ALL MANNER OF THING SHALL BE WELL
Wofford College Commencement
May 19, 2013
This above all:
. . . to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
It occurs to me whenever I hear those all-too-familiar lines that, if Shakespeare’s Polonius had not been a councilor of state, you might have sworn he was a college president—full of sage counsel and unsought advice, windy, platitudinous, and full of himself. Also expendable—you know as soon as he appears that he won’t be around for the final scene. But this is Hamlet, of course, and, in the end, everyone is expendable—except Horatio, the epitaph-spouting friend, and Fortinbras, the sensible King of Norway, who’s there to provide some sort of continuity and set most things to rights, at least for the nonce.
Actually, in one way of looking at it, the primary function of Hamlet himself is to transmit their little kingdom from his father’s hands into the safekeeping of another monarch, one less mercurial than himself even though not, strictly speaking, promoted from within the royal household. And, metaphorically speaking, as no doubt you have already noted, we are at this very moment in the midst of a similar transition. So let me snatch an extra iamb or two for what will be the usual exit speech, assuming I have a bit more time at my disposal than most of that star-crossed Danish crew—always excepting Horatio, the part I’ve assigned in my mind to each of you prospective graduates.
But only a bit more time at best. For the drums are rolling offstage and summer rains are threatening to pelt down—sure signs the term is ending at Wofford and Wittenberg.
So let me reconsider by cutting some slack for Polonius. He may have been an officious windbag, but he’d surely been to more than one rodeo, so to speak, and he was, after all, the father of Ophelia and Laertes who, impetuous though the latter was, had the makings of gifted students and loyal alumnae.
Besides, I should note on the old man’s behalf that, when it comes to the handful of valid generalizations that can be made about human nature and deportment, they tend to be rediscovered and repeated so often by the more reflective among us that they’re often derided as mere clichés by those who’ve only heard them without experiencing their truth. That’s just another way of observing that most wisdom is a matter of achieving a deeper level of awareness regarding something we thought we already knew.
It’s also, I think, what T.S. Eliot must have meant in his hard-won reaffirmation of hope entitled “Ash-Wednesday,” in which he likens his situation to that of someone standing on a circular staircase, gazing down at previous versions of himself, simultaneously aware of his hand on the banister below and of himself above at a higher turning of the stair, perceiving both realities and “Wavering
between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying. . .
which is, I might suggest, a moment not unlike the one we’re sharing now, both an end and a beginning—prompting, in Eliot’s case, a simple, heart-felt prayer that may as well serve us too on this occasion:
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Easier said than done, of course, for those of you in caps and gowns with the sand in the hourglass running and the day growing warmer and possibly wetter while questions of profit and loss, like getting a job and starting to pay back college loans, seem far more urgent than thinking about the future of a college—much less the fate of a doddering old administrator who’s on his way to hide behind the arras.
But give Polonius his due. . . despite his droning on with all that tedious advice while Laertes bites his tongue and clutches his portmanteau, itching to leave for study-abroad in Paris. “Here we go again!” Laertes must have groaned, surfeited with advice.
This above all. . .
“Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Heard it a thousand times. ‘Be true to yourself’. . . whatever the heck that means.”
“Well, listen, son,” his father might have said if he hadn’t been so worried about Ophelia. “Not only is that excellent advice, implying as it does that, in order to be yourself, you’ve got to know yourself. . . but I would suggest it might be as usefully applied to Wittenberg or Spartanburg as to you or Hamlet or that promising young Horatio.”
to thine own self be true. . .
So, let me ask you promising young Horatios: what should such earnest counsel mean for us—not just as keepers of our own respective souls, but as the guardians of Wofford College? Clearly, it doesn’t mean that we should refuse to grow, adapt, and change. But it does mean, I think, in words I first employed more than a dozen years ago, that we must, if we are indeed to be true to ourselves, know who we are and what we believe and find within ourselves the courage to live our lives accordingly. I mean ourselves collectively—the students, faculty, and staff as well as those who, though somewhat further from the college’s daily operation, are also deeply engaged in determining what we are and what we might
become—our trustees, friends, and alumni.
All of us together, who, according to our much-missed colleague and advisor Larry McGehee and his fellow Platonic guardian Dan Maultsby, are—and have been since our initial students walked forth from the shadow of Old Main and out into the world—the servants and the products of a residential, undergraduate, liberal arts college focused on a single mission: preparation for lives that are meaningful as well as profitable, that contribute to others while securing for oneself, that are generous and creative as well as competent, that unabashedly intend to make this world a better, richer, fairer place.
