Commencement Address, Annapolis, MD
May 15, 2011
Leo Pickens, SJCA Athletic Director
Let’s go back nearly four years to August 22, 2007 and the convocation ceremony welcoming the freshman to this tiny Republic of Letters. In his convocation speech that afternoon, President Nelson immediately led the audience right into the middle of Socrates’ trial in Athens, stating that each of us at the College, 2,500 years later, had something at stake in Socrates’ defense. President Nelson wasted no time in introducing the newcomers to the genius loci of this community—Socrates, and stating this community’s main task: the examined life.
President Nelson also provided the incoming students with two previews of the work ahead. Here’s the first one:
“This whole program of instruction is designed to give you the tools to ask the question: Who are you?”
Here, now, having successfully made the crossing to the other side of your formal studies, regardless of when you first began them, those of you about to receive your diplomas are in a good position to examine this claim. Is this how you would describe what you’ve been up to during your time here? Do you now have a better understanding of who you are? Let me give you a moment to reflect on the question: Who are you under that cap and gown?
When I meditate upon this question, the answers that bubble up—human, son, brother, husband, American, Friend, aspiring dharma-bum, Druid—the responses reveal that who I think I am is defined by a subtly interconnected web of relationships. And so the question for me changes from ‘who are you’ into: Whose are you? To what and to whom do you belong?
Now here’s the second glimpse President Nelson provided of the students’ road ahead:
“In reading these books and asking of them whether they speak any truths to you, you will be participating in an education appropriate to a great and noble democracy—an education in the traditions of society, the arts of freedom, and the tension between the two.”
Again, I ask you, is this how you would describe the work you’ve just completed, either in the undergraduate or the master’s program? What strikes me in this passage is the turn of phrase ‘the arts of freedom.’ What are these arts? I assume they are the liberal arts, but President Nelson did not say, nor did he go into any further detail about them. I suppose I could just ask him now to come up to the microphone and explain to us just what he meant—how rare, to have the author himself, very much alive, right here in our midst—but no, allow me to engage in our communal practice of interpretation of the text. (And keep in mind, President Nelson will, I’m confident, be more than happy to have a conversation with you about his comments over a glass of champagne at the reception after the ceremony.) My intention in the next few minutes is to describe with a little more detail some of these arts of freedom in order to remind you of what you’ve been striving to develop from day to day in this community, and to bring into focus just what it is we are celebrating this morning.
The first art that you’ve been cultivating in yourself, and supporting the development of in your fellow students around you, is that of looking deeply into things. The emphasis has been on a spirited, daily, active engagement with fundamental questions. Everything has been subject to close scrutiny. No proposition has been left unexamined. One of the toughest challenges facing you with this ongoing inquiry into the roots of things was to prevent it from becoming disconnected from your heart. The times when you appeared to me to be most dispirited were when your classes were dry and thin and you were unable to see the relevance to your life of the object of study and you felt as if you had become a mere intellectual, so engaged with lofty abstractions that you floated un-tethered from the earth like an inhabitant of Swift’s flying island of Laputa.
Your motivation to practice looking deeply into things has been, for the most part, for the noblest of reasons. Part of what we honor today is the time-tested faithfulness of your commitment to allowing the love of learning and wisdom to lead you. This diligence of purpose over the long haul, this devotion to long-term steady labor is, perhaps, one capacity that marks a grown up as a grown up.
You have also been nurturing arts of solitude.
Think back on all the time you spent preparing for your tutorials, trying to link together the steps of a proof, searching for just the right word in a translation, or working up the results from an experiment. Granted, some of you perhaps may have readied yourself for these classes with a classmate or in a small study group. Now recall all the sustained reading you performed in preparation for seminar. Was there any other way to do this well except to hunker down by yourself for long periods of focused, concentrated effort and wrestle, mano a mano, with the text? And the texts you’ve spent so much time with, as you very well know, regardless of the class, were relentlessly challenging, unsettling, perplexing, nearly ungraspable—in short—just plain hard. This type of bold engagement has been your daily discipline. And what often made this challenge even more strenuous was the pace with which your formidable wrestling companions changed, often perhaps just at the moment when you were beginning to get a grasp on them. Simply to keep up, let alone thrive, required that you develop a certain kind of nimbleness and agility and perhaps even a sense of humor in the face of such difficulty.
I really want to call this habit you’ve been developing leaning into the difficult. This particular skill is one of the most important you can master, I believe, for it will be useful in many aspects of your lives. Can you stop yourself from running away from, ignoring, or going around that which scares you or hardens your heart? Can you willingly lean into it and seek out what it can teach you just as you have regularly done with these supremely difficult books?
Another art of solitude you’ve been practicing is that of turning inward and carrying on an inner dialogue with yourself. Even though the pace and pressure of your studies here often felt so rapid that you could barely keep up, you’ve been continually encouraged to stop and reflect on just what it is you’ve been encountering in your preparations and your classes. You were provided with sufficient leisure, to borrow an expression of the venerable tutor Miss Brann, for ‘long thoughts.’ You’ve been prodded to think things through for yourself. The most pertinent question always came back to what do you think about it? All of your essays have been invitations to turn inward and ruminate on something long enough so that you might develop an idea of your own.
You’ve also been cultivating arts of collaboration.
