I thank Headmaster Crowe for that gracious introduction. And I thank Professor Owen Anderson of Arizona State University for introducing me to the headmaster, and to the wonderful venture of the Great Hearts Academies, which are doing such good in the world, one teacher, one student, one person at a time. One person at a time, I think, is really the only way to do any good in the world, for human beings are individual persons in communities, not statistics in a collective or parts in a machine. So on this happy day, as the students of the class of 2014 celebrate a milestone achievement with their families, their friends, and their teachers, I come to congratulate you, to wish you well, and to address each of you as a person who has received the good turn of a fine education, and who should feel a responsibility to repay the debt of that education by living well as a person, mindful of the personhood, the individuality, and the good of others around you, in the various communities through which your life will take you.

My wife and I recently took my parents out to dinner on Mother’s Day, and afterward, as we left their home to return to ours, I said to my mom, in a slightly bantering tone, “Thank you for being my mother.” She smiled, spread her hands in front of her, and said, “I didn’t have any choice!” Now, it’s always hazardous to humor to try explaining a joke. But what was funny about this exchange was that she took my expression of gratitude with the utmost literalness about its plain meaning, and she replied with a similarly plain, literally true statement, which also managed to chide me a little, though affectionately, about the understatement of my thanks. Of course I wasn’t thanking her for being merely my “female biological progenitor,” the one who provided half my chromosomes and gave birth to me. About that—she spoke truly—she had no choice, once I had come to be. Whether we speak of it as a matter of accident, or as the workings of Providence, there is much about our particular relationships to our particular parents, children, and others in our family that has nothing to do with choice. Yet we simply have unchosen obligations, by virtue of these relationships.

No, I was thanking her for being the kind of mother she chose to be, just as I could thank my father for being the kind of father he chose to be. They chose to give me and my brother and sister a home in which we could learn what love looked like. And, as is certainly true of the parents of the class of 2014 here today, they made choices that sparked in each of us a love of the true, the good, and the beautiful. That is what I was thanking my mother for on Mother’s Day, and that is what I hope each of you will thank your parents for on this occasion.

But not for the first time, and probably not the last, my mother’s funny retort also got me to thinking about something more general, beyond the context of our little exchange on Mother’s Day, something that gave me an idea for what to say to you this evening. I want to talk about the relation between accident and intention, and about one of the ways in which we can live more fully intentional lives, while being ready for the accidents, both happy and unhappy, that befall us.

I have been—through a series of happy accidents when I was young—a political scientist for something approaching four decades now. And in the foundational text of American political science, The Federalist, we find Alexander Hamilton saying this in the very first essay of that series advocating the adoption of the Constitution by which we have governed ourselves for 225 years:

[I]t seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.

Yes, it’s true, my mother’s comment reminded me of this passage that I have read many times! But now I began to ponder it more deeply than before, thinking about both of Hamilton’s pairs of concepts—“reflection and choice” on the one hand, and “accident and force” on the other. Human mindfulness and will are on one side, and a helpless fate and a hopeless vulnerability are on the other.

Hamilton’s point is a profound one, and clear in its context. In 1787, when he was writing, human history showed no reason for optimism that a free republic—a system of government of the people, by the people, and for the people, as Lincoln would later call it—could be established as the result of that people’s free choice, after careful deliberation, and be established on a firm footing, in a durable way, lasting for generations to come. Most of human history showed that the accidents of birth (in hereditary monarchies and other forms of dynastic rule) alternated with force (in war, conquest, and the violent overthrow of governments) in being the primary shapers of every nation’s political situation. Could the Americans break that pattern, and show that “reflection and choice” can do as much as “accident and force” in giving decisive shape to political life? That, Hamilton argued, was the test before us in the debate over the Constitution.

In the event, Hamilton’s aspiration was fulfilled. And for 225 years of living under our Constitution, the American people have continued to prove the aspiration was justified, notwithstanding all the problems our history has encountered and all the injustices it has witnessed. It is good to remind ourselves of how improbable the American experiment seemed at its beginnings, so that we do not take for granted, in our own time, the inheritance we are responsible for preserving and improving.

