President Anthony W. Marx
Commencement Address 2007
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Photo: Samuel Masinter '04
Address by President Anthony W. Marx
May 27, 2007
Class of 2007, you and I arrived here together in fall 2003 and have shared these four years of college. We will always be classmates. I am joined by the whole faculty in how impressed we have been by you. We have felt honored to be your teachers. You have learned, and grown into critical thinkers ready to engage this world of ideas and troubles with an energy and integrity that will stand you in good stead.
We expect much of you. Amherst expects you to lead. We know you will, drawing inspiration from each other as lifelong friends from your days at Amherst.
You join now in a noble tradition created by 30,000 Amherst graduates since the founding of this college. It's a tradition of serving society. Inspired by your predecessors, we are confident you will also serve—and lead—for that is why they and we have given support to your education here. Like your parents and loved ones here today, Amherst is proud to see our investment of labor, ideas and affection shine forth from you now. Seeing how much the world needs you, we can't wait to see how and what you do.
You know the world you are entering.
You know of our global challenges—from war to the environment and public health. Economic inequities are growing. More people strain now for the opportunities we ourselves here have enjoyed. The sense of local community has frayed. We are meeting fewer of our obligations to each other, to the young, to the old. The market does not ensure all we need, yet we seem unable or unwilling to meet these needs collectively. Educated citizens that you now are, if I stood here and tried to claim otherwise, you would not believe me.
Paradoxically, we also live in the most prosperous of times. Human rights are protected in more countries than ever. The gains of technology astonish us all. As an educator, I am amazed that many times more than the content of the vast library of Alexandria is now present on the Web, in the very air through which we walk. We can capture that knowledge of the ages to solve our current dilemmas. But only if we become wise to what we are up against; only if we understand how our forebears have failed as well as succeeded.
Two millennia ago, there was another great polity whose power and ideas reached across the world it knew. The elites of ancient Rome were well-educated and cultured. They lived lives more prosperous and comfortable than any previously imagined. Their inventions still quench our thirst, literally and figuratively. For centuries, they adapted and continued.
But the Roman Empire is not with us. Something went wrong. Instead of spreading the duties, as well as the benefits, of citizenship, instead of relying upon talent and ideas from all quarters, Roman leaders turned inward, away from civic action, toward private pursuits. Gradually they abdicated civil authority to the military. Rome kept fighting strangers on the frontiers as, for Rome, exploring the wider world had so often meant doing violence to it. An incomplete democracy, even as it expanded its citizenry, Rome excluded women and kept ever more people enslaved. Corruption and patronage, always present, increasingly drowned out merit until citizenship meant less and less. In the drive for money, the poor were exploited. Families decayed. The public interest was given over to private gain, and the public commitment withdrawn. Civil society became hostage to its own armies and its own fears.
Those more expert than I point to myriad reasons for the decline of the Western Roman empire: an over-extended economy, international threats, increasing reliance on mercenary troops, even lead pipes. But there's another reason, too: a historical blindness, a present-ism, on a monumental scale.
What the Romans won by victory they also lost through a fondness for triumph—a terrible sort of self-congratulation. We owe that word "triumph" to a peculiar, awe-full Roman custom: The conquering Roman commander, returned from victory abroad, entered Rome along the Via Sacra in an imperial procession, parading his captives in complete subjugation, with spoils, floats, musicians, sometimes even elephants, in train. The welcoming public accorded their victor of the day godlike honors. Indeed, from such worship it was a short step to the deification of the emperor in marble effigies.
Yet, as tradition tells us, there was another subtle but profound feature of the triumphal procession. A slave was assigned to ride the chariot with the victorious general, and to whisper into the ear of this man-god, "Look behind you. Remember that you are mortal—memento mori." At the very moment of triumph, the hero hearkened to the whispered reminder of the slave, quietly but insistently stirring a consciousness of history known all too well by the downtrodden, that he might know all power is ephemeral.
Please note how easily that warning gets lost. The victor savors domination, letting victory corrupt into arrogance, and a gloating people fall into the error of triumphalism.
The Romans, as always, speak best for themselves. Listen to the traveling orator Aristides, a public relations man of old, who had become a Roman citizen in Anatolia and journeyed to Rome in 155 AD to sing its praises. As the British would more accurately say of their own empire 17 centuries later, he saw the sun never setting on this empire, one with no "fixed boundaries." Rome had become a "common market for the world," bringing commodities from every region and in any season. "All meet here," he declared, in the heart of an empire that rules "over free men."
