Editor’s note: The following commencement address was given on Thursday, May 25, 2017, at The Cambridge School of Dallas.
“We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” — 2 Peter 1:16.
“I (James Boswell) meant to tell you (Samuel Johnson) that his Lordship (the local Bishop) admires, very highly, your Preface to the Poets. I am daily obtaining an extension of agreeable acquaintances, so that I am kept in animated variety; and the study of this place itself (Chester), by the assistance of books, and of the Bishop, is sufficient occupation. Chester pleases my fancy more than any town I ever saw.” — Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Tuesday, 22 October 1779.
“Yet it really is a disgrace to the soul in each of us that it plainly doesn’t know what in it constitutes goodness and badness for it, whereas what constitutes goodness and badness for the body, and for other things, is something it has already considered.” — Socrates, The Minos, 321d.
When I was initially invited to be here for your graduation, I knew where Dallas was located; for, to recall Peter’s criterion in his Second Letter, I was an “eyewitness”. I had been here before. A nephew lived for a time in Plano. I was astonished at the time at the size of the football stadium at Plano High. I have also lectured at the University of Dallas, a place where, I notice, several members of the faculty here have studied.
But I had never heard of The Cambridge School. Of course, like so many schools and towns in other places and times, the school was named after Cambridge in England, where we find a bridge over the River Cam with its famous university. The Cambridge town in Massachusetts, with its own university, bore a similar heritage. Still, when I saw that your headmaster, Dr. Wolfe, and one or two other faculty members studied at the University of Aberdeen, I confess wondering why the school was not named “The Aberdeen School of Dallas”! For years, I corresponded with Professor E. B. F. Midgley at Old Aberdeen. He was one of the best minds that I have come across in my academic experience.
Yet, to name a school “Cambridge” says something about what its founders and teachers intend to accomplish here that is different and worthy of esteem. The naming, as I assume, indicated a certain expectation, a certain demand in talent and diligence on its students’ part that is more than the ordinary. The naming likewise implies that this higher expectation is itself something also needed by any effective common good; a good that allows and encourages to flourish what otherwise might be lost in a mediocrity deprived of vision or competence.
It is one thing to address students that you yourself have taught over the previous four years. By that time, they will know your jokes and have observed your foibles, along with catching at least something of what you had to say to them. I am here, I think, because your headmaster read something that I wrote somewhere. Notice how vaguely I put that. Writing is very different from teaching. Teaching is a face to face experience; anything less, even when it is accomplished by Skype or conference call, is a loss to some degree. A good teacher seeks to identify each of his students. He presumes that they want to be there in front of him, even if they don’t. If they don’t, sooner or later, he hopes to arouse their minds. That is why he is there, to enable students to see true and noble things in a more orderly and faster way than they ever could manage by themselves with no further guidance.
And in this issue of minds aroused, the student is not without his own moral responsibility. As I have often written, a student “owes” something to his teacher, his willingness to be taught. A student can choose not to be teachable. When he does, any teacher is useless to him. But teachers have their own responsibilities. Socrates spent much of his life disputing with those teachers who, though charging hefty fees, claimed to know something but did not, on examination, know what they thought they did, With considerable irony, he called them “sophists”—a word derived from the word for wisdom.
As Yves Simon once remarked, nothing can prevent a young student, if he so chooses, from giving his mind and soul over to an unworthy professors. Teachers themselves need discipline and integrity. Schools have boards of directors, announced mission statements, and accrediting bodies to assure standards. These precautions do not always work. Many a bewildered student today has to find a way to the truth outside the particular school or class in which he is enrolled.
Writing is different from teaching face to face, as I suggested earlier. When we write something, we never know if anyone will ever read it, or where, or when, or even in what language, if it is finally translated. Many of the best things ever spoken or written are in languages we do not know. Moreover, a written thing is not really itself if it is just seen as a collection of a few pages of print. A book can be used to keep a window from closing. Print does not understand itself. We have to understand words, grammar, syntax, and logic. The English language has almost three times as many words in it as in any other language. And as N. M. Gwynne said in his Grammar, the language has not changed too much in four hundred years. We are more than blessed if we know it well.
What you who are graduating did here during these four years, I hope, is to learn the language, learn to speak and write it properly, to memorize and to pronounce correctly. You should own a good dictionary, be able to write clearly, accurately, and even elegantly. You should be able to read and write poetry. Samuel Johnson, in a famous passage, told Boswell that the best thing you could do for a young lad was to teach him how to read. Once you know how to read, then it is up to you to read and read well. A learned man, a learned lady, is someone who not only knows how to read but who has read well. This means that you will have to spend time by yourself with books, not just with machines of various sophistications lost in horizontal relationships of the now.
Your minds at your present age are more capable of memory. They need to be filled, with dates, places, persons, ideas, and the experience of living. You should have been preparing for an adventure that you were not yet capable of understanding. This world is too much filled with anticipated experiences that we did not really understand because they happened to us before we were ready to appreciate them in their fullness. Indeed, this being exposed too soon is one of the saddest things about modern lives. In the long run, nothing will cause a young man or woman more anguish than too early exposure to what life is about. I lived in Italy for twelve years; I noticed that they ate nothing that was not ripe.
When it comes to learning the higher things—metaphysics, theology, and philosophy—I tend to be a Platonist, though I know a man who advocates beginning philosophy very early. Plato thought that some things come only later in life, after experience. He thought military, gymnastic, dialectic, and poetic things came first, plus some experience in rule. Aristotle was of a similar persuasion that it was important to know and practice the virtues, to be able to rule ourselves, to control our fears, pleasures, anger, wit, friendships, and dealings with others in a just fashion. Otherwise, he thought, we would use our minds not to learn of the things that are true and cannot be otherwise, but to help us attain wealth, honors, and pleasures, in however sophisticated guise they clothe themselves. He thought wealth, honor, and pleasures had their proper places, but not the highest places.