Teach us to care and not to care
Can we change and stay the same? In recent years, we have changed dramatically, growing to half again our previous size both in acreage and enrollment without appreciable diminishment of our community or collegiality. We have raised the academic profile of our incoming students while maintaining almost perfect gender balance, never ceasing to maintain our essential character. Ranking among the top handful of institutions for foreign study, we have sent our students to the ends of the earth, equipping them with the languages and skills required for truly global careers, and we’ve extensively deployed the latest technologies within our traditional framework of an intimate face-to-face instruction which leaves its indelible stamp on truly educated minds. In short, the value-added aspect of a Wofford degree is still, as it has always been, virtually unmatched, and our graduates leave this event each year confident of both employment and eventual fulfillment precisely because you have grown accustomed here to the transformative power of great ideas and meticulous execution—even as you have lived and learned in the Wofford Village and Milliken Arboretum, the majestic expanse of Great Oaks Hall and the venerable classrooms of Old Main. Above all else, you will leave here today forever aware of having been part of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., described so memorably as “the beloved community,” an ideal made sufficiently real to prove such things are possible.
What I have just described was first defined for the ancient Greeks by Aristotle as phronesis, “thought into action”—turning ideas into reality. Even today, that is the essence of liberal arts aspiration, but what it requires at the outset is an abundance of ideas worthy of being acted upon. Wofford itself was conceived as such an idea when H.A.C. Walker, who was to be among our first trustees, earnestly advised a dying Ben Wofford, “Why not found a college—spreading, working, increasing in power and goodness through the ages?” James Carlyle had his own rich abundance of ideas, and Henry Nelson Snyder, and Joab Lesesne. So have Roger Milliken, Jerry Richardson, Jimmy Gibbs, Michael James, and Mike Brown. And brick by brick, thought by thought, they have been joined by giants in the classroom, many of whom are seated here this morning. This is what Wofford is, these things are what we are, and you graduating seniors are the proof of what I say.
Teach us to sit still
just a little longer. . . for I too will be graduating this morning, accepting a degree and sauntering forth into the world well aware that the podium that’s been mine is shortly to be surrendered to a splendidly equipped successor. So, before I start to sound too tediously like Polonius, let me urge a simple admonition upon you fellow graduates—and on those who will stay when I am gone, maintaining our long and cherished traditions: be sure you know who you are, stay true to yourselves.
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
The truth is often quite simple—and most persuasive when simply stated. My favorite lines in Hamlet are not the ones you frequently hear quoted, but what the ever-loquacious prince hastily says to Horatio at the very end, knowing he’s on the verge of taking the ferry: “Had I but time. . .” he exclaims. “O I could tell you!”
But he doesn’t—because it’s time for him to leave, with all that he might have said reduced to a plaintive request that Horatio should report him and his cause aright.
As it happens, another prince of sorts—the sometime haberdasher Harry S Truman—hoped for much the same sort of obsequy when it came to his own departure. He said he would always remember an epitaph in the cemetery at Tombstone, Arizona, which read with simple if unvarnished eloquence, “Here lies Jack Williams. He done his damnedest.” As Truman observed, “I think that is the greatest epitaph a man can have. . . when he gives everything that is in him to do the job he has before him. That is all you can ask of him and that is what I have tried to do.”
Well, I won’t presume to ask for as much because I know myself too well to identify with Hamlet or President Truman or even Jack Williams since I have no assurance that whatever it was he did his damnedest to do bears any resemblance at all to what I’ve tried to do in my twenty years at Wofford—though I have to confess the notion of some sort of Boot Hill for former Wofford presidents is an appealing idea. Nevertheless, for my own valedictory, I will stick with Polonius, that wearisome old bore who meant well in his meddlesome way, who loved the kingdom of Denmark as much as his own children, and who in the end was fundamentally right: whatever else we do, we must be true to ourselves. By the middle of the play, he’d had his say, completed his job, and shuffled off the stage. For the rest, as his younger but, in the end, equally verbose prince observes,
I do prophesy the election lights
So it is, and so it should be. Blow clarions, and beat drums. Wofford and Denmark will prosper. So will you new alumni, and all manner of thing shall be well in our Kingdom of the Just.