Happy Birthday to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn!

The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.

~Aleksandr Solzhenistyn (1918 – 2008)

Solzhenicyn

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Commencement Address – 2012

Those of you wondering where the posts have been, should now have an answer. I’ve been busy finishing the end of the school year and writing a Commencement address for Cair Paravel Latin’s School’s ceremonies. Below is a copy of my speech, though I don’t think the first third works well in print, you should get the idea.

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Good afternoon students and graduates, parents and grandparents, cousins we haven’t seen in a dozen years; colleagues, adversaries (you know which you are), those of you only here for cake…welcome.

Graduates, I must admit, I was quite bewildered and befuddled when you asked me to speak today. Over the last four years, I’ve assigned you scores of tests, hundreds of quizzes, and thousands of pages of readings. As I calculate it, you’ve spent over 200 hours of class-time with me over the last four years; listening to me lecture on the principles of Constitutional Government, on teleological and cosmological arguments, on Plato and Aristotle, on epistemology and ontology. And in spite of all this you’ve invited me to speak to you yet again? Why?

I’ve watched for four years as you’ve checked your phones under the tables when you thought I didn’t know. I’ve watched as you’ve pretended to “go to the bathroom” only to wander the halls. I’ve watched as some of you struggled not to sleep through my classes, and I’ve watched as some of you had no struggle whatsoever sleeping through my classes. Why would you ask me to speak even more?

When I gave the commencement address in 2008, I chose as my subject, “Remember Death!”—and this is the person you invite to speak? This is supposed to be a day of joy and celebration and you invite a pessimistic curmudgeon to be your speaker? This is the person you want to send you off? What’s wrong with you? Do you not want to be happy? Why do you choose to suffer?

I would like to say that when you invited me to speak, I was humbled and honored. But we all know I was only annoyed. I thought, “You mean to tell me that on top of everything else I have to do in the next few weeks, now you want me to write and deliver a speech?”

And then it struck me. That’s the reason you asked me here—out of sheer, cold-hearted, conniving revenge. You knew that in the midst of grading your major essays, your final exams, evaluating your presentations, not to mention all I had to do for my other classes, that the last thing I wanted to do was compose a speech! It was revenge for all the tests, quizzes, lectures, and readings. I must admit you are more dastardly and more devious than I thought possible. I can honestly say, “I’ve never been more pleased to see a graduating class.”

But you’ve overplayed your hand. In your desire to get back at me for the hours upon hours of homework, you’ve given me a forum to say whatever I want, for however long I want, and you can’t go anywhere until I’m done. There are no sick notes or tardies now. Now, you have to sit and listen to every word I say and you can’t graduate until I’ve finished.

But what could I possibly have to say to you? Everything I know I’ve already told you! I’ve told you and told you and told you! For four years! You have greatly overestimated the “book and volume of my brain”. I have nothing new to say and so I can say nothing new. I can only tell you what I’ve already told you. So, I’ll just tell you everything again one last time. And we have four years of material to get through here, so get comfortable. The true difficulty of composing this speech has been keeping it under two hours, and I’ve only been halfway successful at that.

But even if I did tell you again, if you did not hear me then, what are the chances that you will hear me now? If you have not heard by now, how will you hear? Jesus said, “He who has ears to ear, let him hear.” But if you have not heard by now, how will you hear? How will you have “ears to hear”?

In our Great Ideas class we spent two years studying the greatest minds on the greatest topics: the political ideas of Justice, Freedom, and Equality; and the transcendent ideas of Truth, Goodness and Beauty, but if you do not know them by now, how will you hear?

Justice

I can tell you again… I can tell you that Justice is “the harmony of the parts, each one doing its part and not another’s.” I can tell you this, but you cannot know Justice—you cannot know harmony within yourselves, in your relationships or in your communities—until you stop demanding Justice from each other and start forgiving each other. The key to establishing just relationships is forgiveness. To forgive and be forgiven is to establish Justice, harmony, amongst us. To forgive those who do you wrong, no matter how trivial or how serious, to be willing to forgive those who do not deserve or want forgiveness, and to accept forgiveness in the midst of our own folly and shame. That is Justice. Do you want Justice in the world, then it begins with individual forgiveness, in your homes, among your friends, with your co-workers. As Plato said, “Justice in the life and conduct of the State is possible only as it first resides in the hearts and souls of the citizens.” That is the establishment of Justice.

