So in my talk I said that for me the point of philosophy isn't so much to develop critical thinking, but to develop appreciative thinking. My goal when I teach is to get my own students to fall in love with the texts and thinkers I love most.

I closed the talk with these words:

What I hope, and believe, our students have received during their time with us is learning how to love better: to learn what is most worth loving, and what risks are worth taking on behalf of what they love. To love truth, and the search for truth; to love the beauty of exhilarating, infuriating ideas; to love a life lived with an open mind and a questing heart.

So graduates: I wish for all of you that you spend the rest of your lives loving fiercely and freely, searching for what is worth loving and holding fast to it when you find it. To you who were brave enough to devote years of your lives to the study of philosophy, I say to you, there are lots of ordinary threads in the tunic. You will find, as you go on in life, if you haven't found out already, that there is no shortage of ordinary threads. We came to philosophy because we thought it was the purple.

Go, and be the purple. And love the purple. 

That was my little valentine to the discipline to which I have given the last forty years of my life, and to the colleagues with whom I've spent the last twenty years.

And now I teach Maymester until the official date of my departure on May 31, when the rest of my life beckons.

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