To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Phi Beta Kappa speech

Editor’s Note: This speech was delivered by Prof. David Katz at the Phi Beta Kappa commencement ceremony earlier this year.

Ron DeSantis … those are words that can stop a Phi Beta Kappa commencement speech dead in its tracks … but I digress. Ron DeSantis was asked in a British television interview recently where he was on 9/11, and he couldn’t really remember exactly. I was stuck in an ElAl plane for five hours on the tarmac at London Heathrow airport until the Israeli authorities allowed us to continue home to Tel Aviv, escorted by fighter jets as we neared our destination.

I’m sure that everyone in this room remembers where they were on Jan. 6, 2021 when you heard that the Capitol building was being overrun by an angry MAGA mob. I was in my office here in Brandeis, clicking on YouTube planning to watch the previous night’s Colbert monologue while eating my sandwich … only to find the website swamped with shocking live streams from Washington.

Your grandparents know exactly where they were on Nov. 22, 1963. I was in sixth grade in New York, when the class was interrupted by the principal, who anxiously ordered everyone to head for the auditorium. We waited there for about an hour, hundreds of us, until we realized that there wasn’t a single adult in the entire building. So we left, and on arriving home learned that President Kennedy had been shot and killed.

My students know that I’m always on the hunt for misattributed quotations. Machiavelli never said that the end justifies the means, although he probably would have said it, had he thought of it. Voltaire never wrote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” But the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana really did write that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It appears on page 284 of his book on “The Life of Reason,” volume 1 (1905). I looked it up in the Brandeis library. (It’s that building with all the books…)

You new Phi Beta Kappa-ites have certainly lived through some history these past four years, and are not likely to forget it. Not just Jan. 6, but COVID, George Floyd, the conflict in Ukraine, the general breakdown of the post-war world order and much else. That passage of history is something that unites all of you—students of STEM, humanities, social sciences and fine arts alike. That history has been both the scaffolding and the backdrop of your life while at Brandeis, even if you never listened to NPR or downloaded an article from the New York Times. The world of 2023 is very different from the one you came from when most of you had your first Einstein bagel in 2019. It’s not what you signed up for … well, maybe the bagel.

It’s very difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. But everything we experience, even at second-hand, leaves a mark on us. Freud famously argued that nothing is ever really erased from our unconscious, and deeply buried thoughts and memories rise to the surface at the very least in our dreams.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), the influential German philosopher, taught in university until 1889, when he suffered a mental breakdown, said to have been triggered by an emotional encounter with a horse in Italy. Fifteen years earlier, he published a brilliant essay “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life” (1874), in which he warned that being over-conscious of history can lead to a misunderstanding of the present and even paralyze the will to live. He was concerned by what he called the ‘consuming historical fever’ of nineteenth-century German education, which created a burden of history, the sense of living in a cultural milieu in which all possible futures have already been determined. ‘To be sure,’ he wrote,

“we need history. But we need it in a manner different from the way in which the spoilt idler in the garden of knowledge uses it … That is, we need it for life and action, not for a comfortable turning away from life and action … We wish to use history only insofar as it serves living. But there is a degree of doing history and a valuing of it through which life atrophies and degenerates. … the historical sense makes its servants passive and retrospective. Only in momentary forgetfulness, when that sense is intermittent, does the patient suffering from the historical fever become active … With the phrase ‘the unhistorical’ I designate the art and the power of being able to forget.”

Considering what we have all gone through these past four years, it is hard to imagine that we could possibly take Nietzsche’s advice and just forget about it and move on. He also had something to say about

“the unthinking people who write as historians in the naive belief that their own age is right in all its popular views and that to write by the standards of the time generally amounts to being right … Those naive historians call “Objectivity” the process of measuring past opinions and deeds by the universal public opinion of the moment.” 

Keeping in mind the old joke that there are those who divide things into two and those who do not, there really are two basic ways of looking at history. There have always been people who agree with Nietzsche that we in the present should forget, move on and not judge those in the past. They say that we should try to understand the minds of the Founding Fathers, many of whom owned enslaved people. They say we need to forgive the millions of Germans and Poles who believed and acted upon the ideologies that fueled the Holocaust. The man who invented modern historical research, Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), even in his first book of history published in 1824, says that he himself did not presume to sit in judgment of the past, but instead merely wanted to look at history in its own right, from the inside. “It is our task,” he insisted, simply “to recognize what really happened in the series of facts which German history comprises.” 

But not everyone approved of Ranke’s stand-offish scholarship. Indeed, many of Ranke’s nineteenth-century German contemporaries thought that it was the role of historians to provide a justification for current political objectives. We call this “mobilized history,” and it remains an influential force in every country, including our own.

