This article originally appeared in the summer 2015 Harker Quarterly.
Good morning. I would like to welcome the board of trustees, administration, faculty, staff, parents, friends and family, alumni and the true guests of honor, the graduating Class of 2015. Each year, I have the privilege of saying a few words of farewell to our graduates. Like most graduation speeches, my talk takes the form of advice, such as “Dare to Lose Your Mind” or “Be Like Curious George.” Since my talk is the only remaining formality between you and your diploma, I will continue the tradition of confining my remarks to one page of single-space, size-12 font. I will continue, however, to make no promises about the size of my margins. I am not above manipulating the spacing between my lines either.
Today I want to make you aware of a way of life that will not guarantee success, happiness and overall good hygiene. That way of life is the philosophical life. I studied philosophy at the greatest university in the world, Boston University, which, by the way, is located in Boston. You might be familiar with some other minor universities located in that area. At Boston University I chose the very practical degree of English literature with a minor in philosophy. Upon graduation I put this practicality to use by applying for my first job as a sales associate at Foot Locker in Harvard Square. During my interview, for some reason I thought it important to share with the hiring manager my true love for philosophy. I confessed that had I discovered philosophy earlier, I would have majored in it instead of only minoring. For some reason I didn’t get the job.
So my advice for you today is not from the 1982 song by Olivia Newton-John, “Let’s Get Physical,” recently re-popularized by cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester on the hit TV show “Glee”; rather, despite its inability to promise fame, glory or even Facebook likes, my advice is “Let’s get philosophical.” By “Let’s get philosophical” I mean, think deeply about the meaning of life, your purpose, the big picture, human nature and why we are all here. Don’t be afraid to ask deep questions, like “Who am I?” or “Why do Americans eat so much cereal?” Don’t just think outside the box, but ask why there is a cereal box in the first place.
Although we cannot promise any practical results from this way of life, philosophy is not without what philosophers and economists call “utility.” The Economist magazine, in its article “Philosopher Kings,” says that business leaders would do well to look inward instead of outward and that a surprising number of CEOs studied philosophy. The online magazine salon.com, in its article “Be Employable, Study Philosophy,” says in its tagline that philosophy teaches you how to think, which is useful in any type of work. Plato famously believed that philosophers, after training in both theoretical and practical matters, make the best rulers.
Besides these practical considerations, there is serious intrinsic value to studying philosophy too, as it will deepen your life or any pursuit you have. Philosophy can make it more difficult for you to be fooled, because you will recognize the roots of any so-called new trend or idea. Consider the ancient Greek slave and stoic philosopher Epictetus’ aphorism about the power of thought: “Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things.” Epictetus saw this centuries before the more recent trends of positive psychology. Philosophy can also give you perspective. Here is the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, a real-life philosopher king: “Consider both how quickly all things that are, are forgotten, and what an immense chaos of eternity was before, and will follow after all things.” Now perhaps I am morbid, but I find that sentiment extremely uplifting!
A caveat, however, for your pursuit of philosophy: Don’t expect any satisfactory answers. The beauty of philosophy is in asking the questions, not finding the answers. The great Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti dedicated his life’s work to the notion that “Truth is a pathless land.” Similarly the Buddha, the most psychological and philosophical of all the religious thinkers, advised his students to “Place no head above your own,” meaning to trust your raw experience over any doctrine.
Another caveat: Don’t take your own thought too seriously. In Douglas Adams’ modern classic “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” a supercomputer named “Deep Thought” takes seven and a half million years to calculate “The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything.” The supercomputer eventually spits out the answer everyone is waiting for, and that answer, according to Deep Thought, is the number 42. Even though this answer sent generations of numerologists on a hunt to understand why 42 is central to the universe, Douglas Adams himself said he just randomly chose an ordinary number. The 20th century philosopher Alan Watts reminds us that, “Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun.”
To conclude, have fun with philosophy and life. Think deeply but do not take yourself or your thought too seriously. Philosophy means the love of wisdom. At the end of the day, philosophy is not really limited to an academic subject – the love of wisdom is the love of life itself. If you “get philosophical,” you will not only begin to know yourself, but you will also begin to know life and all of the beauty and depth that you and the world hold. Thank you.