Thank you, President Ruscio.
It is an honor and a challenge to stand before you today with this task of opening, welcoming, and initiating the academic year, especially since the Law School is well-launched already. Inevitably what seems pertinent to first-year undergraduates who have just moved into their dorm rooms will seem like old news to the seasoned first-years at the Law School—three weeks wiser and more experienced in the ways of W&L, and to returning students, whose major studies, time abroad, or final runs for graduation begin today. I’m making a choice, after offering a general welcome to the entire W&L community, to address the most recently arrived and youngest of you, in hopes that I can help you start in the right spirit and make the most of Washington and Lee and of your four years in Lexington and Rockbridge County.
But first, welcoming words are overdue. Trustees, Administrators, my fellow faculty members, Staff, Alums, Parents, returning students, and members of the community, a convocation summons us here, formally to gather and begin our year’s work together. Our first task, which President Ruscio has rashly delegated to me, is to attempt to set these first-years, newcomers to our community, to whom we entrust the future reputation and well-being of the University, on the right path, or rather on multifarious right paths, so that we may see them off in four years’ time at that other beginning, Commencement.
We are always beginning again in universities, and depending on your temperament, this liturgical habit may strike you as appropriately traditional, a time to trot out the old verities, honor, civility, mindfulness of the future, to make sure we still recognize them. You may even feel they are looking good, considering their antiquity, like that old Snoopy float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, holding up pretty well and outlasting their inventors. Contrarily, you may feel fatigue at the appearance of the allegorical procession yet again: There’s Honor in his Confederate General’s uniform; there’s Civility with her scold’s bridle clamped onto her tongue, lest a chiding word escape; and could that be the Speaking Tradition, dressed up as a French mime, with an invisible cell-phone clamped to his ear, studiously avoiding our gazes? But for some of you, those I address, this may be the first time our cherished words, embodying community values, have been spoken to you in a formal setting. But I am not going to tell you what they mean. You will decide, starting now and continuing throughout your time here, what Honor means, as every student generation has done; whether mindfulness of the future binds you to tradition or impels you to embrace change; whether the Speaking Tradition can survive technologically-induced solipsism; whether freedom of the press, a constitutional guarantee, can walk peaceably on our shared pathways with respect for others; whether civility allows dissent; whether, in the silly words of a hymn we like to sing on these occasions, your “honor sets you free,” or rather, as I believe, a true commitment to honor involves sacrificing some liberties, with a self-regulation that eschews libertinism in favor of a greater freedom.
Most importantly of all, you will demonstrate by your words and deeds whether our cherished old phrases, naming virtues of honor, civility, respect, and thoughtfulness, will be animated through your actions into something more than a parade of attractive abstractions that we bring out for ceremonial occasions. If, as I hope, you choose to live the virtues associated with Washington and Lee, I trust that you will discover for yourselves what Aristotle tell us about virtues as a general category. The philosopher reminds us that virtues are not simply a matter of personal attainment, lovely adjectives to be described by: an honorable man, a civil speaker, a university mindful of the future. In his Ethics, Aristotle glosses virtue and justice as versions of the same phenomenon, two sides of the same coin. “Considered in relation to somebody else,” Aristotle writes, “is JUSTICE, when considered simply as a kind of moral state, is VIRTUE.” That is, when we put our virtues into action through our words and deeds, we arrive inevitably at justice. So how does this work? Consider our Speaking Tradition. It embodies venerable qualities of civil speech, courtesy, and the obligation to offer hospitality to strangers. The second time I sat where you are sitting, in 1995, my very first year here, at the late John Elrod’s presidential inauguration, I heard him explain it this way:
The Speaking Tradition calls for the ordinary courtesy of greeting each other in our daily commerce. It is a simple act but one whose meaning and value we should not underestimate.
A greeting can be a phony gesture concealing indifference or disdain, but it can also express genuineness, warmth, concern, delight. Our daily greetings should reflect the commitment that we will not be strangers to each other, that we will know and care for each other as friends and not as strangers. But the familiar greeting is only one way in which we interact with each other through language. We speak with, about, and to each other in so many ways: in class, in our newspapers, in casual conversations in the Snack Bar or on the Colonnade, in fraternity houses, in faculty offices, in social settings, and on the playing fields. It is vital to the academic community that we show respect for each other in the language that we use. Civility elevates the respect for each other, called for by the honor system with regard to truth-telling and property, into our daily conversations with each other. The tradition of civility means that we will show respect for each other not only regarding each other’s physical and intellectual property but also in the way that we relate to each other through language. Language is perhaps the most fundamental form of human interaction, and in practicing the virtue of civility we show respect for each other in this essential form of community life.
