In 2005, David Foster Wallace delivered what some call “the greatest commencement speech of all time.”
Leaving the hyperbole aside, it’s still a damn good speech. It’s both a spirited defence of an education in the liberal arts, and a good example of “philosophical therapy.” (For more on that, try ‘How Socrates could save your life.’)
I read the speech several years ago, and many times since — especially when I’m stuck in traffic — it comes to mind. The fact that Wallace succumbed to a twenty year battle with depression and killed himself in 2008 only adds to its poignancy.
If the speech had to be summed up, Socrates’ famous aphorism comes to mind: “An unexamined life is not worth living.”
Or perhaps something from Simone Weil on attention: “The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing. It is almost a miracle. It is a miracle.”
Earlier this month, a short film adaption of Wallace’s speech was published online, and its already attracted views in the millions. It’s well worth watching, even if you’ve read the speech already.
One small complaint though. Twice, Wallace denies that he is moralising or preaching, and fair enough. Who wants to be accused of that? (Says the guy who has made preaching his life.)
He goes too far though, in his claim that “none of this stuff is really about morality.” Actually, that’s precisely what this is about. Morality is about choosing the good.
But never mind. That’s a small complaint in the scheme of things. Make time to watch this. It can counteract some of the time-wasting rot you watch on YouTube. (Poor old Teddy. I hope he gets well soon.)
Every now and then, a good review comes along which not only compels me to buy the book under review (getting around to reading it is a separate proposition), but which also stands out as a good essay in and of itself.
Sam Rocha’s review of Quiet, by Susan Cain, is an example of this. Quiet presents Cain’s case that contemporary culture undervalues silence, and misunderstands introverts. It’s an interesting idea, but without Rocha’s review, I don’t think I’d commit to reading a whole book on the subject.
But Rocha’s review opens up two related subjects – one explicitly, and the other implicitly.
As a lecturer in philosophy and pedagogy, Rocha has long wondered what, exactly, classroom participation entails. He always includes a note on classroom participation in his course readers. It reads in part:
I have no uniform expectation for participation. Honestly, I don’t really know what this thing called “participation” is exactly. What I do know is this: classroom participation is a mixed bag: better and worse, direct and indirect, this and that and the other thing and that thing over there. The most obvious way to participate is to come to class, and come prepared . . . Beyond attendance and preparation, I would actually prefer that you participate well in indirect ways rather than feel the need to participate poorly in more direct ways. In other words: speaking is not necessarily required for participation. There is space to be an introvert or a contemplative here. Shy and bashful people are welcome here.
Reading Cain’s book has caused Rocha to expand his thinking on this subject. I imagine Quiet could contribute in a similar way to the consideration of liturgy.
The Second Vatican Council famously called for more “active participation” of the lay faithful in the liturgy. It will be interesting to read Cain’s book and see how the cultural assumptions she critiqutes may have informed the post-conciliar liturgical reform, and how her thesis might lend itself to the present ‘reform of the reform.’
I would like also to consider how Cain’s ideas interact with Simone Weil’s thoughts on attention. Weil conceived of attention as a gateway to God. Attention, or attentiveness, is the necessary means not only to philosophical truth, but also to goodness and beauty. She writes particularly of attention to flesh and blood individuals – attention to abstract ideas, she suggests, belongs to the realm of ideology, and ironically blinds us to the truth of each person.
Attention as Weil conceived it features prominently in the Gospel. The Good Samaritan is attentive. (Lk 10:33) So too the watchful servant (Lk 12:36), and the wise virgins with their well-stocked oil lamps. (Mt 25:4) And of course, the mother of Jesus, who treasured our Lord’s sayings, and pondered them in her heart. (Lk 2:19)
Attention, Weil concludes, is the basis of prayer. It is also the basis of love of neighbour. It is not so much an act of the will, but a desire, though it demands effort – “the greatest of efforts perhaps” – and presupposes grace. In short, attention is a form of supernatural love.
I’m interested to see how this idea of attention fits into Cain’s assessment of introversion. Until then, I think I’ll suspend judgement on Rocha’s startling suggestion: “God is an introvert.”
During my honours year in philosophy, one of my professors — I don’t remember who — proposed that a philosopher’s life might be a measure by which we can judge their philosophy.
Immanuel Kant, he suggested, built an intellectual mansion of epistemological and metaphysical thought. But Kant himself lived in an adjacent garden shed. His life didn’t really bear out his startling claims and conclusions.
Perhaps Friedrich Nietzsche lived a life which was more faithful to his nihilistic philosophy. But that hardly vindicates his philosophy. Ten years before he died, Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown from which he never recovered.
These were the examples my professor used. He was musing out loud, not presenting a coherent thesis, but I think there’s something in it. This criterion at least reveals the moral seriousness of a thinker, which is a good recommendation on how seriously anyone else should take him or her.
By then, I had already started work on my honours thesis, which was focussed on the writings of Simone Weil. She passed the proposed measure with flying colours. Her life and thought resonate admirably.
Simone Weil is not a household name, but she is highly esteemed in wide and disparate circles: among socialists for example, and anarchists; existentialists and analytical philosophers; secular humanists and Catholic theologians.
She has “popped up” several times in the last week. I have been listening to the CD version of Thomas Woods’ How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization while driving. The audio and print volumes both conclude with a quote from Simone Weil:
I am not a Catholic, but I consider the Christian idea, which has its roots in Greek thought and in the course of the centuries has nourished all of our European civilization, as something that one cannot renounce without becoming degraded.
Sandro Magister’s article on the Cassock in Deep Marseille, which I linked to last week, mentions that one of Fr Michel-Marie’s childhood influences was Fr Joseph-Marie Perrin OP, spiritual director to Simone Weil.
And on Facebook, an old friend posted the trailer of a new film focused on Simone Weil’s life and thought:
It’s prohibitively expensive right now, but as soon as the DVD is available for private viewing, I’ll buy it!