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Pursuing truth, beauty, and moral integrity in a culture of ingratitude

Gratitude should be the first response of the human person, not complaint, indignation, or some false sense of our radical independence or autonomy from all limits or restraints.

Editor’s note: The following Commencement Address was given on Saturday, June 1, 2019, at Trivium School, in Lancaster, Massachusetts. 

The undeniably wise twentieth century French political philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel once unironically noted that “the wise man knows himself for debtor.” Gratitude should be the first response of the human person, not complaint, indignation, or some false sense of our radical independence or autonomy from all limits or restraints.

We are not gods. We are created to live virtuously, in loving relation to all around us. All of us—rich or poor, philosopher or day laborer, student or teacher, statesman or citizen, cleric or layman, parents or children—have multiple reasons to be grateful for the gifts of life, love, family, and wisdom. We also have reason to be grateful for being fortunate enough to live in a free country where the unimpeded pursuit of truth, virtue, and authentic happiness is still possible.

May you, the future generation, make sure that our freedoms are not sacrificed on the altars of political correctness and a hostility to the true moral foundations of our great Republic. We should be grateful. But we also must be bearers of the serious responsibility to protect our civilized inheritance from succumbing to facile self-indulgence, thoughtless relativism, and the ideologically inspired repudiation of “the best that has been thought and said.” Fortunately, you, the newest graduates of Trivium, have an added reason to be grateful to teachers, parents and, above all, to the Providence of God: you have been gifted with the beginnings (and a great deal of the substance) of a classical and Christian education. That is a rare gift, indeed.

You have been taught to open yourselves to the world around us as well as to the rich interiority of each human soul. An education like the one Trivium provides reminds us that rational reflection, love of wisdom, and the full range of the cardinal virtues—courage, prudence, temperance, and justice– are always and everywhere the essential virtues of a wise, free, and decent human being.

The two great wings of faith and reason teach us this and there is no need to cower before a fashionable relativism that tells us that we are powerless to distinguish right from wrong. Such cowering is the easy way out and it is the path of perdition. A great character in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle, Innokenty Volodin, gradually liberated himself from the twin servitudes of Marxist ideology and the Epicurean reduction of the good to the full range of pleasures. Growing in courage, this man came to conclude that truth, beauty, and moral integrity are much more important than power, material riches, and even self-preservation.

The good life, not merely a life devoted to survival and pleasure, is open to the riches of the created natural order and the grace and goodness of God. Volodin tells us in Solzhenitsyn’s great anti-totalitarian novel that he had once believed in the “great truth” that “we are given only one life.” Sound familiar? But “now, with the new feeling that had ripened in him, he became aware of another law: that we are only given one conscience, too.” Volodin, who commits treason against a murderous Communist tyranny in the USSR, goes off to the camps with his soul intact. Despite everything, he attains serenity or happiness in his own way.

We Catholics are not masochists. We justly celebrate the goods of the temporal order, of the ordinary world around us. The Catholic is not like the Puritans of old, who shunned festivity—even going so far as to ban dancing at Christmas time! As St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us in his great and enduringly wise discussion of happiness in the Summa Theologica, wealth, honors, fame or glory, and even pleasure in its various forms can play some role in our temporal felicity or happiness.

However, true happiness ultimately requires careful and continued care of the soul—not some ghost in the machine, but the whole human being: body, soul, and spirit. Care for, and cultivation of, the soul is undoubtedly grounded in nature. But it is finally perfected by the triune God who creates and redeems, who reveals himself in Scripture and in the person of our incarnate Lord, Jesus Christ. You must never forget that there is no true happiness without attention to our souls.

One last piece of advice. Be open to human greatness in all its forms: remember the great saints, not just St. Francis or Mother Teresa but also the holy and spirited Joan of Arc, the wise and learned Thomas Aquinas, and the prudent, principled, and courageous Thomas More. (“In my Father’s house are many mansions,” as the Gospel of St. John tells us.) Learn to admire great statesman such as Cicero, Washington, Lincoln, and Churchill, men who fought for free government against Caesarism, chattel slavery, and the evils of Nazism and Communism. Each, in his own way, embodied the full range of moral and intellectual virtues.

Our contemporary world increasingly embraces a self-satisfied “culture of repudiation”, a negative (even nihilistic) ethos and ethic that aims to tear down everything great, noble, and enduring. This culture of ingratitude teaches us to hate our country and to have contempt for classical and Christian, that is Western, civilization. As you move into the world, don’t do anything to contribute to this bitter rejection of greatness, holiness, and nobility. Don’t succumb to sophistic arguments that tear away at your soul. Stay ‘naïve’ and continue to admire all those who deserve our admiration. Fortify yourself in the charity that lies at the heart of the Gospel.

At the same time, never forget that prudence, moderation, justice, and fortitude must continue to inform human thought and action (as they have from the times of King David, Pericles, and Saint Paul). Look up to virtue in all is amplitude, in the person of the hero, the true statesman, and the saint. In the modern world, heroes and saints stand or fall together against powerful currents that want to level everything in the name of a dehumanizing idea of equality and openness. Never be satisfied with mediocrity or a resentment at anything that is truly fine, noble, truthful, or genuinely beautiful. Mirror the true, the good, and the beautiful in your own souls while having a healthy respect for human frailty and sin, that of ourselves and others. Stand adamantly for the right but have mercy and compassion on those who falter.

You will learn to get that balance right. True or complete happiness, unsullied by evil and imperfection, St. Thomas reminds us, can only be found in the most direct communion with our Creator God. That ‘beatific vision,’ awaits us in eternal life. In the meantime, remember that there is no heaven on earth. I think you may have learned that at Trivium, too.