I can tell you this, but how will you hear?

Freedom

I can tell you that Freedom is not merely “the ability to do as you want,” but more importantly “the ability to do as you ought.” I can tell you this, but you cannot know Freedom until you stop demanding your rights and start performing your duties—yourduty to yourself, to others, and to God. For true freedom consists not in “exercising your rights” but in “performing your duties”. It is in performing your duties that you live in accordance with your nature. Just so long as you are focused on doing what you want and ignore your duties, you will never experience the fullness of your nature. As G.K. Chesterton said, “To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.” For it is in doing what you were designed to do that you find the fulfillment of your being—and consequently Joy. There is little freedom in merely doing what you want, even animals do that—you only experience the joy of freedom when you do as you ought—as you were designed to do.

I can tell you this, but how will you hear?

Equality

I can tell you that Equality is “when one thing is neither more nor less than another in some respect.” I can tell you that equality is not established amongst you by handicapping another person so that they can be like you. That when you take from one person and give to another you have not made them equal. I can tell you this, but you can only know equality not by treating others the same, but by treating others better than yourself. To know equality is to recognize that “we are all poor beggars looking for bread.” It is when we truly humble ourselves to our true state, stop acting as if we are better or more deserving than another, and serve each other in love, not demanding anything in return, that we experience our equality of creation.

I can tell you this, but how will you hear?

Truth

I can tell you that truth is “the correspondence of an idea and a state of affairs”; as Aristotle said, truth is: “to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not.” But you cannot know truth until you love truth. Blaise Pascal says, “Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.” Why is truth so obscure?—because we deny it exists. Why do we deny it exists?—because often the truth tells us things about ourselves and about the world that we don’t like. It tells us that there are right and wrong ways to “be” in the world; that we have harmed ourselves and those we love; that our desires are malfunctioning and that we are not happy. Who wants to hear such things? And so we exchange the truth for falsehood because we love comfort more than truth. In spite of all our efforts, despite the fact that we like to tell ourselves we can define truth, we live in a world of “givens,” of hard, unalterable realities which do not bend and weave at our every whim. But only those who love truth will have the courage to endure what it says.

I can tell you this, but how will you hear?

Goodness

I can tell you that just as Truth is “the correspondence between thoughts and affairs,” Goodness is “the correlation between desires and objects.” We all desire the good for ourselves, this is undeniable. But you will never know the Good until you stop trying to fulfill your every desire, and start submitting your desires to Truth. We all desire things that are not beneficial for us. Yet the Good is precisely that which does benefit us—and you will never know what is truly beneficial, what is truly for your good, until you stop trying to satisfy any and every desire that comes along and start submitting your desires to Truth. It is in the submission of our desires to Truth that we find happiness, for again, then and only then, are we living in accordance with our nature.

I can tell you this, but how will you hear?

Beauty

I can tell you that beauty is “wholeness, harmony, and radiance;” that it has objective content. I can tell you that Beauty is not “in the eye of the beholder,” because it has the power to transform you—and what is only subjectively beautiful could never transform you, because it would only be a reflection of yourself. But you cannot know beauty until you are transformed by it. Until you encounter beauty such that is pierces your soul, discloses you to yourself, and alters the way you see reality, you will never know true beauty. Only when you open yourself to beauty beyond your tastes and are transformed by it, can you affirm with Dostoyevsky that “beauty will save the world.” But to be so transformed by beauty you’ll have to open yourself to Beauty beyond your tastes. It might mean you have to exchange your Beiber for Bach.

I can tell you this, but how will you hear? How will you hear? How will you hear?

The Consummation of the Six Great Ideas: Jesus Christ

You will only hear, and you will only know these six great ideas when you sit at the feet of the one who perfected them. At the center of all 6 Great Ideas is not a definition, not an abstraction, not a theory, but a person—Jesus of Nazareth.

