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Remembering Aaron Swartz: David Foster Wallace on the Meaning of Life

“Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”

I recently attended the heartbreaking memorial for open-access activist Aaron Swartz, who for the past two years had been relentlessly and unscrupulously prosecuted for making academic journal articles freely available online and who had taken his own life a week prior. A speaker at the service read a piece by one of Aaron’s personal heroes, David Foster Wallace — an excerpt from Wallace’s famous Kenyon College commencement address, the only public talk he ever gave on his views of life, which was eventually adapted into a slim book titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (public library).

I’ve written about the speech previously, but the particular excerpt read at Aaron’s memorial resonates with chilling clarity in light of recent meditations on the meaning of life, how to find one’s purpose, morality vs. intelligence, and whether money can really buy happiness. Wallace remarks:

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 own 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 plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Also speaking at the memorial, data visualization godfather Edward Tufte captured the essence of Aaron’s character:

Aaron’s unique quality was that he was marvelously and vigorously different. There’s a scarcity of that.

Hear This Is Water in its entirety, with notable excerpts, here. Help fight the broken system that mauled Aaron here. Honor his legacy with a contribution to Creative Commons here.

Portrait: Aaron Swartz by Fred Benenson under Creative Commons

Published January 21, 2013




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