Commencement Address by Dr. Leroy Rouner, May 18, 2003

Commencement Address delivered by Dr. Leroy Rouner
School of Management Auditorium, Boston University, May 18, 2003


This is a wonderful moment, because this is the last speech of the day… almost. But, as Henry the 8th said to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, “I won’t keep you long.”

So you’re educated. Good for you.

Do you remember the interchange at the beginning of the Protagoras when the young Hippocrates comes to Socrates and says he wants to study with Protagoras, and Socrates, as usual, replies with a question? He doesn’t ask whether this will help get him into Law School, or make a six figure salary. He asks, “What will he make of you?”

So, I ask you: What have we made of you? Who have you become? What do you want now? What do you take with you from this time in your life?

Let me guess. Ambition is certainly one thing. When I graduated from Harvard College in 1953 we were all ambitious – the liberals among us wanted a good looking wife, a summer home in New Hampshire, a Volvo station wagon, 2 and 1/2 kids, and a job with the World Health Organization or L.L. Bean. The conservatives wanted a very good looking wife, a large summer home in Maine as well as a condo in Florida; a Mercedes; 1 and 1/2 kids, and a seat on the New York stock exchange or the Republican National Committee.

We wanted to be a success. I think I really wanted to be President of the World. And what did we think success was going to do for us? I think we thought it was going to make us happy. In either secular or religious tens I think we thought it was going to save our souls. But you know, I gave a talk at our 40th reunion – that’s four zero, not one four – and the one thing I said on that occasion that everyone seemed to agree with, was this:

“In our desire for success we are all disappointed, some of us are disappointed because we didn’t achieve what we had hoped for 40 years ago. The rest of us are disappointed because we achieve what we had hoped for, only to discover that it didn’t do for us what we thought it was going to do.” In itself, it didn’t make us happy; in itself, it didn’t save our souls. So if what you take from this place is only ambition, you will have missed something more important.

What I hope you take with you is courage. Socratic courage. Not bravado, not simple gutsiness, but what Paul Tillich called “the courage to be,” the kind of integrity and inner coherence which Charles Griswold spoke of once in a lecture on the real meaning of happiness. This is the courage of one who knows himself or herself, who trusts that there is a certain rightness of things in the universe, and who is willing to stand and deliver according to her or his beliefs in how that rightness is played out in the critical issues of the day.

I commend this kind of courage to you because, in the tradition of Socrates, one of the things we have tried to make of you is good citizens.

Ours is a time of increasing civic distress. The American inner city has become a war zone. In the summer of 1951 I worked with a street gang in East Harlem in New York. There was one knife fight, and one kid died from a heroin overdose, but it was mostly like Bernstein’s West Side Story without the music. Those kids didn’t have guns, and they weren’t killing each other over a pair of Reeboks, or a gold chain, or because one 13 year old kid gave another a funny look that “dissed” him, so he killed him. The popular explanation for the recent explosion of violence is economic. We are told that the new phenomenon of “unmotivated murder” comes from the despair of the jobless. But Robert Samuelson, in an op-ed piece in the Boston Globe a couple of years ago entitled, “It’s not the economy, stupid” charted the economy of America’s inner cities and showed that what had been a bad situation in 1951 was now actually a little less bad than it had been then. My kids couldn’t afford gold chains and Reeboks. So you can’t blame the violence on the economy.

What we suffer from is a cultural crisis. As pluralism becomes more influential, relativism becomes more popular, and subjectivism increasingly becomes the order of the day, because your own inwardness is the only authority left. We hobble through our minefield of moral dilemmas with a few limp and thoughtless generalizations like “It’s OK, just so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else,” or we make passionate proclamations which have wide popular support, but are often not clearly thought through. Yeats had already characterized ours as a time in which “the best lack all conviction, and the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Subjectivism leads inevitably to an emphasis on individual rights, and that takes us back to Hobbes’ Leviathan and the clash between meum and tuum what I take to be my rights, and what you take to be yours. It also leads to the 13 year old, looking out for No.1, who shoots the kid who “dissed” him.

