Commencement Address: Tyler Lange '03
Story posted May 24, 2003
Know Yourself: Now What?
by Tyler Lange
May 24, 2003
President Mills, Members of the College, and Guests:
Since I have been fortunate enough to attend Bowdoin, I thank its faculty, staff, and students - the whole community of learning. In the sense taken from Roman law, the corporation or fictive body of Bowdoin exists beyond the life of humans. As matriculating students replace the graduating and new professors replace the retiring, this body changes yet is ever the same. Though our Bowdoin is larger and so different from the Bowdoin of two hundred years ago, it is still Bowdoin. In this sense, I thank not the institutional Bowdoin, but the body which is all of us, past and present.
As I express gratitude for my time here, I would like to address our future, beginning with something often told me in high school: "Much is expected from those to whom much is given." We have been given the opportunity to sharpen our minds with an education in the liberal arts. Though we have gained some degree of knowledge in our fields of specialization, the real focus has been on how to learn and think, on the technique and process rather than the content of learning. From this capacity for learning and critical thought come future benefits.
Yet, whom will we benefit? Soon after arriving here, I recognized how the idea of the common good - so central to our school's philosophy - speaks to this. For some of us, this concern has been admirably present. For others - from whom I cannot exclude myself - it is time to waken to our responsibility to the common good.
Our great privilege obligates us to those around us. Our education is not and ought not only to be a way of perpetuating the privilege that some here have enjoyed from birth and others have tasted at college. Such a selfish endeavor is empty and fails Joseph McKeen's admonition to Bowdoin's earliest students: "Literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them... but that their mental powers may be cultivated and improved for the benefit of society." President McKeen challenges us to move beyond college and live public lives for the benefit of the common good.
To guide us on our public lives, I would like to rescue from oblivion two authors I have encountered while researching political theory in late medieval and early modern France. Living in times of war and civil strife, these liberally educated authors directed their broad and moral learning to the good of society. The exceptional Jean Bodin, in his Compendium of Moral Wisdom, leads the reader to the highest Truth by ascending parallel French and Latin sentences - from which I spare you but for one: "He has nothing of truth who is swollen with vanity."
Our time of self-focused vanity - by no means vain - is drawing to a close for the graduating seniors. Having learned about ourselves through academics, sports, music, relationships, and so in many other ways, we cannot and ought not to continue wholly self-focused. Self-knowledge is only the starting point. We must now consider ourselves obligated to society as well as to ourselves. Even though learning continues throughout a lifetime, it is now time for action.
What action will we take? Our lives will certainly follow different courses after graduation. Whether it is a traditional life of service, perhaps in a private or public charitable organization, or not so obviously a life of service, we can still serve society. As we seek to climb Bodin's moral ladder to Truth, let us remember the words of another distant voice from the past, Joannes de Terra Rubea, an official of justice in a France shattered by the Hundred Years' War: "He is not only a traitor [to himself, to society, to the greatest good] who openly speaks a lie, but also he who does not freely proclaim and defend the truth." We must act for this truth to avoid betraying ourselves, our society, and our common good. Like sin, dishonesty is not merely dishonesty in action but dishonesty in inaction.
Whatever our truth is, we must proclaim and defend it. The greatest evils come from silence. History unfortunately provides many examples of those who did not raise their voices for Truth. In the sixteenth century, the initial silence of the king of France tacitly approved the massacre of Huguenots on Saint Bartholomew's Day. In the last century, Pius XII remained silent on the deportation of Italian Jews because he feared the consequences for his Church. Recently, silent citizens have allowed their rights to be compromised on the pretext of national security. Will we too be cowed into silence? We have been given this great education in the liberal arts - the liberal skills - and must now use them to speak our Truth.
It is dishonest and vain to live a silent, private life and fails the purpose of this college. Whatever exemplary behavior we might display in our private lives, we will remain traitors and idiots - idioti, that is, in the Greek sense of a private person - if we fail to act for truth in our occupations. Complacency and cowardice have no place in a just society. If we do not each work for the common good by speaking and acting the Truth, we remain silent and dishonest spokes in a great wheel of moral turpitude.
The liberal arts - the arts of living in a free society - are useful to any life we lead. Rather than teaching the skills for a specific trade, they equip us for citizenship. If we raise our voices for the Truth, every path leads to the common good. To live true and honest lives worthy of this college, we must seize every opportunity to defend the good and true. Even if we can distance ourselves - physically or morally - from the evils we create or ignore, we still fail by rationalizing an evil and dishonest action.
Terra Rubea therefore admonishes us with the words of St. John Chrysostom: "For it is better to suffer all evils than to permit evil." So again, the challenge before us, as graduates of this college devoted to the common good, is clear though perhaps never simple: let us raise our voices for our Truth. Though our life may be less safe, it will be less vain and more honest than betraying ourselves, our college, and our society by doing nothing. On whatever path we take after graduation, let us not permit evil but act for the common good by proclaiming and defending the Truth.
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