On a joyous note, today is a day for festivity and celebration. Celebrate with classmates, and family and friends. Go forth in the world with full confidence in the powers of faith and reason that have been revealed to you here at Trivium. Be of good cheer and always be grateful for the gifts bestowed on us by a gracious God and by our forebears who never forgot that great Triunity which is the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Congratulations, graduates! The adventure will surely continue. You have been well prepared to move forward with that mix of confidence and humility that is the hallmark of our Catholic faith. .


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About Daniel J. Mahoney 1 Article
Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair In Distinguished Studies at Assumption College. He is the author, most recently, of The Idol of Our Age: How the Religion of Humanity Subverts Christianity (Encounter Books, 2018).

1 Comment

  1. Can a religious person be unthankful? I would pose a number of unthankful statements made by Christian sociologist Peter Berger as a counterpose to Mahoney’s sort of Sunday School morality meant only for children.
    1. Religion is supposed to be necessary as a basis of morality, as in the alleged ethics of Jesus (an Exemplary Prophet). Religion is not necessary for morality and the ethical teachings of Jesus cannot serve as feasible guide for individual or social life. If one were an atheist no moral obligations would change. No thanks for a form of morality based on moral convictions that often run counter to human responsibility. Religion is supposed to be necessary as the basis for morality. No thanks! With admirable exceptions here and there, religions over the centuries have not been famous for their moral excellence. Religion has been shown as not necessary for morality because moral judgment is grounded not in the imperative mode (do this, do that) but in the indicative mode (see this, look at that) . Morality is perceptual. The historical record shows that some of the greatest religious figures engaged in really dubious behavior (Luther the anti-semite), some were downright monstrous (Medici Popes) – while agnostics and atheists have been morally admirable. There are atheist saints.
    2. Religion demands submission to God’s will, even in the face of the innocent suffering of children. No thanks. This is not humanly acceptable. I submit to God who does not will the death of innocent children or innocent adults with cancer.
    3. Religion may seek to console us all by saying that eventually we will be absorbed into some ocean of cosmic divinity (i.e., the mythic matrix). No thanks. To absorb those who suffer into an ultimate reality in which all individuality, uniqueness, and the irreplaceableness of persons, and the infinite preciousness of children, is lost is but another version of death.
    4. Religion offers certainty in scriptures, spiritual experiences, and in institutions from the chaos of life. No thanks to the certitude purveyors and certainty wallahs. Scripture is inspiring, but not inerrant, religious experience of the holy spirit has been found to be inducible by social manipulation, and totalistic religious institutions can be replaced by totalistic secular institutions (e.g., big tent politics).
    5. Religion provides powerful symbols for the exigencies of human existence. No thanks. To be sure, it does, but there are other (competitive) sources for such symbols.
    6. High religion says man is saved, not by works, but by God’s grace and forgiveness. No thanks. Some notion of damnation is necessary if one affirms the justice of God in the face of evil. Nothing short of damnation will be adequate for the perpetrators of the Holocaust. None of us, and certainly none of the victims, should be urged to forgive them.
    7. Both religion and atheism often claims to know the course of history. No thanks. Those who ascribe to the popular eschatology — rapture, end times — or who claim to know what the secular course of history is, then proceed to help it along by their own action typically will only add to the endless accumulation of suffering, as seen in the great Marxist experiments.
    8. Religionists, particularly of the orthodox and neo-orthodox schools of religion, often claim that God has spoken to them directly, or through scriptures, God has spoken to them directly. No thanks. Most of us may be considered the metaphysically underprivileged, as it were, and must acknowledge that God has not spoken to us in such a direct manner. His address to us, if that is what it is, comes to us in a much more mediated manner. It is always mediated. It is mediated through this or that experience, and most importantly it is mediated through encounters with the scriptures and with the institution that transmits the tradition. To proceed as if one had spoken to God directly is to base one’s existence on a lie. It seems plausible to propose that, if God exists, He would not want us to lie.
    9. Religion must say no to every freedom-denying scientism or any Buddhist understanding that all reality is non-self (an-atta) denies the existence of the autonomous self, because that is a denial of freedom. In the perspective of the Biblical faith the self is not an illusion, neither is the empirical world, because both are creations of God. It is possible to affirm this faith in a threefold no to the Buddha’s Three Universal Truths: All reality is not impermanence, because at its heart is the God who is the plenitude of being in time and eternity. All reality is not suffering because God’s creation is ultimately good and because God is acting to redeem (repair) those parts of creation, especially humanity, where this goodness has been disturbed. And all reality is not non-self, because the self is the image of God, not because it is itself divine but because it exists by virtue of God’s address.
    10. The collection of Jesus’ sayings constituting what we know as the Sermon on the Mount forms the moral and ethical basis for the organization of society. No thanks! Any human society that would organize itself on the basis of the Sermon’s unrealistic demands would promptly lapse into anarchy. For goodness to result we must get our hands dirty and we must recognize that most of our actions have unintended consequences. We may desire good ends and employ good means, and nevertheless the results may be unbearably evil. Jesus as a great teacher and exemplar is eminently uninteresting, and we can do well without him.
    11. The criteria distinguishing true and untrue religion is asserted mainly by academics and liberal North American Christians as whether a religious tradition induces its adherents to cultivate selfishness and altruism. No thanks! The weakness of this criterion can be seen by transferring it from religion to, say, physics: is one to accept or reject a discovery in physics on the basis of a physicist’s moral qualities? Does the theory of relativity depend on Einstein having been a nice man? If religion has anything to do with reality – transcendent reality – then the test of it being true does not depend on the “saintliness” of its representations.

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