Best Commencement Speeches: Joseph Brodsky

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On December 18, 1988, Russian American poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) delivered the Winter Commencement Address to the 2,000 graduates of The University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, Michigan). It was delivered at a time when glasnost (“openness, being more public”), promoted by leader Mikhail Gorbachev, was sweeping over the former Soviet Union. Little did some of these graduates know the slings and arrows that the speaker, who stood before them, had endured.

Brodsky was born in Russia but was expelled in 1972 for his anti-Soviet poetry. The Soviets did not make his life easy: he was frequently interrogated, confined to a mental institution twice, and sentenced to five years of hard labor. He found solace in his study of poetry: in the evenings he would write and read anthologies of English and British poetry. Over time he became a symbol of artistic resistance in a totalitarian country. With the help of fellow poet W. H. Auden, Brodsky was able to immigrate to America where he continued to study and write poetry. He taught at many prominent American universities, including University of Michigan, Mount Holyoke, Yale, Columbia, and Cambridge. In 1987 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his poetic work and he was appointed United States Poet Laureate in 1991.

In his memorable commencement speech, titled “Speech at the Stadium,” Brodsky extols the virtues of the Ten Commandments of the Bible as well as avoiding the seven deadly sins. He doesn’t mention by name, so for the uninitiated, they are: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. (Incidentally, they are called “deadly” because committing these sins leads to the death of the soul.) There is a common misperception is that the seven deadly sins (or cardinal sins) are found in the Bible.  They are not — they were introduced by Evarius Ponticus, a Christian monk and ascetic who lived in Jerusalem and Egypt in the 4th century. Ponticus believed there were eight evil thoughts: gluttony, fornication, greed, envy, wrath, dejection, boasting, and pride. (Come to think of it, that actually sounds like the essential qualities of a modern-day politician in the post-Trumpian world.) Ponticus’ ideas were incorporated into western Christian theology by John Cassian, a Christian monk and theologian, in the 5th century and later in Roman Catholic theology by by Pope Gregory I in the sixth century. In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas elaborated on the seven deadly sins in his seminal work, Summa Theologica. Brodsky’s contribution to the graduates of the 20th century is to build on these foundational 17 lessons by adding six tips for living a better life.

The transcript of Brodsky’s commencement speech can be found on several websites, often under the banner of “The Greatest Commencement Address of All Time.” Also, most of the versions have been heavily paraphrased, edited, and in some cases restructured in format. The actual transcript, which runs about 3,400 words, can be found in a collection of Brodsky’s essays titled, On Grief and Reason: Essays, that was published in 1995. An argument can legitimately be made that it is timeless, however, it may not necessarily be the greatest commencement of all time. To begin with, it is not particularly eloquent; moreover it is unnecessarily verbose, even rambling at times. (When will commencement speakers understand that this is the graduates’ moment of glory, not their own?) And for a poet, one would expect a more elegant and um… poetic expression of ideas. Surprisingly, Brodsky makes use of several cliches that could have been expressed more originally. Nevertheless, the beauty is in the eye, or in this case, ears, of the beholder: you be the judge. Here are excerpts from Brodsky’s commencement speech:

“Life is a game with many rules but no referee. One learns how to play it more by watching it than by consulting any book, including the Holy Book. Small wonder, then, that so many play dirty, that so few win, that so many lose…

If I remember my colleagues well, if I know what’s happening to university curricula all over the country, if I am not totally oblivious to the pressures the so-called modern world exerts upon the young, I feel nostalgic for those who sat in your chairs a dozen or so years ago, because some of them at least could cite the Ten Commandments and still others even remembered the names of the Seven Deadly Sins. As to what they’ve done with that precious knowledge of theirs afterward, as to how they fared in the game, I have no idea. All I can hope for is that in the long run one is better off being guided by rules and taboos laid down by someone totally impalpable than by the penal code alone. 

Since your run is most likely to be fairly long, and since being better off and having a decent world around you is what you presumably are after, you could do worse than to acquaint yourselves with those commandments and that list of sins. There are just seventeen items altogether, and some of them overlap. Of course, you may argue that they belong to a creed with a substantial record of violence. Still, as creeds go, this one appears to he the most tolerant; it’s worth your consideration if only because it gave birth to the society in which you have the right to question or negate its value. 

But I am not here to extol the virtues of any particular creed or philosophy, nor do I relish, as so many seem to, the opportunity to snipe at the modem system of education or at you, its alleged victims… But there is a transparent wall between the generations, an ironic curtain, if you will, a see-through veil allowing almost no passage of experience. At best, some tips.

Regard, then, what you are about to hear as just tips­ of several icebergs, if I may say so, not of Mount Sinai. I am no Moses, nor are you biblical Jews; these are a few random jottings scribbled on a yellow pad somewhere in California — not tablets. Ignore them if you wish, doubt them if you must, forget them if you can’t help it: there is nothing imperative about them. Should some of it now or in the time to be come in handy to you, I’ll be glad. If not, my wrath won’t reach you. 

