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Oration honouring John Ralston Saul

Mr. Chancellor, Despite appearances to the contrary, the public philosopher's lot is not a happy one. Thomas de Quincey, the English 19th century philosopher unequivocally stated that every philosopher of eminence for the past two centuries has either been murdered, or at the least very near it.

The saintly philosopher, Thomas More, was beheaded by his dear friend Henry VIII, the patrician philosopher Boethius was clubbed to death by his academic admirer, King Theodoric. Nero forced the philosopher and humourist Seneca to commit suicide and we all know how Socrates died— condemned to drink a cup of hemlock because he asked blunt questions in the marketplace, encouraging young people to think, debate and criticize the policies and actions of the state.
It is fortunate that John Ralston Saul, our very own eminent public philosopher, lives in the 21st century and in Canada.

Not for him, the fate of other philosophers who, like him, have been close to the affections of royalty, or their representatives, or who, like him, have sought to change the way citizens, politicians and parliaments think about the place they inhabit or the systems they devise.

Mr. Chancellor, John Ralston Saul may have been courted by the powerful, and the passionate, but he was never a courtier. This award-winning essayist, novelist, public speaker and very Canadian philosopher has brought to our marketplace provocative ideas about political and economic practices.

His books challenge us to think about the ramifications of globalization and its destructive tendencies. His books question the value of monolithic political models. He offers instead a vision of a "conscious" society, a nation based on the continuing evolution and cooperation between many groups, a place where "peace, welfare, and good government" are the trinity, not hierarchy, corporatism and technology. He reminds us that Canada is a place where aboriginal egalitarian and nonviolent practices sustain a fair country.

He envisions Canada as a continuing and dynamic equilibrium between the humanist qualities of common sense, ethics, imagination, intuition and memory working in harmony with, not in opposition to, classical notions of rationality.

And, Mr. Chancellor, this very Canadian philosopher uses a very powerful Canadian analogy in urging institutions and governments to balance cool rationality with the salutary and successful forces of the creative imagination.

Of course in the political, intellectual and economic arenas we all have to pay attention to the rules and the lines, particularly, Mr. President, the bottom line – but if we want to be truly successful John Ralston Saul tells us to follow Wayne Gretzky's visionary advice – "Skate where the puck is going, not where it is."

So, Mr. Chancellor, given his visionary and humanistic philosophical insights, it is no surprise that John Ralston Saul, has taken a leading role in the public and international arena.

He has championed the principles of freedom of speech and action as president of PEN, the international community of writers dedicated to freedom of expression, as a member of ICORN, the International Cities of Refuge Network, advancing the cases of imprisoned writers in Iran, China and Afghanistan.

And in the Canadian marketplace, John Ralston Saul is equally prominent as co-chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, founder and honorary chair of French for the Future, chair of the LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium, patron of Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN) and series editor of Extraordinary Canadians.

Mr. Chancellor, at this point, we all might be feeling a little smug about inviting this elegant, cultivated man, this recipient of 14 other honorary degrees from Simon Fraser to St. Petersburg, this Companion of the Order of Canada, this winner of a Governor General's Award, this recipient of both the Chevalier in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and the Pablo Neruda Medal of Honour and the South Korean Manhae Grand Prize, to join our university.

So let me refer you Mr. Chancellor to John Ralston Saul's Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense – which should be on every faculty member's bookshelf – or Kindle. He sardonically defines a university as "A place in which a civilization's knowledge is divided up into exclusive territories. The principle occupation of the academic community is to invent dialects sufficiently hermetic to prevent knowledge from passing between territories. By maintaining a constant flow of written material among the specialists of each group they are able to assert the acceptable technique of communication intended to prevent communications. This in turn establishes a standard which allows them to dismiss those who seek to communicate through generally accessible language as dilettantes, deformers or popularizers."

Mr. Chancellor, we can assure John Ralston Saul that Memorial University is no such place. We honour him for making accessible the complex ideas that inform and sustain a fair society.

Today he is joining other honorary graduates from Memorial University who have asked blunt questions and refused to submit to tyranny: Aung San Suu Kyi, Roméo Dallaire and Louise Arbour.

But, of course, a man whose first major book was titled Voltaire's Bastards needs no such assurance. He can easily dismiss with the Latin phrase Nolite te bastardes carborundum any major politician, or a politician who has a majority, who seeks to undermine his freedom to criticize the state and its systems.

Therefore, Mr. Chancellor, in giving John Ralston Saul an honorary degree, we are not offering a poisoned chalice to this philosopher, nor even a bottle of 1945 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. In this marketplace where we strive to protect the free interchange of ideas, the Senate of Memorial University, in admitting him to our company, gives him the fiduciary task of provoking us all, for, indeed, in the words of Socrates, an unexamined life is not worth living.

Therefore, I ask you to confer on John Ralston Saul, philosopher, public intellectual and defender of the intellectual, political and social freedoms of the individual, the degree of doctor of letters, honoris causa.

Dr. Annette Staveley
Deputy public orator