At the same time, even in Ranke’s day, there were plenty of historians who fervently believed that we in the present have a responsibility to look backwards and see where things went wrong. Among these scholars was the great Lord Acton, the late nineteenth-century English historian who coined the phrase that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” “I exhort you never to debase the moral currency or to lower the standard of rectitude,” he insisted,

“but to try others by the final maxim that governs your own lives, and to suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong. The plea in extenuation of guilt and mitigation of punishment is perpetual. At every step we are met by arguments which go to excuse, to palliate, to confound right and wrong, and reduce the just man to the level of the reprobate. … So that we have no common code; our moral notions are always fluid; and you must consider the times, the class from which men sprang, the surrounding influences, the masters in their schools, the preachers in their pulpits, the movement they obscurely obeyed, and so on, until responsibility is merged in numbers, and not a culprit is left for execution. A murderer was no criminal if he followed local custom, if neighbours approved, if he was encouraged by official advisers or prompted by just authority, if he acted for the reason of state or the pure love of religion, or if he sheltered himself behind the complicity of the Law.” 

Truly, this is one problem that we won’t solve today, whether we in the present have the right or even the knowledge required to judge the past. “Well, history is written by the winner,” replied former Attorney-General Bill Barr when asked about Trump’s decisions, “so it largely depends on who’s writing the history.” The past is so foreign a country that it is usually futile to try to winkle out the motives that drove people to say, write, and act the way they did in bygone times.

“It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany,” proclaimed Prime Minister Netanyahu back in November 2006. Here we are seventeen years later and Iranians are still not reading Nietzsche in German. Yes, Santayana is right when he says that we need to remember the past. But if you see every danger through a distorting historical lens, you are probably going to miss the new challenges with which you come to face. As Nietzsche tried to convince us, being modern is an opportunity, not a predicament, a liberating challenge to break free from aspects of inherited culture that narrow our perspectives and shorten our horizons. Many young people have always felt that they were born a few years too late, too young to fight in the Second World War, or to have been in college during the student rebellions of 1968. My uncle Yeiske in Tel Aviv used to complain that the Jews had to wait 2000 years to re-establish a Jewish state, and it was his bad luck that it had to happen during his lifetime. Nobody has a choice into which turn of the history river one is born, and yes, we Boomers are fully aware that we had it much easier.

You are now being inducted into the venerable and august society of Phi Beta Kappa, the nerdiest fraternity on any campus, where even a toga party would most likely be accompanied by the recitation of Greek and Latin poetry in the original. For some of you, and for your parents, this today will indeed be a moment that will become part of your personal remembered history. I didn’t think about Phi Beta Kappa for many years until I came to Brandeis and got corralled into the committee that selects new members, in a doughnut-fueled session of spread-sheets, both nachos and nachas. Throughout my senior year of college, my late father would ask me about once a month if I thought I would get into what he called “Phi Bet.” I think he thought that “phi” was the first letter of the Greek alphabet, instead of the aleph in aleph bet. I don’t remember if I even went to the Phi Beta Kappa induction. As they say, if you can remember the early 70s, you weren’t there. I probably did go, but I was more concerned then about the fact that my student deferment was about to expire, and having been randomly assigned the number 062 in the draft lottery, the next stop could easily be Vietnam. Clearing out some things recently, however, I came across a small plastic box, and inside I found a Phi Beta Kappa key engraved with my name, my university, and the date. I’m pretty sure I didn’t buy it, but I think I know who did.

Martin Luther, he of the Protestant Reformation, was sent in the year 1498 to elementary school in the small east German town of Eisenach. Luther recalled that out of respect for his pupils, the headmaster always took off his academic cap when he came into the classroom, saying, I am just a lowly teacher, but I doff my hat to you students, “because God may have destined some of you to be mayor, chancellor, doctor, or statesman.” If you ever have occasion to visit the office of the President of Brandeis, you will see in the hallway a large number of framed pictures of graduates who have made good in life: scientists, philosophers, writers, actors, captains of industry and so on—a veritable museum of hairstyles and fashions in eyeglasses. I hope that many years from now, when I motivate slowly down that hall clutching my walker, as I make my way to the future President’s office to complain about unfair deductions to my pension, that I will see photos of some of you who have fulfilled the Brandeis mission of healing the world, making it a better place—sorry, Michael Jackson senior moment. So on this day in the year 2023, I doff my academic cap to you new Phi Beta Kappa inductees and say … make us proud.

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