James Hardy's Last Lecture, At Least So Far

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This lecture was first delivered in the spring of 2002, in the Honors College at LSU.  It has been on and off the web ever since.  A further decade of life has not convinced me that what I said was either wrong or impractical.  But extended experience has persuaded me that I could have said it better and should now say it better.  Hence, this revision of rhetoric, not substance.

As a professor of history, I have the historian’s characteristic stigmata.  I do not think something old is therefore worn out, or that ideas are useless because they were first uttered long ago.  So the ideas presented here include both old and new.  Historians are allowed to do that.   

The basic assumption underlying this paper is that human nature is both stable and fallen.  Habits may be formed and re-formed.  But the essentials of character remain.  No one believes that any more.  The dummies.  

I’ve taught at LSU since 1965.  Being a professor is a wonderful racket, and I hope to continue in that capacity for many years to come.



Last Lecture, At Least So Far

James D. Hardy, Jr.


Beginnings are essentially artificial.  We prefer one beginning narrative to another because it explains satisfactorily what has followed, regardless of fact or chronology. But endings are more definite.    We do not choose them; instead, they happen to us.  Their approach and arrival inform our lives.

Since endings are personally and culturally significant, we have devised ways of describing them.  The most common description emphasizes personal finality, both as event and lament.  Recall the last words of Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar, after his character, Rico, has been shot: “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”    Rico expected to live forever, in a dangerous line of work.  Others had a different idea.

Or consider social wit combined with inevitable demise in a short poem by Langston Hughes:

When I die,
Let my mourners wear red
Because it make no sense
For me to be dead.

As of course, it did not.  But lament, however clever or heartfelt, is useful mainly for consolation.  The end comes anyway.

For something stronger, try denial.  We may combat sad reality by resisting the end to the uttermost, defying the facts with hope and tenacity.  “It ain’t over till it’s over,” said the great American philosopher Yogi Berra.  But true grit only goes so far.  We must all acknowledge, with Shakespeare:

If it be now, ‘tis not to come;If it be not to come, it will be now.  

(Hamlet, V. 2. 195-6).

Deny as one might, the future will come and get you.

We may treat endings as beginnings, as did Augustine in the Confessions, stating a frequently observed phenomenon that “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” (I.i.)  Or T. S. Eliot in Little Gidding: 

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive at where we started
And know the place for the first time.

But homiletics on the nature of mortal life seems too high and solemn a tone for this occasion, which is, after all, a last lecture, not a last breath.

Commencement, the word we generally use to transform endings into beginnings, can turn a wistful sadness into anticipation.  Senator and basketball player Bill Bradley caught the right combination of ending and commencement in his memoirs.  He explained that when players get older, and can see inevitable retirement in a year or so, they begin to act like people dying.  They give advice to the young.  They reminisce about trials and triumph of years past.  Memory and anticipation symbolize things to do or avoid.  Bill Bradley may have been soundly trounced in presidential primaries by the oddly lifelike Al Gore, or the stunning alive Bill Clinton; it’s hard to remember all the facts about these things.  But Bradley had found the appropriate note, and it is to his authority that we appeal.  In America, as all know, the great philosophers are invariably in sports or entertainment.


I.

So it is settled.  I will give advice to the young, which, as I look around, is almost everybody.  Such advice consists essentially of two things:  discussing something important, such as character, and imposing upon life a sense of appropriate order, which also includes character.   Advice about important things always involves character, and always begins with the dictum of Heraclitus:  “Character is destiny.”  This is about the truest thing you will ever read or hear, and serves as a sure foundation for a sense of appropriate social and personal order.

 For me, that order begins with suggestions concerning attitudes and actions you may take. The choice remains entirely with you.  Then comes things you must endure, since they are inherent in the human condition.  The first elements of advice are often given, though rarely followed.  The second are almost never mentioned, not only being politically incorrect, but also something of a downer, possibly even a bummer.  No one wants to hear that sort of stuff.  Nevertheless, aspiration and warning are the staples of the last lecture genre, and many other lectures as well.  You cannot avoid them.  The inevitable, if it cannot be embraced, must at least be endured.

 The first simple suggestion which I, and everybody else, recommend comes from the philosopher Steve Stone, a former pitcher and Cubs announcer.  “Keep your concentration,” Steve advised, and that advice is equally good for life and for baseball, which is the ongoing metaphor for life.  The classical form of Steve’s suggestion comes from Vergil, and is expressed as doing your duty.  The implication of attention to duty is that one’s endeavors will turn out well, or at least well enough, and, in a fallen world, well enough is the best there is.  

