Commencement Address by Mr. Jared Miller (CAS ’05), May 22, 2005
Commencement Address delivered by Mr. Jared Miller (CAS ’05)
School of Management Auditorium, Boston University, May 22, 2005
For the past four years I have pursued studies in History and Philosophy. Both disciplines were born together. The same city in which Thucydides, the great historian of the Peloponnesian War, was born was also the home of a man named Socrates. It was in the city-states of ancient Greece, in particular in democratic Athens, that there arose for the first time a curiosity about others; an openness to considering different cultures and past societies that resists the prejudice that our view of the world is the only meaningful one while all the others are necessarily bizarre, inferior, perverse, or evil. As Hannah Arendt once said, “Impartiality enters the world with Homer.” Philosophical questions about the meaning of Goodness, Truth, Justice, and Beauty first appeared in the same society that took seriously the historical questions “how did we get here?” and “why are we who we are?” This is no coincidence. History and philosophy are different forms of a single interest in the critical examination of one’s own institutions. They both represent an urge to question and confront the truths and values that order our lives. For those communities that lack this openness, there is no history and certainly no philosophy; there is only the undisputed reign of tradition, or simply the ‘recording of events’ by chroniclers of the powerful. History consistently teaches us that things have been, and hence could be, different from what they are now, that humans have lived in other ways, according to other laws and other norms, that the present world is not the only possible world. Likewise, philosophy presupposes that truth is not always what it first appears to be, that all claims about it ought to be open to reflection, and that authority does not automatically equal validity. The study of history and the enterprise of philosophy thus share a distinctly critical interest, an interest that demands a society open to the interrogation of its own principles. For defenders of the status quo, these disciplines have always possessed a deeply subversive potential.
Questions of this sort have a particular relevance today. Today’s graduates were not even ten years old when the Berlin Wall fell and the world changed. And yet, our journey to adulthood took place at a time when our leaders never ceased to comfort us with the promise that despite the evidence of history there was no alternative to the status quo. In the face of persisting miseries, inequalities, and injustices, they continued to assure us that we lived in the ‘best of all possible worlds.’ We stood, we were told, at the end of history. It is not surprising, then, that our reaction to the tragic events of September 11th was largely one of disbelief. Over the past four years, we have witnessed the division of the world anew into allies and enemies all according to the tale of an epic struggle between Good and Evil. So powerful is the story that anyone who questions it is instantly placed on the side of the evildoers. This polarizing view of the world undermines the possibilities for the critical examination of our own society at the very moment when historically and philosophically informed dissent is most desperately needed.
Similar challenges faced the founders of our disciplines. Thucydides wrote his history in the midst of a disastrous war that Athens had, in large part, provoked. His was an attempt to understand where the city had gone astray. Socrates devoted his life to questioning the moral smugness of Athenians who thought they knew what was good and what was evil, but had no way of justifying their convictions. Thucydides was sentenced to exile, Socrates to death. The fate of each is a testament to the danger history and philosophy pose to the established order. As heirs to their tradition, we can not help but measure our actions by their example. It is only by remaining open to critical reflection that we can challenge fixed truths with the possibilities for change.