One was actively engaging with other members of our community in free and equal conversation. It was not enough to simply read and ponder in solitude. You were expected day in and day out to enter the classroom and lay out in the open your ideas, your demonstrations, and your translations for critical examination. (How humbling, no?) This activity of participatory democracy that has been your daily practice was not a mere mutual sharing of closed and confirmed opinions. The aim was to allow your ideas to be rationally put to the test so that you might even change your mind. In such conversation you were asked to be playful and imaginative enough to consider that someone else’s view was more sound and accurate than your own. This openness to such a possibility of change, however slight, lies at the heart of true conversation.
Your classes were thus workshops for cooperative probing. Insight was to be found in the unfolding conversation that had an unpredictable life of its own, and your job was to carefully pay attention to it. The habitual exercise of such close attending has given you the opportunity, over time, to become acutely sensitive to the integrity of this collective process, and, at the same time, to grow a pair of big, capable ears. This pulling together has been your constant regimen.
Another art of collaboration that you’ve been practicing is that of civility. By civility I don’t merely mean the polite custom you’ve carried on here of addressing each other as Mr. and Miss in the classroom, nor the restraint of your temper while engaged in conversation, important as such shows of respect for the common space may be. The skill of civility that I want to highlight is that of practicing a civil, humane, life. One aspect of this practice is a certain kind of humility that comes from acknowledging your own limitations and the recognition of your dependence on others in the community to help you figure things out. As much as you would like to, you know you can’t go it alone. You rely upon the conversation.
Another aspect of civil practice is being a responsible member of the polity in which you live. You’ve been asked from day one to take responsibility for your own education, to be an engaged and supportive participant in your classes. It was everyone’s civic duty to help move the group forward. In this community you have been encouraged to take to heart that what you think, what you say, and what you do matters for the whole to thrive. I hope such minding the whole has now become deeply ingrained in you.
This school’s tradition affirms that one of the fruits resulting from the dedicated, ongoing practice of the arts that are nurtured in these classrooms—however they may be named and described—is a dynamic, multifarious freedom. The freedom from the confines of a narrow, self-serving small-mindedness; the freedom to stand up and face the world with dignity, and with a spacious, independent mind. The freedom from the unquestioning reliance upon the views and wishes of your family, your church, your government leaders, and popular fashion; the freedom to test and verify for yourself what is fair and worthy and wholesome. And finally, you are free to discover for yourself what gives your life meaning, free to seek your own center of gravity, free to discern your own highest intention.
This college’s tradition also affirms that the persistent engagement with the arts of freedom is no less than the path of excellence. And this excellence is both private and public, the excellence of a human, and the excellence of a citizen. A mark of such excellence is a lively concern for the welfare of the greater community in which you live. So, when the question now arises ‘Whose are you? To what do you belong?’ my hope is that one response is a judicious and sober, ‘To this grand and noble Republic of Laws.’
In sum, this is what we celebrate today: your first strides on this path of freedom and excellence. Another hope of mine for you this morning is that when you lay hold of your diploma you set the intention to practice these arts with an even greater diligence. The practice is a way of life that can be embodied regardless of how you happen to be making a living, and as such, is eminently portable.
I want to now, briefly, point out one potential hindrance on the path ahead.
In our efficiency-obsessed, continuously accelerating world, the pressure upon you to produce may knock you off center. The press of your work, your family, your community obligations, or even your own ambitions may make it appear to you that there is simply no time to practice the arts of solitude that are so vital in helping you maintain a sense of balance. Let me point out one way to face this hazard.
To do so, let me get grounded in a text, Plato’s Symposium. For those of you unfamiliar with this work, this dialogue is a sort of comic play exploring the theme of Love. The characters gathered at a celebratory feast take turns giving speeches extolling Love.
On the way to this party with a friend, Socrates stops still on the porch of a neighbor unheeding all calls for him to come in. When the host insists they fetch him, Socrates’ friend explains: “It is one of his habits. Every now and then he goes off like that and stands motionless wherever he happens to be.” Everyone seems to think that Socrates is trying to figure out some perplexing problem, but when Socrates enters mid-way through the party, he says nothing at all about what he was up to.
Later in the dialogue, the notorious Alcibiades makes his entrance with a group of revelers, and tells this story about Socrates from their days on campaign together when Athens invaded Potidea during the Peloponnesian War.
“One day at dawn, Socrates started thinking about some problem or other; he just stood outside, trying to figure it out. He simply stood there glued to the same spot. By midday, many soldiers had seen him, and quite, mystified, they told everyone that Socrates had been standing there all day. He was still there when evening came, and after dinner some Ionians moved their bedding outside in order to watch if Socrates was going to stay out there all night. And so he did; he stood on the very same spot until dawn! He only left the next morning, when the sun came out, and he made his prayers to the new day.”
Again, Alcibiades assumes that Socrates is thinking about a problem when he stops and stands still, but Socrates himself does not let on. We can only speculate.
What I want to emphasize though is simply the habit itself of coming to stillness. And Socrates manages to do this in the midst of daily life, whether on the way to a party, or in a crowded army camp during a lull between battles. Can you, too, find a way to come to stillness in the midst of all the deadlines, the inbox full of emails, the many errands to be run? I invite you to play with, experiment with, test for yourself this practice of the Socratic pause. Take a break from running on auto-pilot, from your usual thoughts and pre-occupations, even if it’s only for a few conscious breaths. Stop: become aware of what is happening in and around you; remember your highest intention; ask yourself what is most important in this moment, and listen carefully for the response.
To conclude, I have two final aspirations for you.
May you flourish!
And, when the question arises, ‘Whose are you? To what do you belong?’ may one response be: ‘to St. John’s College, this tiny Republic of Letters.’