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The chief purpose of life, for any one of us, is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by this knowledge to praise and thanks. What will you do?…

Editor’s Note: This address was delivered to the graduating class of 2017, Hillsdale Academy, Hillsdale, Michigan, June 4, 2017.bradley birzer

Headmaster Calvert, Provost Whalen, Faculty of the Academy and the College, Academy Graduates, moms, dads, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins, friends, neighbors, well-wishers, and those who might have randomly walked in off the street, thank you. Thank you for asking me to speak, and thank you for—I hope—your good graces over the next fifteen minutes.

In the first history ever written, The Histories—the “story”—Herodotus reminds us that every man is destined to live only 26,250 days on this earth. Given advances in the standard of living and health care, that number in 2017 is larger than it was in the fifth century b.c., but it is not remarkably so. As Dr. Calvert notes so often, our life is but a brief flame – a match lit, burning, and extinguished. Perhaps that match catches another match on fire, perhaps it burns down a forest, or perhaps it simply flickers into nothingness.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s take Herodotus seriously and imagine that we have 26,250 days or, maybe given our current standards, even 32,250 days. As Herodotus proclaims so wisely, “any one of these days brings with it something completely unlike any other.” What makes a man happy? Herodotus continues.

Wealth? Yes.

But, health is better than wealth.

And, better still, is having good children.

As I look over these 2017 graduates of Hillsdale Academy, I must agree with Herodotus. Wealth is good; health is better; but having good children is best. What good young women and men I see before me. What bright and divergent futures I see. Each one of you is a set of nearly infinite possibilities and choices. These possible paths are simultaneously enticing, intimidating, and confusing. Perhaps this is one of the most fundamental mysteries of life — the mystery of choice, of free will, and of possibilities.

I don’t want to bore any of you with anything too personal (at least not for too long), but I can’t help but wax a bit nostalgic. I’ve had at least one of my children at the Academy — one who sits with you today — for thirteen years now. For the past thirteen years, I have entrusted him to the sagacious care of your headmaster, Dr. Calvert, who has guided each of you — in ways you might yet not even recognize — wisely and lovingly. But also to others — each as unique as each one of you in front of me — Pam, Carin, Charyl, Karen, Brent, Chris, Andrew, Deanna, and so many others.

I can ALSO see Dr. Calvert, thirteen years ago—armed with a full head of hair and matches (those VERY dangerous matches). And I can readily see so many memories of thirteen years ago tucked away in the most important nooks of my soul, little Faith and Arianna, little Augustine and Cyrus, little Noah and, of course, little Nathaniel running around like little mad men and mad women, joy and energy shooting from every ounce of their beings. As I look at you now — and look at those sitting with you — I can’t help but feel a sense of pride, not because I did anything, but, maybe, because I didn’t do anything.

Part of guidance, I have come to think, is as much restraint as it is pro-action.

And, here you each are, ready to go into the world and make your innumerable contributions (more than you already have) to a society and a culture that so desperately needs your talent, your excellence, and your integrity.

I can also see Nathaniel 18 years ago, his arrival in this whirligig of reality a total shock to me. “Me, a father?” I asked, as I stood agape in a Texas hospital, holding a really, really tiny person in my arms. I’m responsible for this guy, I feared, thinking in terms of pro-action? Even more powerfully, however, the thought overwhelmed me that this little guy is totally, completely, and utterly his own human being, his own person, his own owner and his own possessor of his own soul. HIS soul! This might sound trite in 2017, but, in 1999, it was anything but trite. Nathaniel’s birth was the most precious and amazing moment in my life up to then, and it still remains one of the seven most amazing moments of my life. A tiny life in my hands, a soul ready to become his own. Certainly, 6,570 days later, I must ask, “Nathaniel, has every day brought with it something completely unlike another?” Still over 20,000 days to go! Your story is barely written. And, yet, this isn’t a question just for Nathaniel. It’s the same question for Greg, for Johannis, for Rhys, for Luke, for Antonia, and for Susan.

As a professional historian, having reached the insanely old age of forty-nine (believe me, when I was eighteen, I never thought I’d make it to forty-nine!), I have come to the conclusion that so much of life is actually just a whole complex of biographies — biographies overlapping, biographies in concert, biographies in tension, biographies creating through genius, biographies murdering through arrogance, biographies cut short by accident or illness, biographies inheriting, and biographies transmitting. Every day in this world, there are OVER seven billion biographies, each making decisions at every single moment.

Truly, life is a mystery and a complexity. Or, better understood, life is a whole set of mysteries and of complexities.