Never mind that the Roman Republic had long since fallen, perpetuated now in form only, not in fact. Now comes Aristides, after a century of internal conflict has ended and 200 years of prosperity and domination have ensued. His panegyric hails a New World Order, albeit at the mercy of a succession of Roman dictators, and he prays that it "flourish forever." In a word, history has gone as far as it needed to, is itself deified and frozen.
But Rome was not everlasting. Aristedes knew well that non-Romans did not fully enjoy the fruits of empire, for he had been born a non-Roman and had seen others enslaved. He had seen that the inhabitants of foreign lands "must come here to beg for a share of what they had produced," and yet he took for granted their perpetual submission. With the extremism of the converted, he saw not "a residue of resentment" from the barbarians, those people of other tongues, who in the end would sack Rome.
My friends, the age of panegyrics is with us again. In a controversial article published in 1989, at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama declared an "end to history." He saw a triumph of Western liberal ideas that at last faced no competition. For him, man's ideological evolution had come to conclude in the perfect and frozen present. He saw communism as ended, with no threat of a return to fascism, though others who have lived through both are not so sure. In declaring Western democracy triumphant, Fukuyama saw very limited appeal of literalist religion or of strident nationalism. Yet both have indeed surged since he wrote. Globalization has inflamed many communities. Fukayama himself did warn of the deadening effects of triumphalism, and last year revised his earlier argument. But still, too many share the Roman attitude described by the historian Polybius: "Nothing is impossible when [we] have decided upon it."
Contemporary triumphalism echoes Aristides' praise of Rome in different terms; for as Fukayama wrote: "The sun never sets on the global markets. We can all be citizens of a single world economy. All men pray that this peace and prosperity will last forever."
The writer Thomas Friedman has lauded the current version of this global market and culture, announcing that "the world is flat"—connected, wired, borderless. This view implies a new economic triumphalism, a no-holds-barred prosperity—for some.
Friedman also recognizes that billions of people, in the developing countries, are not yet beneficiaries of this flat new world. He observes that, even in the global economy, one person's economic liberation is another's unemployment. Those trapped between these two extremes, in what he calls "half flatness," become all the more resentful for seeing clearly how others prosper and their fellows suffer.
Even the ancient Romans knew that the world is not level; that opportunity and economic benefit are never universally shared. Their gods did not distribute fair fortune, but had their favorites.
And so the Romans had to understand, as they traveled the world, as new mountains arose on the horizon and the hills they knew receded behind, that always they had much to see and learn: When they moved beyond their borders, to new lands, the Romans must have been reminded of how bounded was their knowledge, how incomplete their reach.
But I fear that, on returning home, dulled by praise and processions, by comforts that slaves and mercenaries protected, the ancient Romans came to forget the humility which conquest ought to teach. Instead, returning in awful triumph, they came to assume that their world, the world they saw and took, was THE world. They continued blithely to assume this, until the larger world turned and overtook them.
For us too, the triumphs, the strident entertainments, must not be allowed to cloud our vision. Always, our political reach, our cultural persuasion—our economic integration and our military might—are bounded. At those boundaries, smugness is challenged. If we fail to heed that challenge, if we do not learn from the limits of our victories, we risk the fate of Rome.
Women and men of Amherst, this is the moment you enter the world. We pray that you learn the lesson of Rome, that we shall do better than did they at serving all of society. Let the chords of triumph in your society sound to you as a warning, a call to heed the whispered caution: "Look behind you. Remember you are mortal. Memento mori." Our time for achievement is brief, but history does not have last chapters.
The future rests on our will to see that history does not end. Do not be distracted; do not let comforts hide from you your obligation to those beyond you.
That obligation becomes vivid when we remember to examine the world for what it is, not as we often project it to be. Never assume that because the field looks level from where you are standing that it is flat. It is the singular will of Amherst graduates to grasp the roundness of this world—terrains both elevated and mysterious—and to alter history; to inspire all who follow after to pursue a higher calling than serving ourselves. That call is to keep making history.
From this great college on this ancient hilltop, we join together, urging you to lead us onward. Members of the Class of 2007, I hear a whispering in your ear at this very moment; it is history beckoning to each one of you, here and now, to create more of it. At the moment of your triumph, Amherst whispers in your ear.