Monday, November 21, 2011

Graduation Speech by Alex Fleig

Alex Fleig is a 1996 graduate of Shimer College. The following is the speech he delivered as co-valedictorian in May 1996.

I have a question I would like to ask everyone. So. Where do we go from here?

Wait! Don't answer. I like questions much more than answers. And, after all, don't we have more than enough answers already? Isn't it answers and not questions that got humanity in trouble in the first place? When I imagine Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, I see them contemplating God's greatness, their own existences, the beauty of everything around them. They were only asking questions and looking at them. Once they got hold of that apple, though, then they were in trouble. It was then that they started answering the questions they were only looking at. "What is goodness? (Chomp!) Goodness is propriety." And so on. In losing their innocence and gaining knowledge of good and evil, they lost their healthy awe of questions.

Of course, maybe my musings on Genesis don't fit with your own. It could be that Adam and Eve started off with just a few simple answers like "God is great" and "Everything is beautiful," and eating the apple merely multiplied the answers or even just the details of the answers. Maybe they never had a healthy awe of questions in the first place.

Well, in either case, we started answering our questions a long time ago and it might be too late to stop now. I hate that though: the whole "We didn't start the fire" line of thinking. It removes any individual responsibility. You blame Eve, Socrates, Descartes, Freud, anyone but yourself for the state of the world. "Nothing's my fault, because look at the framework I was born into." Perhaps, however, new hope stirs within you. You think you can improve the human condition. But if you try to put a stop to answers you need an answer to do it. And that answer will inevitably bring up new problems which will require new answers. And you keep on going, unwillingly, ad infinitum. Perhaps this is the whole aim of philosophers. They're searching for the end of the discourse. They think if they can just find the ultimate answer, answering itself can end. Then, once they find something, they write books, but Philosophy and its progress are stronger than the individual philosophers. Thus, new philosophers will come along and they'll find problems with all the previous answers, and so the search wili begin anew. The search for the end is what enables the discourse to continue.

So, are we stuck? Stuck with answers because people have been answering their questions for thousands of vears and we can't leave well enough alone. Perhaps so. But I feel we should do something. Maybe sabotage. We could glut the market with questions so that nobody has time to answer them. But the answerers will probably get strategic on us. They'll categorize our questions and answer them in bulk. Maybe isolation then. We could all just run off and seal ourselves in answer-proof boxes. I really do like people, though. I think, for me, the best possible response is what Samuel Beckett wrote in his novel The Unnamable. "I can't go on. I'll go on." In other words, admit the impossibility of the situation and then attempt the impossible. It's what I would call pessimistic optimism.

Let's return to my original question now. Where do we go from here? I can't go on in that there's no truth to be found (a quick survey of the Western canon will show you that); there's no satisfaction to be found, there's no comfort to he found. But go on in hopes that there might be truth, satisfaction, and comfort somewhere out there.

Since I'm about to graduate, the question of where to go from here is particularly prominent in my mind but it will come up again and again throughout my life. I feel confident of that. There was a time when I believed in absolutes, but that got educated out of me. Maybe I should never have allowed myself to lose my innocence. But there's something almost liberating about loss of innocence. With its loss, you gain the need "to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield." Needs that could never be present in innocence. So, in Beckett's words again: "Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn't want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn't want them back."

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