As you change from one season of your life (childhood) into another (adulthood) and begin, really for the first time, to make decisions that begin to have very long-term consequences, I’d like to offer three lessons from three different recent historical figures I respect immensely: one of our founding fathers, Charles Carroll of Carrollton; one of our greatest writers, J.R.R. Tolkien; and the founder of post-WWII conservatism, Russell Kirk.

From Carroll, we learn duty to our republic.

From Tolkien, we learn duty to our God.

From Kirk, we learn duty to our neighbor.

If we remember Charles Carroll at all anymore, sadly, it is only because he was the last of the signers of the Declaration of Independence to die. Jefferson and Adams famously passed away on July 4, 1826, but Carroll continued in good health to the age of ninety-five. He lived long enough to see Andrew Jackson elected to a second term and to meet and befriend Alexis De Tocqueville. He was, however, raised a Roman Catholic, and this caused the childhood of Carroll to be very complicated. Prior to the American Revolution, Maryland law forbade Catholic marriages, Catholic worship, and Catholic participation in all legal or political matters. Most especially, it forbade the raising of a child in a “Catholic fashion.” Should parents be caught doing so, Maryland forcibly removed the child from the family and sent him (or her) permanently to England to be raised by a Protestant family. To avoid violating these laws, Carroll’s mother and father (though very much in love with one another) did not marry until he was in his twenties, and when Charles was only eleven, they sent him to France to be raised by Jesuits. He did not return to the American colonies for sixteen years. When he did return, however, despite all the legal restrictions on him because of his religion, he became THE revolutionary leader of Maryland, known, ironically, as “First Citizen.” Almost singlehandedly, Carroll convinced Maryland to declare its independence from Britain. He also, then, represented Maryland in the Second Continental Congress, signing the Declaration of Independence. He served as an Ambassador to Canada, as well as the leading representative in Congress in favor of aiding George Washington’s Continental Army; he also gave up a huge amount of his own personal wealth to keep Washington’s army alive in the field. He was the architect of the U.S. Senate, and he helped found Georgetown University as well as St. John’s College.

Not bad, given every legal and political hurdle that had been placed in front of him simply because of his religious convictions. To his mind, however,

these things were simply annoyances, getting in the way of him doing his duty for the republic. Whatever blocks the bigots and doomsayers of his day placed in front of him, his duty remained the same: to do what was right, what was true, what was good, and what was beautiful. In 1826, six years before his own death, Carroll was asked: “Who are deserving of immortality?” To which he promptly replied: “They who serve God in truth, they who have rendered great, essential, and disinterested services and benefits to their country.”

When Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the last of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, passed away on November 14, 1832, the following day saw the mourning of a nation. The headlines read: “Charles Carroll is no more!” “A great man hath fallen in Israel” and “The Last of the Republicans” has passed into eternity.

Truly, Carroll had done his duty.

My second figure, the eminent medievalist, philologist, and linguist, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, died in 1973. Born in 1892, he lost his father in 1896 and his mother in 1904, only to be raised in Cardinal Newman’s Birmingham Oratory by Father Francis Morgan. A genius in languages (perhaps the greatest such genius in the twentieth century), Tolkien served ably in World War I. While in the trenches, he longed for the beauty of England and the embrace of his beloved, Edith. On the back of British trench orders, he began what became his Legendarium, a mythology—rooted in Norse, Icelandic, AngloSaxon, Germanic, Celtic, and classical myths—out of which, eventually would come The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. It was out of this mythology that we learned of Gandalf, Aragorn, Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Sauren, Saruman, and Treebeard. This mythology, Tolkien’s legendarium, he believed, would reveal the world of today — in all its horrors and beauties—through the clothing of fantasy. In a poem he wrote to his best friend, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien tried to explain why fantasy mattered so much. For in some important way, Tolkien knew, the act of imagination glorified man as created uniquely in the infinite image of God.

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme

of things not found within recorded time.

It is not they that have forgot the Night,

or bid us flee to organized delight,

in lotus-isles of economic bliss

forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss

(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,

bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).

As such, the deeply conservative Tolkien argued, man could resist the false ideas, ideologies, and isms of men.

I will not walk with your progressive apes,

erect and sapient. Before them gapes

the dark abyss to which their progress tends–

if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,

and does not ceaselessly revolve the same

unfruitful course with changing of a name.

Fantasy, as Tolkien saw it, let us, ironically, see the human person as he truly is—in all his glory and all his sin. And yet, what mattered most was that as “sub-creators” (God being the creator), women and men glorified and blessed creation.

