Wednesday, 16 December 2015 11:40

Who Am I? What Am I Doing Here?

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Who Am I? What Am I Doing Here?

Thomas Martin

Thomas Martin is the O. K. Bouwsma Chair in Philosophy at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Along with his fellow colleagues who are dedicated to the study of the Great Books, he teaches the works of Plato, Aristotle, and G. K. Chesterton. This essay is a commencement speech he gave in 2013.

Before I give my talk, I would like to thank Chancellor Kristensen for inviting me to speak to you, the graduates of the University of Nebraska at Kearney, your guests, members of the faculty and other honored guests. I am proud to be the third of four generations of Martins to teach in the state of Nebraska. Gertrude Wade Martin, my grandmother, was born on a farm south of Battle Creek in 1880, taught in a one-room school in Meadow Grove in the early 1900s. My father Robert graduated from Kearney State Teachers College in 1934, almost eighty years ago. I now teach in Thomas Hall, where my father taught his first classes in what used to be the campus lab school to train teachers. [I still feel his presence when I walk into the classroom.] My daughter Rachel continues the Martin tradition as a high school English teacher at Columbus High School in Columbus, Nebraska.

At a recent wedding for my nephew, Grace Rose, my three-year old granddaughter, walked straight up to my mother, whom she had never met before, looked her in the eye and said, "Who you? Why you here?" Lo and behold, Grace Rose is a philosopher: she has a sense of wonder and the desire to know. In fact, if I did not know better, I would have thought she had been reading Aristotle and Thales. The first sentence of Aristotle's Metaphysics acknowledges, "All men by nature desire to know." Thales, whom Aristotle dubbed the first philosopher in ancient Greece, was asked two questions: "What is the easiest thing to do and what is the hardest thing to do?"

The easiest thing is to give advice to another. The hardiest thing to do is to "know thyself!"

Grace's questions - from the mouth of babes - are a testimony to man's ancient desire to know who we are and what we are doing here, so we can know our purpose and have a meaningful life.

As Grace matures, her questions must become, like every one's questions and especially yours here today, "Who am I?" and "What am I doing here?" if any of us is ever to fulfill ourselves as adults with a sense of purpose in our lives.

How am I to know myself?

As university graduates there is no time better than the present moment to address Thales' maxim, "Know Thyself!" as you enter your new life as a university graduate.

Now you have two eyes and I am not talking about the ones I see. You have an external eye, which looks out from your soul on the world of chronological events streaming right before you. This is your quantifiable eye, the scientific eye, which measures everything by size, shape, color, speed and quantity. The second eye is the internal eye, the eye of the heart, looking deep in your soul, which houses memory and self-examination and is anchored by a conscience and the moral judgment necessary to examine your own life.

While Ptolemy was obviously wrong to assume the earth was the center of the universe, each one of you is the center of your universe. When you look out through the windows of your soul, you draw a bead, which begins with you and ends on the horizon or upon whatever fixed point you are looking.

My granddaughter Grace Rose drew a bead, a line, on her great-grandmother Anna when she asked "Who are you and what are you doing here?"

While there are no fixed points in the universe, you are the creator of the fixed points of any line that can be drawn. For example, your proud parents, at this moment, have drawn a bead right on you.

There are no points in the universe from which to measure that do not begin in a living soul.

Man is the one who connected the stars into constellations and made it possible to navigate the oceans, to find the line between his ship and home in the dark of night.

This reminds me of a story from Plato's Republic.

There was an owner of a ship who was hard of hearing, nearsighted, and lacked the knowledge of the seafaring necessary to captain his ship. His sailors were quarreling with one another about steering the ship, each of them thinking that he should be the captain, even though he'd never learned the art of navigation, could not point to anyone who had taught it to him, or a time when he had learned it. In fact, they claimed that it could not be taught, and they cut to pieces anyone who said it could. The sailors all crowded around the ship owner, begging him and doing whatever possible to get him to turn the rudder over to them. They stupefied the ship owner with drugs, wine, or in some other way. They proceeded to rule the ship as though it were a cruise ship; they hired Jimmy Buffet to play "Margaritaville" and set to sailing whichever way the breeze carried them as they danced into the night. They called the person clever who persuaded the ship owner to let him rule the ship. They dismissed anyone with knowledge of constellations or navigational skills as useless.

