2012 UC Davis Spring Commencement Address: "Ancient Wisdom (sound bites for new graduates)"

illustration of Odysseus returning to his dog Argos
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, artist unknown.

Ancient Wisdom (sound bites for new graduates): Commencement Address, UC Davis, 2012

Ralph J. Hexter, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor, UC Davis

. . .

I am here to share in this celebration of your many achievements, but also to fulfill the unspoken duty of all provosts on occasions such as this one—to offer some helpful comments regarding what lies ahead.

Contrary to what you might think, coming up with appropriate commencement remarks is a fairly daunting task.

The solution I hit upon was to draw on my background as a professor of Greek and Roman literature—which does, you may be interested to learn, have some usefulness.  My idea was to extract a few “sound bites” of useful advice from some great works of the ancient world.

So consider this your final degree requirement: a graduate course in ancient literature.  In under 10 minutes.

In the latter part of the ancient epic bearing his name, the Sumerian hero Gilgamesh undertakes a great quest to become immortal. At the end of the quest, Gilgamesh does manage to obtain a special medicinal plant that will make him young again—and then, out of nowhere, an anonymous snake appears, steals the plant, and disappears.

In other words, the epic seems to urge you to pursue a difficult road toward a great goal—and then, at the instant that success is in your grasp, it will be pitilessly and inexplicably stolen from you. Happy graduation!

In Homer’s Iliad, created around the 9th century B.C., we find a response to the sort of incomprehensible fate we encounter in Gilgamesh. In one scene near the poem’s ending, the Greek hero Achilles attempts to console the Trojan king, Priam, after the death of Priam’s son Hector.

Achilles tells the old man that Zeus, the leader of the Olympian gods, has two jars. One jar contains “disastrous things,” the other “blessings.” And in awarding fortune to mortals, sometimes Zeus takes from one jar, sometimes from the other, sometimes from both.

You’ll note that this understanding of fortune is perfectly useless in helping you avoid any bad result; and it probably won’t do anything either to make you feel better once calamity has struck—it didn’t do that for Priam. But perhaps it will reassure you that, in fact, there is some intelligible process to the universe, even if that process is wholly arbitrary and capricious—and involves jars.

Homer’s other poem, the Odyssey, is a personal favorite of mine. In the interest of scholarly disclosure, I’ll confess that I wrote a book on it that might well be of interest to all new UC Davis graduates and their families. It can be easily purchased online.

I invoke the Odyssey because it makes a great deal out of the virtue of loyalty.

The hero Odysseus’ queen, Penelope, is celebrated as a faithful wife, while his disloyal countrymen and household servants are punished in ways too gruesome to describe here.

One related passage has to do with Odysseus’ old dog, Argos, who has pined for his master’s return for 20 years. When Odysseus does finally make his way back home, Argos, who is at this point covered with ticks and lying on a pile of dung, immediately recognizes him, even in disguise. The loyal dog shows his enduring love of his master by wagging his tail and relaxing his ears—and then Argos dies.

And so the book’s advice about loyalty seems to be rather complicated.

Which brings us to the great Latin epic about the founding of Rome, Virgil’s Aeneid. This text, in particular, has been traditionally read as having a didactic purpose—as containing wisdom and moral examples that might be of particular use to audiences such as this one.

In a nutshell, this epic is the story of the hero Aeneas undergoing formidable physical and emotional challenges in order to achieve a great result, one that is also ordained by the gods to be his sacred responsibility. I’m speaking, of course, of the founding of Rome and, ultimately, the Roman Empire. Here, if anywhere, we have a compelling argument to persevere in one’s journey, no matter how difficult, if its object is great and good.

On the other hand, the part of the Aeneid that has always had the biggest impact on readers is the story of the ill-fated romance between Aeneas and Dido, the Queen of Carthage. The uncomfortable fact about this story is that Aeneas is made to see his relationship with Dido, which may have included a pledge to marry her, as a dereliction of his god-ordained duty. And so, without so much as a “See you around,” Aeneas gathers his crew and secretly escapes by ship in the middle of the night.

Devastated, Dido ends her life by throwing herself on a pyre—but not before passionately, bitterly condemning Aeneas in words that strongly resonate with readers even to this day. We’re talking here of much more than a tire-slashing frame of mind.

