Not much more than 24 hours ago, one of many of you who could get away with it asked me to speak to you on Class Day. It hit me that for a tutor who insists on students meeting deadlines, the situation has the best of comic myth: you got yours back, and at the same time gave me an honor whose sweetness I can taste.
You will, as you grow taller, stronger in yourself and deeper, realize the sweetness of the love that has surrounded you here. It is strange how love in the past, the love of the past, can reach you in the present, how twenty years later you can feel the love of teachers you took for granted and did not recognize at the time, proof, if any such is needed, that the past has its own life, that it really does live in us and beyond us, perhaps more so in the West than anywhere else.
For the West is the civilization that remembers the most, and most accurately—the reason you should learn Creek and Latin. At the same time, in fits of inconsequence, it wants to destroy that past, to do away with it, to wipe it out, to act as if we came from nowhere, had no parents, had no name.
As it is, we do not know what to do with our names. They seem like conventions from another time, an embarrassment, something we have inherited and do not know what to do with. But the real point is inheritances have to be earned, and earning them takes the better part of a lifetime, perhaps a whole lifetime.
When I look at the generation of my grandfather, roughly the generation after Freud, the generation that saw the First World War (still an event nobody understands), what hits me is their robust self-confidence, their confidence in their goodwill, goodwill we cannot even imagine. We distrust ourselves, and that is the reason we are so easily euphoric, especially in the face of disaster that would have lighted severe recognition in the eyes of our ancestors, and also weeping. They never forgot the whips and arrows of fortune. That is why their goodwill was almost childlike—not infantile or immature, but only the child in the man, the most important part of the man, because it gives life to all the rest, or allows the rest to live and breathe.
A teacher of mine used to say (not to me, for it is not a thing a teacher says to a student): La sagesse fait durer, la passion fait vivre. Passion here probably does not mean suffering but rapture, that rapture you live first as a child, and probably most disinterestedly then.
The thing that tells most about our lack of self-confidence is our haste, the haste with which we read books—maybe I should speak for myself—the haste almost of a glutton, unseemly, or of a libertine, of a Don Giovanni of print: you don’t need so much baggage to get through.
This haste is a little like Mary McCarthy arriving in Hanoi in wartime with 17 suitcases, her little mark in history. I suppose we do not want to travel light because we do not want to travel at all. But our world is not a place that allows anybody to stay at home much, and if you do stay at home you are likely to see people come and take your home away from you. You will probably have to fight for somebody else before you can fight for yourself, especially in America, whose very Constitution seems to deny since the Civil War that we have anything of our own that somebody else cannot also claim.
A wise lady who has lived a lot and seen a lot told me yesterday that she thought the United States was probably trying to do something impossible. Trying to do the impossible means, often, evasion, for it keeps you from the possible, from savoring what you have.
She was replying to a remark of mine that in some sense Europe was one culture and many peoples, and the United States wanted to be one people and many cultures, Europe inside-out. The general bafflement at the difference between Europe and the United States shows up in some of the current talk about “the unity of Europe,” a phrase that makes little sense except in terms of trade. The Europeans know or sense these differences but do not dare talk about them, a mark of the extent of their Americanization.
As far as I can tell, this combination of one culture and many peoples has occurred in history only in Europe, and is the reason for European expansion throughout the world. Its basis was laid in the Roman Republic and Empire, but its greatest test and triumph came after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West in 476 A.D., when it continued to spread and survive among the conquering barbarians in part because of Christianity.
In some sense the Romans found their greatest expansion after their political fall, and this expansion took place beyond their frontiers, roughly the Rhine-Danube. At the same time the breakdown in Roman authority, first in the civil wars that destroyed the Republic and then in the fall of the Empire, is still felt today. For the spread of one culture did not bring political unity. In fact it seemed to depend on the avoidance of political unity, a secret Rome did not know, and one that caused many tragedies.
The source of this strength to spread beyond the boundaries of nations and kingdoms comes from the capacity this culture has to say it was wrong and to repent. The readiness to acknowledge that one is wrong existed in Rome and Greece also. Socrates understood this, and more importantly could bring other people to acknowledge their mistakes. He knew that was the way to strength, in contrast to force—he also knew it was very dangerous. The willingness to admit wrong persisted in Rome in the institution in politics of always hearing two sides of an argument, an institution that perhaps did not survive the fall of the ancient world. Christianity is not so clearheaded about choice. This ambiguity, even ambivalence, about choice makes us think a great deal about tolerance, something the ancients took so for granted they did not have the words for it. We do not in our politics argue the other side of an issue as a matter of course, in part because even when we do not agree, we tend to want to think there is only one way. “The only alternative” we call it, an oxymoron.
