“Thirty-six is a lot of graduations.”
That’s how he began.
It was June of 2015 that the bear of man, Justice Antonin Scalia, leaned his heavy palms on the sides of the podium, peered out at the graduating class and began to speak. Now, to be clear, this wasn’t a commencement address offered at Harvard or Yale, Georgetown or the University of Chicago. No. This was Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart, an all-girl Catholic High School in Bethesda, Maryland. Young, eager Catholic women in a stuffy gymnasium eager at the prospects of college and life thereafter. And numbered among Stone Ridge’s seventy-nine graduates was the Justice’s granddaughter, Megan. Between Justice Scalia’s nine children and twenty-seven grandchildren (and counting), “thirty-six is a lot of graduations.”
And so he leaned forward and began. But, make no mistake, there was no weariness in his message.
As a matter of fact, his long-suffering experience of three dozen renditions of Pomp & Circumstance, overfilled gymnasiums and the mind-numbing rolling drone of name…after name…after name seemed to give him a certain credibility (even a right) to speak on the particular topic he puckishly chose: Graduation addresses.
Now, to be sure, Justice Scalia didn’t simply offer wry observations of the vacuous nature of graduation speeches and their accompanying specious platitudes. While engaging and humorous, Antonin Scalia does not offer fluff and lollipops. In his classic pointed yet sincere fashion, he thoughtfully unearthed the Truths that are often carelessly obscured, overlooked or neglected in the traditional commencement address. Articulate and insightful, witty and winsome, Justice Scalia honored Stone Ridge School and its graduates with the Year’s Best Commencement Address.
A modern playful tradition, Scalia began, has emerged at graduation commencement exercises. A bingo card is fashioned with each individual box containing a tired platitude commonly spouted by class valedictorians and guest speakers. As platitude after platitude is spoken, box after box is checked until one (or several) lucky players (graduates in their august robes) achieves a solid line across or up and down after which she stands up in the middle of the ceremony and victoriously bellows “Bingo!”
Justice Scalia goes on…
“My problem with these platitudes is not that they are old and hackneyed, but that a lot of them are wrong.
A good one to start with is…the old standby:
“We face unprecedented challenges.”
Class of 2015, you should not leave Stone Ridge High School thinking that you face challenges that are at all, in any important sense, unprecedented. Humanity has been around for at least some 5,000 years or so, and I doubt that the basic challenges as confronted are any worse now, or alas even much different, from what they ever were…
Today, to be sure, we face the capacity to destroy the entire world with the atom bomb. I suppose you can consider that a new problem, but it is really new in degree rather than in kind. If you were a teenager graduating from the Prime Memorial High School in Troy, Greece in about 1500 B.C. with an army of warlike Greeks encamped all around the city walls and if you knew that losing the war meant the city would be utterly destroyed, its men killed, its women and children sold into slavery, I doubt that that prospect was any less terrible to you than the prospect of the destruction of the world. It was all of the world that you used anyway: your country, your family, your friends, your entire society. The thought that other societies at least would go on was of no more comfort to the Trojans or later to the Carthaginians who were also utterly destroyed or to the Campbell clan which was massacred at Glencoe than it is of comfort to you that if this world is incinerated, well, it’s good to know there may be other worlds…
It is important not to believe that you face unprecedented challenges not only because you might get discouraged, but also because you might come to think that the lessons of the past, the wisdom of humanity…which it is the purpose of education to convey, is of not much use…
So if you want to think yourselves educated do NOT believe that you face unprecedented challenges. Much closer to the truth is a different platitude, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
The second platitude I want to discuss comes in many flavors. It can be variously delivered as,
“Follow your star” or “Never compromise your principles” or quoting Polonius in Hamlet, who people forget was supposed to be a silly man, “To thine own self be true”
Now this can be very good or very bad advice depending on who you think you are. Indeed, follow your star if you want to head north and it is the North Star. But if you want to head north and it’s Mars, you had better follow somebody else’s star. Indeed, never compromise your principles unless, of course, your principles are Adolf Hitler’s in which case you would be well-advised to compromise them as much as you can. And, indeed, to thine own self be true depending on who you think you are. It is a belief today that seems particularly to beset modern society that believing deeply in something, following that belief, is the most important thing a person can do. Get out there and picket or boycott or electioneer or whatever. Show yourself to be a “committed person”. That is the fashionable phrase. I am here to tell you that it is much less important how committed you are than what you are committed to. If I had to choose, I would always take the less dynamic, indeed even the lazy person who knows what is right rather than the zealot in the cause of error. He may move slower, but