So—be heroic and fulfill your great destiny, even if it requires you to betray those closest to you, and to avoid all responsibility or explanation by secretly running away. Or maybe the point is something different?

I’d like to pause here to say the obvious: my guided tour through these ancient works seems to provide at least as many questions as it does pieces of practical advice that will help you in career or life. This might be a cause of embarrassment for a graduation speaker.

On the other hand, I’m a humanities professor, and as many of you surely know, my discipline sees no higher good than confusion.

Of course, I’m being facetious. To an extent. Let me rephrase.

The thing about life—and also about great literature, which has an uncanny habit of mirroring life—is that it’s very, very complicated. No, that’s not quite accurate. Even if we recognize that it’s very complicated, it’s always much more complicated than we perceive or estimate.

It follows that life’s problems, especially the ones in which there is much at stake, are not usually solved by simple, unproblematic, quick solutions.

One of the great benefits of a work of literature is that it captures a substantial portion of the complexity—and confusion—belonging to certain important life situations; it invites us to linger amidst this complexity; and it induces us to identify those courses of action, and ways of being and thinking, that will best serve oneself and the larger good.

If you learn from literature no more than the fact that there is always—always—a lot you don’t know or understand, literature will have more than paid for its keep.

The second piece of meta-wisdom that I’d like to distil from my literary examples rests on the following observation: no matter how large the enterprise, no matter how much it is aligned with greatness or goodness, no matter how much is at stake in its accomplishment—the personal things always matter.

Just as Dido’s hurt and anger over Aeneas’ betrayal powerfully trouble us to this day—regardless of his divine mission to found Rome—literature is full of passages that allow us to see more deeply into the minds of other humans and feel more acutely our ethical duty to them—whatever other important considerations there may be.

One way of understanding this phenomenon is to see that literature often teaches the profound importance of the seemingly unimportant. This gives insight, I think, into why Homer, in the midst of telling his great story about Odysseus, takes time to make us feel, deeply, for his old dog, Argos—loyal and loving to the death.

In the classical world, there was a proverbial expression that went: “sillier than Praxilla’s Adonis.” The reference is to the 5th-century B.C. Greek female poet Praxilla, who gave a startling portrait of Adonis in the Underworld—that is, speaking from beyond the grave.

Upon being asked, "What was the most beautiful thing you left behind [in life]?" Adonis answers, and I quote: “the light of the sun, / Next to that the brilliant stars and the face of the moon, / Cucumbers in their season, too, and apples and pears.” The lines were deemed “silly” because they seemed to imply that cucumbers were comparable in importance to the sun, stars, and moon.

Adonis was not silly here, nor was the poet Praxilla, for this poetic fragment expresses much of what literature, and life, is all about.

Let me conclude with one final old text, this one from China—the recorded sayings and ideas of the master teacher we know as Confucius, who was incidentally a near contemporary of Praxilla’s.

In the Analects, we read how Confucius once asked four of his students a question that will surely resonate with you, students of the Class of 2012, as you are about to embark upon your post-graduation future. Confucius asked: “What would you do if your abilities were appreciated and you had the opportunity to do what you wanted?”

One student said that, if made a ruler, he could give his people “courage and a sense of direction”; the second said that, also as a ruler, he could “bring the population up to an adequate level”; the third wanted to assist in ceremonial occasions, “properly dressed in my ceremonial cap and robes.”

Confucius heard these responses politely, and then posed his question to the fourth student, whose name was Tien. Tien responded that he wanted, in the late spring, to bathe in the River Yi with a group of adults and children, enjoy the breeze on the Rain Altar, and then return home chanting poetry. Confucius, we are told, “sighed and said, ‘I am all in favor of Tien.’”

As you embark upon the next stage of your lives, I wish for all of you success in whatever reforms you desire to bring to your country or district, or a good life assisting in ceremonial occasions properly dressed in cap and robes. But I also wish you, at least from time to time, lovely spring days bathing with friends in the River Yi, enjoying the breeze on the Rain Altar, and returning home chanting poetry.

Once again, congratulations and best wishes to the Class of 2012!