I wish I could say that performance of duty will bring success.  God knows it should.  If doing your duty does not ensure that things turn out right, then what will bring that result?  Nothing.  At least, I have been able to find nothing that ensures success.  No good deed goes unpunished, as we are all aware, and duty, I fear, falls into that vulnerable category.

A second problem with duty is that no one can do it consistently.  Duty requires concentration on essentials, and putting first things first.  The enticing and attractive tangents that include much of the joy of life must be ignored.  Duty calls insistently, with regard to both self and others.  Eat your vegetables, including sliced tomatoes, the red wheels of death.  Exercise.  Stay sober.  Answer your correspondence.  Keep up with your email.  Fill out the forms that are required for every transaction of life.  Live up to your obligations.  Be nice to everyone.  Do all of this all of the time.  Who can live up to that ideal?  Who would want to?  Who does not revel in the delicious paths of distraction, indolence, procrastination, and chocolate?  I am not only guilty of doing these dreadful things; I am even guiltier for loving them.  And I suspect that most people are happier when the call of duty is distant.

Duty performed ought to deflect blame when things go wrong, but it never does.  The dutiful are as liable to be accused of flubbing the dub, as are the indolent and lazy, like me.  Indeed, blame seems to gravitate towards the dutiful and the efficient.  Good students, and I was one in grade school, are held in contempt by the rest. They are nerds, or worse, if there is a worse.  I have seen more than once a Baton Rouge bumper sticker, usually on pickup trucks:  “My kid can beat up your honor student.”  The companion bumper sticker: “My kid is a moron, and I am a felon,” is never seen.  There it is.

Nevertheless, in spite of difficulties, blame, and no assurance of success, I still recommend keeping your concentration.  I have found that doing your duty absolves you from the endless horrors of self-blame and guilt.  You can live with yourself, and that is no small thing.  There’s nothing worse than guilt, which can and will eat you alive.  Just ask Sigmund.

The second suggestion I offer is to prefer the good.  In philosophy, that means regarding Yogi Berra more highly than Wittgenstein. In music, I listen to Beethoven rather than Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jew-Boys, whatever that is.  This applies to the rigors of daily life as well.  One should try and choose, at least a reasonable percentage of the time, ethics over expediency.  These are not just matters of aesthetic or moral preference; they are also issues of prudence.  No one wishes to be thought of as a lying sleazoid, whose word is worthless, who looks for the main chance, who reads comic books. (Sorry.  Today they are called graphic novels, but they’re still comic books.)  In aesthetics as well as ethics, we are called, as Louise Cowan writes, “to judge the high from the low, genuine from the shoddy.”  We cannot avoid these choices; people judge us by the choices we make. Simple wisdom indicates the importance of being thought a serious and significant person. 

Most people find it prudent to prefer the good, at least publicly, in order to avoid social disapproval; thus pretending to a decency that they hope others will believe. In our modern therapeutic society, whine has become an art form.  Everyone is a victim, especially if one was, at any time and for any reason, deemed underprivileged.  After all, nothing is anyone’s fault any more.  Society is to blame, of course, or genes. In a secular world, they made me do it.  Two results emerge from the welter of whine.  First is a de facto denial of free will.  The second is harsh censure arising from adverse private judgments.   Carmel, California has passed a law against “lookism,” that is, forming an unfavorable opinion of anyone based on appearance.  However, it is not true that someone in Carmel received the death penalty from singing the “Too Fat Polka,” in spite of an urban rumor to that effect.  But give Carmel a chance.  Jail has already been proposed for smokers.

In view of that, it might seem to the naïve that rampant whine has dissolved the necessity for respectable social conduct.  Since everyone must eschew adverse social judgment, there will be no more private sanctions against offenders.  No.  Personal judgments based on appearance and behavior are always made privately, even while being denied publicly.  Social judgments of disapproval, censure, and rejection, though silent, are even more serious and damaging for that reason.  Judging others silently while denying publicly that such judgments have been made forces people ruthlessly to stick to their judgment and impose what social sanctions they can.  Unprofessional conduct at meetings, such as dropping stuff, chatting with neighbors, playing on your phone, asides, being late, leaving early, falling asleep, will get you passed over as will a sex scandal.  No one will admit it.   It just happens.  Admissions, promotions, job offers, appointments all hinge on social judgments privately made and publicly denied.  Social sanctions based on unknown standards made without public mention silently close doors without anyone knowing it is happening.  Etiquette books used to be a reliable guide for effective social behavior.  Now, they are passé.  You are on your own.  In such a world, public profession of adherence to the good is a good idea.

