Monday, December 12, 2011

Graduation Speech by Jason Blaesing

Jason Blaesing is a 2000 graduate of Shimer College. The following is the text of the speech he gave as co-valedictorian in May 2000.

I have to confess to you immediately that this is all rather odd. At Shimer we prepare you quite well for speaking with people, not quite as well for speaking to them. It’s an entirely different experience, as you may well imagine. So if I’m feeling a little bit ambivalent in my position up here, you can surely understand.

There really is so much to say regarding what I have come to think about my stay at Shimer. There’s even more to say about Shimer College itself. I want to keep this fairly short, so I’ll try to strike right at the core of my experience here. After all, as we hopefully learn, silence is an integral aspect of truly speaking. Many things, therefore, must go unsaid.

It seems to me that there are two things which characterize a great deal of Shimer life, and the Shimer spirit in general. These are: desire and being radical. I would like to ask the following of these: What does it mean to desire at Shimer? Or, let us speak of it by its older designation: What could Eros possibly have to do with Shimer? Where does the erotic belong? And further, what could “being radical” mean in the context of our experience here?

One could hardly deny the central role that the question plays in Shimer life. It is arguably the single most important axis around which our endeavor revolves. Shimer is based on dialogue, on coming together with the purpose of entertaining meaningful conversation. Can there be such thing as meaningful conversation without the question? Without the question – without the ability to question – conversation turns to mere talk. Talk without the question can degenerate into nothing more than chatter. Thinkers from Heraclitus, Plato, through to Martin Heidegger have placed great emphasis on the recognition of this. In Buddhism, too, right speech forms part of the eightfold path which the monk must tread. True meaning arises only in the presence of the question. Can meaningful conversation be other than the shared pursuit of the question?

The question is the beginning of inquiry. It is therefore the beginning of the coming-together that characterizes Shimer’s ideal. The question sets the tone of the inquiry, as well as providing the possibilities that this may manifest. Though it may ring somewhat odd, the question to my mind deserves more attention than the answer. If I have come to know anything at Shimer, it is that there are a great multitude of good questions, but very few good answers. Poor answers can be found in droves. A poor answer is one in which the question is foreclosed; an extremely poor answer is one in which questioning is foreclosed. With this having been said, it should not be difficult to see that the poor answer is already present within the question from which it stems. A poor question is one, according to this, which forecloses its own possibility. This implies that while all questions may be good – though I leave that purposely undecided – some are clearly more in order than others. The better question is one which, in setting it own limitations – which it does by defining the initial periphery of inquiry – simultaneously provides for its growth and multiplication. Yet, a good question need not be one that simply inspires a host of other questions. This is to say, it needn’t be judged by its numerical productivity. Sometimes the best questions lie solitary, fermenting as it were. As they do so, they gather to themselves meaning. The best question is one which embraces and culls meaning. It is quite literally a type of harvest.

The word “radical” has found fairly diverse applications in this century. Most of these coincide with various political appellations. In fact, the mere mention of the word seems to conjure images of the political more effectively than any other. I think this fact is in itself meaningful, if often overlooked. But these political designations – often hastily made – seem to me to often confuse the original – and perhaps most potent – meaning of the word. We should remember that, etymologically, “radical” derives from the Latin radix, meaning root. This is its strict meaning. Being radical means having to do somehow with roots. A kinship between this and what we have already said of the question has made itself apparent. Before I speak of this, let me turn for a moment to something else.

Desire, of course, comes in all manner of forms – doubtless all of which you may find at Shimer. But there is a particular sort of desire that informs all that we do here and it is this to which I want to look.

Our notion of desire, I think, comes largely from the Greeks, though it rarely bears its original title. The Greeks, as we know, honored desire in the form of Eros. Beyond being a mere psychological function, Eros held the esteemed position of being a god. Moreover, Eros is found to occupy a central metaphysical position in the Greek understanding of the world. It is tellingly related that Eros’ primeval birth out of Chaos occurred at the same moment as that of the Earth Mother, Gaia. Attraction and gravitation are born with arrival of Earth, of the primordial experience of matter. To the world belongs attraction. We may thus think of Eros as being a movement or an urge to movement. In desire two things move toward one another. Alternatively, Eros might be thought of as a force which holds together, which binds.

Eros as the metaphysical force of attraction was to have a long history in the Neo-Platonic tradition, subsequently finding expression in much Christian mysticism. Eros becomes the divine force which compelled the mystic towards union with God. The Christian via contemplativa, the contemplative path of monasticism, has much to say about Eros, if indirectly. The movement of Eros from its mythic understanding through the philososphic and theological is fascinating, a particular aspect of which has a great deal to do with what I have in mind to say today.