But the readiness to acknowledge one is wrong came to be the center of our institutions not so much because of Socrates and the Romans but because of the readiness of David to acknowledge and repent his murder of Uriah. Here it was not only a man, an individual like Socrates, saying he was wrong, but also a king. You can see the traces of this act in many places, among them the second part of Marbury v. Madison, where the precedents for recourse against the sovereign (some of them) are remembered.
This readiness not only of individuals but of public authority to say it was wrong is at the heart of respect for opposition, probably the most accurate measure of freedom in a country. It has also made possible the independence of the judiciary, an institution that decisively separates the modern from the ancient world, as Montesquieu first realized. Kingship too marked the difference between the ancient and modern world, as Montesquieu also pointed out, when he said there was no comparison between the European kings and the ancient, only the word appeared the same.
It is this readiness of authority itself and the institutions it has brought about, to say they are wrong, that puts us in a culture in which our institutions and our public ways are better than ourselves—than some of us at least—and allows us, and encourages us, to do things we would hardly dare on our own. That many of us still do not dare despite their encouragement and permission is one reason for our pervasive restlessness and even resentment. For our way of life makes us often feel we could be better than we are, by offering us more than we can cope with.
I suspect you have felt this in your four years here, riches everywhere, more than you could take in, and also something like a sense that they belonged to somebody else because you did not know how to make them yours. There is also something that makes it doubly hard to make books your own when you read them in school. Assigned reading is perhaps more accurate, more objective, but you do not feel the full brunt of the work the way you do when you read a book on your own, when the reading is passionate.
But the more books are important to you, the more you also have to know how to get along without them. In some way you get along without them by letting them become a part of you, so much so that you only recognize their presence in you years later when you read them again. In some sense the mark of their presence in you is the feeling that you have forgotten everything you have read, and never really read anything properly. I suspect that a good many of you had read important books on your own before you came here, and came here because of that, because you did not know what to do with their life in you.
Finally, the test of a tradition lies in your readiness to imitate and continue it. It is also the test of your education. In some way almost everything you do will continue it, to the extent that it is institutionalized in the professions, political life, etc. But even in such ways of life you will have to rediscover it, and also make it new, for the oldest things in our civilization are the newest, the things that will surprise you most, and, in some instances, the things that will seem most different, almost inconceivable. These days—I mean the last thirty years, a generation—we are scared of those surprises, for they awaken a dread almost as deep as the assurance they occasion, and which occasions them, so that we are willing to settle for all sorts of absurd nonsense, to distract us from what we are all about, from the things and accomplishments that will really take our breath away.
You cannot simply decide one day you will imitate the tradition and start the next, for the same reason that you cannot decide to fall in love: you can only allow it to happen. It is a slow journey in which the steps you have to take are not obvious, harder these days perhaps than before, because there are fewer teachers with the assurance to guide you and above all to limit you. But assured teachers also take years to outgrow, for their tradition cannot be entirely yours, and the limits that really count are the ones that you give yourself.
Imitating the tradition means daring to learn from works, imitating the way they do things, not repeating their thought. Some of this goes on without your notice, and has been going on already without your notice. But the more you grow in it, the more you really do it, the more will the imitation have to be conscious, and the more anxiety and doubt it will occasion. The only confidence I know of comes from enduring that doubt, which will grow intenser the closer you are to doing something.
What I am saying is that the way to really be on your own is to imitate the tradition, not to flee it. The challenge is to find the way to do that, and the difficulty is that the way finally has to be your own, a way nobody else could have taken, but at the same time cannot be your own unless it has a firm relation to what went before. The deeper its relation to the past, the more it will be your own. This paradox is the reason why masterpieces appear both totally new, without one word misplaced, as if they were written effortlessly and involuntarily in a flood of love, and at the same time seem to be the obvious next step after what came before. But my experience is that this time, the years since 1917, dreads most what is its own; or, to put it better, dreads having something of its own.
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