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Everything Important in Life is Unknown: Convocation Address at St. John’s College

Presented August 20th, 2014, Annapolis, MD

Welcome to the Class of 2018. Welcome to their families and friends. Welcome back to the rest of the College community! There is nothing in the world like the energy in this room as we open our doors to another year of learning together.

Like everyone else here, I prepared for this fresh beginning by reading a few new books over the summer. Among them was an elegant little volume written by Roger Rosenblatt: Unless It Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing. It is a part-literal, part-fictional account of what was studied, written and said in one of Rosenblatt’s graduate classes in writing at Stony Brook University.

Some months after the class was over, Rosenblatt and his students enjoyed a reunion dinner at a local restaurant, which like most reunions had a pleasant diversionary quality filled with the conversation and good humor that characterizes friendship at its best — friendship born of the shared study of things that are of great importance to those who have opened themselves fully to one another in the interest of their learning together. At the end of the evening, Rosenblatt was asked: “Is there anything you haven’t told us?” He acknowledged that there was something he might have mentioned but it was difficult and the hour was late, so he parted from his students to a good-hearted chorus of boos, and decided to toss in his parting shot at a distance, in a letter at the close of the book he was writing about his class.

The letter was addressed “To My Ungrateful Students:”

What he had to say went far beyond the advice of an instructor concerned with technique in good writing: the need for precision and restraint, the use of anticipation over surprise and imagination over invention, the preference for the noun over the adjective and the verb over the adverb. Instead, he told a story of a conversation he’d had with Lewis Thomas toward the end of Thomas’s life, in which Thomas said that he would rather talk about life than death. “There’s an art to living,” he said. “And it has to do with usefulness. I would die content if I knew that I had led a useful life.”

Rosenblatt then advised his students:

“For your writing to be great . . . it must be useful to the world. And for that to happen you must form an opinion of the world. And for that to happen, you need to observe the world, closely and steadily, with a mind open to change. And for that to happen you have to live in the world. . . . You must love the world as it is, because the world, for all its murder and madness, is worth loving. Nothing you write will matter unless it moves the human heart.”

But what is useful to the world? The world will only tell you “what it wants, which changes from moment to moment, and is nearly always cockeyed… The world is an appetite waiting to be defined. The greatest love you can show it is to create what it needs, which means you must know that yourself.” The great writers are great, Rosenblatt says, “because their subjects and themes are great, and thus their usefulness is great as well. Their souls are great, and they have had the good sense and courage to consult their souls before their pens touched paper.”

“When Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, George Eliot, or Chekhov are recalled,” Rosenblatt writes, “it is as if tidal waves are washing over us. We cannot catch our breath.” And what do the great writers have in common? “All have … a certain innocence of mind that allows them to observe life openly and with a sense of fair play, though not without judgment.” They also have an appreciation of uncertainty, which is necessary if one is concerned with coming to know the truth, a never-ending journey. Poets grapple with the difficulties of knowing the truth, but so do scientists. For both, ignorance is crucial. Why? Because, Rosenblatt says, “everything important in life is unknown.”

What Rosenblatt wants for his future writers is the same as what all good teachers want for their students: the ability to recognize the source of greatness within themselves; the desire to improve on that soul, making it capacious, kind, and rational; and the continual effort to cultivate the innocence of mind that lets us live freely and openly in the world.

His brief description can be applied to education generally. We call it liberal education — education in the art of living well, free from the constraints enclosing us, free from the boundaries of our educational disciplines and specialties, free from the prejudices of our upbringing and popular opinion, free from the many caves that confine us all too comfortably.

At St. John’s College, we offer such a liberal education — one that helps us understand ourselves and the world around us; one that helps us develop an adaptable mind, equally open to tradition and to progress; one that gives us practice in the art of inquiry, in asking the questions humans have been asking since we first began to speak. They are questions arising from the depths of wonder; questions revealing the depths of our ignorance about the world and about ourselves; questions demonstrating a startling truth: that our ignorance is the source of our greatest strength. For it is ignorance, not knowledge, that propels us forward. It generates the desire to know, which draws us expectantly into the unknown. This is what the world needs: a good understanding of how to develop and where to direct our desire to know.

If this assessment is true – and I believe it is – then the best conceivable education, the education at which college-bound students should aim and the one that is most useful to the world, comes from studying the greatest literary, scientific, philosophical, political, artistic, and musical works known to mankind, because their authors have the most to teach. Of all who have left records behind, they have understood most profoundly that we have much to learn, that the wonders of learning are exhilarating though its challenges are humbling.

