The following is the graduation address for the 2008 class of the Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado
Today we gather together as a body of parents and other family members, friends and fellow students, staff and teachers, to celebrate and commemorate the graduation of these wonderful students and, more than that, to wish them well in all their future endeavors. It is not easy to find words that do justice to the magnitude of this occasion nor to the emotions and rightful pride these young men and women must feel at this moment. Perhaps just as hard is to decide what this occasion exactly is. Should we mark this passage in our students’ lives as an end or a beginning, as a release from the peculiar form of Ridgeview responsibility or as the first step—hence the term graduation—in a life that will be full of rigor and work and turmoil and even grief, though we hope full of charm and levity and a good deal of joy as well? What words, what short address, could sum up the rich and varied lives these young men and women have lived up to this point and the even richer and more varied lives they will live in the years to come?
You will not, I hope, be surprised that I shall draw on a passage of ancient literature, one familiar to these students, one that seems in a way analogous to our situation today, in order to illuminate the moment in which we find ourselves. In the sixth book of the Aeneid, the hero Aeneas travels to the Underworld where he will encounter his dead father’s ghost. Aeneas, as you may know, was a Trojan hero who managed to lead a hapless band of refugee warriors out of Troy as it was being sacked by the Greeks, among them his father, Anchises, whom he carried on his shoulders to safety yet who later died on the journey. For seven years Aeneas sailed around the Mediterranean trying to find a home for this remnant of the Trojan people. That home would later become the city of Rome. It is the shade of Aeneas’s father in the Underworld who reveals to the future founder of Rome his great destiny. As his son approaches him, Anchises exclaims,
You have come at last! I knew your pietas bq. Would see you through the long, hard road.And so we can say today to these graduates, though thankfully we do not find ourselves in the Underworld, “You have come at last! I knew your pietas would see you through the long, hard road.” Since these graduates know precisely what that means, I may have already said enough on this occasion. So it is for the rest of us I offer an explanation.
I have purposefully not translated the Latin word pietas and will claim in fine Ridgeview fashion that it cannot accurately be translated, at least not into a single English word. From pietas we derive the English word piety, which means essentially reverence for God. We also derive the seemingly unrelated word pity, that is, the sympathy for those who are less fortunate than we are, who suffer, or who need our help. Thus pietas is the virtue that directs man to look beyond himself, to the heavens for guidance, and to his fellow man, who is so often in need. The most straightforward translation of pietas would be simply duty. Yet our expression duty does not convey the affection and loyalty that the hero, pius Aeneas, has for his gods, his father, and his countrymen, all subjects of his pietas, unless we begin to express duty in terms of “love of country and love of kin.” A simple Latin dictionary tells us that pietas has a wide range of meanings, to include dutifulness, piety, filial love, patriotism, justice, and kindness. I have consulted three different translations of the Aeneid and found pietas rendered three different ways, as duty, as devotion, and as love. In saying, then, that these graduates have come at last, that their pietas has seen them through the long, hard road, we have said a great deal.
After the conversation with his father’s shade, Aeneas sees his mission clearly. That he descended into and emerged from the Underworld suggests that he experiences a rebirth, and he does gain almost a new life, moving from a life of escape and wandering to one of purpose and promise. What links the two parts of his life, however, is his character, particularly his virtue of pietas. In fact, his virtue is what makes his job—if we can call it that—as founder of Rome even possible. He knows what he must do, and therefore he knows in a very real sense who he is. Had he distinguished himself by no such virtue, however, he could have had no special mission and no such identity. And so our students, in this first and important stage of life have distinguished themselves by their intelligence, to be sure, by their judgment from time to time, but mostly by their pietas, their duty, their devotion, and their love.
It is somewhat unfortunate, I guess, that we can only identify our students’ singular virtue and cannot also predict the future, as did Anchises, to see each of these student’s personal Rome, and thereby assign them their individual missions in life. You see, every year about this time I find that in some of our students, having come to the end of a long, hard road, yet one that was clearly set out for them, a kind of existential crisis sets in. They have for years derived their duties from their parents and from the assignments of their teachers at school without a lot of choice involved. Yet as they go off to college, they begin to realize that they must make decisions that could have significant impact on what kinds of lives they live. They must begin by picking a college from among the 3500 or so that exist in this nation and soon after that a major. After all, the question “what’s your major?” is the precursor to most all campus conversation. That they will be paying for their classes, classes that must amount to some major, a major that presumably leads to a career, all means that the stakes are very high in the choices our students will be making. I do not want to suggest that the careful selection of a college and a major are not part of an important undertaking in deciding what one wants to become, but I should like to put such choices into perspective. What classes might Aeneas have had to take to prepare himself to become the founder of Rome? Rome Building 101? Indeed, what classes did the American Aeneas, George Washington, take to become founder of our great country? My excursion into the historical record tells me that he took none at all. He had no degree and no major, though he had pietas to spare.