Wise words. But are they still true? More than a decade later, does our Speaking Tradition seem merely a quaint devotion to slow courtesies in the fast-flowing information stream? I hope not. Seen as a component of justice, the Speaking Tradition embodies our commitment in this community to welcome all who join us here, the tourists who pass through looking for Civil War shrines, the people you don’t already know, even those who look as if they might not belong here. Every time we speak, we enact in a simply, daily practice our respect for others, for all others. The path from this to justice is not difficult to follow: simply giving your attention to others involves you in habits of responsibility and recognition that broaden your world as they tether you more tightly to a known community. Put another way, by greeting strangers you increase your own belonging. So put down your cell phones when you walk across this beautiful front lawn, and say “hey” to the people you pass. Help a tourist figure out the difference between RE Lee Church and Lee Chapel. Say hello to the professors—they all answer to the name “Professor”—and get to know the staff people you interact with every day: Miss Gail in the Dining Hall, Chris at the Fitness Center, Mrs. Gilmore at the switchboard in the Commons—you get the idea. As the t-shirts say, Speak. And a word to the wise: don’t let Professor De Laney catch you not speaking.
Now I could easily fill the rest of my time at this podium demonstrating to you how the personal virtues we cherish, honor, civility, mindfulness, necessarily commit us to justice as well as to the pursuit of knowledge that is our main reason for existing as an institution. Alternatively, I could wonder why we have left off Temperance, Faith, and Friendliness, to choose a few good ones from Classical and Medieval lists. Or to leap to the eighteenth century, the century of our founding, why haven’t we echoed Ben Franklin’s admiration of industry, frugality, cleanliness, moderation, chastity, and sincerity? Or David Hume’s amiability, good humor, and congeniality? All good ways of being, all likely to lead to healthier selves in just relations with others. But we don’t talk about them so often, probably because it starts to sound a little preachy, and we prefer that you discover for yourselves the relationship between your virtues and justice for others.
Some of you have already begun exploring the connection, in service programs in the last week, or will do so as you fill your leisure time with volunteer service to others, one of the most admirable qualities of your generation. All of you will do so soon, in your coursework and in your whole education. For you should know that even in disciplines that seem completely disengaged from the humane concerns I raise today, and especially in social lives that conveniently transpire off the hill, somewhere out there on the Traveler van route, the daily discovery of the unbreakable fusion of virtue and justice, of respect for yourself and respect for others, never goes away. This is so not because our surveillance is so sophisticated—it isn’t—but because each one of you makes the meaning of a Washington and Lee education for yourself, for your classmates and friends, and for the strangers who will follow you here in generations to come. There will be times when it seems as if your professors, or the administration have all the power, but the truth is, the power lies in your hands, and in your words.
From the day we are born we live inside a medium of language. By the time we are twenty-four months old most of us are engaged in shaping our reality with the words we speak. So it matters which words we choose when we describe ourselves and our aspirations, when we greet or characterize others, when we say who we are and where we want to go. The very language in which we name our discoveries, or launch our investigations, puts its stamp on their impact and direction. Once we have learned to read, we cannot give up our literacy without intervening brain damage. Our creation myths and our senses of self both begin with words, or even the word, logos. Those of you with some Greek will know that although we conventionally translate it as word, logos also means saying, speech, discourse, thought, proportion, ratio, account, and reason—practically a map of the fundamental liberal arts. We do not often step outside the reach of logos. This empowers us to create and communicate, but it also may endanger. For, as Aquinas writes, “Our words, if we consider them in their essence, i.e. as audible sound, injure no [one]. . . But, considered as signs conveying something to the knowledge of others, they may do many kinds of harm.” Ought we then to discipline our language? Should we go so far as to adopt a prohibitive speech code?
On the contrary, we cherish our freedoms of speech and press, in part because we agree with John Milton, who wrote many years ago that state censorship dismembers truth. Of course, he was an interested party, for within five years of publishing Areopagitica, advocating freedom in printing, he had published pamphlets criticizing the king and justifying regicide, in cases where the king is a tyrant. The king was killed, and John Milton became the Latin Secretary, in effect the Secretary of State, for Oliver Cromwell’s Republican government. Then John Milton wore his eyes out corresponding with European heads of state. By the time the regime changed, and a King was restored to the English throne, Milton was blind. He was lucky. His blindness helped a younger poet, Andrew Marvell, plead for clemency when the King’s government put Milton’s name on its list of traitors, regicides, and criminals of Cromwell’s government. While many men on that list were included in a general amnesty, several dozen were imprisoned, executed, and hunted down even to hiding places in New England. Milton just escaped being labeled unpardonable, and he lived to write Paradise Lost, in his head, dictating it in seclusion and relative obscurity.