The sailors did not understand that a captain must pay attention to the seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, the winds, and all that pertains to his craft if he is really to captain a ship. They did not believe there is any knowledge that would enable him to steer the ship. In fact, they would think of the man standing at the bow looking at the stars with a sextant and advising them on how to chart the course of the ship as a babbling stargazer who looks into the dark of night for direction.

Socrates uses this story to depict the people of Athens, or any nation for that matter, who are in need of a leader to set the course of their lives. The sailors, like politicians, are eager to rule and promise the people whatever will satisfy their desires at that moment. The sailors do not trust anyone who thinks that there is an art to being a human being or that a person must order his life by moral laws that are fixed, like the North Star for the stargazer who could captain the ship.

As university graduates, you have the potential to be stargazers.

We are in rough seas without a compass. This crew of sailors represents all of our physical desires, clamoring to be heard, tasted, smelled, and enjoyed. Will you go with the momentary breeze and follow your appetites that are constantly changing, following whatever is fashionable or politically correct at the moment. Like with the sailors, will you call those who disagree with your chosen desires bigoted and narrow-minded because you know whatever feels good is good.

In your quest to know yourself, a university graduate knows better than to turn his soul over to the sailors who are going to end up crashing on the rocks.

Shakespeare echoed Aristotle when he said the whole world is a stage. You and I are actors in a play. As actors, we have been assigned a part to play, and, by playing this part, we come to know ourselves. At every moment, we can play our part well or we can play our part poorly.

Aristotle referred to humans as "animals with a rational principle." You are a living soul, and you are endowed with the faculty of reason, which is governed by principles. While you may be moved by emotions, instincts, and feelings of pain and pleasure, these are not governing principles.

You were born upside down, head first as a girl or a boy, and you are meant to stand upright and become your better self as a lady or gentlemen. In order to play the part well you need to practice your lines to develop a moral character.

Your character's given name was selected by your parents. I am Tom, which is coupled with a surname. I am a Martin.

Your first name is uniquely you and your last name is your lineage. This puts you on a line between your ancestors and progeny. Tradition is our skin. We do not choose our parents, nationality, race, ethnicity or the century in which we are born - the context of our lives, the stage on which we are expected to act.

We are woven bodily to the earth and spiritually to our parents in our quest to find out who we are. Our parents are our first teachers, our lifelines, entrusted with setting the tension for the formation of the virtuous life that is essential for becoming a lady or a gentleman.

Being virtuous requires having your string pulled. Good parents are the first to pull a child's string, offering guidelines by teaching him to stand up straight, say "please" and "thank you," be kind to others and take pride in himself.

A university graduate has been raised to be a stargazer who has set his compass on universal truths that are not moved by fashion, fads, and his own good at the expense of his fellow citizens.

You are called today to set your course using the tested lines from previous captains that have always held true for university graduates.

Here are some lines from Marcus Aurelius, who is in line with Thales, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

Speak both to the powerful and to every man - whoever he may be - appropriately and without affectation.
Use plain language.
Receive wealth or prosperity without arrogance, and be ready to let it go.
Order your life well in every single act.
Behave justly to those who are around you.
Be vigilant over your thoughts, so that nothing should steal into them without being well examined.
Every moment, focus steadily on doing the task at hand with perfect and simple dignity and with feelings of affection and freedom and justice.
Put away hypocrisy.
Put away self-love and discontent with your portion in life.
We were made for cooperation, and to act against one another is contrary to nature.
Accept correction gladly.
Teach without anger.
Keep yourself simple, good, pure, serious, a friend of justice, kind, affectionate, and strenuous in all proper acts.

Be a living thing, because in the words of G. K. Chesterton, "A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it."

Finally, I must return to my Irish grandmother Gertrude Wade Martin, the oldest Martin in my remembered line of ancestors and say what she would say if she were standing here today.

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
And rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand. *
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