Science is an indispensable tool. It’s just a lousy god.
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods…
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield
—Ulysses, Alfred Lord Tennyson
After spending seven and a half semesters striving with gods and demigods, you had to head home, do the dishes, vacuum the living room, and take care of your younger siblings. Somehow, the last seven weeks were very much unlike the first 113 weeks. You had spent days upon days, months upon months, and seasons upon seasons wrestling with philosophers and statesmen, with scholastics and humanists, with diplomats and tyrants, with angels and devils, with powers and principalities. Now, though, college has ended, not with a grand and glorious victory against the forces of darkness, repression, and superstition, but by taking the trash cart out to the curb. Was this becoming after having striven with gods?
It’s well worth remembering that—as painful as the end of this senior year has been—the Class of 2020 is not the first class in the history of academia to have been derailed. In the past, other plagues, civil wars, world wars, depressions, and even Viking raids have closed universities before their time.
It’s also well worth remembering that many of the greatest figures in the tradition of liberal education have ended in less than noble ways. Athens poisoned Socrates. Marc Antony assassinated Cicero. Henry VIII beheaded Thomas More. When Plato and Aristotle wrote, Classical Athens was long gone. When Virgil and Tacitus wrote, the Roman Republic was beyond redemption. When Erasmus and John Fisher wrote, the Christian commonwealth was sinking into seething corruption.
Odysseus descended into the underworld. Aeneas’s north African girlfriend became a witch. Dante journeyed through hell. Aragorn reprimanded the dead.
Indeed, if the liberal arts teach us anything over time, they teach us that those who love the liberal arts fully will suffer. . . fully.
In no way do I want this note to you to be written as a dismissal. Nothing could be further from my intent. What you have gone through has been nasty and demoralizing, to be certain. This cannot be taken away, nor, frankly, should it. But, the lessons of liberal learning should, if anything, give you a stoic countenance and perseverance, and, at least, a sympathy with all of the great liberal proponents of the past. You also, of course, serve as a witness to the future, and how you respond to this current crisis will shape—directly and indirectly—how your children and children’s children will react to the crises of their day.
When Socrates died, he had no idea that we would still be talking with him, to him, and near him two-thousand, four-hundred, and nineteen years later. The same—though with fewer years between them and us—could be said of Cicero, of Livy, and of St. Augustine. Yet, here we are. . . after civilizations, empires, companies, and families have arisen and fallen, after wars, rumors of wars, plagues, and wastages have plundered us. . . Socrates remains. Cicero remains. Thomas More remains.