Commencement speech to the Class of 2012, Veritas Preparatory Academy, Phoenix, Arizona
Thank you for allowing me a few moments to address these graduates. I am truly honored. This is an impressive group of young people, so much so that I must admit I am especially grateful to be speaking before the valedictorians, and not after! I congratulate all of you on your achievement. You have spent years devouring some of the greatest works of Western civilization, and now you stand on the brink of the world outside.
Normally, the commencement speaker challenges the graduating seniors to transform the world, to lead society on the inexorable march men call Progress, as if you were young Bolsheviks or Jacobins. That is not what I wish for you. On the contrary, now that you have carried on daily conversations with the greatest minds in history, it is your task to call our civilization back to truths it has allowed itself to forget. I would ask you not to create a brave new world but to kindle the flame of the old at the very moment when it stands most in danger of being extinguished, to hearken to the past in order to address the moral and intellectual turpitude of the present. Far from being progressive, or even conservative, some might call this downright reactionary, but there you have it.
You will find that while there is great ignorance in the world, there is also a great hunger for the works you have studied. This was brought home to me while I was serving in combat in Iraq, when I was an artillery officer in the Army. It was all rather innocuous. A sergeant in my unit was trying to get me to see the movie 300, about the Battle of Thermopylae. When he learned that I had spent quite some time studying ancient Sparta, he couldn’t believe that I hadn’t seen it. But I refused. “Sir, you’ve got to see that movie!”
“No, I’ve seen enough in the previews to realize it’s pure fantasy. I’ve read Herodotus, based on firsthand accounts of those who fought in the Persian Wars, and I think I have a pretty good idea in my head of what it was like. I don’t want a movie, least of all one based on a comic book, to rob me of that vision.”
But despite my protests, he kept on. So finally, I said, “All right, I’ll make you a deal: If you read Herodotus, then I will watch that movie.” And he took me up on it.
Here was a young man who had grown up in the inner city; he was a high-school dropout and had to get his GED just to join the Army. Like most soldiers, he spent what little free time he had playing video games and watching bootleg movies. Yet he picked up Herodotus, and from that point on, he was hooked. When he got to the end, he put the book down and said, “Sir, I’m not going to make you watch 300. I understand now.”
And despite the demands of our deployment, despite being mocked by his peers, he went on to read Thucydides in its entirety, Xenophon’s Memorabilia and the Anabasis, Arrian’s Campaigns of Alexander, and all of Plutarch’s Greek lives. He was better read than many a classics major at your average college. And here we were, where so many of these great events in the ancient world had happened, and we were having discussions more profound than any I’ve encountered in the university. It opened up a whole new vista for this soldier; his life would never be the same, and it all began with a rather trivial conversation.
This was not an isolated incident. Wherever I have managed to get others to give these works more than a passing glance, the reaction has been ecstatic. People feel more alive, and what’s more, they feel troubled by things in the world around them that never bothered them before. That is a good thing.
In one of those books, the Anabasis or “March Upcountry,” Xenophon recounts his own deployment: 401 years before Christ, the young Persian prince Cyrus, in a bid to take the throne from his older brother, hired 10,000 Greek soldiers, hoplites. Although these men fought for pay, they represented some of the best qualities of the Greeks, and in their ranks was a young student of Socrates named Xenophon.
It was on the fields of Mesopotamia, where our own soldiers have fought on and off for the past quarter century, that these young Greeks won the battle against the might of Persia; but they lost the war, for the man they followed, Cyrus, died in the fighting. He died as a leader of men should, never shrinking from danger. The Persian king arranged a meeting with the five generals of the Greeks, but in an act of treachery, he had them murdered. Now the Greeks faced a daunting prospect: They were 2,000 miles from home, in a hostile land, with none of their leaders.
I suggest that this is not all that different from what your situation will be in the years to come. You, too, may be hundreds, or even thousands, of miles from home. You will not have the advantage of being guided by your accustomed leaders—your parents, who have sent you to this school, and these experienced teachers. And make no mistake: You will be in hostile territory, for much of America is at odds with the ideas and concerns that have informed your education.
