Graduation address: Professor Nigel Rapport

Thursday 22 June 2017

Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen.

In honour of this auspicious occasion I sought advice from a manual on speech-making. This is what I learned: ‘Any talk, on any subject, whatever the occasion, and whatever the status of the speaker, will always please if it is five minutes shorter than people expect.’ The University has instructed me to speak for three minutes. We all know we don't mess with the expectations of the University of St Andrews.  

So, a three-minute talk minus five minutes, it seems that to please, I must speak for minus two minutes.

So well done! Thanks for coming! And goodbye. 

Only joking!

But seriously, well done! You now have MA (St Andrews) after your names; or MSc, or MRes, or MLitt, or MPhil, or PhD. You need defer to no one. 

Be proud of your achievements. You can now answer questions like ‘What do you understand about the symbolic construction of community?’, ‘How did the philosopher Emanuel Levinas differentiate between "other" and "the other"?’, ‘How did the Yiddish phrase "Mazel Tov" ("Congratulations") become "Mazal Tov" in Modern Hebrew?’, And, 'Why did Philip Larkin end his poem with the words: "What will survive of us is love"?'

So, please do remember those whose love, imagination – and money – have helped you reach this position. But be proud of your achievements and aim higher still.  

But then, really: why did Larkin immortalise the words, ‘What will survive of us is love’? I mean, what is it all for? The knowledge, the skills, the habits of scholarship – and of self-possession and sociality – that you have gained in your years at St Andrews. What is the meaning of it all? What is the meaning of life — to recall Monty Python?

In what might be the last minutes of formal or official St Andrews wordsmithery that you receive from this University – I feel it is my duty to attempt to answer that: the meaning of life. Or at least share others’ answers.

So, E M Forster, the novelist, opines: ‘Personal relations are the real life for ever and ever.’ George Steiner, a literary critic, urges: ‘There is no community, no ethnic group, no nation, no class, no church that is “not worth leaving” if the individual wants to be “a true thinker, a truth-thinker.”’ From Hillel, the Rabbi, we learn: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to another.’ Nietzsche, the philosopher, advises that fundamental drive is the ‘will to power’: each of us must and should fashion our lives according to our own visions, treat our lives as artworks. And from The Beatles: ‘All you need is love’. 

So there we have it, ladies and gentlemen, the meaning of life:

Be personal with others.
Be independent and seek for truth.
Be compassionate.
Respect your life by being individual.
And love.  

Having sorted that out, I’d like to end on a personal note – if you would please indulge me Chancellor? 

I once shared this stage with Bob Dylan. When I say ‘shared’ this stage with Bob Dylan, I mean I actually got a photograph of the back of his head. Or someone’s head, as Bob Dylan received an honorary degree from this University... maybe not quite up to the quality of selfies these days, but it impressed me. 

Today, I am proud to share the stage, face-to-face on stage with an honorary graduate who is very special to me: my own PhD advisor. It was he who afforded me the liberty to make my social anthropology my own. He enabled my academic career. (He also enabled my marriage, but that’s another story.) I am always in his debt. 

And some of my own PhD students are here today. Well done Elena; well done Sara; well done Simone. Not to mention others from Social Anthropology, now PHD: Tommy, Panas, Radom, Aluka, Marta, Juan. I am really proud of you, I’m really happy for you.

Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal: ‘Minds are threaded together – any live mind is of the very same stuff as Plato's … it is this common mind that binds the whole world together.’ 

So, the common mind that links my teacher to me and me to my students links us all. You to one another and to your proud guests. We are all human beings progressing down the road to true knowledge, through reason and through love. I have faith in that. 

More nearly, today we are all linked via the University of St Andrews, a famous place of knowledge –I am proud to belong to it, as I have for 25 years. 

So, go forth from this caring institution, this caring University, and multiply. I mean of course, multiply your ideas. Your capabilities. Your reasoning. Your individuality. Your humanity. Your freedom. Your fulfilments. Your kindness. Your love. 

Thank you and goodbye.

Professor Nigel Rapport
School of Philosophical, Anthropological and Film Studies