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.)