Commencement Address by Dr. Remy Debes (CAS ’97), May 17, 2009
Commencement Address delivered by Dr. Remy Debes (CAS ’97)
Law School Auditorium, Boston University, May 17, 2009
I must begin by apologizing, in advance, for not heaping praise on you. For better or worse, I have never been able to figure out how to rest on my laurels. Perhaps it is because, to me, it just sounds obviously uncomfortable. But I hope having said that, you will understand why I exclaim now, as a prologue rather than an epilogue, Congratulations!
Congratulations on this wonderful achievement, for which you have no doubt worked hard, and about which you should indeed be quite proud.
What comes next?
I imagine some of you have already marked out a path. Law, medicine, graduate study (or in a few cases, more graduate study) – and in doing so you have probably eased your parents’ or guardians’ fears about the possibility of an aimless – or at least, jobless existence.
Of course, that leaves the rest of you, and the nervous family sitting beside you. And I sympathize. When I was in your place, at the last minute I decided against medical school in favor of an uncertain future in philosophy. Granted, my own parents were oddly relieved – being as they were, and remain, tie-dyed in the wool hippies. To them, “medicine” sounded suspiciously like “establishment”. My girlfriend’s parents – on the other hand – were an entirely different story. They were both practicing doctors and – though they now deny it – they formally sat me down in an attempt to convince me to reconsider medicine. But that’s ok. They were simply worried about their daughter. We were a serious couple and to them “philosophy” sounded suspiciously like “destitute.” And in retrospect, it probably didn’t help that my alternative plan, to which I had co-opted their precious child, was to move to Las Vegas. I’m not kidding – that’s where we went. Moreover, to be fair, I suppose they had one thing right because we were serious: I did marry their daughter.
So as I said – I sympathize with those of you who have less than a clear vision of your future…And I sympathize with your nervous parents. Besides, for that “other” group – you know, those of you who have a definite plan – some further degree or some job already lined up…it probably won’t last anyway. Statistically speaking, anyway, people between the ages of 18-38 change jobs an average of ten times.
Now, granted, with your newly certified analytical skills, you might say a “job” isn’t equivalent to a “career.” But the truth is most of you, before you turn 40, will also change careers – and not just once, but multiple times. Moreover, let’s face it: one must first have a career in order to change it. And in this economy…well, let’s just say that right now the idea of a “career plan” if fast becoming an oxymoron. I’m sorry – but that is the elephant in the room.
But now– you might expect me to say: ‘Twas all for naught! I made it! I am a philosopher! More to the point: I am a paid philosopher. So don’t worry: you can make it too!
But that would be ugly cliché and misleading, and misleading not only because of the contrast it strikes with what I’ve said so far.
I am a philosopher – that is true. And being a philosopher has everything to do with my successes in life. But my being a philosopher, and the successes of my life, have little to do with my being a professor of philosopher, and much to do with the time I walked the hallways of this university, and even more to do with the moments of my life outside of classrooms and libraries.
Let me take you back to Las Vegas and my first career. As you might imagine, there wasn’t much philosophical work available in the desert. And not being keen on working in a casino, I did what any self-respecting college graduate would do: I went to a temp agency.
Like the idiomatic beggar, I took what they gave me – a job stuffing marketing envelopes for a small enterprising business. Let that be an immediate lesson – especially for the parents here. If your child takes what seems less than a respectable job out of the gate, try not to panic. And although you will surely think it – please, please don’t remind your child about the small – oh, sorry, this is BU – the large fortune you just spent on his or her education. In fact, here’s when that seemingly cruel statistic about changing careers can turn into a kindness: Should it be your child who ends up stuffing envelopes, let your therapy mantra be “10 times!”
Anyway, there I am stuffing envelopes. After about 100 of them, I stopped to read what I was stuffing. Oh, the horror! It was a grammatical and rhetorical mess. Having had my head stuck in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and Plato’s Protagoras during the final months of my senior year, that marketing brochure read like an insult to language itself.
So, I edited it – viciously. Then I walked into the hallway, stopped the first person I saw in a suit, handed over my corrected version and said that while it was no business of mine, I wouldn’t want to send this material out to anyone who knew me. That person happened be the president of the company and he immediately gave me a permanent position in the marketing department.