Still unconvinced?  Well, then, consider the other side, the un-good.  What was once called, in sterner times, “sin.”  That word is now soundly condemned as judgmental, and we should never be judgmental.  But the social, moral, and ethical reality remains.  The problem with sin is not its unattractiveness; it is always enormously enticing.  But sin does not attract general social approval.  Moreover, for most people, sin costs a dollop of guilt.  Finally, sin is hard work, requiring a strong constitution and real dedication to task.  It can easily hospitalize you.  Sin is not safe, either for person or reputation.   This applies to cherishing some of the seven deadliest, like wrath, lust, or envy, and always pride, as well as straying into undesirable paths of mayhem, rapine, and even worse.  The ubiquity of sin, and our attachment to it, are sad truths, as everybody knows.  And we are well advised at least to pretend we are all good souls.  In a fallen world of multiple silent judgments, no other path makes sense.  In general, I suggest that personal and social self-preservation suggests that serious sin should be left to professionals. You should prefer the good.  If you can.

But if you can’t, do not pretend that you do prefer the good.  People and circumstance will eventually combine to prick the pretense. Recall John Edwards, who ran for president as a moralist while his wife was ill with cancer, and his mistress was great with child.  Those who prefer that you prefer the good will not forgive hypocrisy, anything else, perhaps, but not hypocrisy.   Over the long haul, preferring the  good, I am sorry to tell you, must be genuine.  If you are just pretending, you will not be able to keep your concentration well enough to succeed.  Sorry.  Life’s like that.



II.

Life in the human community has many choices, but there is never a condition, as a popular advertisement used to describe it, of “no limits.”   Never mind genetics; consider social limits that come in the form, I am afraid, of inexorable laws of life.  Everything is not relative.  One opinion is not as good as another.  Human nature is not malleable.  You can’t escape the immutable laws of life, no matter what you may have heard from the currently fashionable on television.  But we all know that.  No point in repeatedly affirming the undeniable.  

The first law of life is not encouraging.  It is this:  to live is to suffer.  This observation may be traced back to Sophocles, or Aeschylus, or Homer, or Job, and elsewhere as well.  Although the law does not elaborate, there are varieties of suffering.  At the bottom is the basic category of “suffering from.”  “The weak suffer what they must; the strong do what they wish,” is how Thucydides described it.  Everyone suffers from “the proud man’s contumely,” as Shakespeare put it, and the lower we are on the food chain the more we have to put up with this stuff.  But no one escapes.  Differences in circumstances merely change the mixture of pain, fear, and hope.  Certainly, some merely suffer while others suffer greatly and continually.  We lament that this is unfair.  We cannot alter the reality.

Suffering into truth and wisdom, which is how suffering has use as well as inevitability, is more likely when one “suffers for” something.  This suffering indicates the hero-journey, not on the scale of Aeneas or Odysseus, but on the daily level where we all live.  The cause itself hardly matters.  Home (Odysseus) is as noble and important as duty (Aeneas).  The sacrifice and devotion matter.  Because suffering for something is voluntary, it is embraced more than resented, as we recognize in the example of the “noble army of martyrs.”  Moreover, since suffering is inevitable anyway, I recommend suffering for a cause as more likely to achieve pathei mathos.  It has the further virtue of pricking our courage.  The dignity born of suffering reminds us that:

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now of that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are. . . 

It is the same dignity and integrity that reminds us “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”  A little touch of the Laureate is always desirable.

    The second law of life departs from what is well known into what cannot be known.  In matters of importance, there are no explanations, no answers, only mysteries.  The main emphasis of this law lies in the always-fascinating realm of the human condition.  How does one explain the overmastering itchiness and dissonance, even wickedness, that informs the human personality?  We all experience a constant, compelling desire for something new, from sexual partners and other drugs of choice to exotic coffee, designer water, to rapt fascination with anything declared (falsely) to be “new and improved” or “bold and innovative.”   Doesn’t matter how trashy they may be.  Such goods and ideas sell anyway, even to those who know better.  The Roman satirist Juvenal wrote of senators’ wives running off to Egypt with gladiators, an act of personal and social stupidity so inexplicable that it cannot be fiction.  And people still do it. Every day.  The dummies.

Some attempt to explain this as a cultural phenomenon, but I think that this human itchiness and wickedness is built-in.  Hard-wired, as they say.  How else, except for human itchiness and looniness, can one account for the fact that actual sailors volunteered to go with Christopher Columbus, a man they knew was crazy?  Or drink Kool-aid with Jim Jones?  Or volunteer to serve on the Eastern Front in 1942?  When the space flight to Mars is announced, people will be lined up to go.  That crowd will not include me.  On a recent trip to Los Angeles I had to fly. I hate flying.  It was my first flight since 1981.  Fortunately, the airlines no longer serve whatever it was they called food. So I just sat there and suffered.  And not into truth, either, but into grumpiness.  