Most of your peers, when they are not whiling away their days playing video games, watching TV, or surfing the web, walk about in public as if in a trance. They have shut out the world around them—nature as well as their fellow man—and they are led along by these little devices, as they robotically tap away with their thumbs. These devices are said to contain more than all of the libraries of the ancient world put together. What do these people do with that privilege, something of which our ancestors could not have dreamed? Do they ever ask themselves a serious question and pursue the answer? Do they seek what great men and women in history have had to say? Do they ever allow themselves to be troubled, or humbled, in the pursuit of Truth? I think you know the answer to these questions.
To the Greeks, the other peoples of the ancient world were β?ρβαροι, barbarians, which isn’t to say that the Greeks didn’t admire the technical achievements of Persia, whose fast communications network inspired the motto of our own Postal Service; or of Egypt, whose awe-inspiring pyramids we catch a glimpse of on our Masonic currency. But despite all those achievements, despite all the pomp and majesty, despite the sympathy men like Aeschylus and Herodotus had for them, the Greeks could not help but realize that these people were not free.
You, too, live in a world of great technological achievements, but even though our fast couriers are now instantaneous wireless communications, and even though we chase after fleeting immortality with advanced medicine rather than in the sacred vaults of pyramids, you must remember that the most advanced technologies cannot make men free and may, in fact, only complete their mental enslavement.
You have had the great privilege of a liberal education, the education befitting a free man or woman. That privilege comes with great responsibility. Now I don’t want you to succumb to hubris, but there is no denying that you are all part of an intellectual aristocracy now. You’re kidding yourself if you deny it. But the question is, will you be the aristocrat who stays in his comfortable manor house, seeking in the finer things only self-gratification, or will you dedicate yourself to a spirit of noblesse oblige, never sparing yourself in the service of others?
When the 10,000 Greeks found themselves far from home and surrounded by hostile peoples, young soldiers like Xenophon had to step up and become the leaders they no longer had. At this point in his narrative, Xenophon pauses to describe the character of the generals they had lost, and two of them stand out. The first, Clearchus, was an expert in his profession, always clearheaded in a crisis, but he imposed an iron discipline upon his troops. His soldiers felt that he had little, if any, respect for them as people, and he inspired no loyalty. For him, the mission was everything, and in the end he allowed it to override his humanity.
Although a general, Clearchus represents a temptation that faces all great minds, and that is to become an ideologue. Think of Karl Marx in the reading room of the British Museum in London. This kind of person may read the same great books as you have, but then, having found what he thinks is the answer, ruthlessly he tries to fit reality into his theory. And if the rest of us cannot or will not accommodate him, well, so much the worse for us. Do not be like Clearchus and see your fellow human beings as mere stepping stones for your mission, for the ascent of your elegant idea.
Then there was Proxenus. He was an educated, honorable man. But he treated his soldiers with kid gloves, for he thought that it was enough to praise the good and merely to refrain from praising the wicked. As Xenophon observed, “It was obvious that he was more afraid of being unpopular with his troops than his troops were afraid of disobeying his orders.” He went with the flow, and dishonest men undermined his already weak authority to achieve their own evil ends.
Proxenus represents a danger equal and opposite to that of the ideologue, and that is the spineless intellectual. Think of those whom C.S. Lewis dubbed “men without chests,” or the person who hides his lack of principle behind such words as tolerance and open-mindedness, or anyone who goes along with the crowd despite his own better judgment. This has always been a danger, but it is especially so today, for it seems that, if the 20th century belonged to ideologues, the 21st century will be populated by men without chests.
But you, here, are young men and women of great promise, and I have no doubt that you will find yourself as well equipped to face the challenges that come as those 10,000 Greeks were, as they successfully fought their way to that glorious moment when those in the lead cried out, “The sea! The sea!” They were on their way home.
As you depart this school, this wonderful institution, this treasure house of wisdom, realize that you can never fully leave it. It will be with you, wherever you go. The Spartan poet Tyrtaeus wrote, πρ?ν ?ρετ?ς πελ?σαι τ?ρμασιν ? θαν?του: “You should reach the limits of virtue / before you cross the border of death.” What a noble aim! Thanks to the tireless efforts of your parents and teachers, and those who have already crossed that border, you are well on your way in this lifelong race for virtue. Godspeed.