November 17, 2004

Moody-Adams Gives 'Last Lecture' on Philosophy

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Why is the unexamined life not worth living? This was the question Prof. Michele Moody-Adams, philosophy, explored yesterday afternoon at Goldwin Smith in her lecture titled “It’s Not Over Until the Philosopher Sings.” Moody-Adams’ talk marked the opening of the Last Lecture series, an event sponsored by Cornell’s chapter of the Mortar Board national honor society in which professors are invited to give a hypothetical final lecture.

Beginning with the fall of her senior year at Wellesley College, Moody-Adams discussed her decision to embark on a life of academia with philosophy as her focal point. Her decision was greeted with skepticism from close friends, who questioned the practical applications of such a major. Years later, she encountered many fellow travelers on planes who told her, “I really like the philosophy class I took in college but I couldn’t figure out what to do with it.”

“There is a vague but widespread sense that philosophy is too rarefied, too vague … to have practical value in the real world,” Moody-Adams said.

However, after studying statistics of the success of philosophy majors in mainstream professions, there came a point when she realized that it did not matter “whether philosophy was the cause of success or philosophy was self-selecting.”

In the end, “what compelled me to philosophy was the moving image of a lone figure standing before a jury of peers … the moral courage and intellectual conviction of Plato’s Socrates,” she said.

Moody-Adams used Socrates’ famous words, “the unexamined life is not worth living,” as the springboard for her discussion of three Socratic principles. First, if a person’s life is worth living and of real value, he or she must be ready to defend it in front of others, she said.

Second, a life is not worth living if a person is not willing to defend it at great cost, possibly even at risk of death. Lastly, people must live in full appreciation of the fact that they might be wrong.

Moody-Adams said that, “as a culture, many of us are convinced that when something is right, we don’t owe it to anyone to justify our beliefs.” This conviction lessens political debates, undermines the quality of public life and breeds intolerance, Moody-Adams said. She argued that this disregard of the first principle is dangerous because it makes “violence and coercion acceptable as a first resort rather than as a last resort.”

To counter this attitude, Moody-Adams urged students to stay informed of world events and to scrutinize the information given to them. As foreign policy thrusts American soldiers to the front lines, students must be able to “justify their political discourse to a soldier dying on the battlefield,” she said.

As examples of individuals who defend the values that define their lives at great cost, Moody-Adams used the characters of Reading Lolita in Tehran, a memoir about a group of girls in the Islamic Republic who “risked everything to study the forbidden classics of western literature.” She also pointed to American soldiers, “who are put in harm’s way in the name of democracy.”

Recognizing, however, that college students and professors are rarely called upon to defend their freedoms, Moody-Adams urged the audience not to be “lulled into complacency” by technological luxuries, to “resist the seductions of unalloyed materialism,” and to fight the temptation to narrow moral views as ways to live a worthwhile life in the relative bubble of Cornell.

Addressing the third principle of appreciating that one may be wrong, Moody-Adams noted that “human progress is a funny thing” because it often takes “a period of human atrocity to appreciate the dangers of ignoring the third principle.” Daily reminders, such as the Chicago senator who called voting for his opponent a sin, highlight the necessity of this principle.

Returning to the question of philosophy’s applications, Moody-Adams pointed to the ability of philosophers to remake the world with a constructive view and to reinvigorate political debate. Quoting John Keats on poetry, she said that philosophy can make the “familiar unfamiliar.”

The professor left the audience with an account of one of her most memorable experiences — a student dying of a brain tumor got out of her sickbed to thank her for the privilege of reading Plato.

“I hope that students will “leave class with the beautiful music of philosophy still ringing in their ears,” Moody-Adams concluded with a smile.

“For me, the lecture summarized the privilege of studying at Cornell,” said Sarah Brady ’05, who came to the event when one of her professors told her she could not leave Cornell without hearing Moody-Adams speak.

Algernon Cargill ’05, the Last Lecture chair of the Mortar Board who coordinated the event, cited a “powerful and moving” guest lecture by Moody-Adams that he heard in class as his impetus for inviting her to speak.

Ross Blankenship ’05, president of the Mortar Board, said that the society chose Moody-Adams because of her “worldly vision and singular outlook … she is someone that you look to for advice, she is a mentor with a vision for academia and the world.”

Moody-Adams is a moral and political philosopher who does research and teaching on a variety of issues in ethics and philosophy. She was formerly the associate dean of undergraduate studies at Indiana University.

Archived article by Cathy Xiaowei Tang
Sun Staff Writer