Looniness and itchiness are only a secondary aspect of what has been called the human condition.  The core of that reality lies in the detested Christian doctrine of sin.  I mean sin as the real thing, Original Sin, including ordinary sins, idolatry, and the nameless woe.  Today, of course, sin is far too strong a term for popular use.  Sin has been replaced by “anti-social activity” or by “political incorrectness.”  But even that proved too stern;  now we have “bad choices.”  It is all the same thing, from pride to rage (road and otherwise) to murder, rape, pillages.  This stuff began before history, and has continued without interruption, reaching a hideous crescendo in the last century, and it seems to be doing a booming business now.  I can find no explanation for the ubiquity of sin, other than Original Sin itself.  We can deny it, but ought to remember that G.K. Chesterton regarded Original Sin as the one religious doctrine that required no faith at all and could be understood solely through empirical observation.  And he was right.

Finally, there are things that happen to us which cannot be fully explained by Original Sin.  They can never be predicted.  They used to be regarded as divine intervention.  They are often genuinely super-colossal.  On October 13, 1960, in the seventh game of the World Series, in the last of the ninth, Bill Mazeroski homered and the Pirates defeated the Evil Empire, the New York Yankees. 

Today, these remarkable and inexplicable events are called Mazeroski moments.  There aren’t many Mazeroski moments, and if you are a Chicago Cubs fan, there are not any at all. Why are there so few of these moments of pure joy?  Why are there so many moments of sin and guilt?  I do not know.  Why is there more joy in art than in life, as Aeneas tells us?  I cannot say.  Why are there always flies, and lots of them, in the balm of Gilead?  I am not able to explain it.  Why is it that daily life often seems so close to chaos, and in large matters, so close to tragedy?  I cannot tell.  Entire industries exist which are devoted to finding the answer to these and other imponderables concerning the human condition.  I remain unconvinced by game theory, probability theory, chaos theory, long-wave theory, and short-curve theory.  I suggest the best explanation is mystery. 

The two previous laws, on suffering and mystery, can be illustrated by anecdote and empirical examples too numerous to mention.  They are obviously true, in the way a train wreck is true.  You can’t miss it.  You don’t have to take anything on faith.  But the last of the three laws of life differs from its predecessors in that examples are hard to offer, and perhaps hard even to mention.  The third law of life is this:  if there are any answers, love is the only answer.

Why, one is reasonably entitled to ask, is love the only answer?  I can only suggest that if love is not the only answer, then power is.  Power as the only answer is not encouraging.  It justifies Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Osama bin Laden, and slavery, and almost no one is comfortable in that company.  The replacement of affection by calculation, the notion that power is the only answer, brings us to Donald Barr’s acute definition of cynicism from Who Pushed Humpty Dumpty? (1971)  Cynicism, Barr remarked, consists of two things:  the substitution of technique for love, and, if truth were known, most of what passes for love is also merely technique.  This is pretty tough stuff.  Nonetheless, grand mal cynicism is unquestionably Barrian in its impersonal manipulation expressed as concern.  Power, in short, is the work and instrument of betrayal, which, while necessary and proper for public life, is entirely inappropriate for either public veneration or private practice.  

Wholly aside from the deficiencies of living as if power were the only answer, it seems to be a general fact that everyone needs love.  In the United States there are huge industries, from cosmetics to jewelry to clothes to television to advertising, easily worth a few trillion dollars collectively, devoted intensely to the business of love.  Well, perhaps more immediately to sex and lust than love, but love is still the ultimate hope of those who buy in.  Think of online dating services.  

I freely admit that the arguments above supporting love as the only answer are indirect, and perhaps unconvincing.  I can only suggest that, in fact, love given seems to expand in return, and in fact, power sought seems to contract and be inadequate.  I can only remind you that your attitude toward love will determine the nature of your life.


III.

Most advice given concerning the society we infest and inhabit leads in two opposite directions.  Conform, lead a conventional life, knuckle under to the dull and dispiriting norms, forget your dreams, accept your drab lot in life, and you will avoid catastrophe.  Or break out, get wild and wooly, “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” be free, live the dream, find the “divinity within,” and you will have a ton of fun (at least pre-hospital and jail).  I suggest avoiding both paths.  I suggest further that recognizing the laws of life will help you do so.  Of course, beyond the laws themselves, which are immutable, and operate simul, semper, ubique et ad omnibus, there are many paths.  Preferring the good and keeping your concentration are two that will work about as well as anything will.  Nevertheless, while the laws make life comprehensible, and keeping your concentration and preferring the good make it easier, nothing is guaranteed.  Everything can go pear-shaped and fall apart.  It’s always and only a question of trying to get the best shot and the best odds you can.  But behind that effort lies chance, so we conclude with what are supposed to be the last words of Beethoven:

Applaud, friends.  The comedy is finished.