Commencement at Hillsdale, May 2009 Print
By Hadley Arkes   
Tuesday, 12 May 2009
Hadley Arkes gave the commencement address at Hillsdale College in Michigan on Saturday, May 9, and he was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters. He spoke about the centrality of the political regime, or the character of the laws, in marking the moral cast in which our lives are led. That moral cast will affect the integrity of the professions, and indeed it will determine the kinds of occupations in which a decent people will be free to make their livings. But a commencement is also a time for the celebration of families, and he connected his central concern to “the family and the laws.” We excerpt here what he had to say about families on this occasion.

Years ago we brought back to my college, Amherst, one of our most accomplished graduates, a man who had simultaneously earned a Ph.D. in philosophy and a law degree. He began his talk by remarking that all of the students gathered around him in the hall were already marking a serious departure from the principle of equality in distribution. For if their parents, he said, had settled the price of an Amherst education on the young person in the neighborhood most deserving of that education, it is not clear that everyone in that hall would have been the recipient.

Later on, at a reception, he remarked that writing came easily for him, and this life of writing and teaching allowed him to spend a lot of time working at home, with his family around him. He had four children, as I recall, ranging in ages from about seventeen to seven. Some wise guy remarked, in the way of ribbing him, that it must be a considerable advantage to those children to have the concentrated attentions of a father who was, at once, a distinguished figure in philosophy and the teaching of law; and if those attentions were allocated to young people in the neighborhood most deserving of those attentions, it is not clear that those four would have been the beneficiaries.

It is eminently fitting – it is not the mark of a crimped nature – that parents take a heightened responsibility for the children who are theirs. We know enough to know that this, the most natural of sentiments, has not always held true. Not all parents have not been protective of their children; some have been willing to “get rid” of their children, and some have had a merchandising attitude toward their offspring. We think of Woody Allen’s line, that this is a watch… that my father, on his death bed … sold me. But this is time for people who have borne their responsibilities, parents and children, in reaching this day.

The point has been aptly made that the biblical injunction, honor thy father and thy mother could not have been referring simply to the biological father or mother, for in that case we would be enjoined to honor the man who sired us in the course of a rape. But “duties” or “obligations” are moral terms, and they flow only to the people who have fulfilled the moral office of parenting, the people who have been there to nurture, to protect, and sustain.

Aristotle said that the polis, the political order, was prior in the order of nature to the family. This urbane man certainly knew that people were perfectly capable of having sex even when their governments broke down. But that was different from a family. For what constitutes a family? Would it be two people – or several joined together in a polygamous or polyamorous ensemble? Would it be two people of the same sex, the same species? What constitutes a family is something that has always depended on the moral understanding that pervades the community and finds expression in “the laws.”

Our late friend, Allan Bloom, wrote that “the children who are the products of nature and real love lack something that can be provided only by law and its constraints”:

It is only within the context of the law that a man can really imagine that the offspring from his loins can people the world. . . . The law that gives names to families and tries to insure their integrity is a kind of unnatural force and endures only as long as does the regime of which it is a part.

Those laws on marriage invited us, as parents, to say the most telling words that parents may say, as they claim their children as their own, and do it through that simple device of imparting a name. As they do that, they replicate those words spoken by God in relation to Israel. And is there finally anything simpler or more decisive than those words that come back to us from Isaiah: “Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name, thou art mine.”

This is a day when we celebrate again the parents who have given their names to children, borne the responsibilities for them, and the students who have borne their own responsibility, in a handsome way, by working faithfully to justify the sacrifices made for them…

Mr. President, I’m grateful to take up the degree awarded by this college, and I’m proud to join these graduates and the parents who brought them to us as gifts.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College.

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