When C. S. Lewis gave the Memorial Address at King’s College, London in 1944 — the occasion being very like an American university commencement — he began by commenting, “When you invite a middle-aged moralist to address you, I suppose I must conclude, however unlikely the conclusion seems, that you have a taste for middle-aged moralising. I shall do my best to gratify it.”
It was a shrewd move. Lewis himself always loathed the pompous didacticism he had found endemic to the English educational system, and expected that his audience would too. “Everyone knows what a middle-aged moralist of my type warns his juniors against. He warns them against the World, the Flesh, and the Devil.” But with a smile on his face, he declared that he would play to type: “I shall, in fact, give you advice about the world in which you are going to live.”
Let’s fast-forward about sixty years, to a commencement address at Stanford University. The speaker this time is not a professor but rather a businessman named Steve Jobs, and he makes it clear from the outset that he’ll not be doing any “middle-aged moralising.” Rather, he says, “Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.”
And yet it’s not clear, when you think about it, that Jobs’s message is any less moralistic than Lewis’s. It just bears a different moral.
Lewis warns his listeners against the power of what he calls the “Inner Ring” — the desire to belong to a certain admirable group, to be allowed to sit at the cool kids’ table — because he believes that, among all our desires, that one is the most likely to make un-wicked people do wicked things.
Jobs also warns his listeners, but warns them not to allow Death, when he knocks on their door, to find them “living someone else’s life.” Lewis points to the dangers of letting the desire to belong make you a “scoundrel,” and while Jobs too thinks others can endanger us, he frames that danger very differently: “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”
This is the permissible moralism of 2005: College graduates can be exhorted, but not to the old-fashioned virtues that Lewis implicitly appeals to, but rather to self-fulfillment: For Jobs, what is “most important” is this: “have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”
This makes a neat story, once which can be read either as emancipation from constricting rules or as a decline into egotism. But the story gets slightly more complex if we look at one more middle-aged moralist: David Foster Wallace.
Wallace was, I’d say, barely middle-aged when he delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College just a few weeks before Jobs spoke at Stanford: he was 43. (Jobs was 50, and when Lewis gave his “Inner Ring” address he was 45.) If Lewis acknowledges that the genre invites moralism and cheerfully accepts the invitation, and Jobs disavows moralism but delivers it anyway, in a new form, Wallace seems almost desperate to avoid any such thing.
Having begun with a little story about fish, he continues, “If you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish.” Then: “But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called ‘virtues.’” And: “Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re ‘supposed to’ think this way.” Finally: “Obviously, you can think of [this talk] whatever you wish. But please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon.” Please.
Yet for all those disavowals, Wallace’s speech may be the most passionately moralistic of them all, though in a complex way. He tells us to be suspicious of that inner inner voice that Jobs wants us to listen to, because that voice always says the same thing: “There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of.” Consequently, our “natural, hard-wired default setting … is to be deeply and literally self-centred, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.”
And why should we want to think otherwise? Why should we turn outward? Not in order to avoid becoming scoundrels, Wallace says, but because such other-directedness can bring us freedom. “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.”
Substantively, it seems to me, Wallace’s ethic is far closer to that of Lewis than to that of Jobs, though he and Jobs were near-contemporaries and formed by much the same culture. (Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters was one of Wallace’s favorite books.) But he could not, and knew he could not, speak as Lewis spoke — even with an ironic nod towards the inevitable clichés of the commencement-speech genre.
Universities still invite middle-aged moralists (professors rarely, writers and business leaders more often) to give speeches to their graduating students, even though those students are generally inoculated against middle-aged moralism — the moralism of self-fulfillment always excepted. What’s remarkable about Wallace’s speech, which has become the great canonical example of the genre, is that he found a way to rescue the occasion; and that he rescued it by pretending to refuse it.