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President Donald R. Eastman III

President's Remarks

Baccalaureate 2013

"In a Time of War . . . ."

President's Remarks at the Baccalaureate Service
Donald R. Eastman III
5:00 p.m.
Saturday, May 18, 2013
Wireman Chapel

For the ancient Greeks, from Homer to Plato, history began with a splendid, glorious, decade-long war–a Panhellenic expedition against an Eastern foe. It was called the Trojan War, and it has lasted in poetry and legend nearly three millennia. The permanence of war is an accepted fact of life and a theme of Greek literature from first to last. We Greeks, says Odysseus in the Iliad, are:

the men whom Zeus decrees from youth to old age,
must wind down our brutal wars to the bitter end
until we drop and die, down to the last man (14. 105-107).

Athens, that cradle of Democracy, was at war almost continually against the Persian Empire in scores of cities and countries, but also against its neighbor Sparta and the Peloponnesian League.

The Greeks and Homer understood fully the horror, the brutality, the agony of battle; the relentless butchery of combat; and the black and bloody finality of death followed not by an afterlife but by extinction. "Homer," as the classicist Bernard Knox says, "offers no comforting vision of life beyond the grave."

And yet, the Greeks–Homer ever their avatar–celebrate "the heroic values war imposes on its votaries." The ancient Greeks, our singular cultural forebears, celebrate what Yeats calls the "terrible beauty" of war, and they accept without question war and violence as an enduring if not permanent feature of human life. Achilles, the great hero of the Iliad, proclaims the essential primacy of war, saying:

"You talk of food?

I have no taste for food - what I really crave is slaughter and
blood and the choking groans of men!" (19, 253-255).

Throughout history, war has had a deadly fascination for those who have grown up in its service: "It is well that it is so terrible," said General Robert E. Lee, as he watched Hooker's doomed columns start across the river at Fredericksburg, "or we should grow too fond of it."

"The Classics, it is the Classics, and not Goths or monks, that desolate Europe with wars" asserted the poet William Blake, referring to Homer's poetry. Blake may have been right that the idea of the glory of war that the West carried into the First and even perhaps the Second World War was in part the progeny of Homer and his poetic descendants. The flower of Europe died in the trenches of World War I at the rate of up to 100,000 men a month. The Second World War, which began on September 1, 1939, with Hitler's invasion of Poland, lasted nearly six years and claimed the lives of 55 million people. In more recent times, America continues to grapple with the inchoate lessons of eight years of horror in Vietnam. We have now lived long enough to see Vietnam become a friend if not an ally, long enough for our national disasters there to seem like sheerest folly. And of course the Germans and the Japanese are among our strongest allies.

And now you graduates this weekend have lived in a country at war for over a decade. If you are 21 now, you were 10 years old when our invasion of Iraq began–for the second time.
Like the Greeks, we are engaged in war against elements of the old Persian Empire. Like the Greeks, we are vastly outnumbered and fighting a war that is less about land and conquest than about culture and forces beyond our control. Like the Greeks, we are beginning to be a country in which war seems to be a permanent condition.

And yet, unlike the ancient Greeks, most of us see no glory in war.

For most of us, the glory of war is an ancient idea, left on the battlefields of long ago. While we honor our soldiers, we have few illusions about the great adventures or the nobility of warfare. Indeed, we suspect a long line of negative effects.

Just as the plague–a plague brought on by the metaphorical (but eventually literal) blindness of its leader–wracks Thebes in Sophocles' "Oedipus the King," the rage and conflict of a permanent state of war invade the very marrow of our country: movies, video games, the uncompromising rigidity of politicians, the driving habits of the populace, the loss of gentleness and graceful compromises in the body politic. All are infected with the harsh and bitter wages of war as a way of life.

Even the Christian belief in an everlasting life hereafter fails to assuage the grief of those who mourn the dead and brutally wounded. Our culture no longer finds ultimate meaning in the lessons of the battlefield.

For what then, Eckerd College graduates soon-to-be, led to this point by our history and our heritage, do we hope in a time of war? For what then, at this last religious service before the laurel wreaths of graduation are bestowed upon you, do we pray? What call dare we give you young men and women educated in the traditions of the West, refined by exposure to the wisdom of the East, practiced in the arts and satisfactions of service to others, experienced in the lessons of a community of learners and scholars? What is your duty and opportunity as you leave the embrace of alma mater for the greater world in a country and a culture under siege?

Much as I love Homer; much as I treasure the intellectual heritage of the West from Socrates to John Rawls; much as my heart is stirred by the banners and battle flags waving over Troy and Thermopylae, over Agincourt and Valley Forge and Yorktown, over Gettysburg and Appomattox, I believe the deepest lessons of our culture, the supreme cynosures of human experience, are Biblical.

For duty, there is this (which you learned and practiced in a variety of ways as students in this College):

For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in;

Naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.

Then the righteous will answer him, Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink?

And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You?

When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You? The King will answer and say to them, Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.

The words are from the Gospel of Matthew, in the New Testament.

And for opportunity, there is this:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.

Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord's hand double for all her sins.

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.

These words are the prophet Isaiah's vision of how Israel can move beyond a world of permanent war, how order and the connection to the divine can be restored. We know, of course, that the promise of the "voice of him that crieth in the wildernesses" will be kept, in the Gospel of Matthew, by John the Baptist, "preaching in the wilderness of Judea," preparing the way for the carpenter from Nazareth.

These words of Isaiah are the words to which Martin Luther King returned in the greatest of his speeches, perhaps the finest speech in American history. Near the end of that speech he says:

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, rough places will be made plains, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South . . . .With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."

When we treat others as if they were divine, when we dedicate ourselves not merely to personal gain but to service to others, so that every valley is exalted, every hill and mountain made low; when we work together, pray together, struggle together, stand up for freedom together, that is the way in which "the glory of the Lord, and of mankind, as the Judeo-Christian ethic has shown us, is revealed.

Your opportunity, and the promise of our civilization, is that a world at war can be restored, that peace can come, and that goodness can overcome.

Eckerd College calls itself a college that changes lives. Your work for a better world, as a duty and an opportunity, in time of war and peace, will provide the evidence that our claim is true.