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Laughing without Lips: the Last Lecture

By Randall S. Barton on June 05, 2012 12:05 PM

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The final Hum 110 lecture of the year is one of Reed's longstanding rites of passage. After eight long months of Homer, Plato, and Sophocles, freshlings often feel a little rowdy—and the fact that the lecture typically takes place on the Friday of Renn Fayre only amplifies the sense of mischief. (One year several students actually removed their clothes during the lecture.)

In 2003, professor Jan Mieszkowski [German 1997–] volunteered to give the last lecture on St. Augustine's Confessions, a duty he reprised until 2011 when the syllabus was revised. (St. Augustine may belong to the ages, but he no longer belongs to Hum 110.)

Professor Mieszkowski delivered the lecture, by turns provocative, funny, and profound, at Reunions 2012 to an audience of appreciative alumni.

In the course of 45 minutes, Mieszkowski referred to the seminal Christian philosopher through a series of names designed to serve as study aids for key topics, such as the Bishop of Hippo, the Big A, the disciple of Ambrose, Pear Poacher, the Eldest Son of Monica, Conversion Man, A Native Of A Provincial City In North Africa, and Mr. Don't You Want to Hear Me Talk about My Past Corruptions ad nauseum.

Putting the Hum in humor, Mieszkowski described The Confessions as "being about the importance of establishing a relationship with God, and yet no book could be more permeated in every sentence by this profound skepticism about whether or not this is possible."

"Circumcise my lips inwardly and outwardly from all rashness and falsehood," St. Augustine wrote. Mieszkowski mused how one might sound with circumcised lips. "Speak once your lips are cut away from anything misleading and you shall not be misheard," he paraphrased the good saint. "These are the bizarre linguistic injunctions presented in The Confessions. They are challenges, I would suggest, that none of us may be prepared to take up."

The last laughs were reserved for Plato's parable about the philosopher Thales, who, while studying the stars, walked into a well and engendered the laughter of a Thracian maiden. Philosophers who have their heads in the clouds, Mieszkowski ventured, may stumble when it comes to everyday matters like walking around wells.
But viewing the parable through the lens of Baudelaire, Thales and the maid are not separate people but two parts of the same person. One part falls into the well and another part, the disinterested spectator, laughs. The philosopher can mock himself.

Real philosophy begins in the wonder of laughter, Mieszkowski affirmed, and the final Hum lecture concluded with it.