Commencement 2014

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a flaw in the space-time continuum, an audio report of a future
university commencement speech appeared on my desk. Because it has
implications both for physics and for current events, I transcribed
the recording. It is reproduced below:

address to the graduates of Trinity College, Cambridge University.
Given by … at the Leaver’s Service in the Trinity College Chapel
on June 25, 2014.)

out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
‘To every man upon this earth,
Death cometh soon or late.

how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods?’”

are the words of a Trinity College alumnus, Thomas Macaulay, in
a poem that used to be memorized by every English schoolboy. It
recounts the Romans’ fight for their freedom against the despotic
king Sextus Tarquinius. It was that purpose — freedom — that gave
Horatius the strength to stand alone against an entire army.

though I cannot hope to match either Macaulay’s eloquence or the
Romans’ courage, I have been asked to say a few words to you about
the power of purpose. I would like them to be words of encouragement,
and eventually, they will be. That is the most I can promise.

a speech about the power of purpose is itself a purpose: a purpose
which dictates the nature of the speech. In its form, such a speech
must possess beauty and simplicity. In its content, it must possess
truth: not merely such truth as that two plus two are four, or that
Henry V defeated the French at Agincourt, but truth that speaks
to the deepest center, an den tiefsten Grund, of each person.
It must simultaneously inform the mind, uplift the spirit, and quicken
the heart. The speaker must simultaneously be Einstein and Jesus,
St. Francis and General Patton. It is quite beyond my abilities,
but I will do my best.

of you seem surprised to see me. However, no one is more surprised
than I am to find myself still alive when so many better men have
died — including, of course, the master of Trinity, most of the
fellows, your chaplain, and saddest of all, a good many of the students.
I was shocked when I survived the first war. And now, here I am,
having survived what I hope will be the last. Whatever the sequel,
it will be a very long time — and for that, we may thank Almighty
God — before anyone can again inflict such horror on his fellow

you, young men and women who came of age in the chaos and darkness
of the early 21st century, I do not know if I can communicate the
clarity and light that we all felt during the era when I first arrived
at Cambridge as a student.

physics, Newton still reigned supreme with a picture of the universe
that was as clear to the average person as it was to the physicists;
Faraday, Kelvin, and others had labored within that framework to
unlock the secrets of nature. In music, Lehar, Debussy, and Ravel
carried on the classical tradition. In logic and mathematics, Frege
and Russell promised to set our knowledge on secure foundations,
as did Moore in ethics. Writers as diverse as Goethe and Freud had
unlocked the darkest secrets and flaws of the human psyche.

thought that we would use this knowledge to arrive, finally, at
the end of our journey away from baboon and barbarian, overcoming
our parochial hatreds and animal aggressions to emerge as civilized
men and women. Between nations, we would end war; between individuals,
we would end injustice; between humanity and nature, we would end

the globe, the British Empire reigned supreme, with all the benefits
of the civilization it carried and bestowed. On the Continent, the
Hapsburg Empire seemed as timeless and unchallengeable as the former
United States seemed at the end of the 20th century. If these political
institutions had defects, as of course they did, we knew that in
time, they would be corrected. Armed with our new understanding
of human nature, of the mind and soul, of history, and of the physical
universe, we knew that — however haltingly — we were on the right

was a delusion, of course. We were not at “the end of history,”
as a late 20th-century writer characterized his own era. But our
belief, our faith, enabled us to see our lives and society with
a clarity and benevolence that, for a while at least, made the world
a wondrous place in which to live, like New York on September 10,

did not know what was about to occur. We would not have believed
it even if an angel had appeared to warn us.

over the horizon was the first war, followed by the next, and the
next, and the next. Over 15 million dead in World War I. Fifty million
dead in World War II, which also had the distinction of being the
first global conflict in which civilians were deliberately targeted
and massacred. Then the Cold War, in which the survival of all humanity
hung by the slender thread of political leaders’ rationality. Then
Gulf War I, Gulf War II, and the final conflagration between the
West and Islam, a conflict that — with its repercussions in other
parts of the world — killed more people and crushed more hopes than
all earlier wars combined.

historians will argue about the date when the final war began.

say it was the date when the Americans invaded Iraq for reasons
that turned out to be lies. Another possible date was the “dirty
bomb” attack on Washington, DC, which killed a hundred thousand
people and made the area uninhabitable, even as the American corporate
and government elites were safely tucked away in their various undisclosed

the battle was irretrievably joined a week after the attack on Washington,
with the thermonuclear destruction of Mecca. Where once there were
mosques and shrines and two million living human beings, in an instant
there was only fire and molten metal and sand turned into a three-mile
wide sheet of glass.

one admitted to doing it. The Arabs blamed Israel. The Israelis
blamed the Russians. The Americans blamed their Muslim bogeyman-du-jour
and Saddam Hussein loyalists.

was responsible, blame was irrelevant. In a few seconds, that unknown
bomber did what Richard Coeur de Lion could not do: he ripped the
living heart of Islam from its breast and, both literally and figuratively,
burned it to ashes.

of their religion’s most holy site, robbed of their hope, their
truth, and their self-respect, unable to fulfill their religious
obligations of prayer and pilgrimage, the Muslims lashed out in
despair and fury at anyone they could reach.

that time, the Muslims were a significant minority in almost all
Western countries. In Britain, they were 2.5 percent of the population;
France, 7.5 percent; the Netherlands, 6.2 percent; Germany, 3.6
percent; and Italy, 1.7 percent.

the riots, massacres, and burning towns in Britain, you know well,
as of the death and destruction visited upon the Continent and North
America. As the Muslims attacked, the still-majority European populations
were forced to strike back — to strike back or die. Muslims were
rounded up and expelled if they were lucky, summarily killed if
they were not. Muslims, Arabs, even Christian Arabs, and anyone
who looked like same or was suspected of sympathizing with them
— some were tortured, most were killed.

