Morality and Wisdom

This article is adapted from commencement remarks given by Mr. Buckles at Washington University in St. Louis in 1993. A summa cum laude graduate in economics, he will attend law school in the fall of 1994.

President Andrew Jackson believed that “one man with courage is a majority.” Today, I believe that one college graduating class with wisdom can change the world.

Like many of my classmates, when I set foot upon this prestigious hilltop four years ago, I was mesmerized. This vibrant city of scholars was a majestic mountaintop when compared with the small, rural high school on the central Illinois prairie from which I graduated with my 32 classmates. Here, at this city set upon a hill, my professors were royalty, and my textbooks offered the keys to true wisdom.

Today, however, my perceptions are different. Of course, my professors have maintained their knighthood. But I have learned that knowledge, by itself, does not lead to wisdom.

The great inventor Thomas Edison said that “we don’t know one-millionth of one percent about anything.” I would like to add that what we do know, we will soon forget. Years from now, most of us will not remember the marginal cost curves, the conjugations of Spanish verbs, the difference between mitosis and meiosis, or even the political leanings of Charles Dickens. I dare say few of us can remember these things today. What we will always remember and what will be the single most important guiding principle behind each of our lives is something that our classroom instruction has not addressed: morality. Without morals, our knowledge can never become wisdom.

King Solomon, who was hailed as the wisest leader ever to govern any nation, said “be wise and give serious thought to the way you live.” Solomon recognized the importance of morals. The young Martin Luther King, Jr., did as well. When he was a graduating senior at Morehouse College, he wrote, “the most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.” But over the past four years, my classmates and I have sat together patiently through countless lectures aimed at convincing us that all truth is relative and that moral absolutes do not exist.

In the meantime, we’ve seen our inner cities become war zones, chemicals and pornography infect the minds of our nation’s youth, teenage children have babies, prisons overflow, and drug-sniffing dogs and metal detectors placed at schoolhouse doors. It seems that rather than standing for something, America has fallen for anything.

My generation must change all of this. We can begin today by recognizing the obvious: the statement “there are no absolutes” is itself an absolute. When our professors appealed to Einstein’s groundbreaking theory of relativity for ethical purposes, they stretched it beyond its legitimate scientific application. They ignored Einstein’s own personal warning that his theory of relativity does not apply to ethics.

Not only must we understand the limitations of our knowledge, but we must also consciously strive to become examples of morality for our nation. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “In matters of style, swim with the current; [but] in matters of principle, stand like a rock.” And what better principles to pattern ourselves after than those of George Washington whose name this university bears?

When Washington University was inaugurated on April 23, 1857, the first Chancellor, Reverend William Greenleaf Eliot, explained in his speech that the name Washington “was admirably adapted to the plan proposed, namely . . . to educate the rising generations in that love of country . . . and in that faithfulness to God and Truth which made [George] Washington great.” Clearly, Chancellor Eliot and the other founders of this university recognized the need for a moral component in higher education. They thought that by naming this university for George Washington, they would provide an outstanding example of morality for future students.

On this occasion, then, we are justified in turning to George Washington as our moral mentor. The historian Cyrus R. Edmonds, who lived during Washington’s day, once said “the elements of [Washington's] greatness are chiefly to be discovered in the moral features of his character.” The Duke of Wellington, who was a British statesman, general, and enemy of Washington in the Revolutionary War, said that Washington had “the purest and noblest character of modern time—possibly of all time.” Like all great leaders, George Washington was not representative of the world’s population.

In his Farewell Address, Washington explained the basis of his morality. He said, “Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Reason and experience both forbid us to hope that national morality can prevail in the exclusion of religious principles.”

As we enter the wilderness ahead, never forget that without morality, true wisdom is unattainable. The facts we have learned at this place will only fade with time, but morals will guide us through life.

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