Lim Delivers “Senior Voices” Baccalaureate Address

Elvin Lim

Elvin Lim

Elvin Lim, associate professor of government, presented the following remarks during the “Senior Voices” baccalaureate address on May 25:

As we gather today to commemorate the last four years of our seniors’ career at Wesleyan, perhaps some of you are feeling some trepidation about your futures outside of this ivory tower. So I have decided to direct my remarks today on the subject of contingency, and the human reaction to it, uncertainty, which is the source of all our hopes and fears.

Plato had said that in order to understand the nature of justice, we must first observe its incarnations in just republics. So I shall try to do the same in my effort to understand contingency. Perhaps if we analyzed how civilizations have coped with uncertainty, we may better understand how we, as individuals, can cope with uncertainty. I will propose that the collective solution for uncertainty – stamping it out – is exactly opposite to the individual solution: embracing it.

So how did ancient, or pre-modern societies cope with uncertainty? Quite simply, they defined it away. And they did it in two ways. The Pagan religions tended to characterize the Gods as crazy. Contingency came in the form of the capricious Gods. The Judeo-Christian religions went the other way. They understood their God to be all-knowing and omnipotent. Since God was all-knowing, there was no contingency. We may not know what is to come, but God does. This can be encapsulated in the common phrase, “everything happens for a reason.” That was how we coped with uncertainty.

But this comfort was not to last for we who have eaten from the fruit of knowledge. God had begun to die a gradual death from about the time of the Renaissance. The idea of order waned with the idea of the giver of order. Without divine order, princes and statesmen created social order in the form of nations and ideologies. This is the condition of modernity, which I believe began about half a millennia ago. In this time, we waged war, we created nations, the invisible hand of markets, invented ideologies – all so that we can make sense of a senseless world, to conquer Fortuna, because, as Machiavelli tells us, it is better to anticipate contingency than to be surprised by it. Modernity, then, began when women and men – initially the ruling elites to be sure – started to take things into our own hands, to do everything we could to reduce our vulnerability to events outside of our control.

As you know, our collective attempts to conquer Fortuna hasn’t been always a pretty affair. We as citizens and individuals, will do well to understand that governing elites seek order, and if so, perhaps our duty is to unravel it. This is true even today. In contemporary politics, politicians see public opinion as the ultimate contingency to be mastered and conquered.  As Octavius Ceasar puts it rather condescendingly in Anthony and Cleopatra, “This common body,
Like to a vagabond flag upon the stream,
Goes to and back, lackeying the varying tide,
To rot itself with motion.”

Politicians don’t like recalcitrant wills, which is why an entire cottage industry of consultants, political hacks, and yes, political scientists were born to predict, divine, and conjure public opinion.

But we are complicit too. We have bought some of these coping strategies sold to us from on high, because we ourselves can’t handle uncertainty. Ideology is one of these coping strategies. American liberals, in general, don’t like contingency in economic markets. They prefer governments to secure a social safety net and some uncertainty in what they see as turbulent and unpredictable markets. Conservatives, on the other hand, embrace contingency in the markets. Or rather, they perceive an order in the seeming disorder. Their hope and faith is in the invisible hand of the price mechanism. Liberals’ and conservatives’ attitude toward social policy is reversed. Here, liberals embrace uncertainty in the bedroom or in social relations. Conservatives, on the other hand, fear the breakdown of society and therefore are more permissive than liberals are in government intervention in social policy and the preservation of law and order. Ideologies too are coping strategies; they are generated by our respective fears and hopes.  They have become, for some of us, a crutch to make sense of the world without the fullness of our reason.

It is the job of princes and statesmen to unite us with ideas and overarching ideologies. It is the birthright of individuals that we should resist them. In big numbers, we are predictable. Minorities tend to vote Democratic. Evangelical Christians tend to vote Republican. But as individuals, we are impossible to divine. You and I have one thing that is more unpredictable than the weather. We have the power to change our minds, so that we can actively subvert the prediction of the scientists. Even the tempest obeys the laws of nature and meteorology. But the human will along possesses the capacity to subvert any law that tries to bind it. The human will is irreducibly contingent. This was in part what Richard Rorty meant when he recognized that “freedom is the recognition of contingency.” Rather than fear Fortuna, we should welcome her.

If you allow somebody else – a priest, a politician, or a professor – to tell you what the meaning of meaning is, then you have abdicated your will. Much of your education in this institution was dedicated to just that: skepticism in the natural sciences, alternative hypotheses in the social sciences, deconstruction in the humanities. Wesleyan has broadened your appetite for uncertainty, and that is the best strategy for coping with Fortuna.  For too often we do ourselves in by devising self-defeating coping strategies.

Uncertainty keeps us on our toes, between today and tomorrow, the is and the ought. To embrace uncertainty is to unleash the creative energy in you. For to imagine is to contemplate possible worlds. That is why rigid, dogmatic, obstinate are not likely to be the innovators of tomorrow. If you follow this mantra of embracing uncertainty, you may yet avoid a mid-life crisis, which is typically when you find out that you’ve accomplished all the goals you’ve set out for yourself, and yet you’re still seeking meaning. Meaning is a moving target, and as a person in mid-life crisis will come to realize, sometimes, being in control gets out of control.

Wesleyan has taught us that even though there is allegedly a real world outside, it isn’t any more real than Wesleyan is unreal. The world is made up of man-made institutions, and constructed meanings and expectations. It may do us good to remember that whatever goals we set for ourselves are embedded at least in part in this man-made structure of hopes and fears. Why do people want to be rich? Not because money can buy happiness, but because money can buy certainty: a roof to shelter us when it rains, medicine when we are sick, babysitters when we are busy. Money buttresses us against life’s contingencies. So does power, and fame. Some would say even marriage is a coping strategy: it gives us an end-of-life caretaker. All of these are mankind’s solutions against Fortuna.

The answer to uncertainty is not coping strategies but simply an increased appetite for it. Perhaps this is why children seem ever so happy. Children are maximally helpless, so what do they do? They accept uncertainty; they embrace it. Your last four years at Wesleyan was but a glorified childhood, when you were encouraged to question, to ask, to challenge, to refute. No expectations, at least a lot less than when you come back for your first reunion. Between birth and death, between Wesleyan and your our mid-life crisis, grown-ups feign clarity on the meaning of life.

To accept uncertainty is to be straddled between hope and fear. It is exhilarating, but one must admit, quite exhausting. So if you are apprehensive today on the eve of your graduation, I want to highlight the great irony that you are in the best state to weather Fortuna today than you will be when you think you are surer about life in the years to come. So go out and accomplish your goals. But do not see them as a fortress against contingency because contingency will shatter them all. If you must pursue what some may term false gods, like money or fame just for their own sakes alone, recognize your goals as such, and pursue them with a sense of irony, even a sense of humor and self-deprecation. If you can, disrupt when there is certainty, challenge your own goals when you are sure. This is what people mean when they say, “never grow up.” If you don’t grow up, you can’t have a mid-life crisis.

To embrace uncertainty is not to live a life of moral relativism, nihilism, and existential angst, but to possess a humility that the structures in which we live and which places us in high places, and podiums may not be in and themselves just or valuable. We cannot pretend that we are not in this world, but we can try, at least sometimes, not to be of it. This requires us to straddle the real and imagined, the known and unknown, to appreciate the tragic-comedic aspect of life. I invite you to behold the interstices of life when life is most lively. Jesus never cried, and Socrates never laughed, because they both knew what was to come. It only follows that we who do not know what is to come must cry and laugh.