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Lewis Gordon on Love, Beauty, and Knowledge

February 2, 2010

Dr. Lewis Gordon is the Laura H. Carnell Professor of Philosophy at Temple University. In May 2009, he was the keynote speaker at Lehman's annual Phi Beta Kappa induction. He talked about the importance of language and knowledge and told the newly inducted students that they, like many generations before them, are the custodians of the future.

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This is Christina Dumitrescu, a student at Lehman College. Dr. Lewis Gordon is the Laura H. Carnell Professor of Philosophy at Temple University. He also directs both the Institute for the Study of Race and Social Thought and the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies.

Dr. Gordon graduated from Lehman in 1984 and received his Phi Beta Kappa key at Lehman twenty-five years ago. In May 2009, he was the keynote speaker at Lehman's annual Phi Beta Kappa induction. He talked about the importance of language and knowledge and told the newly inducted students that they, like many generations before them, are the custodians of the future.



Many things are true. Among them is, yes, I do love Lehman. I never speak with my shoes on. No disrespect. Some people read that as something connected to something sacred. When one is speaking truth, one should engage in certain rituals. And then some people say, "Ah, he's from the island of Jamaica. You can take the man out of the island, but not the island out of the man." I like both interpretations.

Congratulations. For those of you who are coming in, in your junior year, congratulations. For those of you in your senior year, well, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last, free at last. (LAUGHTER) Thank God A¬¬lmighty, I'm free at last." And then there's some of you who are thinking, "Oh man, speeches." In fact, some of you are trying to hold back from just simply going, (SNORING).

Speeches. Speech. You know, part of thinking is speaking. And we often don't reflect on how valuable it is that we speak. How valuable it is that we use our minds. And how valuable, how amazing it is that we can use it to communicate.


I'm interested in talking to you, because I should speak briefly with you around just three themes. And the first one is about philosophy. Because word has it, I know a thing or two about it. And when I think about philosophy, I want to begin by just talking about my favorite text through which I usually introduce my students to philosophy.

And that text, if you translate it, its title is called The Drinking Party. And a lot of people thought, "Wow, you know, I thought philosophers were a bit on the square side." But it's well-known to everybody as Plato's Symposium. Okay? A symposium. And one of the funny things about the Symposium is that it's a group of guys who get together, first, to talk about love. And when they talk about love, at first, it's in the form of Eros.

But at this party is Socrates. And Socrates cleverly twists the discussion to move from love, erotic love, to philosophia, to what it is to love wisdom. And as he's talking about loving wisdom, and this is a man's party, he announces that he learned how to love wisdom, how to deal with it, through Doitima, through a woman.


But the oddest thing happens in the middle of this party. As Socrates is here talking about loving wisdom, his lover breaks into the party. And his lover is this man, Alcibiades. And Alcibiades breaks in, and he looks around. He's a bit tipsy. And he says, "What's going on? Nobody's drinking?" It's a drinking party, and no one's drinking. And Socrates, at this point, leans over to one of the men and says, "Protect me, he's very jealous." And he says, "Ah," and so, Alcibiades then leaps into a speech.

And what's fascinating about this speech is that in his speech, we have the move from the philosopher talking about loving philosophy to his lover, taking about loving the philosopher. And when he talks about his beloved, this philosopher he loves, the first thing he says about him is that he's physically ugly. Now, you have to think about that. I mean, how many ya'll are in love with ugly people?

Something weird about calling your lover ugly, isn't it? Though, I don't know, I mean, you might be walking down the street, and somebody may look at you with your beloved and say, "You know, I don't know what he sees in her, or what she sees in him." But of course, what you know is that when you love, part of loving is really looking at the beloved. And when you really look at the beloved, you look at the imperfections, you look at all of these things, but you also in looking at those things are able to see the beauty.


One of the things Alcibiades brings up about Socrates, is that his ugliness alerts you to the fact that you have to work at your relationship with him. In fact, he goes through a long story of working at learning how to love Socrates. And what he discovered is that what he's able to see through that difficult effort is a beauty so miraculous, so powerful, and the words he uses is: "That beauty intoxicates him."

Now, there's something paradoxical about talking about intoxication with love. Because it means to be poisoned. But as many of you know, especially those of you who plan to go on for medical degrees, most of what we use to save you are things that also poison you. It's one of these paradoxes of life.

