More Than Just Another Word
Wofford College Commencement Address
May 23, 2010
All of us know what freedom is—or think we do—but, when asked, we tend to give it different definitions. Some see it as simply a matter of being free from all constraints. But, with even a moment’s reflection, we recognize how naïve that is because we all must die; we all must labor by the sweat of our brow; in those we love, we all have hostages to fortune; and, as I myself can testify, we all are subject to the vagaries of time as we age and deteriorate.
On the other hand, you graduating seniors are presumably at the peak of your idealistic hope that total freedom of some sort might just be possible, either because you plan to succeed so brilliantly or because you intend to live so frugally. And yet, we might as well face it, even if you’ve assiduously worked your way through Wofford, scraping together what it takes to pay for four years here, you’ve been living in an intellectual and artistic country club.
What happens now is the lowering of the boom. For some, the boom may fall lower than for others. According to my friend and contemporary Kris Kristofferson, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” That was before he became a celebrity, of course, and moved to Maui, but his point is clear: no freedom is totally free, and, after graduation, freedom is what we spend to get what we think we want. Kristofferson and I were students together, at a time when we had plenty to lose—though most of it was Cecil Rhodes’s money. It was sobering to discover that, when those stipends were gone, we had to spend what we were.
As an exercise in defining freedom here at Wofford, we held a convocation during your sophomore year at which we belatedly acknowledged the involuntary labor of those who had built Old Main, the building looming just behind me. We couldn’t make amends, but we could at least acknowledge the injustice of what was done to them. One thing we do absolutely know about freedom is that slavery is wrong. John Locke said so, Jean-Jacques Rousseau said so, and our own Declaration of Independence implicitly said so—though it took another century and a bloody civil war to make that clear. What was clarified in that conflict was a determination to affirm a doctrine of natural rights.
What are natural rights? Essentially, nothing more than a belief or an assertion that all human beings capable of rational choice are or ought to be entitled to certain basic rights such as life and liberty. Immanuel Kant said as much when he declared there to be a universal “birthright of freedom,” a proposition that, in one way or another, informed the founding of this nation. Chattel slavery was therefore clearly wrong in the minds of many, but it was a notorious truism in the first half of the 19th Century that the wage slavery of places like the mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, was in many cases even harsher, with no responsibility for the workers’ well-being or even their survival assumed by the owners. The difference, of course, was that nominally, at least, the workers were free. But Karl Marx denied there was a significant difference if, whatever their nominal circumstance, the chance of anyone escaping the destitute and dehumanizing conditions of most industrial workers was virtually nil. As we know, the shortcoming of Marx’s argument would be exposed when, counter to his predictions, social and economic reforms occurred throughout the industrial world. But that was little comfort to those who died without ever escaping the shackles of poverty and exploitation—or, for that matter, what Rousseau described as “the mind-forged manacles of man.”
Chattel slavery exists today in only a dwindling number of places. But enslavement to extreme poverty, to hopelessness and despair, is so widespread that we must ask ourselves in what sense people are free if they cannot reasonably aspire to feed or shelter or clothe themselves and their families? If they cannot afford health care when they are afflicted with sickness or cannot find the means to educate their children? Are there people in South Carolina or even here in Spartanburg, possibly within the shadow of our gates, who fall into this category? Can we declare them free merely because they have a theoretical right to escape that condition, though they lack a plausible chance of doing so?
As many of you know, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle made one big assumption—that the universe has meaning. That led to a further assumption that everything is created with a purpose or goal, a “final cause” in Aristotle’s terminology. And that observation led further still to questioning the purpose or meaning of life for human beings which, after much hemming and hawing, Aristotle declared to be eudaimonia—a word which literally means “made happy by the gods” but which is generally translated as simply “happiness” or, even better, “human flourishing.”
Thomas Jefferson knew his Aristotle. If you go to the Library of Congress and are given the privilege of examining Jefferson’s own collection of books, you will find among them a well-thumbed copy—in Greek—of the Nicomachean Ethics—in which Aristotle makes it clear that what he means by happiness is the realization of one’s own highest natural potential. . . or, if you will, what the modern sociologist Abraham Maslow described as “self-actualization .” It is very clear that when Jefferson penned those immortal words at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, altering John Locke’s formulation of life, liberty, and property to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” he meant precisely what Aristotle meant: in a just society, every human being should have a fair and reasonable shot at achieving his or her potential. That is happiness, and that is what is meant by being truly free.
Let me hasten to add that no one is guaranteed that the goal will be achieved. That is something requiring a lifetime, and what we achieve will vary from one person to another. What we have in common—or ought to have in common—is, at the outset, an equal right to pursue it. What that involves in a democracy like ours is up to us, and determining that answer is shaping up to be the greatest and most immediate challenge awaiting your generation.
I recently moderated a reunion of my fellow Rhodes Scholars from fifty years ago, all of whom were once among the best and brightest of their graduating classes and most of whom are now in their early seventies. One of them was my former roommate at Oxford, a much-acclaimed English professor who, in retirement, is continuing to teach at a maximum security prison. When someone asked half-facetiously if he knew the meaning of life, he answered for his students: “No parole,” he said, with an irony comparable to that of Kris Kristofferson. A great deal in life is a matter of perspective, but some things are absolute—or ought to be—and one of them, I submit, is what we mean by freedom. . . not what we mean when we contemplate our own desires, but what we mean when we consider other people’s needs.
So let me return to you and where you are this moment. In some respects, you’re about to lose bits of what you’ve come to regard as your freedom. I realize that’s a sobering thought, but discipline and strength can be empowering, and we best develop those traits by meeting challenges. Besides, your lives here at Wofford have been full of challenges of one sort of another. The difference is that you’re going to find, more and more often, meeting challenges will involve making difficult and sometimes painful compromises—partly because, as I’ve noted and as you know, we are mortal and fallible beings, and partly because very little in this world is free in the sense of costing nothing. Almost everything has a price, and, whatever we may think, the bill is always presented—the notion of a free lunch is a fiction. So the necessary trick is to make the trade-offs we’re willing to make in order to get what we truly want or need, and, inasmuch as we can control the situation via our birthright of freedom, we are responsible for our own wise decisions. But, just as we’re settling into that assumption, there intervene the implacable whims of accident and chance. We find we’re paying bills we never intended to incur. We cope as best we can, keeping our heads above the rising tide or the bubbling oil-slicks by using all the resources we can command. If we’re equipped with skills like those you’ve mastered while here at Wofford, that can be a major asset. If we find a partner with whom we can confront whatever comes, we’re even luckier because we not only double our resources but have someone to cover our backs. We bargain as best we can, and what we discover is that life is a lot more like a game of dodge ball than it is like a shooting gallery—which is really okay, once we understand the name of the game and how it must be played.
And that’s what happens now. This very moment is when you begin a serious lifelong reassessment of what freedom actually means—which is to say, when you start to become most seriously and admirably free.
I began by noting that we are all subject to the constraint of mortality. That’s both obvious and useful to remember as you reappraise the things that truly matter. Let me end by quoting on that subject someone who, like me, tested that very same proposition by running his motorcycle head on into a truck. I mean Bob Dylan. . . who, in the course of formulating his own definition of freedom, once had this to say: “He not busy being born is busy dying.”
That’s worth repeating: “He not being born is busy dying.” From this moment on, for the rest of our lives, let us all make sure we busy ourselves with being born.