Commencement Address by Mr. Brad Berman (CAS ’04), May 16, 2004

Commencement Address delivered by Mr. Brad Berman (CAS ’04)
School of Management Auditorium, Boston University, May 16, 2004

Ladies and gentlemen, members of the faculty, family, friends, and guests:
In the weeks prior to graduation, it’s been a tradition of the philosophy department to select one exceptionally gifted and accomplished student to offer the commencement speech. Having successfully rigged the votes, it is with great pleasure that I take that student’s place. Clearly, the faculty has made a terrible mistake. Word on the street is that even the art history professors were holding out for double what I got away with, but so it goes.

I thought I might begin in the way customary to those of us of meager literary ability: that is, with a quote. This is the first trick people in my position use to convince others that we’re erudite and have some authority on a given topic. The second is to use words like “erudite” when far less pretentious ones would do just as well. And the third, of course, is to distract our audience from the faults of what we have to say with painfully self-critical humor. I will unashamedly resort to all three.

In the Apology, Plato famously depicts the trial of Socrates, who has been charged with impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens. The context is worth noting because, above all, it suggests that I actually did the reading, which may help to quell any lasting resentment over the ballot tampering. Against these charges, and in defense of philosophy, Socrates asserts, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

I thought today would be an appropriate occasion to offer my own, brief defense of his claim. I have always been intellectually curious—questioning practically everything I could think of. As a kid, little was spared; religious dogmas, social customs, institutional authorities and others were all ruthlessly attacked, and usually with great arrogance and self-importance. Understandably, my parents found this trait to be really annoying.

Though, when I was first introduced to philosophy through the works of Plato, I felt immediately at home. Socrates was a man after my own nature. He once likened himself to a gadfly, stinging Athens out of its mental laziness. That is to say, Socrates, too, was a pain in the [mumbled grunts]. In any case, the questions Plato raised seemed more essential than those I had encountered elsewhere. To my delight, I found that even questions like “What is philosophy?” and “Should we care about it?” were permissible. So, I decided to major in the subject, and fortunately my parents supported me. I sincerely thank them for this because I know that, deep down, they feared an absurd amount of money had just been wasted on my becoming only more of a smart-aleck.

Yet, answers to my questions weren’t forthcoming. As my studies progressed, I found myself nearer to “Truth” only insofar as I had tentatively ruled out a few possibilities. I sunk, as it were, steadily into the dark marshes of skepticism, suffocating in the growing realization that little, if anything, was certain. To be perfectly frank, it is both an affliction and a blessing from which I haven’t entirely recovered.

In spite of this skepticism and, in part, because of it, I’ve received an absolutely fantastic education at Boston University. I am, and will long remain, profoundly indebted to both the philosophy faculty and my fellow students. With their help, I’ve had more than my fair share of inspired ideas. Freshman year, while grappling with quantum mechanics, I devised a thought experiment proving that information could, in fact, be transferred faster than the speed of light. This was a huge event, flying directly in the face of special relativity theory. I quickly emailed my plan to a renowned physicist on campus and then set to fantasizing about the fame destined to follow. Einstein? Bah! I was gonna become the Tom Cruise of academia: rich with success and dipping my pen in whatever ink I pleased.

My professor, however, thought otherwise. He sought me out after class a few days later and politely let me know that my argument was a complete and utter failure. Just awful really. And even worse, for reasons I didn’t altogether understand. So, much to my disappointment, no fame was to follow. I remained a poor, college student with neither a Nicole nor a Penelope to attend to my ivory tower.

Sophomore year, pretensions unperturbed, I was again visited by the stroke of genius. While casually reading through a book on the pre-Socratics, I developed a radical rethinking of Anaximander’s fragments. At about the same time, no less, I also began to draft up the underpinnings of an important contribution to modal logic. Anticipating European conference tours and a devoted band of lecture groupies, my ego swelled to unprecedented proportions. As it turned out though, I had spent my time dreaming of fame and fortune more than actually working for them; and so again, each of my “accomplishments” met a ruinous fate.

Junior year, I fell into a bit of an intellectual rut. I thought a change of place might bode well and decided to spend a semester abroad in New Zealand. With the help of six months of liberal drinking and a few indigenous plants, I reached whole new planes of wisdom. It was truly astonishing. The University of Auckland is a place where the best-funded student group is the drinking club and where chugging competitions are regularly held in the quad—at 10am on Wednesdays. Professors would cancel lectures when they were too hung-over to teach, and students would do their bests to help make that happen. Surprisingly, I managed to learn an incredible amount about other cultures, my own culture, and myself in this environment. But, needless to say, I had few delusions of having made any significant philosophical breakthroughs at the time.

Come this past year, and with these repeated academic failures in mind, I decided to take a course better suited to my track record. Enter Professor Griswold’s seminar on reconciliation with imperfection. Here was my chance to philosophically analyze my condition and perhaps even come to terms with it. Well, never have I so acutely understood what Socrates meant by knowledge of ignorance. I’m now aware of not one, but six distinct types of perfection and four ways in which I have yet to reconcile myself to a lack of it.

As philosophers, we are commonly thought to ask unanswerable questions, wasting our time on futile pursuits. A short study of the history of philosophy might seem to bolster the charge; although often in novel manners, contemporary philosophy is largely addressing the questions of the ancients. In light of their supposed unanswerability, it’s no wonder that perfection so routinely eludes our investigations. Why, then, do we bother? Fast cars, private jets, trophy spouses: sure, the perks are nice, but what’s our real motivation?

We “bother” because the world we live in is not something that we are forced to passively accept. On the contrary: all of our thoughts, our choices, and our actions are pregnant with philosophical consequence. They make sense only in relation to an understanding of what it means to be. And that understanding is conceived, not received. In everything we do, whether knowingly or unknowingly, but without exception, we actively assert values or make judgments about the way things are and what’s possible. Through this valuing and judging, we establish the world as much as react to it. Thus, in a very real sense, we are forever creating the world and ourselves.

In living life, we define it—we give it a meaning. We are free to reinterpret the past, invent the present, and frame the future. Yet, with this freedom comes an attendant and equal sense of responsibility. We can, it is true, elect the path of naiveté, recklessly and unwittingly determining what it means to be. But life as such, unexamined, couldn’t really be worth living, since its very worth would be concealed and deformed. We can, however, instead elect the path of philosophical responsibility, rigorously examining our lives and consciously shaping our horizons.

My wish for all of you is to have the continued courage to make the latter choice, trusting that your diligence will pay off. After four years of my own hard work, I am proud to relate that, come August, I have a seven-figure salary to look forward to, and not just in my dreams—that’s right, seven. It’s payable in Japanese yen, but I’m optimistic.

Class of 2004: thank you and congratulations!