I tell this little tale from long ago not only because I am looking forward to reading Milton’s Paradise Lost with eighteen of you, starting tomorrow, in English 105, but because Milton’s experience with a free press—or at least a freer one—did not spare him the consequences of the words he wrote, justifying violence against a head of state. Even today, with all our protections of speech and press, I am not at liberty to threaten the President of the United States, nor to use language in such a way that would solicit crime, or bring harm. These are extreme cases. But they are illustrative. Once we recall that we have committed ourselves to principles of civility and respect for others, it should be clear that community standards are violated if and when words bring harm. Our words are deeds. They can tear down as easily as they can build up, and no constitutional protection of speech or press exonerates a person from the responsibility for the consequences of his, or her, words if they harm others. I won’t scandalize you by saying the harmful words out loud. You know what they are. A good test is to ask yourself whether you would laugh or smile if you found yourself labeled with one of them.
John Milton was a courageous risk-taker, a heretic according to orthodoxy, an advocate of divorce in cases of incompatibility, a propagandist who put into print his convictions about how to deal with tyrants. That was ok only so long as Cromwell stayed in power, but the republican dream was not long-lasted in that early experiment. Thus he was lucky to have the diplomatic young Marvell advocating for him, reassuring King and parliament that he was only a poet. Only a poet, one of what Percy Shelley called “the unacknowledged legislators of the world. “ Milton’s subsequent works, written after his political fall from grace, probably did more to advance the cause of liberty in the ensuing centuries than anything he wrote while he was working for the Puritan state. In the nineteenth century, educated members of subject races under the dominion of the British Empire read Milton’s words about servitude to a tyrannical master, words spoken by his great anti-hero Satan, and they turned those ideas against their imperial overlords. Literate blacks published epic poems based on Paradise Lost in abolitionist newspapers, where they claimed their full humanity and demanded their liberty.
Now, in my last few minutes here, I will attempt to interpret this little parable. I have been telling you a story, a true one, about the entanglements of risk and care. Milton’s rash behavior might well have brought an end to him, along with the thirty other unpardonables from Cromwell’s government. But someone cared enough for him, and about him, to save his life. He survived to justify the ways of God to men, and inspired advocates of liberty down the centuries. In turn Milton’s caring, his passionate advocacy, shines through even the most tangled and inverted lines of his blank verse. Even his choice of verse form throws off the “modern bondage” of rhyming in favor of unrhymed lines, though his was a disciplined freedom in iambic pentameter. It is difficult to tease apart the risking and the caring: we take risks because we care passionately; we deplore risky behavior when we care for one another; we risk ourselves when we commit ourselves to advocacy for others; living lives of risk and care, we pursue justice.
As for risks, we invite you to take them: not thoughtless risks that lead to the Emergency Room, the morning after pill, or the EC hearing, but intellectual risks: committing to the study of Chinese when you place out of Spanish; traveling to a distant country or continent to pursue your Washington and Lee education; choosing an unfamiliar discipline to fulfill a distribution requirement; learning to rapel; testing your convictions through the cut and thrust of argument; spending a summer on an internship with the needy for the Shepherd Program; undertaking research with a professor; presenting your work in public at our research conference, Science, Society, and the Arts; speaking to strangers when your paths cross on the Hill, and here’s an easy one, replying to our greetings when we speak to you. For if in every relationship with another there is an element of risk, an opening up of the self that makes us vulnerable to rebuff or misunderstanding, we must take that risk daily, or be shut out from the experience of care, to lose the chance at that most fundamental of the social virtues, friendship.
Thus, in my closing words, I want to reassure you, first-year students, that we care about you. It doesn’t necessarily follow that we will take care of you, precisely, for we expect you to assume, in large measure, responsibility for yourselves. But what I can guarantee is that you are entering an educational environment where you will be invited to exercise your role-taking imagination; to convert your empathetic responses into full-fledged concern; to cultivate the bonds of sympathy that bind individuals into healthy societies; to explore the ethical dilemmas that occur when our commitments clash; to weigh your words and deeds; to regulate the exercise of your liberties, the keystone of student self-governance; to enter into attentive conversation with us, with each other, and with the distinguished visitors you will meet face to face here; and to care about distant strangers, about Others, as a direct consequence of your honor, your civility, and your mindfulness of the future. That way lies justice.