The erotic philosopher appears in numerous places in Plato’s Republic. Nowhere, however, is this more salient than in the famous educational allegory of the Cave. The metaphorical process enacted in the soul’s journey out of the cave offers an insightful understanding of Plato’s conception of paideia – the Greek word for what we now call education and from which derives our word “pedagogy.”

In the allegory, the soul is described as being lead from the darkness and semblance of ignorance to the illumination offered by the clear vision of true apprehension. If we remain at the level of this understanding, however, not much has been said other than what most so-called philosophers claim as their vocational right: the apprehension of truth. Nothing particularly profound has been told. Martin Heidegger, however, offers a reading that attempts to interpret the allegory in a more comprehensive manner. To him the allegory bears witness to the movement of the soul toward true knowledge. Heidegger claims that the emphasis belongs on the process by which the soul travels out of the cave, rather than simply on the culminating vision. What this means is that paideai – education – is that whereby the soul is continually led and directed towards the truth. It is not the apprehension of knowledge – and not the mere appropriation of it that constitutes the essence of education – but rather its ability to move the soul. The goal of this movement is not just knowledge but truth. And, for Plato, it is fundamentally clear that truth is in the final analysis to be equated with the Good. True knowledge is not neutral, but aims at the conversion of the soul toward an ethical life. As Heidegger states: “Real education lays hold of the soul itself and transforms it in its entirety by first of all leading us to the place of our essential being and accustoming us to it.” Since the goal is not principally the acquisition of knowledge, no finality is implied in this conception of education. It is continuous. It must be cultivated.

What is cultivated by true education is the desire for wisdom. Eros acts as the binding force between the philosopher as a person and that activity which makes the philosopher a philosopher, namely the pursuit of wisdom. And further, it is Eros – directed by education – which urges the philosopher in his or her pursuit. The philosopher – the lover of wisdom – is foremost an erotic character.

I have said that for Plato education exists as an ethical process. This implies that education is somehow communal, that it is not a phenomenon which occurs in isolation. This is also to say that it is a political phenomenon. If education towards wisdom must take place in a shared setting, it is of a fundamentally interactional and political nature. I said earlier that the word “radical” had primarily political connotations, and it is here that this becomes appropriate. Shimer is an educational community. We come together as a community around our education and we do so in a very particular manner. The form this coming-together assumes derives from the Platonic conception of ethical education and it is most definitely a political choice. We come together around the question. In this way, we are a radical community. We have made ourselves a radical community by taking dialogue as our organizing principle.

Dialogue itself is centered upon the question, but there is another aspect to which it is intrinsically connected. This is trust. Trust has also to do with the question. Trust lays the ground for the question itself. Questioning, in so far as it is genuine, requires trust in order to proceed. Without trust, the fundamental openness that questioning requires does not exist. Without trust, questioning turns into a game of purely tactical maneuver: this is the field of polemics and eristic, not dialogue. This is also the playing field on which much of the 20th century has expended its efforts. Pierre Hadot, the French philologist, quite descriptively termed the 20th century “the age of psychology, psychoanalysis, and suspicion.” In this way, too, Shimer is radical in its refusal to structure itself on something other than trust. 

There is another aspect in Plato’s writings to which I would like to draw attention. For me, it belongs closely alongside both dialogue and community, being an essential constituent of each. Dialogue as an ethical exercise requires that memory play an integral part. Keeping in mind – in memory – what one’s interlocutors say is in fact a kind of justice. It is, after all, only ethically proper to give heed to what is said during the course of the conversation. Similarly, part of being a community is creating a collective memory. For the Greeks as well, the act of memory was humanity’s participation in immortality. In remembering, the Greek community escaped what it perceived as the eternal futility of human endeavor – the human tragedy – and joined in the presence of the divine. A community, therefore, must remember.

Shimer College is wholeheartedly radical. It is also wholeheartedly erotic – surprising as it is, Shimer may in fact be one of the largest communities of Eros devotees in the nation.

Shimer is radical because it regards its roots – it takes great interest in them. Its meaning belongs in its roots. Shimer takes great care to look after the question – to cultivate the desire that gives rise to the question. It takes care to look after trust. And it takes care to look after its memory.

I can not begin to utter how I can thank Shimer for my experience – how I can thank all of you. Almost anything I can say appears trivial. It seems to me that simply saying “thank you” would never be enough. I think that extends to all this year’s graduates. To my mind, the best appreciation we can show is by paying heed to the roots of Shimer.

In this regard Heidegger seems apposite, for he says that thinking is thanking. If we carry Shimer with us, as we experienced and learned from it, and keep it as a root conversation, we will be doing well. In this way we may pay tribute to all that happened here, no matter how insignificant, monumental, joyful, or painful – and, as Heraclitus put it some two and a half millennia ago: “Arise into wakefulness and become guardians of the living and the dead.”

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