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Monday, January 02, 2006

Speaking in Boston

I was in Boston for a wedding (Catholic), and, as best man, I was expected to give a speech...

Good evening ladies and gentlemen,

Let me begin with best wishes to the bride and groom from my wife and daughter, who were unable to attend this happy day. With that caveat complete, I shall endeavor to be brief and will waste no time for tonight I am a praise-singer.

Hippocrates, from whom we received the Hippocratic Oath, once said:

“Life is short, but the art is long, the opportunity fleeting, the experiment perilous, the judgement difficult.”

Not much has changed since those heady days of Ancient Greece, when Xenocrates, Heraclitus and Socrates walked tall and lived on courage alone. Times were hard, enemies abounded, and the repression of the helots unending. Socrates, the father of Western thought, to which we are the current heirs, was sentenced to death for daring to think and speak his mind.

Times are still hard and dangerous men abound; the world is a hostile place, especially for beauty. The cynic within believes that these dangerous men, in the guise of culture and breeding and mindless tradition, seek to do no more than crush and trample, poison and pollute, deform and distort, the very few beautiful things that we, as the common people, the helots, have managed to somehow cobble together from the tailings of the privileged few.

And, to build this beauty, the beauty of mankind, when all, from the aloof heads of state, to economists conducting experiments in monetary theory with the entire human race standing in as lab rats, to the petty grammarians ordering us to walk right and not talk at all, are out to destroy beauty requires extreme courage. The courage of Homer and Jason.

Most people don’t have that courage, racked instead with fear and doubt. Deep down, most people know the odds—that life is a game in gambling hall, and the house almost always wins. Rationally enough, people do the pragmatic thing. They step gingerly, ready to retreat at the slightest hint of danger. They set the bar low, make “achievable goals”, and, most importantly, never give all of themselves. They never risk every breath, every atom, everything loved and cherished for a higher cause, for it is dangerous to do so.

If you dedicate yourself to the higher cause of human perfection, things may go horribly wrong; chance or dangerous men may get the better of you, and they will destroy you utterly and completely. Much safer then to have insurance, employ risk-reduction strategies, and live and exist and breed and shop, and, with some luck, die in peace.

But, and herein lies the rub, beauty isn’t created by risk-adverse people. In a world repressed, beauty, that perfection of all the best of humankind, needs more than playing it safe. Beauty requires the self-sacrifice of heroes, those who have the courage to, as Ray Bradbury advised:

“Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.”

Where, oh where, are our men of courage? Where is today’s Achilles? Where are the heroes?

One of them is here today. [Groom], you are a hero.

[Bride], [Groom] has given everything to you, and will continue to do so. He will risk everything he has and will have in order to make your marriage a thing of such exquisite beauty. He does this not because he is reckless and foolish, but because he has a rare quality, the courage of Beowulf. He is a hero, that much I do know.

And because he will give all of him to you, your marriage will shine, it will be a beacon in a world of darkness. As the sage Lao Tzu pointed out:

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”

Thank you for this opportunity to speak, and, if you’ll permit me, I’d like to conclude with an excerpt from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

“Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast

“He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.”


  • socrates was put to death (erroneously),after the citizenry of athens panicked when his prize students kept overthrowing the democracy. they (rightly) blamed him for this, citing that he discouraged support for democracy and held up sparta (athens' enemy) as a model of a reasonable government - military aristocracy and a barrack state. they (wrongly) killed him for that, thereby violating their own best principles, though it's worth noting that he was expected to go into exile (worse than death for the greeks) rather than accept the death sentence. there is a case to be made that he accepted the sentence more to embarrasss the city than anything else, as he believed that he was to be reborn and so discounted dying. socrates' most famous pupil then went on to further weaken democracy in athens (while living off its fruits) and wrote the first exhaustive manual on totalitarian government (the republic). plato also took time out to rehabilitate his teacher by writing dialogues in which socrates was continually triumphant over lesser, meaner men, whom he chided gently, all the while pursuing truth. he was a horrible sot and should not have been venerated, but athens was wrong to kill him.

    By Anonymous dale, At 11:13 am  

  • further:

    "'s worth noting that he was expected to go into exile (worse than death for the greeks) rather than accept the death sentence..."

    and had the opportunity to nominate that as his sentence, which he turned down. even after the death sentence was handed down, there was a strong (and informally encouraged) tradition of skipping town, and according to plato, a group of socrates’ pupils set up one such midnight run, only to have socrates turn it down on the grounds that he was tired of life. so it’s more nuanced than simply ‘athens killed socrates’. the trial was political, and wrong, but holding socrates up as a model of the free thinker martyred is like holding up david irving, or hendrik verwoerd as the quintessential radical iconoclast, poorly served by history. it’s technically true, if you’re prepared to ignore the nature and content of their iconoclasm.

    By Anonymous dale, At 1:42 pm  

  • lastly:

    "athens was wrong to kill him."

    and we’re wrong to compound their error by idolising his death and thereby obscuring his life

    By Anonymous dale, At 1:45 pm  

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