Below, the lecture I delivered to my high school sophomores in our last class of the year at the French-American School of NY. I tie the fundamental problems explored in our Western Civ curriculum – half history of Western philosophy, half classic literature – to the analogous problems facing this next generation. —Tom Faure
YOU’VE COME A LONG way this year. You’ve encountered bronze-kneed Greeks (Iliad), old and midnight hags (Macbeth), and white bitches from Bronxville (“Virgins”). You’ve met impetuous gods, impetuous angels, impetuous humans. Tragic humans—many tragic humans. Remember Camus’ words: humans are tragic because they are conscious. We’ve journeyed the stormy waters of the history of Western Civilization, noting with irony that history is written by the victors. History is written by the victors—and all too often these victors have been white men. White men who embody primitive instincts like strength and courage. Cruel men. White men too, though, who possess a relative wisdom.
I use this term “relative wisdom” to assure you of a very important fact of human nature: our virtues and our vices are limited, relative. They are relative to our technology, our social conventions, the knowledge and morals of our time. Our paradigms. More on this later.
So yes, the victors have been white men—not white bitches from Bronxville. But, though we have used the dead white men as the spine of our yearlong conversation about human nature and human nurturing, I hope you have seen how frequently the discussion has turned our attention to the non-dead, the non-white, the non-men. What I’m getting at is that notion we have treated both seriously and laughingly this year: privilege. And those who are underprivileged. Privilege—as I have defined it in my own words: access to capital (economic, political, cultural)—privilege is at the center of today’s paradigm about global capitalism. But you might have a different definition for it. It is not a new notion. As we have analyzed this year, the same concepts keep returning wearing new robes—new names. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are like Frank and Claire Underwood. The Iliad explores the psychological experience of war as do “Redeployment” and “The Point.” The Flood of “Gilgamesh” and the Flood of Oryx and Crake. God of the Bible and Satan of Paradise Lost. Everywhere a search for knowledge, for understanding why we were made. Fallen heroes everywhere. The brashly democratic rogues at FIFA are like Agamemnon and, well, like Vladimir Putin. And like Obama and our American democracy. Oh well. The analogies are everywhere. History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. That’s not my line—it’s attributed to Mark Twain, but apparently it wasn’t his line either. History in a nutshell, there. History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. The myths of the epic hero are echoed by the myths of the religious fanatic, are echoed by the myths of the American Dream, are echoed by the myths of the dorm room hacker-ingénue. The morality, logistics, and existential threat of Artificial Intelligence and high-frequency trading are analogues to the morality, logistics, and existential threat of any of the supernatural forces we’ve read about this year—gods, God, witchcraft, the uncanny, the unknowable tricks of nature and fate.
Privilege, it seems, is one of the various threads we could sew through Oryx and Crake, through Gilgamesh, into the Greek Philosophers, around the Saints and the Dantes, up and under Shakespeare, Milton, and the Renaissance, through the existentialists and the contemporary short story writers. Privilege—knowledge, strength, moral righteousness. Access. Our texts invite basic questions: what do we want our leaders to be like? Do we want our leaders to be like us, or better than us? Like gods? What about our gods? Our idols? Do we want our heroes to be made in our image or to transcend it—to whisper of possibilities, to suggest there is more out there? These are some of the questions you will continually return to as you search the world and search within yourselves for a sense of what exactly the hell is going on. Other questions we have asked this year and you will continue to ask—because history does not repeat, but it rhymes: what is the universe? Who are we? How can humans co-exist? Why do we have morality—is it in our nature, as some studies suggest (but have failed to prove), or does it stem from religion, mythology, and other collective responses to what was deemed necessity? A sad truth about most influential people today is that they accept the Hobbesian view that man is biologically bad and so created society to hold this bad nature in check. But a number of the philosophers and writers you studied this year, including the Cynics, Locke, and Rousseau, argue compellingly that man is naturally good—that society is not inherently a regulatory mechanism designed to keep man from his baser nature, but is rather a harmful set of restrictions designed by those in power in order to maintain control. The politicians and scientists who dominate mainstream intellectual discourse do not recognize this. They are a product of Western capitalism, which has a tendency to try to placate the dissenter with the odd reflection: “if it is so, it must be so for a good reason.” Please do not forget the Rousseauian perspective.
Today I want to turn your focus, as I have often done in our classes together, onto you. What will become of you? “The world is your oyster.” That’s an expression suggesting you have limitless potential. The world is within your reach! The world is your oyster. Unfortunately, the oyster has been sitting in the sun a little too long. (That’s a global warming joke.)