Well, it turns out that I’m not an ingenious marketer. But, what I did possess, like any philosopher worth his or her salt, was a knack for argument, which skill it turns out comes in pretty handy when trying to negotiate contracts – in this case advertising contracts. Moreover, the sort of out-of-the box thinking that philosophy forces you into together with the ability to articulate my thoughts quickly and succinctly, are evidently two magical ingredients to good management.
So one thing led to the next and in about a year and a half I found myself not just in the marketing department but directing it: I had become one of the top executives in the company, and, frankly, earning a lot of money – in fact, nearly three times what I make now as a professor. It was ridiculous. And philosophy helped get me there.
And as it would turn out, philosophy would help get me out too.
I don’t know when it happened – it was probably a slow descent – but I was corrupted. Corrupted by money and power: the oldest recipe of vice. I became arrogant, mean, callous, and vain – acting as if these material prizes made me – the person – entitled to special respect and treatment. Then one night my girlfriend (we weren’t yet married – I can’t imagine why she was hesitating?!), my brother, and my sister-in-law, staged a kind of intervention. They put it to me straight: I was a jerk – or maybe they said I was an ass – I can’t remember the semantics. And in a truth, those semantics were all wrong anyway. For what I realized in a thunderbolt was that the reality was far worse.
I wasn’t headed down the path of the jerk, but the villain. That may sound dramatic to the modern ear – but sometimes I think that we could all use with a bit of drama in our moral reasoning. It forces a peculiar kind of penetrating honesty to ask of ourselves am I good or evil? Am I a man or woman of virtue or vice? Am I noble or base, hero or villain? Outmoded talk, to be sure: but also awesome, inspiring, humbling, and resounding.
In any event, such thoughts are what burst into my mind in an instant, as if all my Plato and Aristotle and Hume and Kant were rushing back into my consciousness at once: I was on the path of evil. I had become vicious in the literal sense of a man of vice. And I was ashamed.
But one virtue seemed still within my reach: courage. Indeed, it is arguably the most important virtue – for when you find that you are not just one step down the wrong path in life but well round the bend, it is your best hope for finding your way back. You only need the courage to admit that you have lost your way.
Thus, I am forever grateful to that intervention by my loved ones. But in the end, the intervention was only the catalyst. Philosophy is what really saved me.
Plus, once I righted myself, the possibility of marriage was back on the table.
This October I will celebrate my 10th anniversary to the woman I met in my first days, of my first year here at Boston University. And take it from me – a successful marriage has everything to do with philosophy. Granted, marriage doesn’t have much to do with the question of whether the material world exits…although I do think that my wife’s not existing would introduce a unique obstacle to our marriage. And I would also be remiss not to admit that, prior to my decision to pursue the Ph.D., my wife said she would support me on the condition that I was not – in her words – “to use my philosophy when we argue.” Still, much philosophy deserves credit in my marriage: learning about how to think constructively and progressively and not dogmatically – learning how to reflect objectively but sympathetically – to take another’s perspective – learning to not just love but to think about being worthy of love – learning to respect principles agreed upon – and perhaps most important: learning to admit error. These are lessons inherent in philosophy and invaluable to a lasting relationship.
My tale could go on, for I have faced other tragedies and enjoyed other triumphs. The sudden loss of my greatest childhood friend. The birth of my daughter. Personal honors denied. Personal honors unexpectedly received.
But I think the point is clear. Something deeply important about what you have done here at Boston University – something about this particular path of philosophy that you chose – will provide you gifts in your life that as yet you can scarcely imagine and need not try.
And those gifts will not just be in the form of tools for achieving success, but for solving the more important challenge of figuring out what those successes mean to you: what to do when you fail to obtain them, how to deal with them when you do get them, and, from time to time, even how to give them up, or back, or forgo them in the first place.
So, what do I think your graduation means?
In some respects, it means nothing. What you hope to do and plan to do in your life from this point forward will almost surely diverge from what you will do. In particular, this degree has little predictive power for what career – or more likely, careers – you will end up in.
But in other respects, your graduation means everything. For it is the outward realization of your philosophical nature. You are a philosopher – and so will you always be. No career change – not even ten of them – can change this fact about you.
And when the trials of your life come along, and come they will, I think that you will find that your time here at Boston University has prepared you very well for what matters most. Not the bulls and bears of the pocketbook – but those of the heart and mind. The real dream makers and breakers. That is what you have been prepared for.
You are a philosopher, and so will you always be.