Take Galileo, an author read in your junior year. He is supposed to have said, “Doubt is the father of invention.” Why did he think that doubt is generative while others consider it paralyzing or destructive? Because doubt is the source of understanding and innovation. It is what causes us to ask the next question, which in turn leads us to a new possibility. It threatens the comfortable sense of security that would keep us tied to what we thought we knew instead of asking: what does this new understanding cause us to ask that will allow us to reach beyond it?

Michael Faraday, another author from the junior year, argued that to acquire the habits to form good judgment, an individual must engage in a program of self-education that rejects the blind dependency on the dogma of others; he must examine himself and become his own sharpest critic. “This education has for its first and last step humility. It can commence only because of a conviction of deficiency.” (Observations on Mental Education)

Faraday’s is yet another call to “know thyself” better before advancing a judgment on anything else, a lesson all freshmen learn in their encounter with Socrates, the greatest skeptic of them all. Only when we understand that depth of our own ignorance, when we understand how little we know, are we ready to develop the lifelong habits that will best support learning. Only when we are free from conventional thinking, free to doubt what we have been taught about the world, can we imagine a whole new way to see the world and our place in it. This need to imagine a better world than the one we know is another reason why everything important in life is unknown.

You lucky freshmen are reading Homer, the poet who may best demonstrate this power of the imagination, the journey-making faculty and the source of human creative power. The imagination is the beginning and end of any search for meaning, the connection between the world we live in and the one we would shape for ourselves. I can think of no finer example of the exercise of imagination than in Homer’s Odyssey.

Constantine Cavafy captured the spirit of the Odyssey in his 1911 poem “Ithaka”

“Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if lasts for years,
So you are old by the time you reach the island,
Wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
Not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.”
“Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.”

We at the College imagine that your four-year journey through the Program will help you find your own Ithaca, the beginning and end of your search for meaning.

There is a reason we at St. John’s College are proud to say: “The Following Teachers Will Return to St. John’s Next Year”: Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles; Euclid, Apollonius, and Lobachevski; Newton, Einstein, and Heisenberg; Shakespeare, Milton, and Cervantes; Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. Plato and Aristotle; Dostoevsky and Tolstoy; Austen and Woolf; Kant, and Hegel; the Bible and the founding documents of our nation. What incomparable teachers they are, capable of helping you find your way to the answers you seek to the big questions you have: How should I live my life? How can I be useful to the world?

With teachers like these, what do we expect of you, our students? We ask you to engage with each of these authors whose works span the ages. We ask you to be of every age just as they were, displaced from the world they were born into, wondering at it, learning from it, loving it, recognizing its ugliness and its beauty, and making it a better world for their contributions to it. Along the way we imagine that your discourse with the books and authors will cause you to look deeply into the greatest mystery of all, your very souls.

You will not be alone in this four-year journey through the Program. You will have a faculty of tutors who will share this journey with you. Their principle responsibilities are two-fold: to serve as models of inquiry and independence; and to engage with your questions as they arise, to join with you in your search for answers, as you learn how to interrogate yourselves and one another in the endless search for meaning.

You will also have with you your fellow students, including those gathered here today to welcome you into our community with all the enthusiasm worthy of fellow learners. I will leave you with a poetic image from a book you will be reading in your sophomore year: Dante’s Divine Comedy, a poem written in three parts. Our hero Dante is guided on a journey through the Inferno, the place of despair, Purgatorio, the place of hope, and Paradiso, the place of fulfillment. As Dante, a mortal visitor, is led into the second realm of Paradiso, inhabited by shades in a blessed spirit world, he is swarmed upon as if by fish to their food.

“As in a fish-pool that is calm and clear the fish draw to that which comes from the outside, taking it to be their food, so I saw plainly more than a thousand splendors draw towards us, and in each I heard: ‘Lo, one who will increase our loves!’ And as each shade came near, it appeared to be full of happiness, by the bright effulgence that came forth from it.”

The simile suggests that even in the heavenly sphere the human spirit is fed by fellowship and the desire to know. Human companionship and the conversation which follows are seen as food for the spirit. I close with this image to say to our freshmen that you are not only here to feed on the conversation that is the highest activity of this College. You are also food for the rest of our College community that has been drawn here today to greet you, recognizing that your arrival will increase the love of learning shared by our students, faculty, and staff.

May you find here at St. John’s College a curriculum that awakens in you the desire to know! May you keep that desire ever-fresh! May you find fellow companions that will help you uncover your ignorance of the world so that you may be free to explore the unknown — because everything important in life is unknown.

Thank you!

I declare the College in session this 20th day of August, 2014.

Convocatum Est!

This speech is published here with permission from Dr. Nelson and St. John’s College.

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