The BEST: David Foster Wallace, “This Is Water” (2005)

Featured Articles - Home, Tradition Online

Commencement Address at Kenyon College

Full Address | Dramatized Excerpt | Transcript

Summary: Foster Wallace sets out to explain the value of a liberal arts education. He questions the cliché that an education is meant to teach a person how to think. He argues that a good education is not about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about – to consciously decide what has meaning.

Message: Choosing to escape self-centered thinking. Paying attention and being attentive to how we construct meaning. Everybody worships; the only choice is what we worship. Avoiding default setting (unconsciousness) in how we think and live.

Caution: Foster Wallace makes use of commonly used foul language to convey his message. Foster Wallace himself battled depression and killed himself at age 46.

Other works by this author of particular value:

Reflections on modern politics and cynicism: “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and the Shrub” (Rolling Stone, April 13, 2000)

Reflections on animal cruelty and commerce: “Consider the Lobster” (Gourmet, August 2004)



This is the second installment in TraditionOnline’s “The BEST” column, exploring exemplars of the best culture has to offer thinking religious people—click here for the column introduction.

1 Comment

  1. Chaim Strauchler says:

    A person should always be God-fearing, privately and publicly, acknowledging the truth and speaking it in his or her heart. A person should arise and say, “Master of all worlds, not because of our righteousness do we lay our please before you…”

    We invest much time in the exercise of daily prayer. What function is served by reciting the same words every day? Classically, Shema is understood to constitute an ongoing “Accepting the Sovereignty of Heaven.” The translation is cluncky and foreign to our modern mindset. Nevertheless, something of great utility is achieved by regular positioning our existence in relationship to something more than our personal well-being (and our self consciousness). This is useful for us as Jews. This is useful for us as human beings. Few arguments for the utility of such awareness exist than David Foster Wallace’s argument for education.

    Foster Wallaces champions the freedom that comes from consciously deciding what has meaning and what doesn’t, of willfully deciding what to worship.
    “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship… is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.”

    Daily consciousness of truth is difficult. Prayer can become part of an overall default setting that is self-absorbed and blind to the choices. The temptations of money, beauty, power and youth are just as present for the Orthodox Jew as they are for all humanity. Yet, baked into our system is the aspiration for the capital T Truth; we call it the Yoke of Heaven. If we do things right, our prayers make us aware of it, at least, twice a day.

Leave a Reply