Commencement Address, La Jolla Country Day School, June 1, 2012
I am very grateful for the honor of being invited to speak on this festive occasion, on which we confer diplomas and celebrate the accomplishments they signify. We also mark the transition of the Class of 2012 from our protective care to greater academic and personal liberty, with which comes greater intellectual responsibility.
Considering this new responsibility, I want to address the intellectual challenge of false dichotomies. I mean those “either/or” alternatives, arising from mental laziness, that cloud rather than clarify our thinking—like “pro-life or pro-choice?” (which usually evokes from me a lecture on sex and human responsibility); or “screen addict or Luddite?” (surely not my only two options). Today I want to focus on the three false dichotomies I think most important for new college freshmen to beware of: science or religion, Western Civilization or Multiculturalism, injustice or utopia.
In college you will find friends and teachers who think that science and religion cannot both be true. I hope you have learned here to reason better, to understand that science and religion relate us to different aspects of reality. Science looks at what things materially are and how they physically work; religion involves us in purpose and meaning. In Aristotle’s terms, science considers material and efficient causes, religion final causes. To achieve the valuable ends of science, we become detached observers and make all things, including people, our objects. By contrast, religion draws us into communion and humbles us before ends beyond our own. Science determines whether the brain of an intensive care patient is functioning; religion articulates the sacredness of that patient’s life. To imagine that science disproves religion is to be intellectually confused.
Some of you have told me you are atheists. To me this means that you don’t believe in the existence of what you imagine God to be. In this the atheist is in surprising agreement with the greatest spiritual thinkers in all traditions, who say that in reality God, being infinite and all-containing, is ineffable, beyond anything that a human being can imagine. As Wendell Berry writes, “we cannot comprehend what comprehends us.”
Yet to believe that nothing exists beyond what we can see or touch or measure, or that everything is random chance, is to make an act of faith as great as that of any believer in God. Leaving aside Shakespeare and Rembrandt and Mozart, if you have ever laughed at a joke, cheered for the Torreys, or loved a friend, you know that things of the spirit are as real as things of the body—Plato would say more real—and, to most people, more important. Moreover, science could not exist if it were not built on a foundation of faith—faith in the universality of physical laws, faith in the logic of mathematical axioms, faith in the trustworthiness of measurements. You have to believe that a ruler is a foot long before you can measure anything with it.
Since science can improve our lives but cannot exist without faith or account for things of the spirit, I conclude that both science and religion are valid human enterprises. So in college, don’t fall for the unreasonable argument that religion and science have mutually exclusive claims on reality. Using the scientific method to refute the creation story in Genesis is like using a steak knife to cut up your soup. Genesis was never meant to be science but to evoke the right relation to the Creator, and science cannot tell us how to be good, or why we should be.
A second false dichotomy is Western Civilization or Multiculturalism. As you know, I believe strongly in the value of studying Western Civilization. That conviction is rooted in my own experience of college in the mid-sixties. All freshmen in my college studied Western Civ. for a year in five classes per week of history, literature, and art. The course was deeply enriching then and has served as an excellent foundation since. But my advocating the study of Western Civ. implies no demeaning of other cultures. As sophomores we also studied the history, literature, and art of India, China, Japan, and the Arab world. This invaluable two-year curriculum was an expression of my teachers’ esteem for Western Civilization at its best, for it is the West which, since Herodotus, has taught the value of learning about the cultures of others.
There is, however, a terrible price for the inability properly to value one’s own culture. American academic Multiculturalists who value all cultures except the West are busily sawing off the branch on which they sit. Out of a superficial notion of fairness, they condemn the civilization that brought us not only Greek philosophy, medieval cathedrals, the rule of law, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, and Mozart, the idea of equality, and modern science, but the value of fairness itself.
It is true that the West, like the East, has had to overcome evils like the subjugation based on race that you have read about in Frederick Douglass and Joseph Conrad. Western Civilization does not magically make men good, any more than nature does. But it has also produced and honored the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., who wished his children to be judged not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
We are all the beneficiaries of that dream. One of the best things I have observed about Country Day students is a genuine affection that crosses the boundaries of diversity: gender, race, ethnicity, religion, language, sexual orientation, wealth, intellectual ability, artistic bent, athletic prowess, and looks. But you will find that the present fashion of many university academics is to condemn the very civilization whose founders are the source of Dr. King’s ideals: Moses, Socrates, and Jesus. The word “university” comes from the Latin for “entire” or “whole”: When the university is demoted to the diversity, emphasizing the secondary elements that divide us rather than the universals that unite all men, the result is not education but bitterness and conflict. So in college, don’t let anyone persuade you that the flaws of the West justify sneering at its ideals and accomplishments. One of its best products is your own affection for the people of different backgrounds sitting around you at this moment.
