Accinno Award winner tells graduates to 'know yourself'
EDITOR'S NOTE: Dr. Fred K. Drogula, associate professor of history, is the 2013-14 Joseph R. Accinno Faculty Teaching Award recipient. The award is the College's premiere teaching honor. He presented the following address on behalf of the faculty at the Academic Awards Ceremony on Saturday, May 17.
Father Shanley, award winners, distinguished guests, heroic colleagues, noble graduating seniors, and loving families of the graduates,
It is my great pleasure to have this opportunity to speak with you. When I was asked to give this address, I was thrilled, but I was also nervous — this is a major event, and I wanted to get it just right. After all, who knows what this address might mean for me — perhaps a glittering new career awaits me as a professional awards day speaker, or maybe (just maybe) I’ll get that longed-for call to be a host on the History Channel. And of course, I suppose it would also be nice if my talk today was pleasing to you all, and gave you something to reflect upon on this propitious weekend.
I therefore took great care in considering what my topic should be. I sought the counsel of colleagues about what makes a great awards day speech. One said that I should encourage you not to measure your future success by the money you make, but rather by the good that you do and the fulfillment you take from your work. That is, of course, excellent advice, but I wanted something grander and more scholarly to make sure that I caught the attention of the History Channel. Besides, I think the Alumni Office is actually counting on you being major donors in the future, so they would probably frown on the “money doesn’t matter” speech.
So I sought the advice of other colleagues about what makes a memorable speech. A theologian pointed me to the Bible and Christ's stirring Sermon on the Mount, but frankly, that seemed a bit out of my league. A philosopher suggested I re-read Aristotle's Poetics, but that's not going to happen. A colleague in the performing arts suggested I do an interpretative dance of a child's journey to adulthood; I'm still considering that one. Finally, I sought the advice of a colleague in my own department of history, and he said that he planned sleeping through my talk anyway, so it didn't really matter what I said.
So I was at a loss and getting nervous, but then I thought: “Wait a minute! I’m addressing a class of brilliant, well educated, and hard working graduating seniors. What would they do faced with a challenging assignment like this?” I immediately knew what the answer was, and switching on my computer, I went straight to Wikipedia.
There I stumbled upon a webpage about the Seven Sages of ancient Greece. As an ancient historian, this immediately appealed to me — an opportunity to look back to ancient times and bring forth words of wisdom that our students might carry with them into the future. As I studied the most famous utterances of these wise men, however, I hesitated. Many of these sages seem less than sagey.
The sage Cleobulus of Lindos, for example, was known for saying “moderation is the best thing.” That's not bad, but at the exact same time the sage Solon of Athens was getting famous for his motto “keep everything with moderation.” This repeated emphasis on moderation led me to an obvious conclusion: one of these sages plagiarized. Perhaps it was an innocent coincidence, but I will not rest the integrity of my speech on the work of two philosophers who may have to go before the Academic Integrity Board.
Next was the sage Chilon of Sparta, who told his people “you should not desire the impossible.” That’s nice, but it's kind of pessimistic for a graduation speech. The sage Bias of Priene wasn’t much better: his famous quote was simply “most men are bad;” I don't know if that's true, but it would certainly seem to squelch the sense of hope and optimism that I'd like to go for in this address.
The sage Pittacus of Mytilene was better. He looked to the future. He advised: “you should know which opportunities to choose.” He’s certainly right, but I’m just not sure where to go with that. It sounds rather like a fortune cookie.
Then there was Periander, the tyrant of Corinth in the 7th c. BC. Periander was a practical man (tyrants often are), and to those people that he didn't kill, he offered the advice: “be farsighted with everything.” This is, of course, a very good sentiment. So good, in fact, that Periander used his own farsightedness to slaughter all of his political enemies and anyone he suspected might someday become an enemy, and he encouraged tyrants of other cities to likewise slaughter all of their real or imagined foes. So being farsighted is very good, but I decided against calling upon you to follow in the footsteps of Periander.
That left me with only one sage left, Thales of Miletus, who simply said “know yourself.” “Know yourself.” Like so many other utterances by wise thinkers, this statement is vague, open to interpretation, and sounds like the cover of a discounted self-help book.
But maybe I can do something with it. After all, my future career with the History Channel may be riding on this.
It is telling that Thales’ phrase “know yourself” was once carved into the forecourt of the great temple of Apollo in Delphi, which the Greeks considered to be the center of the world and the truest oracle, transmitting divine knowledge to humans. For a thousand years, people from many different nations came to Delphi seeking answers, and as they approached the temple they encountered these words: “know yourself.”
What was this supposed to mean? That true knowledge comes from within? That the external world is or should be nothing to us, and that only the self matters? How strange that this message to "know yourself" was inscribed by the temple of Apollo, to which people came seeking external (rather than internal) revelation.
Perhaps Thales is telling us that we must understand ourselves before we can possibly hope to understand the mysteries of the world around us? That the world is subjective, and that we cannot understand deep questions unless we first understand who we are and what perspectives, experiences, and opinions we bring to our interpretation of those questions? That — before we take a position on something — we must first understand the forces and influences that are driving us to that position. This of course implies that we may not truly understand why we believe what we believe, and how we know what we know.
It gets more interesting: the Greek phrase for "know yourself" (gnothi seauton) uses a verb in the aorist imperative. For those of you who do not share my love affair with grammar, this means that Thales is telling us to do something that we have not yet done.
This is bold. Is Thales saying that none of us really knows ourselves? It's possible. 150 years later the Athenians killed their fellow citizen Socrates for repeatedly and annoyingly saying much the same thing. But Thales may be saying something a little more subtle: that trying to understand ourselves is a lifelong process that is never truly accomplished. Perhaps Thales believed that we—our 'selves'—are not fixed and static things that can be easily comprehended and known, because the core of our being is in constant flux and therefore continually evolves and changes in response to our experiences.
Put another way, are you — graduating seniors — the same people you were when you arrived at Providence College four years ago, or have you changed and grown and developed into someone a little different than you were before? Who might you become in ten years? In thirty? Look at your parents and families: most of them were probably different people before you entered the world, but your arrival probably changed their lives and their priorities, and indeed changed them in a way that you will not fully understand until you have children of your own.
So what would I like you to remember about this speech and about the seven sages? First, that even one of the wisest men in Greek history can get busted for plagiarism, so do your own work. Second — and perhaps more important — Thales would challenge you with this thought: even the wisest of sages cannot know where life will take him, and how his experiences will shape and reshape him in the future. Even if you know (or think you know) who you are right now, you are going to grow and change. Thales would urge you periodically to take time to reflect on yourself carefully, and to examine (or re-examine) who you are, what you want and believe, and why you want and believe those things. Do not expect to be always as you are now, and if — someday in the future — you become aware that you are no longer the same person that you once were, seize the opportunity to re-evaluate your goals and do not be afraid if they have changed. Something that you want right now may not seem so important in the future, and something (or someone) that you have yet to experience may someday become the center of your being.
Life is a wonderful gift, so move forward bravely but deliberately, and always understand why you are making the choices you are called upon to make.
I thank you.
Read more about Commencement 2014.