On Death and Happiness
Class of 2007, congratulations on your accomplishment. You have completed your education at Emory University.
I congratulate you now because I intend to challenge you with the rest of my remarks. Challenge you to reflect deeply in ways that are perhaps uncomfortable.
Let me begin with a quotation as a point of departure. William Makepeace Thackeray’s epic satire Vanity Fair closes with the following words:
Ah Vanitas, Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? Or, having it, is satisfied?
At Commencement, we find ourselves overtaken by conflicting and competing emotions: joy and sorrow vie for attention in our hearts and minds. I wish to turn to the sorrow, to learn from our experience of loss—to understand why Commencement, though it is a time of celebration, brings profound and unparalleled pain to our souls.
This pain comes from the realization that the world we have known for the past four years is vanishing. The friends who once finished each other’s sentences are moving across the world—the future of their relationship unknown. Many of us here may never meet again. This, I believe, is our small preview and taste of oblivion.
Graduation in this way represents a death. It is a reminder of our mortality. No matter what version of the afterlife we might subscribe to, we will all have to part company with this particular world. One recalls the great Buddhist joke: The only thing permanent is impermanence. It would be naïve, inauthentic, to deny the inevitability of death. Commencement, insofar as it reminds us of our own mortality, forces us to reflect on not only our experiences at Emory, but also our possibilities as human beings.
What can be hoped for in a world where our only knowledge is that of our inescapable fates, and even our greatest poets appear like evanescent dreams?
There is a word in Greek, which translators typically render as “happiness,” but that perhaps defies all efforts at translation. The word is eudaimonia. According to Hannah Arendt, it means the pleasure or contentment of the “daimon”—the aspect of our being that the Greeks believed watched over and guided us toward our best interests in life. The word, however, speaks of more than material, or perhaps even intellectual happiness—but rather of a contentment of the spirit; something Sartre might have equated with the “completeness of a life.” In fact, both Aristotle and Sophocles agreed that the earliest possibility for being judged to have had eudaimonia appears only after death.
It is a type of happiness that comes in pursuit of a life well lived; a life devoted to inquiry; a life in which one strives for justice; and a life that culminates in a contribution to human civilization that might perhaps persist beyond the brief moment of one’s mortal existence.
It is to this kind of happiness that I believe we must turn our attention. The pursuit of this happiness is what Emory and a liberal arts education can provide for its students above all else. Socrates first taught us that the unexamined life is not worth living. The liberal arts, through the study of literature, philosophy, politics, and society, provide us with the means to conduct such an examination.
When I look back at my experience at Emory, I will measure my success not by fleeting awards and accolades, but by what Emory has given me that might help me achieve happiness—some measure of eudaimonia—in my life. I would say briefly also that we should remember how privileged we are, since, as Aristotle stresses, happiness is only possible for those who have mastered necessity, attained material goods, and been favored by chance.
How has Emory prepared us for happiness? Certainly there are the critical skills of inquiry and analysis that we acquired. Also, Emory has, or should have, instilled us all with a fundamental drive, not to save, but to examine the world, and if we are more ambitious, perhaps to change it.
On this day, when I have encouraged you to think of death and to learn from sorrow, I now ask you to do something with that knowledge, to take your life and make something of it, not to squander the resources Emory has given you, and to accept nothing other than the exceptional.
To live an examined life, a life that recognizes death, but still embraces the possibility of beginning something new. I again congratulate you, Class of 2007, and welcome you to the world—to the celebration of the permanent, intolerable, beautiful, and sorrowful possibility of the unknown.