But Hamilton is speaking of what whole “societies of men” are or are not capable of, where their “political constitutions” are concerned, at great moments of high decision. And from one day to the next, while we should never forget our duties as citizens, most of us are not engaged in such political questions every moment. The things that do engage our attention on a daily basis are those things unavoidably closest to us—our relationships with our spouses, parents, children, siblings, other loved ones, friends, co-workers or fellow students, fellow worshipers, neighbors, and members of our local communities.

A lot of what explains where we happen to be, and with whom we happen to be in all these relationships, can be chalked up to “accidents” over which we have no control. And this will continue for you in the future, as for all of us. The people where you work, some of them with power over you, who unaccountably dislike you, even though you are a really nice person. The unpleasant or unsatisfying work you must do in order to have two nickels to rub together. The young man or young woman you fall hard for, who breaks your heart. But also the teacher or the boss who inspires you and calls forth your very best. The discovery, quite by happenstance, of your true vocation in life, and the exciting possibility that you might actually get paid to do it. The enduring love of your life whom you stumble across when you least expect it. These things both good and bad just “happen to us,” and what we make of our lives is in large measure what we do in response to these accidents.

But there are some things that are more fundamentally under our own control—matters of our reflection and choice, in Hamilton’s phrase. One of those things, about which I want to talk in the time that remains, is our use of language, and the discipline of mind that it both requires and generates in us. It is not going too far to say that whether we have our way with words, or they have their way with us, should be at the very center of our concern about living a free and virtuous life.

The twentieth-century German philosopher and Thomas Aquinas scholar, Josef Pieper, wrote that “word and language form the medium that sustains the common existence of the human spirit as such.” He went on to note that language “convey[s] reality,” and has an “interpersonal character.” Thus, truthful communication is its purpose, and so the proper learning and use of language teach us to respect truth, and to respect the other persons with whom we communicate. Lies, flattery, manipulation—all these things are connected, Pieper said, to “the abuse of political power,” which is “fundamentally connected with the sophistic abuse of the word.” (I know you must have met the sophists in your reading of Plato.)

But it is not enough to resolve to be truthful, and to dedicate oneself to sincere and authentic communication with others. Unless we master the meaning, the structure, the grammar and syntax of our language, we are easy prey for the manipulations of others, vulnerable to bad arguments, apt to get mired in muddled thinking, and thus not as capable of “reflection and choice” in our lives as we should be. As another German thinker, the linguist Uwe Poerksen, has put it, certain expressions, familiar turns of phrase, and the blurry concepts they convey become “the everyday prison of perception” for us, reordering our very reality because we do not possess the tools to break free.

This may seem an exaggeration, the idea that language should have such power over us, or that we need to have such power over it. But it is no exaggeration. As the late “underground grammarian” Richard Mitchell once said, “Language is the medium in which we are conscious. The speechless beasts are aware, but they are not conscious. To be conscious is to ‘know with’ something, and a language of some sort is the device with which we know.”

Here, then, are some words of advice on language, intended for those who would like to exercise “reflection and choice” as human beings and citizens, rather than be the manipulated victims of “accident and force.” I’ll make just four points, though I could mention many more.

First: Learn the precise meanings, the spellings, the etymologies, the histories of the language you use. These are all related. The pitfalls of inattention to these things are around us everywhere, often in common everyday metaphors—like, for instance, “pitfall.” Heaven knows how many times I have read the phrase “they were given free reign,” with “reign” spelled R-E-I-G-N rather than R-E-I-N, signalling that the writer does not know that the metaphor comes from riding a horse and loosening one’s control on it by freeing it from the reins. “Free reign” with a G is, perhaps, close to what one is trying to say, but it isn’t the real McCoy. A small example? Perhaps. But from small things, big things one day come.