The reason I want to bore into you this concept of relative wisdom is because, as I allude to with the oyster gone bad, your generation faces a terrible time. And we have more ways than ever before to learn about how terrible that time is. This global awareness and interconnectedness can trick us into thinking that if we just think BIG enough, we can solve the big problems. It’s very tempting. But I think that, if you think too big, you might despair. You might fall into the black hole Kurt described in “The Point.” So think about RELATIVE success. Because you happen to have been born at a particular time when there is more information available than ever before about how underprivileged most people are. Our world is incoherent: the 1% own 40% of the wealth. Public schools are becoming ghettos for children of the poor. Indeed, the proliferation of private schools in the 20th century is due in no small part to the efforts by Civil Rights Movement reformers to desegregate public schools. White folks—in other words, the people in power—realized the government was going to try to create equal opportunities, so they expanded the small business of elite private schooling and turned it into the de facto segregating mechanism we have today. I’ll make it simple for you: the globe produces enough food for at least, by conservative measures, 9 billion people. There are 7 billion people on the planet. 2 billion people are going hungry. 2 billion people’s worth of extra food. 2 billion people starving. That’s some incoherent math for you.
And yet millions of poor people in the world actually describe themselves in happier terms than the rich do. Yes. It may be a question of ignorance—i.e.: they don’t know better. What do you think? Are they just ignorant? Perhaps they have relative wisdom. They have a moral life as rich as a wealthy Westerner’s, if not more so, yet they do not suffer the angst of the complacent consumer suffering an embarrassment of riches. The sense is that the unhappiest people are those who are physically suffering (which is a significant number of people) and those who, wading through a muck of decadence, have never learned how to actually fight for happiness.
You face a global capitalist economy and a system of geo-political boundaries whose only impartial (nominally impartial—in reality, I don’t know) oversight comes from a weak, castrated United Nations. Socialism is a dirty word for fascism in some parts, democracy is a dirty word for American imperialism in others. We as a country are wealthier than ever and lonelier than ever. Easy consumption and communication further isolate us. Our solution to isolation is to increase our isolation by interacting with digital versions of ourselves, digital and therefore boxed in by the logics of computation. We begin to define ourselves in response to our performances online—our social network avatars take precedence over the spontaneous, creative, freeing capacities that humans possess and computers don’t. You operate in a digitized social network that feeds valuable information to the technocrats of the future. Google, Facebook, and the NSA are compiling enough data to write the next Matrix. Are we still here, or have we finally plugged in too long? The Matrix might be disguised as the next Bible or the Q’ran. Are we the old man who dreamed he was a butterfly? Or are we the butterfly who dreamed of being an old man? I will tell you one thing: I’d rather be a butterfly than a computer algorithm.
Let’s think about our classic texts. On the one hand, technology could have really helped Oedipus out! Imagine if he could have Googled his genetic heritage! Or if he had Twitter! @Oedipus: “Feeling confused. Bad things keep happening around me.” @BlindProphet@Oedipus: “You accidentally killed your Pops. Try not to sleep with your moms now #self-fulfillingprophecy” @Oedipus@BlindProphet: “I see you. (See you. Get it?) Thanks for the heads up. My bad about King Laius.” We might have been robbed of some quality dramatic irony. But more seriously, imagine technology in the hands of Agamemnon. Think of the war shouts he could have delivered if he had data on behavioral trends, your search engine history, your deepest secrets texted to your friend when you thought no one was looking. He would of course exploit that and inspire you and you wouldn’t even know it. Every omen would be a good omen! (Remember his humorous diatribe against Nestor, the seer: “You never give me a good omen!”) Every omen would be good, and it would be evil. You would die for his ego, his empire.
I am frightened by the likelihood that this is close to what goes on now. It’s only paranoia if I’m wrong.
But I’m getting off track. The point is that, yes, it’s fun to think about these things, and joke about the past, and compare Agamemnon to the Most Interesting Man in the World from Dox Equis. By the way, the meme contains its own particularly interesting narrative power and therefore a subtextual dynamic of privilege. But, yes, while you have a series of collective challenges ahead of you (global warming, poverty, inequality, and systematic opacity blocking sound governance) you also have a series of personal challenges you each will face. You are no doubt already aware of some of them. The personal challenges may seem more difficult, though at the same time you may have better luck overcoming your own demons than making the world a better place.
This all comes back to the things we’ve been reading. What is man—this conscious being whose consciousness may be the only thing that makes it unique. Consciousness makes us tragic; it also makes us capable of something computers literally can’t do: think outside the box.
This lecture raises the notion I called “relative wisdom.” I do not want to suggest that everything is relative. Objectivity does exist. This year we have continually explored the difference between absolutes and particulars. 2+2=4. All bachelors are single. Not all bachelors, on the other hand, are happy. It is raining or not raining. Some of our knowledge is true a priori, while some is true conditionally or a posteriori. And SOME of our accepted knowledge is NEITHER true a priori nor a posteriori—it is UNTRUE, we just don’t know it yet ! Yes, some knowledge will be defeated by the progress of knowledge. C’est la vie. The earth is not flat, but it’s also not round—it’s actually an oblong type of flattened sphere, bulging in the middle, like Mr. Faure—kind of like a deflated soccer ball. Somebody call Tom Brady and the NFL. Speaking of corruption.
