It is mainly little places which permit the modesty of pace needed for long thoughts, and the conditions of closeness under which human beings begin to stand out and become distinct in their first and second nature. These places are the veritable harbors of refuge and recovery for civilization…
Today, the same day on which you cease to be transient members of the College, is the day on which you join us as its permanent members. Our polity provides for it to be so, and our common studies confirm the communion. Therefore I would like to speak to you today as members-at-large of the College, who are about to disperse into the world after having achieved a preliminary completion of our program of study. People who have been nourished in this way by a community are called, in Latin, its “alumni;” and I would like to speak to you as alumni. I mean I would like to speak as reasonably educated persons do talk to each other in the world at large, namely not about books but through books—by means of learning, but not, I hope, learnedly. I shall not say “Aristotle says in his Nicomachean Ethics” or “Jefferson says in the Declaration of Independence,” but I shall rather, in a small and backsliding way, directly imitate Jefferson, who in writing the Declaration drew on shelves of theory and yet, as he reports, “turned to neither book nor pamphlet while writing it.” And this distinction between thinking more through books than about them is the maximum concession I can make to the otherwise obtuse separation of “life” and “study.”
Nearly everything I have to say is the consequence of having gone to the same school to which you have gone only longer, and of having studied the same books you have studied-only more often. But there has been this difference: For me the college is what I fervently hope some spot in the world will someday similarly become for you: home, a precious place in a setting of wider and wider rings; an old school engaged in a timeless activity, set in the midst of a city with a modestly splendid past, lying in a region which appeared to its first discoverers as an earthly paradise, a region in turn contained in an old, enormous, sturdy republic. And although this perspective of a universe is, of course, obscured by all sorts of ugly overlays, there are gleams enough from the golden background.
Before I actually begin I must also tell you that it is more than an honor, it is a piece of good fortune for me that you asked me to speak to you. In fact, hoping you might (since I have been altogether a senior tutor this year) I had already begun to make notes before you did. The reason was, that I have found certain opinions, derived, as I said, largely from life at the college, steadily shaping up into principles. You have probably yourselves experienced that condition in which almost all your reflections, inquiries, and conversations lead to the same conclusions. The course this settling-in of opinion usually runs is expressed by Lewis Carroll in The Hunting of the Snark by the notorious “rule of three”: “What I tell you three times is true.” When we have told ourselves the same thing thrice, the internal saying assumes the status of a conviction, and then it is a true boon to be allowed to formulate it publicly.
I think it is appropriate to put forth these convictions as axioms. Axioms, as you will remember from your first days here with Euclid, are, literally, “propositions worthy of acceptance.” Mine are on the brink of seeming self-evident to me, while they may seem arbitrary to you. All that is also in the word. But my axioms are neither quite independent nor very complete, and so they form no formal axiom system. At most they all fit consistently and comfortably into one picture. Insofar as they have any strength they are most questionable. So it is only because I know that even the best-intentioned innovations are embarrassment at ceremonies that I refrain from calling for our usual question period afterwards. Let us reserve today for the rites of leave-taking and commencing. I will hold myself responsible to you by correspondence or conversation at a later time.
I shall call my first axiom the axiom of hierarchy. It seems to me axiomatic that all largeness of sympathy, all delight in variety, all-inclusive sentiment, has as its condition a firmly felt hierarchy of worth. Not only does the indiscriminate acceptance dispensed by those who are without such an inner hierarchy usually make its objects feel as if they were being accosted, but such general permissiveness regularly goes with particular lovelessness.
For him, on the other hand, who has a secret and silent table of goods and has established in his heart what is first and what second, even what is late and last will have its place, and so its worth. A chapter in a book by Dionysius the Areopagite, appropriately called Hierarchies, illustrates my meaning exactly. He explains that all the ranks of angels-princedoms, powers and dominions, down to the least-illuminated little angel-may equally be called “heavenly powers” because however low a rank an angel may hold, it is still a rank in the other world, in heaven. Why should not something similar hold for earth?
It seems to me that all good communities, and this college among them, ought to and do contain such hierarchies, but I also think that they should remain tacit and unproclaimed because of my second axiom, the axiom of mediocrity.
This axiom can be put most forcefully as a vigorous denial of the following passage from Beyond Good and Evil. Nietzsche observes that nothing has a future but what he calls the “morality of mediocrity,” of which he says:
But it is hard to preach this morality of mediocrity—for it can, after all, never admit what it is and what it wants! It must speak of measure and dignity and duty and neighborly love—it will be hard put to it, to hide the irony!—
Here is a paragraph to poison all political life! For it admits that the civic virtues are to be found among ordinary people and then invites us to expose the meanness of these virtues and to look on the people with raised eyebrows.
My axiom says, in contradiction, that mediocrity of this sort, ordinary, plodding, decent humanity, is not only to be readily admitted in ourselves but to be cherished in others, that it is not the opposite of excellence, but the ground from which excellence grows and the end for which it goes to work. The true opposite of the mediocrity is the monster, that peculiar willing aberration from ordinary humanity called an “intellectual.” This program was never intended to develop that monster within us but rather our common humanity.