1. Now, and in the time to be, I think it will pay for you to zero in on being precise with your language. Try to build and treat your vocabulary the way you are to treat your checking account. Pay every attention to it and try to increase your earnings. The purpose here is not to boost your bed­room eloquence or your professional success — although those, too, can be consequences — nor is it to turn you into parlor sophisticates. The purpose is to enable you to artic­ulate yourselves as fully and precisely as possible; in a word, the purpose is your balance. For the accumulation of things not spelled out, not properly articulated, may result in neu­rosis…

2. Now, and in the time to be, try to be kind to your parents. If this sounds too close to ‘’Honor thy mother and father”’ for your comfort, so be it. All I am trying to say is, try not to rebel against them, for, in all likelihood, they will die before you do, so you can spare yourselves at least this source of guilt if not of grief. If you must rebel, rebel against those who are not so easily hurt…

3. Try not to set too much store by politicians — not so much because they are dumb or dishonest, which is more often than not the case, but because of the size of their job, which is too big even for the best among them, by this or that political party, doctrine, system, or a blueprint thereof. All they or those can do, at best, is to diminish a social evil, not eradicate it. No matter how substantial an improvement may be, ethically speaking it will always be negligible, because there will always be those — say, just one person — who won’t profit from this improvement. The world is not perfect; the Golden Age never was or will be…

4. Try not to stand out, try to be modest. There are too many of us as it is, and there are going to be many more, very soon. Thus climbing into the limelight is bound to be done at the expense of the others who won’t be climbing. That you must step on somebody’s toes doesn’t mean you should stand on their shoulders. Besides, all you will see from that vantage point is the human sea, plus those who, like you, have assumed a similarly conspicuous — and very precarious at that — position: those who are called rich and famous…

5. At all costs try to avoid granting yourself the status of the victim. Of all the parts of your body, be most vigilant over your index finger, for it is blame-thirsty. A pointed finger is a victim’s logo — the opposite of the V sign and a synonym for surrender. No matter how abominable your condition may be, try not to blame anything or anybody: history, the state, superiors, race, parents, the phase of the moon, child­hood, toilet training, etc. The menu is vast and tedious, and this vastness and tedium alone should be offensive enough to set one’s intelligence against choosing from it. The mo­ment that you place blame somewhere, you undermine your resolve to change anything; it could be argued even that that blame-thirsty finger oscillates as wildly as it does because the resolve was never great enough in the first place. After all, victim status is not without its sweetness. It commands compassion, confers distinction, and whole nations and continents bask in the murk of mental discounts advertised as the victim’s conscience…

6. The world you are about to enter and exist in doesn’t have a good reputation. It’s been better geographically than his­torically; it’s still far more attractive visually than socially. It’s not a nice place, as you are soon to find out, and I rather doubt that it will get much nicer by the time you leave it. Still, it’s the only world available: no alternative exists, and if one did, there is no guarantee that it would be much better than this one. It is a jungle out there, as well as a desert, a slippery slope, a swamp, etc. — literally — but what’s worse, metaphorically, too. Yet, as Robert Frost has said, “The best way out is always through.” He also said, in a different poem, though, that “to be social is to be forgiving.” It’s with a few remarks about this business of getting through that I would like to close… 

Try not to pay attention to those who will try to make life miserable for you. There will be a lot of those — in the official capacity as well as the self-appointed. Suffer them if you can’t escape them, but once you have steered clear of them, give them the shortest shrift possible. Above all, try to avoid telling stories about the unjust treatment you re­ceived at their hands; avoid it no matter how receptive your audience may be. Tales of this sort extend the existence of your antagonists; most likely they are counting on your being talkative and relating your experience to others. By himself, no individual is worth an exercise in injustice (or for that matter, in justice). The ratio of one-to-one doesn’t justify the effort: it’s the echo that counts. That’s the main principle of any oppressor, whether state-sponsored or autodidact. Therefore, steal, or still, the echo, so that you don’t allow an event, however unpleasant, or momentous, to claim any more time than it took for it to occur….

I had better stop here. As I said, I’ll be glad if you find what I’ve said useful. If not, it will show that you are equipped far better for the future than one would expect from people of your age. Which, I suppose, is also a reason for rejoic­ing — not for apprehension. In either case — well equipped or not — I wish you luck, because what lies ahead is no picnic for the prepared and the unprepared alike, and you’ll need luck. Still, I believe that you’ll manage… 

Clearly this place is of extraordinary sentimental value for me; and so it will be­come, in a dozen years or so, for you. To that extent, I can divine your future; in that respect, I know you will manage, or, more precisely, succeed. For feeling a wave of warmth coming over you in a dozen or so years at the mention of this town’s name will indicate that, luck or no luck, as human beings you’ve succeeded. It’s this sort of success I wish to you above all in the years to come. The rest depends on luck and matters less.”

The complete commencement address can be found in Google Books by searching “Brodsky On Grief and Reason.”

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For further reading: On Grief and Reason: Essays by Joseph Brodsky (1995)