So we face a confusion of values, a loss of civility, an inability even to have a rational public discourse about what our problems are. We don’t have a national dialogue on the abortion issue, for example, we only have people screaming at each other about the right to life on the one hand, and the right of a woman to control her own body on the other, and occasionally killing those who disagree. Neither side has articulated a clear idea of what their “right” might mean. Both assume their right to be absolute, but it is not clear to many whether anyone has an absolute right to anything. There is no public philosophy in America anymore because we are unable to have a rational, coherent argument with one another about the great issues of the day. We don’t dialogue, we have protest movements. And without a recovery of that discourse, the fabric of American society is going to unravel, because we are no longer held together by those common values, and that common sense of pride in being an American which was the great gift of America’s earlier years.

It was that “common cake of custom” as the anthropologists call it, that made the American experiment in a pluralistic democracy possible. We could have a unified nation, in spite of racial, ethnic and religious differences because to some degree or other America was our common vision and our common hope. Perry Miller has argued that the history of American literature is a long running explanation of the question: “What does it mean to be an American?” We’ve never been quite sure, except that it had to do with freedom, and some vague sense that we had been blessed by some transcendent power. But we knew it was important. And it was a vague yet visceral commitment to this vision of ourselves, this American dream, which held us together. But the message from the increasing violence in our cities is that that common cake of custom is rapidly crumbling.

So what to do?

Just spending more money isn’t going to work. Just proclaiming some social dog-ma like “family values” isn’t going to work either, because it is only a complaint against “those other people” and has no power to effect change.

The only way to reconstruct a common ground is to engage in common conversation. What we need are people who are willing, able, and well trained in the conversational art of defending a rational point of view with a good argument- America needs a public philosophy. America needs public philosophers. America needs you.

Remember what we asked you to do. I’m talking course requirements for philosophy majors.

You had to do a 100 level Introduction so you had some idea what philosophy was all about. Then you had to do ancient and modern western philosophy so you knew the tradition you were a part of. And then you had to do two other courses. One was ethics, the other was logic.

The point of the ethics course was to show you how great figures in Western philosophy had shaped a point of view about morality and the good life, as a way of helping you do the same. The point of the logic course was to teach you how to argue well in defending your point of view. The catalog copy for PH 107 reads: “A systematic study of the principles of both deductive and informal reasoning, with an emphasis on reasoning and argumentation in ordinary discourse.” One of the basic things you learned was to distinguish between a good argument and a statement of opinion. You learned how to make a case for something, which is, incidentally, why philosophy is such good preparation for Law school, because that’s all those guys do. And we taught you this so that when some idiot stands up in a PTA meeting and wants to ban all the books in the curriculum which don’t reflect his point of view, you can counter – not by calling him an idiot – but by a rational argument, civilly presented, persuading your peers that this is not a good idea.

You don’t have to run for public office; just go to candidate’s nights, and express your views. And when you are upset about what’s happening in the world, write a letter to the editors of your local newspaper, and so forth. Help us restore rationality and civility. Help us create a public philosophy. You are peculiarly well equipped for the great task of contemporary American citizenship, the task of conversation.

But it is a violent time, and people who want to make a difference in their world by speaking up and entering into conversation on the great issues of the day are often subject to violence. Plato’s Myth of the Cave warns that enlightened people attract antagonism. Which is why I said to take courage with you; the courage of a principled stand in the midst of an evil day; the “courage to be” the kind of person you are meant to be. Courage, in itself, won’t quite save your soul, or make you entirely happy, but it will do a lot more for you than success. It will bring you very close to your real heart’s desire, which is to have lived a life worthy of your calling as a rational and caring human being.

Remember Socrates and his passion for the renewal of the life of the Polis in Athens. He was at least right in insisting that you can’t re-create a “common cake of custom” until you know what you are talking about.

You now know what you are talking about. So go talk.