he is headed in the right direction. Movement is not necessarily progress. More important than your obligation to follow your Conscience, or at least prior to that obligation, is the obligation to form your Conscience properly. Nobody – remember this – nobody every proposed evil as such. Neither Hitler nor Lenin nor any other despot you can name ever came forward with a proposal that read “Let’s create a really oppressive and evil society.” Rather, Hitler said, “Let’s take the means necessary to restore our national pride and civic order.” And Lenin said, “Let’s take the means necessary to assure a fair distribution of the goods of the world.” In short, it is your responsibility, women of the Class of 2015, not just to be zealous in the pursuit of your ideals, but to be sure that your ideals are the right ones, not merely in their ends, but in their means. That is perhaps the hardest part of being a good human being: Good intentions are not enough. Being a good person begins with being a wise person. Then, when you follow your Conscience you will be heading in the right direction…
The next platitude I want to address…
“The United States is the greatest country in the world.” [or a derivative] “We are the greatest because we are the freest”…
But is it really true?…Let me tell you what I think the answer is. We are the greatest because of the good qualities of our people and because of the governmental system that gives room for those qualities to develop. I refer to qualities such as generosity…honesty…constancy…tolerance…self-reliance…initiative…civility… These are what make us the greatest. And not only is it not true that we are the greatest because we are the freest, but rather precisely the opposite is true. We are the freest because we have those qualities that make us the greatest. For freedom is a luxury that can be afforded only by the good society. When civic virtue diminishes freedom will inevitably diminish as well. Take the simplest example: Many municipalities do not have any ordinance against spitting gum out on the sidewalk. As far as the law is concerned, you are free to do that. But that freedom is a consequence of the fact that not many people are so thoughtless of others as to engage in that practice. If that behavior becomes commonplace, you can be absolutely sure that an ordinance will be passed and that freedom will disappear. The same principle applies to larger matters. The English legal philosopher Lord Acton had it right when he said, “That society is the freest which is the most responsible.” The reason is quite simple and quite inexorable: Legal constraint, the opposite of freedom, is in most of its manifestations a cure for irresponsibility. You are all familiar, I hope, with Madison’s famous passage in Number 51 of the Federalist Papers. Madison wrote, “What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature. If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” The same can be said of the product of government: Laws. And the constraints upon individuals which those laws establish. Laws step in and will inevitably step in when the virtue and prudence of the society itself is inadequate to produce the needed result. When the society is composed entirely of criminals, only the strict regimentation of a prison will suffice.
If I am right that we are the freest because we are the greatest, the message for your lives should be clear. Do not go about praising the Bill of Rights and the wonderful liberties we enjoy without, at the same time, developing within yourselves and within those whose lives you touch, the virtue that makes all that possible.
The last platitude I want to mention…goes somewhat like this,
“This is not an end; it is a beginning.”
I want to tell you that is not true. There is no more significant rite of passage in our society, no more abrupt end to a distinct age of your life, than the graduation from high school and the departure from home that soon follows. You have been living up to now in a moral environment that could be closely supervised by the people that love you most: your parents. They got to know your friends, your teachers, your school and did what they could to change or improve them when they thought that was for your good. Most of you will be going off to college which is not a place where your parents can any longer control the influence upon your character and which is not, by and large, a place where anybody else seeks to exercise that control as well. From here on, you are much more than you have ever been – I’m groping for a platitude to convey the thought – “captains of your own ship”, “masters of your own destiny”. Your moral formation, what makes you a good person or a bad one, a success in all that matters or a failure, is now pretty much up to you. As a parent who has sent off nine children from high school away from home and into a world that has a lot of wisdom but also a lot of folly, a lot of good but also a lot of bad, I assure you that if you are not at all worried at that prospect…your parents are. But there comes a time to let go. And it is now.
I have high hopes for the Stone Ridge Class of 2015 because I know some of them and I know the quality of education in knowledge as well as in goodness that this school has provided. Good luck and…let’s see, I had one last platitude around here somewhere…oh yes,
“The future is in your hands.”
It was classic Scalia.
Puckish and wise. Witty and insightful. And it penetrated through the dreamy niceties to arrive at the bedrock of Truth.
Now that’s a commencement address I needed to hear.
Antonin Scalia, Requiescat in Pace
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons