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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