In fact, we live in a society right now where the political conflicts are such that people argue about universities, saying, "Oh, I don't want anybody to go and-- well, change you when you go to college. We just want you to get the degree." But you're among that small group who came to college not simply for a degree. You came for an education. And anybody who understands education knows that education, educare, to grow out, related to words like, educe, it means to grow. To be educated is to grow, to change. And this link to philosophy and to education is about that.


Now, one of the things I also want to bring up, because it is this thing that first appears ugly. You could imagine how your college education appeared to you at first. You probably thought, "Oh man, it's gonna take a long time. I gotta read all those books. I gotta study calculus, languages, sciences." In fact, there are people out there who even tell you, "Oh, why are you gonna do all of that? What good is it gonna do you?"

But of course, each difficult struggle, each trial, you begin to look through the surface, and you begin to see this beautiful thing, this beautiful thing called an education. This beautiful thing called an education links you all the way through time, back to the early members of our species, who one day realized that you can't do much by grunting.

Can you imagine it? Uh? Uh? Uh. But somehow language came along, signs were made symbolic, ideas began to transcend each generation. And that resource in a very short time has created a world in which there is no direction in which you could look around you, and you do not see a reflection of something called human. It is that thing that has made each generation a custodian of the future. And this thing that links us all the way back to Socrates, before Socrates, all the way back through to Ramses, all the way back through, all the way back, all the way to Jacob, to Isaac, all the way back to Abraham, all the way back to even people we can't even mention. It's all there.


All those things are brought together in this understanding of what it is for us to be responsible for the symbolic life of every generation. You know, there are people who say, "Why do you do need philosophy? I mean, come on." I mean, some people say, "I want to be practical."

Yeah, you probably have heard that. In fact, many of you, you're in Phi Beta Kappa. You do Liberal Arts. There are people who look at you and go, "Why aren't they studying simply for something practical?" Or some people say, "You know, I'm not about all this theoretical, philosophical stuff. I'm about experience." But you know something, every single one of you in this room has had the experience of trying to figure out your experience.

And what you do when you try to figure out your experience, is you reach out to others. Because that is something you can't do alone. And what you begin to understand, is it's crucial what you bring to experience. Because that is able to make it meaningful. It's powerful if you completely lose the responsibility for bringing meaning to experience.


You ever wondered why is it when you read the torah, the Hebrew bible, that so early in the story, right after Genesis, is a story of Exodus? But one of the tricky things about Exodus stories, in fact, you are all facing your exodus, is that, whenever we think about an exodus, about a path to freedom, we always imagine this liberating moment in which you break loose the shackles, you run out into the world. You're in the outdoors. When you escape from bondage, that's the biggest party. You're celebrating, you're free. You dance, you have merriment.

But then eventually you begin to realize this. You know, you see it in all the popular pictures of the celebration. Robin Hood and the merry men got rid of the Sheriff of Nottingham. You know, Luke Skywalker and them, they're hanging out, out there afterwards. The thing that's not often brought up, is that if you leave the camera going, or if you could go through time and watch the ancient Hebrews, or what we're seeing happening in terms of what happened after the 13th Amendment. Eventually, after people celebrate, they look at each other and say, "So, what are we gonna do now?"

What everybody wants to do now, what everyone needs to do is to go home. Freedom makes no sense without a home. But a home is not simply a domicile. It's not simply where you live. Your home is also the place that welcomes you in, in such a way that you are able to be who you are and achieve your potential as a free being.


Your home could be the disciplines you study. Your home is the path you're about to take, as you're going to use this rare thing called knowledge, to move into the future. Your home. And so, it's with that in mind that I'm joining my colleagues, I'm joining each of you, I'm joining your parents in welcoming you to this, your additional home. A home that became mine as well, 25 years ago.

I'm welcoming you, with all my heart to join us in this struggle, this task, this thing we have to do now that we call Phi Beta Kappa, and whose inspiration is also what it means to look into the future, and look into yourself, which is a very difficult thing to do. People always say they wanna know themselves. But most people, the most difficult thing, the most difficult thing to face and to know is yourself. Freud, for instance, attempted this. It's a remarkable achievement that he looked at himself with all of his imperfections.

And you, right now, have joined that meditation. And when you go and face this, you've now joined us in this task in which we look to the future, and we each find our self with this unique privilege to be able to do, to be able to offer, to be able to give that modicum of the self that we can call the spirit of freedom.


Thank you for taking this time to fight, to struggle. To understand that beneath the initial ugliness and difficulty of what it is to face this world, there's this beautiful thing called knowledge. This beautiful thing that we've joined together to communicate, through which we will look to the future and use those special words, we, us, our kind, you. Thank you. (APPLAUSE)



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