A third false dichotomy is unjust past or utopian future. “Utopia,” comes from the Greek u topos, no place. Every utopia is an imaginary place that cannot exist in reality. But modern age utopians have believed that it is possible for government to do away with the evils of the past—as if man’s sins were not perennial—and to establish an ideal world. The corollary is that any government not attempting to bring about utopia now is oppressive and unjust. Utopians want government to make sure that all human beings have not merely equal rights and liberty under the law but equal incomes, pension plans, schooling, health benefits, and nutritional balance. Of course I am for government safety nets, and all people of good will would like everyone to be healthy, wealthy, educated, and well-fed. But you all know the difference between community service done freely and that done under coercion. The effort to enforce a utopian ideal requires that government trample on the equality of rights and liberty for some in order to provide a phantom equality of outcome for others.
Every utopian movement that has come to power in modern times has engaged in extreme violence against people and human rights in the name of its ideal future: the French Revolution; the Nazis in Germany; Communism in Russia, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Cuba; the radical Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood, of Iran, of Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Taliban, under whose rule, don’t forget, women not only could not vote but were regularly mutilated and murdered for crimes like appearing in public or speaking to a stranger.
By contrast, the oldest wisdom traditions in the world teach us to focus less on where we are going than on how we are getting there. In China, before the Communist revolution, the ideal society was thought of as being far in the past. In Judaism, the ideal Messianic age may come any day in the future. But about how to live, the wisdom of both China and the Jews uses similar language: The Tao in Chinese means the way or the path, both the right path for human beings to follow and the way the universe goes. To follow the Tao is to be in harmony with reality. The word Halacha in Hebrew also means the way to walk, the way one may best fulfill God’s commandments. In both traditions a better future can be attained only by living rightly now, and ideal ends cannot justify evil means. When I urge people who care about justice to stand up for Israel, it is not because I am pro-Israeli instead of pro-Arab—another false dichotomy—but because disputes over legitimate claims to land should be settled by negotiation not violence, and because I am for justice, liberty, equality, and peace and against the use of delegitimizing propaganda and terrorism to achieve genocidal ends. I remind you that in no country in the Middle East but Israel can Muslim and Christian Arabs vote their conscience, women marry as they please, and same-sex couples (including Palestinian Arab couples) dance in public without fear of persecution.
In college, whenever anyone tries to convince you that because the world is not perfect, we must compromise virtue in order to move forward, I hope you will remember the words of Rabbi Tarfon, who in the Ethics of the Fathers says, “It is not up to you to complete the work; neither are you at liberty to abandon it.” We all want a better world and must not despair or tire in working for it. But an imaginary perfect future must never be used to justify actual evil in the present.
To recap: Science and religion are not mutually exclusive; Western Civilization is the source, not the enemy, of our ideals of universal justice and equality; and utopian ends do not justify evil means.
I will close with a few specific suggestions. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachyah says, also in the Ethics of the Fathers, “Get yourself a teacher, take yourself a friend, and judge every man by the scale of merit.” In college, find yourself a great teacher—not necessarily an easy or popular one, but one that upper classmen will tell you is honest, illuminating, and wise. There will not be many, wherever you are, but there will be one or two. Find those teachers, no matter what they teach, and make use of their office hours. Then, make at least one good friend. That will probably not happen before Christmas break, but along about March you may realize that it has happened already. Even if you’re having a tough year, unless you’re on the point of total collapse, don’t transfer before June. You might just miss a future BFF. And continue to judge others, especially in election years, not by race or religion, coolness or wealth, but by merit. Finally, I remind you that knowledge is more than information, wisdom is more than knowledge, and virtue is above all. Be brave, ask for help when you need it, and once in a while, instead of texting, call home. We are all very proud of your accomplishments, and more of your character. Congratulations.
[Printable version here.]
[Printable version here.]