Having observed this phenomenon for a number of years I have begun to wonder whether in sending our students off into the world with little more than the pressure to choose a major and to choose it wisely we get the cart before the horse. Perhaps we should follow instead the example set in the Aeneid and concentrate a little more on their virtue— their pietas—that has brought these young men and women impressively to this point, indeed on the very virtue that makes human happiness and flourishing possible in the first place. A short history of their education and cultivation will reveal my meaning.
These students began their lives, as do all children, in the family home, learning the rudiments of the language but the essential rudiments of morality and behavior as well. “Sit up straight.” “Mind your manners.” “Chew with your mouth closed.” “Stop hitting your brother.” “Stop pretending like your brother was hitting you when he did nothing of the sort.” “This is right, and that is wrong.” They also began to appreciate the arts through music and other forms of beauty brought into the home, principally by mothers is my guess, but by fathers as well, I am sure. Even as little children they became students of human nature by observing how their parents and their siblings interacted. They became students of the physical universe whenever they became too bothersome indoors and were told to “go outside and play.” These many, varied interactions steadily communicated to these children that they could think, that they could discern, that they could understand things for themselves, as long as they had parents around to answer their recurrent question, “What is that?” They found that they had many pleasures: playing with toys, playing in sandboxes and on swing-sets, looking at books or having books read to them. They no doubt also found that they had tasks in the world given to them by people whom they loved and who loved them, tasks that they did not always agree with or see the immediate utility of, but tasks essential to their well-being all the same.
And then, just as things were getting interesting and everything made sense, it was time for these students to go to school. At first, school was pretty much like the home. They continued to learn lots of words that built their vocabulary. There were clear rules they had to follow in order to get along with their classmates and gain the approval of their teachers. Most of all, they were given answers to all their questions, and they had many questions, some of them on topic. They had endless details to concern themselves with: poems to memorize, names and dates and places to get right, problems to work out in math and science. Some of this work was tedious; much of it was rote; but they needed to get the basic facts down. They had to play the chords before they could perform in the symphony. All their rote work served to strengthen and to prepare them for what was to come.
Gradually they learned that all the stories and facts and problems they had been collecting constituted a tradition, a tradition of thinking and of living. They learned further that they were the heirs of this tradition and that the various voices in this tradition constituted a conversation, more often a heated argument, over the question of the best life man can live. The voices in this conversation were those of the fathers, and mothers, too. Our students, like Aeneas, carried these fathers on their backs: in having to read them, in having to write about them, and literally in having to bear heavy backpacks laden with books most teenagers in this country have not read and, sadly, may never read. These great and heavy books were not confined to the humanities. They had to study math and the sciences as well to understand the many ways the world may be explained and how the mind may be disciplined. They had to study the arts and languages to know how the world may be adorned and embellished and how people make themselves understood. So the students sat down, every day, in order to read and wrestle with the great books, the great voices of their tradition. The students did not agree with every one of these authors; they did not like some of them at all at first. But they had to take them seriously; they had to learn what each unique voice in this conversation over the nature of the good life had to offer lest they judge too quickly, with pride or with prejudice. In all this wrestling with the fathers careful disagreement was allowed, but impertinence was not: forbidden was the flat-souled complaints of the typical teenager, “This is boring,” and “This is stupid.” And our students had no inclination to say those things anyway because they were engaged and dutiful sons and daughters. They descended to the Underworld with Aeneas; they climbed to the tops of mountains with Petrarch and with Zarathustra; they experienced the bliss of Paradise and hoed through the thorns and thistles of our own world with Adam and Eve.
Over the many years of fact-gathering and conversations with the fathers the walls of Troy were built. The walls of Troy had to be built so that our students would always carry with them, in whatever waters they sailed, some semblance of safety, some memory of home.
Because at some point Troy would be besieged by a very difficult question, a question their teachers would no longer answer for them—“What does it all mean?” And then Troy would be sacked by an earth-shattering question, the question that lies before them now: “And what are you going to do about it?” These are not questions made for children. They are questions too often avoided by adults. Yet they are the questions your children chose to address and to answer by coming to this school. They are questions that involve the human mind, to be sure, but more directly aim straight for the human heart. And that is where their wandering began, their sailing from shore to shore in search of answers, in search of sure ground: to figure out what counts for right and what leads to wrong, to see what is beautiful and what is unseemly, tasteless, and overdone. They have studied not only human excellence and right thinking but human error as well, which at first often appears the more enticing choice. They have learned that the world has not always been as it should be—that it never has been—but that things only get better when men and women exert their own stubborn virtue, their own pietas. And so these students have learned to ask themselves in the midst of their necessary wandering: what is my duty, what is my devotion, what is my love? And in so doing, each student has found—or at least has begun to find—his own voice, has begun to offer her own testament to the world.