Let my third axiom be called the axiom of resistance. If the final test of our humanity is what we seek out, the next to final test is certainly what we say “no” to. The axiom maintains that it is necessary to say “no” to most things that present themselves to us.
There is an unforgettable anecdote in Plato’s Republic. A man sees a pile of corpses lying near the gallows. He feels in himself an intense struggle of lust and aversion. Finally he runs over and forcing open his eyes, shouts at them: “Gape then, you wretches, and gorge yourselves on this lovely view.” My axiom says that as often as possible the man should win and the eyes lose this battle.
But not only bloody sights, rather all sorts of innocuous sightseeing come under the axiom of resistance as well. I do not need, or better, I need not to eye, to touch, to try everything. There are dozens of “experiences,” for example, so-called “other cultures,” to which I mean to remain unsensitized and unexposed; there are dozens of dreadful problems I mean to do nothing about. The object of so resisting the world’s impingement is that when I do look I may really see and when I do care I may really act. In rigorously excluding all sight-seeing our program is meant to prepare us for truly receptive travel.
My fourth axiom says that a disciplined conformity is a necessary condition of diversity, and that a certain exclusiveness is required to ensure general access to good places. For if nothing is allowed to acquire flavor by stewing in its own juice, how can there be a number of pungently different things? And if nothing is allowed to coagulate and to take shape in peace, how can there be anything to which entrance is desirable? A graduate of this college long ago sent me a post card from Florence which I use as a book mark; so it has lain with Homer and Hegel. I take it from book to book because it is a picture of the shape and situation of such a desirable place: it is a Vasari fresco of a siege of Florence. The city, all in golden brown, crowded with domes and towers and tightly encircled by a wall, lies among the wide green hills over which the tents of the transient invader are scattered. The picture reminds me that to wish for flavor in life and to invade or liberate all its pockets is self-defeating. To want the side effects, the aroma, of strong locales and to refuse to stew in the pot is a fast way to atomize the world. There is a wonderfully pungent Elizabethan sentence in Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici which perfectly makes my point. He says:
For heads that are disposed unto schism and complexionally propense to innovation are naturally indisposed for a community, nor will ever be confined unto the order or economy of one body; and therefore when they separate from others, they…do subdivide and mince themselves almost into atoms.
This college has demanded a disciplined conformity precisely to keep its integrity and to prevent us from mincing ourselves into atoms.
My fifth axiom is an attack on the specter called The Future. It advises us against looking ahead to this future in setting our ends. The future is altogether non-being, and anyone who attempts to look to it, as does that new tribe of secular prophets who call themselves “futurologists,” only succeeds in locking himself into a cage of contemperaneity; for such planning is never anything but a magnified projection of one aspect of the present onto the blessedly empty screen of things to be. Our reference should rather be to what is back of us, to the past (though not the very recent past which is usually very passe). I will let Robert Frost speak for me in some lines from “The Black Cottage”:
…why abandon a belief
Merely because it ceases to be true.
Cling to it long enough, and not a doubt It will turn true again, for so it goes.
Most of the change we think we see in life
Is due to truths being in and out of favor. As I sit here, and oftentimes, I wish
I could be monarch of a desert land I could devote and dedicate forever
To the truths we keep coming back and back to.
I think you have been for four years citizens of such a “desert” land, remote from fashion.
My sixth is an axiom of conservation. It is partly permissive. It permits us to seize high or low adventure when ever it comes our way, on the condition that we maintain a small steady feeling of guilt. It says that all manner of excursions are allowable as long as we conserve a nagging remembrance that they are only diversions from some long-range labor or some life-long study. For example, two gentlemen in this very class set sail one day in the middle of the term. Of course, as generally happens to those in positive pursuit of peril, they were becalmed, but that is additional. When they returned, I looked grave as was my duty, but I saw that they had not for a moment succeeded in forgetting their proper business. And I also knew I would have done the same, in imitation of my hero Odysseus. That first exemplar of all such mindful adventurers preserves his longing for his rocky home through ten years of travel. He has his pleasure and his passion on the way, but he preserves his purpose, and that makes all his excursions lie on a secret highway home. (I know that what I have told you just now is true because a member of your class said the same in his senior essay.)
The axiom of conservation also has a prescriptive side: It is required to choose recreations which have enough real relish in them to prevent that sinful and wasteful sadness the theologians call “acedia.” Its secular version is an unresisting proneness to be bored with good things, with classical styles, with naive truths, with old orders. One of its symptoms is frantic and unsatisfying innovation-unsatisfying, for if anything is axiomatic it is that the search for mere novelty unfailingly turns up something obsolete.
I do not think we have quite enough recreation of that conserving sort in this school. I wish we were nearer to the Forest of Arden-but then again, perhaps not.
I will call my penultimate axiom the axiom of parochialism.