Chinese, meanwhile, thought it an opportune time to annex India
and Pakistan, which responded by raining nuclear death upon Shanghai
and Beijing. The Chinese could do no less in retaliation, even though
defense had already become moot. The rest of the world, north and
south, east and west, dissolved into chaos.

won. And yet, we lost.

won in the sense that most of our adversaries are dead and most
of us are still alive. Mecca is gone, but in Italy, the Vatican
still exists, while in England, the Sees of Canterbury and York
still preserve the ancient faith. In Israel, the Temple Mount is
again the site of a Jewish temple.

lost because in order to survive, we had to abandon our traditions
of justice and compassion. We had to forget, had to make ourselves
forget, that our adversaries were as much children of God as we
were. And our civilization, which boasts some of the proudest achievements
of human history, from the Sermon on the Mount to the Magna Carta,
from Archimedes to Feynman, from Herodotus to Spengler, now wears
a stain of blood — the same blood that still drips from our victorious

wars collapsed more than just our civilization: they collapsed our
hope, our faith, our conviction that the future would be better
and that we would be better.

amidst the ruins, I, an old troublemaker from a time before most
of your grandparents were born, have been asked to give you wisdom,
encouragement, and to inspire you with the power of purpose.

have lived longer than I ever expected; longer than any man has
a right to live; and most certainly, longer than any sane man wants
to live. Everyone I knew is dead. The culture in which I grew to
adulthood has vanished into history. Most of the places I knew have
crumbled to dust. It is a terrible thing to outlive one’s time,
and I cannot recommend it.

have I at least learned something, or am I just as foolish now as
I was in those lost, golden days of hope?

wisdom as I can offer is poor indeed, but it will have to suffice.
I only wish I had offered the same advice 10 years ago, and been
heeded. If I could go back to that fateful year, I would tell the
people of 2004 the same thing I tell you today:

as young as you are, you might feel that your time, too, has passed;
that your lives and your civilization will forever walk in the deep
shadow of injustice, carnage, and guilt. You are mistaken. Your
purpose is to choose the kind of world in which you will live, to
choose how you will live in that world, and then to keep faith with
that choice as long as the heart still beats in you.

side of Heaven, you will never be completely good. You are flesh
as well as spirit, animal as well as thinker. You will always have
your hatreds and lusts and aggressive impulses and unworthy thoughts.
But you can choose to follow the light instead of the darkness,
and if you make that choice each day of your lives, you will be
more good than bad. Other people face that choice as well: some
will make it wisely and others will not. But no matter how they
choose, you can choose never to forget that they are
your brothers and sisters. That, too, is your purpose.

with your soul, so with your society, culture, and civilization:
they will never be wholly just, wholly compassionate, or wholly
free of barbarism and oppression. You can never eliminate injustice
or suffering; but you can at best alleviate it, and at least make
sure that you take no part in causing it, whether in your own country
or halfway around the world. That, too, is your purpose.

English writer G.K. Chesterton reminded us that “when you choose
anything, you reject everything else.” Choose life, and love, and
turn away from the violence and hatred that have wrecked our world.
Choose to rebuild Western civilization — not only in body but in
spirit. That, too, is your purpose.

cannot unspill the blood that has been spilt; you cannot restore
breath and life to the broken bodies of the innocent; you cannot
dry the tears of the survivors or scrub the bitterness from their
hearts. You can only live your own lives in a way that, in some
small manner, atones for the evil done on all sides, from Cain forward;
you can live in a way that shows the best in you, in your country,
in your religion, in your education, and in your civilization. That,
too, is your purpose.

your hope, confirm your faith, by aspiring to the impossible while
working for the possible. And that, most of all, is your purpose.

that, our speaker leaned forward and rested his head on the lectern,
as if to pause. We waited for him to continue.

a minute, I ascended the podium and put my hand on his shoulder.
The life was gone from his body. To the other students, he had been
a legendary figure; I was the only one to have known him personally.

I lowered his body to the floor. It was almost weightless; only
spirit had given him weight. I leaned down and kissed his forehead
as I closed my eyes to blink back my tears.

buried him outside the chapel. And over his grave, we — the 2014
graduates of Trinity College, seven men and five women — consecrated
ourselves to the purpose of which he had spoken.

10, 2004

Palmer [send him mail],
a defrocked philosopher, is the author of 19 books and three computer
games. He currently does instructional design and Java programming.

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