If you have not heard this voice, then you have not been listening or paying much attention these last several years and particularly this year that has passed. This voice, these voices, certainly came through in the chorus of thoughtfulness and character that was the senior thesis. In the rite of passage that constitutes Ridgeview’s senior thesis, these students must confront the modern problem, the inability of modern man to say who he is or what he stands for that has resulted from the supposed death of God, death of tradition, death of reason, death of truth, and death of beauty. While each of our students offered a distinct and nuanced response to the crisis of modernity, a common theme ran throughout the presentations, which I shall take great liberty in summarizing.
There is an order in the world. There is truth. There is beauty. Otherwise, how could we believe in anything; how could we be loyal to anything; how could we do anything that would not be senseless or ironic, to include our education? Pius Aeneas would be foolish Aeneas to fight for a fiction. Our pietas—our duty, our devotion, our love—is to find out what place in that order, whether big or small, we are to occupy and to cultivate that place in an effort to make the world a little more beautiful, a little saner, a little more just. The students found that the unanswerable question that so confounds and troubles modern man—“who am I?“—is so framed by the subjective I that it altogether misses the predicate of meaning: what must I do to be a good man or woman; to what fundamental principles am I devoted; whom do I love? By answering these fuller, more active, more self-transcending questions I discover who the I really is, or ought to be: the being I want others to see me as, the being whom both my ancestors and descendants would be proud of, the being about whom it can be said at the end of life: “I have lived well.” Our students found that the human being who engages the modern problem in light of the best his tradition or her tradition has to offer, and who has done so with pietas—with duty, with devotion, and with love—cannot fail to realize that being a servant of tradition and of goodness does not make one servile; that being a jaded, ironic, and all-too-predictable nihilist does not make one free. So have our students learned, at the ripe age of eighteen.
Of course, our graduates have hardly reached the end of the road. They have a great deal more work to do in hammering out the principles by which to live, and they have a whole lifetime ahead of them in putting those principles into action. Yet much ground had been gained. For at the very least, it seems to me, they have learned how to frame life’s essential questions in the right way, to turn life’s troubling questions into life-ennobling ones. Having begun to ask themselves “what kind of men and women do we want to be?”; having resolved to determine their duty, their devotion, and their love; the matters of what careers they should choose or where they should live or which colleges they should send their own children to may come a little easier. Once Aeneas knows he will become a founder of a great nation, that such is his pietas and his destiny, the rest is a matter of logistics. He only needs to figure out where Rome ought to be. Of course, I should point out that he must do a bit of fighting along the way, a lot of fighting in fact. Pietas is nothing without another essential Roman virtue: virtus, that is courage, strength, or, as the Romans would say, manliness. But that is another story.
Parents, when the teachers of Ridgeview and I think of your students today, we of course have in mind their many admirable qualities and impressive accomplishments:
Their astonishing mastery of detail in mind-straining subjects; Their delicious and elegant styles of writing; Their gift for unexpected metaphor; Their stellar, often tear-inducing, performances in concert and on the stage; Their sense of humor, sometimes on the money, sometimes overdone; Their graceful dancing and beautiful compositions in art; The glimmer that appeared in their eyes when an answer came to them; Their pleasing manners and gentle demeanor, so rare and precious these days; Their thought-provoking and idiosyncratic questions in class discussion; Their behind-the-scenes talent for organizing and directing; Their impressive logic and auditorium-filling oratory; Their crowd-rousing feats on the athletic field, as recent as yesterday; Their hard work and heart-warming smiles.Indeed, parents, we have seen in your children, as you have seen, their moments of genius, and their occasional moments of doubt. Yet in the future we shall remember them more, far more, for what will lead them all through many a long, hard road ahead, for what will distinguish these men and women as they found their own, individual Romes. We shall remember them for their essential goodness of soul, their pietas, the nurturing of which has allowed us, their teachers, to find our own voices and to make our own lives worthwhile.
I might try your patience just a moment longer to say something on a personal note. For the past seven years I have had the pleasure of having your children, these great graduates of today, as my duty, my devotion, and my love. The parents of Ridgeview, the teachers of Ridgeview, and many, many of the students have been quite effusive over the course of this past year, and particularly in these last few days, in telling me how much I have influenced the lives of our young people. I am thankful for these heartfelt sentiments. But I assure you that my gratitude runs just as deep as yours. I could never have been the man I fancied I could be—a man that a father might be proud of and that sons may one day speak of with praise—had you not taken me into your lives, had you not allowed me to teach your children, had you, students, not allowed me to coax you into learning with my lame jokes and drawings when such coaxing was never necessary, and had you teachers, and parents, and students not taught me so very, very much. I am forever grateful. I am forever yours. Thank you.