The following speech will not be delivered at a Class Day ceremony any time soon...
Fellow Graduates, today's address is in fact just a riff on an older speech, given 40 years ago by another man who spoke before another convocation at another university.
This man, Leo Strauss, spoke at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he gave a speech entitled "Between Athens and Jerusalem." His speech addressed the tension between navigating the course of one's life either by the lodestar of Jerusalem or the lodestar of Athens. Like the earlier giants on whose shoulders he stood, Strauss searched for the answer to whether one should live one's life by the dictates of faith or the demands of human reason. He unceasingly examined all the efforts on narrowing the gulf between God and Mind, seeing if he could better articulate and possibly resolve the old quarrel between Ancient and Modern. In Strauss's time, thoughtful people tried to live their lives mindful of the these serious challenges. Today, however, I wish to address the emergence of a new challenge, a new lodestar by which we set our course, a challenge which is more immediate and pressing to those gathered today.
That challenge is the challenge to be hip. Cool. Fly. Sassy. Call it what you want. Most importantly, that challenge is a call to be ironic. While we once considered living a life of poetry or of philosophy, of penury or piety, or even a life of politics and philandering, we no longer do so. Today we live inside quotation marks.
I've been scooped by the editors of Esquire magazine. A few months ago, they asked the most important question of the 1990s: Is it better to be hip than smart? And of course, it is far better to be hip than smart. What they should have asked was, why is it better to be hip than smart? The Esquire editors had Jerry Seinfeld on their cover, but really, Fifteen Minutes (FM), The Crimson's weekly magazine which chronicles the feats and foibles of students here, could just as easily have been on their mind.
For FM is the Seinfeld of print; it's a magazine that prides itself on being about nothing. We readers have always been in search of 15 minutes of fame, 15 minutes of mindless ecstatic delight in the marginalia of our college, continually examined and undressed. Addictively, slavishly, we read FM with our eyes glazed with dim recollection, with our teeth gnashing over memories of the low-fat plum pudding bars and fish pizzaiola which Harvard Dining Services purveys. We are easily stupefied by the most clever publication around. Like the couple in Don Delillo's White Noise, who make love only in the "style" of a certain century, Fifteen Minutes encourages us to revel in the pop cultural dross of Americana. What accounts for this phenomenon? How did it all happen?
In the past, graduates of this school considered two options after their graduation: to preach or to profess. Today, the most coveted job in Harvard's spring recruiting is at Walt Disney Company, or second best, the NBA. For us, piety emanates not from Jerusalem, the Vatican, Mecca, Kyoto or Banares. It's Los Angeles. The celebration of banality found in Los Angeles carries over to Harvard. We throw ourselves into the gorge.
Where we once considered the metaphysics of Athens and Jerusalem, today we are mosquitoes to the lights of Las Vegas and Hollywood. And though we may pretend otherwise, we're more interested in raising the consciousness of kitsch than of ourselves or of our parents. We'd rather know the names of the children from Eight is Enough than the birthdays of our friends.
We have made our answer to Esquire's question amply clear. We prefer to be hip than to be smart. We prefer to be cool than to be pious. We are beyond piety, and certainly we are close to being beyond the power of persuasion. Faith is a dream, knowledge a seventy-yard field goal. We are extraordinarily far from Athens or Jerusalem. Instead we have ensconced ourselves in the sugary bosom of a pop culture manufactured by sweaty-toothed media moguls in Los Angeles who cannot bear to be without their cellular telephones even when they go to the bathroom.
All this irony, this self-awareness, has drained us. As the result of our creativity, we are left, my friends, in a world of wavering, accelerated only by our continued reliance on instrumental reason. We don't just waver. When looking for the answers, we stagger, stumble, falter and fumble. We are stuck. Even here at Harvard, my classmates, we've become tired of ambition and its costs. Yes, sitting here among us are some future senators, maybe a curator for the Met or the MFA, a few novelists and certainly some George Soroses. All right then, many George Soroses. But the majority of us are now tired, still recuperating from a late winter full of theses and cover letters. And so, an old question, perhaps the oldest: What is to be done?
As our champagne flutes clink now, at this moment of intense insobriety, we may not see the choices which lie ahead of us, choices which we might have already made. These choices are not the ones of professional occupation--law school, medical school, business school, dentistry. No, these choices are more important, more telling. I mean the choices regarding the way we shall live our lives, the question which concerned, among others, Socrates the Impudent: How best shall we live?
This, my friends, is the recalcitrant question, a recidivist doubt still worth pondering, even if only for 15 minutes, even if only every Thursday. For in an age where our collective moral self-confidence consists in nothing more than a diluted brand of UNESCO cosmopolitanism, where our minds are so open that our brains fall out, we should ask nothing less.
And who knows? Maybe, in this alleged age of belatedness, of post-everything exciting, we'll reread that old essay of Emerson's ("The American Scholar"), the one which we were supposed to read four years ago before we first crossed this Yard's iron gates. And maybe we'll be persuaded by listening to that scholar who, when facing similarly recalcitrant questions and doubts, implores us, cheers us on, raises us higher, and guides us by showing us facts among appearances. Maybe, there might still be more to do. A whole lot more to do. We owe it to ourselves to find out. For even the glimmer of that possibility must be seized, seized with a relentless ferocity and a blazing fury.
To this goal, Class of '95, I wish us all great luck and even greater courage. Lord knows, we shall require both in boundless quantities.
Dan Market will study philosophy in Jerusalem next year.