The chief purpose of life, for any one of us, is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis…. We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendor. And in moments of exaltation we may call on all created things to join in our chorus, speaking on their behalf… all mountains and hills, all orchards and forests, all things that creep and birds on the wing. Truly, Tolkien had done his duty.

My third and final figure is Russell Amos Augustine Kirk, best known as the founder of post-World War II conservatism. He was also, rather importantly, a professor at Hillsdale College, and he, brilliantly, wrote our statement of academic freedom, the best such statement at any college or any university the world over. Kirk was a man of intense quirkiness. He walked around Hillsdale as well as through the deserts of North Africa and across Europe with a huge sword cane (yes, a cane that had a sword in it), his three-piece tweed suit, a fedora, and his typewriter. Indeed, he wrote so much on that typewriter that it almost seemed to have become a bizarre bodily appendage. During his life, he wrote twenty-five non-fiction books, three novels, twenty short stories, close to 900 academic articles, hundreds of book reviews, and 3,000 newspaper columns, and he even founded two academic journals!

Like Carroll and Tolkien, he loved the human person — in all his (or her) dignity and liberty. History, he thought, was shaped by only a few. “In every age,” he wrote in 1974, “society has been relieved only by the endeavors of a few people moved by the grace of God.” Every single one of his writings dealt, in some way or another, with the grace and the dignity of each person.

Most astoundingly to me, though, Kirk lived exactly as he preached. His most famous non-academic book, The Conservative Mind, sold over a million copies, and his first novel, the Old House of Fear, sold more than all his other books combined. In other words, Kirk made a lot of money during his life time. When he died in 1994, however, he was nearly broke. Why, we must ask? Because he gave it all away. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he sent money freely through the mails to anyone who asked. He personally helped several families escape the tyrannies of fascism and communism. Our own Ivan Pongracic—husband of the Academy’s beloved Madame Pongracic—arrived in America from Yugoslavia—in large part, through the financial aid and encouragement of Kirk. Kirk and his wife, Annette, welcomed anyone who needed housing into their homes. Sometimes entire clans of Ethiopians and Cambodians lived with the Kirks, often for years. Kirk and his wife used to drive through Grand Rapids, helping the homeless, unwed mothers, and anyone who needed aid. One of the mainstays of the Kirk house was a hobo-convict on parole from a New York State Prison, Clinton Wallace. Annette met him one day after Mass, as he was traveling through Michigan. She liked him so much, she and Russell invited him to Sunday brunch. Soon after, he lived with the Kirks for years. He even accidentally burned down their house on Ash Wednesday, 1975. Today, he is buried next to Dr. Kirk in St. Michael’s cemetery in Mecosta, Michigan. Though a life-long prison inmate and hobo, his grave stone bears a noble description: “Clinton Wallace, Knight of the Road.”

No one could ever accuse Kirk of not living out his beliefs.

Truly, Kirk had done his duty.

And, so here I end.

After all, after talking about these three men, what more could I say? Each lived his life according to the highest strictures of intelligent piety, wisdom, and integrity. Each did his duty—to republic, to God, and to man.

What will you do?

You are each so gifted, so talented, so beautiful, so flawed, so mighty, so untested.

Will you take chances?

Will you hide your talents?

Will you walk away from your loved ones?

Or, will you, with gusto, do your duty? To republic, to God, and to man?

One of you is doing her blatant duty to each next year, and I am immensely proud of Miss Van Havel [attending the Air Force Academy this Fall]. But, you each have so much to give — to republic, to God, and to man. You will do it in your own way, commensurate with the gifts that God has endowed to each one of you. You will try, you will succeed, you will fail, you will cry, and you will yell in triumph.

This is an amazing season in your life. You have now had eighteen years of preparation, eighteen years as children. Today, however, you are adults.

Now, your choices are your own.

Now, they really matter.

Be like Carroll and fight.

Be like Tolkien and imagine.

Be like Kirk and comfort.

Be good, be true, be bold, be beautiful, and be brave.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Imagine that: a heartfelt, memorable, and upbeat commencement address that doesn’t seek to play to the gallery by engaging in politically focused preening and grandstanding.

    Great job, Brad!

  2. Excellent,
    Reinforces the Priceless value of History.
    Reminded me of Socrates telling the the youth of Athens in the Agora to shape their World as they saw fit BUT to ensure the perennial Virtues of Piety, Prudence,Justice, Courage and Wisdom were front and centre to their efforts and objectives..
    I am his age but but have not stopped learning and seeking to understand and this Website is an indispensable aid.
    Thank you Brad

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