  • Justice—for by Him we are forgiven and made just before God
  • Freedom—for through Him we are freed to choose the Good
  • Equality—for in Him we discover our equality of creation
  • Truth—for He is the truly human one
  • Goodness—for in Him we find the full satisfaction of our desires
  • Beauty—for in Him we see darkly the beatific vision—for He is and makes us whole, harmonious, and radiant

I can tell you all this, but will you have ears to hear?

Will you sit at the feet of Justice, Freedom, and Equality; of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty? Will you sit, in contemplation at the feet of Christ? Will you, as Gregory the Great says, “hold fast with your whole mind to the love of God…cleave to the sole desire for the Creator…and burn to see the face of your Creator”? This is the Good Life. This is happiness. Again, says Gregory, “To sit at the feet of Christ is sweetness exceedingly lovable, for it carries the soul away above itself, it opens heaven and discloses the spiritual world to the eyes of the mind.”

And so will you? Will you have ears to hear?

  • Will you forgive?—to establish Justice
  • Will you perform your duties?—to experience Freedom
  • Will you serve?—to discover Equality
  • Will you love the truth?—to know the Truth
  • Will you submit your desires?—to find the Good
  • Will you open yourself to beauty?—to be drawn to God

And to do all this, will you submit your whole being to Christ? For without this step, none of the rest will follow and you will never be truly happy. As C.S. Lewis said, “[this] principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up your self, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it…Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”

So now I’ve told you again. I’ve told you one last time. This is the only lesson I every really had for you—will you have ears to hear it?

“May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. Amen.”

Is It Always Good to Know?

I’ve always thought that “knowledge” was an intrinsic good. That is, good, in and of itself—not for some end or purpose, not for what it can or cannot do, nor for whether it will ever be used or not.

Recently, I’ve begun to question this. Not the part of it that would allow students to say, “I’ll never use this, why do I need to know it?” No, knowledge is still good in spite of whether you will “use” it in an extrinsic sense.

My doubts relate more to the relationship of “knowledge” to the “will.” The question I have is: “Is knowledge a good when it is united to a corrupt will?” Many people often complain that if God really existed, He would make His existence manifestly known. And consequently, that by this knowledge, they would believe (have faith, be converted). This is a question which turns on the theological notion of the deus absconditus.

Not surprisingly, Christian theologians have offered different response to this challenge (what they haven’t done is ignored it—what most people who state the challenge fail ever to do is look for a possible answer).

Blaise Pascal argues that if God did not remain hidden, terrible consequence would follow (hence, He stays hidden).

God wishes to move the will rather than the mind. Perfect clarity would help the mind and harm the will. Humble their pride. (Pensées, 234)

What Pascal means here is that perfect knowledge would do nothing to convert our wills. Though we would know the truth, we would not want it (or love it).

In 1945, at the Nuremburg Trials, the top Nazis defendents were given IQ tests, here are the results:

Hermann Wilhelm Goering (138)
Rudolf Hess (120)
Joachim von Ribbentrop (129)
Wilhelm Keitel (129)
Ernst Kaltenbrunner (113)
Alfred Rosenberg (127)
Hans Frank (130)
Wilhelm Frick (130)
Julius Streicher (106)
Walter Funk (124)
Hjalmar Schacht (143)
Karl Doenitz (138)
Erich Raeder (134)
Baldur von Schirach (130)
Fritz Sauckel (118)
Alfred Jodl (127)
Franz von Papen (134)
Arthur Seyss-Inquart (141)
Albert Speer (128)
Constantin von Neurath (125)
Hans Fritzsche (130)

All of them were above average in intelligence, some at levels of “genius.” Was their knowledge and intelligence a good thing? This is where the tension lives. Is it an intrinsic good to know how to kill effectively millions of people?

It seems that perfect knowledge without perfected wills only enables us to be more creative with our evil. It does not entail that we will do what we ought.

As St. Paul says,

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  (Romans 7:15)

We are divided in our very nature.

So I wonder, is it always better to know?