I think the world once had centers, places like Athens, Jerusalem, Paris and-I say it with a smile-Boston, where a tradition was cherished and advanced. But it seems to me that Yeats was simply right two generations ago when he said in the “Second Coming” that:
Things fall apart, the center cannot hold
though I think that he and all the soothsayers are wrong in expecting, as they do half-eagerly, a monstrous apocalypse. Our fate seems to me to be much more modest. We must proudly acknowledge that we are “out of it,” whatever “it” may pretend to be, and that we are thrown upon ourselves in the effort to preserve our civilization. By “we” I mean all the little loci of the spirit: little circles of firm friends, little law offices, newspapers, workshops, little cities and lively little schools. These must hold the forts in the provinces against all the new barbarisms which so often come out of the large and wealthy conglomerations and establishments. Within such empires people are apparently constrained to turn the small sound ideas which come to all of us into large vapid conceptual engines, and the vestiges of right feeling we all preserve into fashionably sophisticated techniques.
My axiom says that it is mainly little places—this college among them—which permit the modesty of pace needed for long thoughts, and the conditions of closeness under which human beings begin to stand out and become distinct in their first and second nature. These places are the veritable harbors of refuge and recovery for civilization.
And now the final axiom, which I must call the axiom of the republic and which is the necessary complement to the parochial axiom.
For the soil and seed-bed of all these small, saving places is the continent-wide republic of which most of us are citizens. My axiom says that one must never, never, assist in the demolition of any actual republic and least of all of this one, for it is a going good which is infinitely more valuable than any possible perfection. By an “actual republic” I mean not only a government which in the last analysis obeys the formal definition of the term “republic,” namely “a government of laws rather than men,” but something both wider and more substantial a large public realm peopled by conscious citizens who are steadfastly committed to the preservation and interpretation of common traditions and common scriptures.
Such a republic can be wrecked in several ways. It can be wrecked by crude means-by indifference, obtuseness or crookedness. Or it can be wrecked in sophisticated ways, and my axiom is especially concerned with two of the latter.
One of these is the reckless habit of gleefully exposing the public traditions, a habit easily distinguishable from the mournful compulsion to set the record straight. It is what Burke, that most expressive of conservatives, calls the “barbarous philosophy” of those who, as he says in his Reflections on the Revolution in France:
[dissolve] all the pleasing illusions which make power gentle and obedience liberal…In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista you see nothing but the gallows. Nothing is left which engages the affections on the part of the commonwealth.
The half-intended outcome, contained or rampant depending on the health of the republic, is terror. In this country we feel it for the most part only in that vanishingly mild form in which debate based on consensus gives way to the mere reactions characteristic of “confrontation.”
The second way is the thoughtless routine of aggressively “questioning” the “whole system” of laws, a routine quite separable from the labor of reflection and reform. It is this tendency which Lincoln, that most genuine of republicans, opposes when he urges in his speech called “On the Perpetuation of our Political Institutions,” which you have recently read,
[that reverence for the laws be] taught in all schools, in seminaries and in colleges; let it be written in primers, spelling books; and in Almanacs…
The safety of our freedom, he says, lies in such a “political religion.” The laws of this republic, intended from the beginning to preserve the plurality of its communities, ought to be to us almost as scripture.
My point in ending in this rather grand way is, just as I said, that the condition of possibility of small communities where one may find human happiness—among which I count this school—is the larger polity. But the American republic is only the condition of their possibility, and not at all the guarantee of their existence; in fact, I find it conceivable that we ourselves may be overwhelmed by adversity within it. But that would be its great shame and its great loss, because this education, this liberal education, in turn nourishes the soil in which all its practices are rooted. For brevity’s sake I will simply assert here what I firmly believe I could make convincing to you, given time: I would point to the free and equal discussion of the seminar, to the deliberate absence of authoritative experts, to the essentially communal character of our concerns, as a proof that this program is first and last an imitation of and an initiation into the life of a citizen. That is why at your last dinner the Dean toasts the Republic, and why some of our most gratifying graduates are civil servants.
These are my axioms, which I offer to you as worthy of belief. It would take much additional thought and exposition to turn them back into mere propositions worthy of reasoned assent. Nonetheless you will have seen by now into what intellectual world they all fit: all are addressed to the establishment and conservation of that sort of vivid but stable public world which we might as well call by the Greek name of “cosmos.”
So, then, in the light of such axioms as these what, finally, must I wish for you? It goes without saying that I wish you happy lives, if only because it is next to impossible to maintain a friendship with anyone whose life contains too little felicity.
But it is to no purpose for me to wish anything concerning your private happiness. Our intimate affairs are so enigmatically compounded of being forever at the mercy of mere luck and of invariably getting exactly what we asked for that in this quarter wishing is quite futile. I am therefore thrown for wishing on the public part of your happiness, with which the college was in any case most directly concerned. With respect to this part I do know what to wish. It is what I said in the beginning. I wish that you may find or form for yourselves a spot, a place, so shapely, so much what it was meant to be, that it becomes for you a continual incitement to virtuous activity and a never-ceasing source of satisfying reflection. In sum, I wish you may go far-just so far from here that when you have found your place you may sometimes think of yourselves as virtually home again, with us.
This essay was originally published here in April 2015, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday.
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This was originally given as a commencement address at St. John’s College and appeared in the The College, a publication of St. John’s College (Volume 26, No. 2, 1974). It is republished here with permission.
Editor’s note: The featured image is “Small town near La Panne” (1905) by Frits Thaulow, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.