This piece is transcribed from a commencement speech delivered by the author.
In Lucretius’s famous words, “Nothing can come from nothing.” A hundred or a thousand or a million times zero equals zero. No person can think with nothing in his mind. A person cannot think with an empty mind that is not filled with substance. A mind requires food for thought. The purpose of a bona fide education is to fill the mind with the wholesome, nutritious food for thought that will allow the mind to think, to see the light of truth, and to possess wisdom—a wisdom that will protect a person from the craftiness of the world. Wisdom illuminates the unchanging truths about human nature and the human condition (“the way things are”), the first principles that underlie the structure of reality, the laws of Mother Nature, and divine truth.
No one can be young and wise or young and prudent, but a young student can desire, seek, and love wisdom and learn from those who possess wisdom and have experience, both real people in their lives and from the classics and great works of the past—a body of knowledge called “the best that has been thought and said” by Matthew Arnold and known as the Perennial Philosophy (the accumulated wisdom of 3,000 years of Western civilization). From this classical and Christian wisdom, the mind learns self-knowledge (“Know thyself”), self-control (“Rule thyself”), and self-donation (“Give thyself”)—truths that are no longer taught or known in the politically correct world of modern education that indoctrinates the young into the belief that truth is relative.
The wish of every parent and teacher is that the young incorporate this wisdom—which is most practical as well as good and true and beautiful—to make prudent moral decisions that test a person’s mind, heart, and conscience. The primary business of life after graduation requires constant decision-making on a multitude of topics that require the light of the wisdom of the past, lest a person be fooled by the world, the flesh, the Devil, and the media.
What are some of these decisions that will immediately confront graduates and accompany them in the course of a lifetime?
First, a person will constantly be required to choose between first things and second things—between duty or pleasure, between career or family, between selfishness and self-sacrifice, between living for others or living for oneself. When a person intelligently distinguishes between first things and second things, he remembers that he is a human being before he is a chief executive officer; one remembers that he is a son or daughter, a husband or wife, before he or she is a professional or an expert. Wisdom never confuses first things and second things, remembering that love of God and love of neighbor are the first and foremost commandments. A Christian life always prioritizes the first things, remembering Christ’s words: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you.”
Second, a person will need to choose between merely living and living well, that is, between existing or surviving as opposed to living a fully human life rich in beauty, friendship, learning, spiritual life, and the enjoyment of people. One can live to work and pursue an exclusive economic life of getting and spending, paying bills, buying things, being a consumer, and purchasing entertainment, or one can work in order to live and to play and taste “the sweetness of life” (Homer’s phrase) or “the sweetness of the Lord” (Psalm). One can live a sparse life limited only to the pursuit of wealth and the purchase of material pleasures, or one can have what Christ offered: an “abundant” life enriched by the sacraments, the blessings of family life, and a life of the mind that leads to wonder and to the knowledge and love of God. In short, one can live like Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener who worked all day every day including Sundays and lived, slept, and ate in his office on Wall Street or live like Homer’s Odysseus who enjoyed festive occasions of hospitality, relished conversation and learning, delighted in the music of the lyre, and relished in the Olympic Games. One can be a “workaholic” and live an unbalanced, inhuman life or work like the Italian furniture maker who took a month’s vacation each year to perform in an amateur opera and renew his spirit. When blamed by an angry patron, he explained to the complaining woman, “Something of those operas will go into your sofa!” Living well is bringing the joy of play and beauty into the daily work one does with love and with his entire heart.
Third, a person will be guided either by worldly wisdom or Christian wisdom, following the trendy, popularized, glamorized ideas that teach the worship of self and the cult of pleasure or living the life of the Beatitudes in the practice of poverty of spirit, purity of heart, and meekness. To choose worldly wisdom means narrow self-interest, the doctrine that the end justifies the means, and “bigger is better”: the spectacular, the famous, and the wealthy are the signs of worldly success. To choose Christian wisdom is to follow the humble “little way” of St. Therese of Lisieux, for whom no task is too trivial or unimportant in serving God, the way of Christ who washed the feet of the disciples, and the way of St. Nicholas who performed good deeds anonymously in the secret of the night by throwing bags of gold into poor homes.
With the benefit of perennial wisdom and a mind rich in the timeless truths of human experience and divine teaching, a person will not be fooled by the subtle temptations and clever lies lurking to deceive the young that abound in modernity—what Melville in Moby Dick refers to as “the bland deceits and civilized hypocrisies” of modern civilization. These lies are many, but the ones that keep gaining in popularity are the nonsense and propaganda that teach the following fabrications: The family is obsolete; children are inconvenient and expensive; marriage is optional and unnecessary; truth does not exist because society is pluralistic and full of contradictory ideas which are always clashing; people and governments can spend money they do not have; war is the solution to all problems. Remember that the opposite of wise is foolish. If you do not have wisdom or fail to use the wisdom given to you in your education, you will be fooled again and again by the lies, clever lies, and most artful lies woven by the weavers who pretend the naked king is handsomely clothed with nothing.
Header Image CC Robert Crum