Second: Strive to be plain and direct in your own writing and speaking, with an active voice, and no reliance on buzzwords, catchphrases, or bureaucratic barbarisms. Richard Mitchell uses the example of Winston Churchill’s great speech rallying the British people in World War II, as they wondered whether Nazi Germany would invade their country. The prime minister memorably said: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.” Mitchell rewrote the lines as a modern bureaucrat would have expressed them:

Consolidated defensive positions and essential pre-planned withdrawal facilities are to be provided in order to facilitate maximum potentialization for the repulsion and/or delay of incursive combatants in each of several pre-identified categories of location deemed suitable to the emplacement and/or debarkation of hostile military contingents.

Contrast Churchill’s lean, rhythmic, repetitive, and defiant call to arms with this mass of stupidity. If language has power, the only power this stuff has is to put the listener to sleep.

Third: Plain direct expression is not the enemy of complex thinking, nor of beauty. Here I turn to the great twentieth-century English mystery writer, essayist, and translator of Dante, Dorothy L. Sayers, who said:

We think that correctness and comeliness do not matter, provided we say what we mean; unaware that without correctness and comeliness we cannot say what we mean, but often say more, or less, or the complete opposite.

And I will rely on Sayers again, for a point I could not possibly put so well as she:

The test of good writing is a simple one. If a sentence puzzles or startles you, pull it to pieces. If it is good writing, then the harder you pull, the more tightly you will discover it to be woven together, and the more closely you examine it, the more meaning it will yield. But it if tumbles to bits easily—if you find its syntax dislocated, its epithets imprecise, its meaning vague or contradictory—then it is bad, and should be quickly thrown into the dustbin of oblivion; one should not keep rubbish lying about in the house of the mind.

“The house of the mind”—isn’t that a wonderful image? Language is how we furnish that house, and it won’t do to let the house fill up with junk.

Fourth: Try not to commit “verbicide.” This is a term I borrow from C.S. Lewis, the British novelist and Christian writer, who in his “day job” as a literature professor wrote a great book no one reads any more called Studies in Words. “Verbicide” means what it sounds like, the murder of a word, which Lewis said can be accomplished in a number of ways. The “greatest cause of verbicide,” he wrote,

is the fact that most people are obviously far more anxious to express their approval and disapproval of things than to describe them. Hence the tendency of words to become less descriptive, and more evaluative; then to become evaluative, while still retaining some hint of the sort of goodness or badness implied; and to end up by being purely evaluative—useless synonyms for good or for bad.

In our own day, I think we could say that some powerful words in our vocabulary are in the sort of transition Lewis describes here. “Discriminating” is nearly always bad now, not a power of telling one thing from another. “Diverse” is nearly always good, not a quality of difference among things. “Equality” and “Liberty” are always to be celebrated, without our pausing to ask “equality in what things?” or “liberty to do what?” “Development” is always taken to mean “progress,” and progress is invariably good, whereas “traditional” means the bad stuff we have inherited from our far less developed ancestors. These words are suffering slow-motion verbicide. We should try not to contribute to it.

You can see that I have come back around to where I began these reflections on language, with some observations on political things. For the act of verbicide seems to be especially rampant in that field where our political reflection and choice are concerned. But I want to stress, as strongly as I can, that precision, plain directness, what Sayers called “correctness and comeliness,” and respect for the life and integrity of words are all indispensable for thoughtful living in every activity of life. With attention to how you express yourself and how others express themselves, the house of your mind can be kept uncluttered, your thoughts unencumbered by falsehood and error of every kind, and your soul better equipped to meet life’s accidents with the responses that befit a free person.

At Glendale Preparatory and the other Great Hearts Academies, your study of Latin and other languages, of the rigorous disciplines of science and mathematics, and above all of the great texts at the heart of Western civilization from ancient times to the present day, have already given you advantages over your peers in the ability to think beautiful truths in beautiful language. So thank your parents for being your parents, and your teachers for being your teachers. Thank them for engaging in the reflection and choice that have so immeasurably enriched your ability to keep the houses of your minds tidy in the days and years to come.

Thank you, and many congratulations to the class of 2014!

Matthew J. Franck is Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute. Adapted from a commencement address at Glendale Preparatory Academy, one of the Great Hearts Academies, a network of K–12 charter schools in the Phoenix, Arizona area dedicated to classical education. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Articles by Matthew J. Franck


Show 0 comments