In an age of “spiritual blackout,” rediscovering the light can prove difficult, said philosopher, author and Harvard professor Cornel West. Delivering a lecture to a full Clayton Hall crowd, West confronted this struggle, emphasizing the need for “soul-craft” during trying times.
West appeared as the keynote speaker for the Ecce Homo symposium series, hosted by the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures. A four-day event with speakers, panels and discussions, the symposium addressed questions central to the understanding of “human dignity,” examining the role of human rights and relations from antiquity to the present.
West gradually revealed the meaning of “soul-craft” throughout the talk, beginning with an allusion to Socrates’ saying that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” To West, this examination requires an honest awareness and location of oneself in both social and historical contexts, oftentimes having a humbling effect.
“What does it mean to be a featherless, two-legged, linguistically conscious creature born between urine and feces?” West asked. “That’s who we are. It gets a little deeper than skin pigmentation and gender and sexual orientation and ethnic identity.”
West continued to prod at the human condition, emphasizing the importance of integrity in times of oppression and the need to resist the capitalization of culture, noting a distinction between “soul-craft” and “market-driven soul-craft.” He identified various influences throughout his life, with his Christian upbringing and figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. instilling lessons within him about he need to respect human rights and love others.
West expanded on the role of love, discussing how musicians such as the “love-warrior” John Coltrane conveyed spirit and soul through their music. To West, this music and culture creates a tradition founded on love, which he considers a crucial element of justice. He also spoke of truth as an essential component of a just world, requiring a realization that many neglect to entertain.
“The condition of truth is always to allow suffering to speak,” West said. “When you learn how to die by calling into question some of the assumptions and presuppositions that you have, when you let some of those go — that’s a form of death.”
Another central question raised by West considered the role of virtue when faced with attack. He returned to a concept stressed early in the lecture — fortitude — with true compassion for struggling people requiring a spiritual audacity that defies injustice. He cited pacifistic protesters Jane Addams and Martin Luther King Jr. as individuals who, despite facing hateful criticism and being labeled as “dangerous,” persevered with a spiritual fortitude in their commitment to the preservation of human dignity.
West’s message about love resonated with senior Sara Gilbert, prompting her to look for the ways in which love resides in the world around her. She said that a recognition of the basic commonality of love in the student body could help ignite social and political progress.
Senior Daniel Farmer said that West’s lecture led him to contemplate the importance of music and its traditions in making sense of the world, particularly as he is currently pursuing music as a “side-career.”
“Seeing how ingrained music is in struggle and justice meant a lot to me and reinforced the value of music to me,” Farmer said.
West closed the lecture by reiterating the need for justice-driven action on social, economic, political and artistic levels, generating change by means that are “in the world but not of the world.” But this justice, West cautioned, is not guaranteed.
“It depends on what we do,” West said. “Let’s see.”