Charlie Brown is perplexed as he stands by Lucy’s psychology stand where consultations cost five cents. A forlorn Charlie tells a dubious Lucy: “What can you do when you don’t fit in?” He turns to Lucy, with her chin in both hands. He continues: “What can you do when life seems to be passing you by?” In the third scene, they are both walking away from the stand. She tells Charlie: “Follow me, I want to show you something.”
Charlie and Lucy walk out on a vast hillside panorama. They look up in awe at the sky with a few clouds in it. Lucy says: “See the horizon over there? See how big this world is? See how much room there is for everyone?” She turns to a confused Charlie. “Have you ever seen any other world?” To which query, Charlies answers with a frank: “No.” Looking up at the sky again, Lucy continues: “As far as you know, that is the only world, right?” “Right”, Charlie admits.
Looking right at Charlie, the questioning goes on: “There are no other worlds for you to live in…right?” “Right,” Charlie replies. “You were born to live in this world…right?” Again, an uncomprehending Charlie answers: “Right”. Then an angry Lucy yells at a flipped over Charlie: “Well, live in it, then!”
In the final scene, with a dazed Charlie flat on the ground, Lucy hovers over him. “Five cents, please,” she demands in payment for this most useful lesson on how to live in this world. (Parables of Peanuts, 124-27).
Some good questions arose in this delightful scene. How do we live in this world, not some other one into which we were not born? You will soon enough, I think, run into companions, professors, or travelers who think that something is wrong with the world but not with themselves. They will spend their days blaming God, culture, property, discrimination, or their parents for what is wrong, never themselves. But the real drama of our lives in this only world in which we will ever live does not first consist in finding out someone else to blame for our faults and deficiencies. It is also well at an early age to learn that envy at the goods and talents of others is a far greater and socially destructive vice than greed or injustice, though these are bad enough.
We live in what is often called a “broken world” or, in the Christian tradition, “a vale of tears”. A good part of the history of philosophy is an effort to fashion for ourselves another world that is minus this brokenness. What usually happens as a result of such efforts is to make things even worse. We wonder why this is so? Why can’t we figure ourselves out? We can figure out many things, even about ourselves. Indeed, this figuring out is why we have brains. It is what we are designed and intended to do. When we do what we can, something that also involves knowing the history of philosophy and literature, we will realize that we need help. What could possible help us?
Chesterton said somewhere that, if something goes wrong with some machine, say a car or a sewing machine, the first thing that we do is to check the instructions ourselves. If this does not work, we take the machine to a mechanic. Usually this works. Some bolt was missing; some program in our computer was not installed correctly. But if the technician or mechanic can’t fix it, we have to go to the man who designed the thing. If there is still a serious design problem, we may have to find some scientist someplace who knows the nature of machines. Or it may be that no one has yet discovered a way to do what we want to do. If we apply this analogy to ourselves, we need to consult the source of the being that we are. We are evidently human beings in the only world there is. It seems strange that, after all the millennia we have been on the earth, we still are looking.
The argument for revelation is that it provides, if we are willing to listen to it, some answer to our perplexities. What does this revelation tell us about ourselves? Briefly, it tells us that we were first in God’s intention when He decided to create some reality other than Himself and His own inner Trinitarian life which is from eternity. God initially chose to associate in His inner life other beings, finite beings, angels and men. Initially, He created them with an end higher than their natural state. No purely natural man ever existed. This is why Lucy’s question about our created world needs to be taken with some distinctions. In Augustine and in the Psalms, we constantly are told that we will never be fully at home in this world, that even when we have the highest virtue and live a relatively happy life and love, we will be conscious that nothing in this world can really satisfy us.
In saying this, we do not intend to say that the world was made by an evil God, as the Manicheans claimed. It was not. The world itself is good. But we find a persistent disorder in our souls, the origin of which goes back to the original intent of creation. God was Himself under one constraint, if I might put it that way. He could not invite us to participate in His inner life, which was the purpose of creation, unless we chose to accept the invitation. This choice had to confront every human being in his particular life. The risk that God took in creation was that He could be rejected.
This initial rejection in fact took place. God’s subsequent response to it—what we know as the Incarnation of His only begotten Son, the Redemption through the Cross—was designed to remedy the original fall. But it too cannot save us without our consent. No one can live in God’s love, in His inner life, who does not want to be there. Such is our dignity that God only can accept us if we freely want to be there. What goes on in our lives, in every time and place in this world, in the lives of each individual ever born, is whether he will accept the invitation. The world, in other words, is primarily a gift that is a promise. It could not be otherwise. The only world we live in, the one that Lucy told us to go and “live in it”, is this world in which we are deciding by how we live our lives whether we will accept the purpose of our own individual creation, a creation that was seen in in the original end of existence before the world itself was created.
So with such thoughts, I will leave you. We are not, as Peter said, to listen to “cleverly devised myths.” What we believe to be true had “eye witnesses”. All who live in this world will, as Johnson said of Chester, find towns that “please our fancy more than any other.” For our world, though fallen, is a good world. Matter is not evil. It is replete with an intelligence not its own.
But, as Socrates also told us: “It really is a disgrace to the soul of each of us that it plainly doesn’t know what’s in it that constitutes goodness and badness for it.” Lucy was right to yell that we should “live in this world”. It is the only one we have, the only one in which we were created to be given eternal life if we choose to accept it. This is the only world in which the Cross stood so that, in our passing days, we might choose the end for which we were created. There is no other world and no other way.