The point: there is universality. There is objectivity. But you have to accept your own limitations. Relative wisdom. Another concept: the Romantic poet Keats’ negative capability. Recall that this is the ability to accept the fact that some things can’t be immediately known—it is a relinquishing of enormous pressure. It links nicely to Sartre’s call not to give up in the face of radical freedom. A third concept: Nietzsche’s amor fati. Embracing your fate. These all triangulate around a central, primitive emotion: fear of the unknown. I will be the first to tell you I don’t know everything. I don’t even know everything that I DON’T know—that is my personal weakness, my own project. I hope one day to have climbed Plato’s ladder sufficiently to simply understand my own lack of understanding. Yes. You know me fairly well now—you might have noticed my own intellectual confidence. But I actually do possess some humility, I am not all that arrogant—I try to espouse the humility of Socratic self-doubt. I doubt myself. I don’t let others make me doubt myself, I do it myself. And I find that there is so much I don’t know. So step on in. I welcome you to the unknown. It is quite cozy in here.
So let us accept that some things are knowable, and our lives are worth pursuing even if we have stared into the dark abyss of meaninglessness and seen it has a compelling face. Even Nietzsche, to whom we have mistakenly ascribed the label of nihilism, believed life is worth living—in fact, he thought nothing was more essential. What can we do about the problems I’ve mentioned—problems just barely mentioned, and which are just the tip of the iceberg? There are many more problems, universal and personal, you will encounter. I’ve mentioned a few obvious ones. For all this, and in sincere fondness and full acknowledgement that I am just one small, well intentioned but flawed person of thousands whom you encounter in your life journey, I offer you a few parting thoughts, which I won’t go so far as to call lessons:
1) People are generally good.
It’s systems, bureaucracies, institutions, and especially these over the course of time that usually cause the problems. It’s the slow crawl of change. And the essential phenomenological division between individuals and groups—it makes it difficult and frustrating to reconcile individual desires and ideas with the plodding, democratic group’s work. This leads people to frustration and to giving up on the group project. They grab what they can and say “hey, survival of the fittest.” But that doesn’t mean people are bad. Don’t become cynical (small -c) about humans. You can be cynical about humanity, but don’t let that ruin your experience of humans. Humanity =/= Humans.
You need community. The thing about today is you could easily live in a gorgeous expensive luxury New York City apartment and never leave it. You could work from home, shop from home, have sex from home. And this would be your end. Do not hole yourself up inside a world devoid of actual human interaction. I’m not saying this to be anti-social networking. It’s not about that. It’s about the dulling of your senses, your empathy, and your creativity. Empathy, creativity. Because computers are closed circuits. Social networks are not conscious, not tragic, not free. You will be happier if you have people.
3) Relative wisdom.
Maintain an ambition to understand everything and everyone. Accept that you will fail. Accept the unknowableness of being. Accept this even as you study the history of your people and, building on this class, the history of other people. History is written by the victors. But just because history is a construct does not mean we cannot learn from it.
4) There is no perfect painting.
Extending from the previous point: don’t be afraid to fail, period. Not only don’t fear your ignorance. Don’t fear your inevitable failures. Remember what Sartre said. We face—and continually reface—a blank canvas. And we may be tempted to stare at the blank canvas and not add a single brushstroke until we see the endgame, the eventual painting. This is a mistake. You should attack that canvas. We could spend eternity staring at the canvas, unwilling to mark it, searching for the perfect painting. The radical freedom should not render you forlorn. Do not be afraid to mark the canvas. There is no perfect painting.
5) All you need is love.
Not only the Beatles knew this. Some of the most influential engineers and scientists have said the same thing. That the meaning of life is in the ones we love. We have, after all, very little other purpose. Let’s close read that sentence. “All you need is love” sounds like it is defining something via a negative: that ALL you need is love, in other words you need NOTHING except love. But you can read it another way too: “EVERYTHING that you need is love.” Think about that. Everything that you need involves love. Everything you love, you will need. All you love, you need. All you need is love. Woot close reading!
Love is a mystery—we’ve associated it this year with eros, pietas, beatific love, platonic love, familial love…yes, it is probably instinctively as powerful as our fear of the unknown. We biologically need love for the survival of our species. And love has been responsible for the horrors of war and the truth and beauty (another Keats line) of art. Remember Oryx and Crake, the game “Blood and Roses.” Love is a primary motivation for both sides of human history.
I can tell you up front that love is the single greatest thing you will experience, and that on the flip side love will probably cause you great pain. Why? Because human life is short, and the experience of our lives is also myopic, and we make mistakes. We screw up, we hurt people, and, even if we don’t do that, we eventually die. Death is the best case scenario. Grief is the price we pay for love. So yes, love may hurt you. And if it does, then you will be one of the lucky ones—for that pain, though sucky, would be a testament to the greatest feeling a human being can have.
This year I have tried to guide you on your own journey to more critical thinking and reading. I hope the journey has opened your eyes, transported your mind, etc. Maybe even occasionally touched your heart. It has mine. It’s been a pleasure being the Anchises to your Aeneas, the “wise” (hah!) elder who offers the hero knowledge or a weapon so as to obtain the elixir for the hero’s people. I do not take so much credit—you have sought out much more knowledge than I could give. Please, please, keep doing so. Go forth and plunder. Climb the Platonic ladder. Do not forget that the hero’s journey always involves, either directly or indirectly, the seeking of knowledge. Don’t ever let anyone cause you to question yourself. Question yourself. Be well and be good.