Bard College Commencement

Bard College Commencement

Bard College President Leon Botstein's Charge to the Class of 2018

President Botstein addressed Bard graduates on May 26, 2018.

My final duty to the Class of 2018 is to deliver a charge to them, the last piece of unsolicited advice they will receive as students at Bard. 

Everyone here has certainly heard of the Seven Deadly Sins—a staple of Catholicism—enumerated first by the 6th-century Pope Gregory the Great and discussed in greater depth by St. Thomas Aquinas. These seven deadly sins are pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony—which includes drunkenness just in case you were in any doubt—wrath, and sloth. 

The idea of there being seven deadly sins was an intentional response to a core of the Catholic catechism—the notion of seven virtues. The seven deadly sins were actually devised to match a hybrid Christian intellectual legacy from Classical antiquity—the four cardinal or human virtues: prudence, courage, temperance, and justice—and then three added theological virtues that were adapted from the 13th verse of the 13th chapter of the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, that speaks of faith, hope, and charity (sometimes translated as love). 

The number seven here is, as obvious to you, not arbitrary. Seven days measured the biblical account of creation—and we create life as humans, and then the division of ordinary time into the seven days of the week. As a guide to your daily life, seven virtues were to guide your life, and seven sins were the things things to avoid. It seemed a plausible way to organize our daily life. We are supposed to think about one virtue and one sin every day, in every week of our lives.
Now, we’re all pretty familiar with the seven deadly sins; hardly anyone here can claim to have escaped partaking in them. But the virtues they were set up to parallel seem daunting, perhaps a bit grandiose and even quaint. 

So I have decided to propose to the Class of 2018 a new set of seven virtues for our contemporary world, the world you are about to enter.  

But the virtues I propose to you are not normative admonitions, objectives to strive for. They are the very opposite—characteristics that are merely masquerading as virtues. Therefore, they are to be avoided. So, I’m going to call them Seven Deadly Virtues (of our time). They are to be feared and considered with skepticism, despite their surface of plausibility as virtues. 

So, I am asking each and every one of you, each day of the week, for the remainder of your lives, to forget about the Seven Deadly Sins and pay attention to avoiding the Seven Deadly Virtues. Forget the Seven Deadly Sins; you can’t avoid committing them. But, concentrate on not falling prey to the seven deadly virtues.

The first deadly virtue is Silence: 
It is said that silence is golden, but today, in the United States, silence is to be avoided. Speak up for what you believe and do so with civility. Do not ever be cowed by the fear of offending someone by the substance of your arguments and beliefs. Do not remain silent in the face of injustice and be counted on as speaking out. But if you do so, remember that the price for speaking out is the obligation listen.

The second deadly virtue is Change:
This is perhaps the most pernicious cliché of our times, the idea that change is a virtue. Forget it. Spend your time working to preserve things that mere fashion, ignorance, lack of loyalty, disregard, and neglect have placed into peril. Institutions like Bard are designed to protect treasured aspects of life threatened by the drum beat of change: the study of classical languages; the love of reading, particularly long novels; the pursuit of philosophy; and the making of art that can’t be bought or sold for profit. So, change is not good just because it’s different.

The third deadly virtue to avoid is Transparency:
Transparency has become a central part of the catechism of liberals. But, the truth is quite the opposite. A society that can’t do things in secret and keep secrets is not a free society. We as individuals must protect our right to do things out of the public view and to maintain the sanctity of our privacy. None of us has a right to know everything about any one of us; that describes the world of tyranny and totalitarianism. Technology today threatens privacy and therefore threatens freedom. So fight against transparency, even in government. Franklin Roosevelt would never have been able to bring the U.S. into World War II if he had not been able to keep some matters in the dark.

The fourth deadly virtue is Order:
Your parents have told you from the first moment you can remember to be organized, to use your time effectively, to be neat and to maintain order. Order has become a clarion call for those who would subordinate liberty to security. Order, neatness, efficiency are not virtues. Beethoven’s workspace was an ungodly mess, and so was George Eliot’s, and so too the study of W. E. B Du Bois. Messiness, inefficiency, and disorder are the proper context of artistic and scientific breakthroughs. So, don’t subordinate a dream to order or the relentless tyranny of the clock—measured time. Take risks against efficiency and order.

The fifth deadly virtue is Patience:
We’re forever being admonished to be patient. But in truth the number of things that merit patience are very few. There’s a short, slippery slope separating patience from passivity. Insist that progress in matters of justice be dealt with now. “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” Those are the words of Martin Luther King. Patience is plausible only when dealing with members of your family. Their habits will never change.

The sixth deadly virtue is Wealth:
Don’t envy the rich. Don’t live your life for money. If you end up with surplus wealth, give it away, either as a citizen in taxes or as a philanthropist to charities of your choice. Wealth is paralyzing and corrupting. It distorts the relationships between and among people. Contemporary culture can be said to be in the thrall of wealth. We confuse wealth and excellence. The sufferings of the poor and the discontent among our fellow citizens are a function of the unacceptable economic inequality in this country. By denying wealth its prestige as a virtue, we can begin to reverse our cultural habit of selfishness.

And, the last and seventh deadly virtue is Happiness: 
We are constantly told to be happy. It makes other people feel good. No doubt the feeling of well-being that we associate with happiness is something to cherish. But be careful not to construe happiness in its superficial modern definition. Genuine happiness succeeds always some measure of struggle and discomfort and perhaps even pain—even a sense of loss. Don’t avoid challenges because you might not entirely succeed. You might fail and then, because you fear that you will, end up feeling unhappy. The state of happiness emerges only out of the gritty reality of life. If happiness is not to be considered a deadlyvirtue but perhaps a genuine virtue, it needs to be understood by the terms in which it is used in our Declaration of Independence. Happiness is a human condition that derives from the way our politics and society are organized. My happiness is reciprocal with yours. It derives from ensuring not only my neighbor’s well-being but that of total strangers. We will experience happiness only if we extend, systematically, as citizens, kindness to strangers.

Congratulations and good luck to you all.