Days of Commencement and Reunion Print
By Hadley Arkes   
Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Maytime: Time of Commencements and Reunions. At Amherst, I see the sons and daughters of my first students come across the stage to receive their degrees. My most recent book carried this dedication: to Michael Petrino ’68 and Michael Petrino ’03, Jay Beech ’67 and Scott Beech ’99, Doug Neff ’70 and John Neff ’09, Kevin Conway ’80 and Jack ’10, Ryan ’12. They were father-son combinations, gifts and enduring blessings. 

The Commencement at Amherst ends with the Sheriff of Hampshire County thumping his mace twice, pronouncing the proceedings closed, and shouting, “God save the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.” Leaving piety aside, I used to think that was a fitting commentary on the graduates we were about to release into the world. But that is now the only prayer heard at the Commencement. There used to be an invocation spoken by the Chaplain to the College, but the chaplaincy is no more—and this in a school founded to train ministers for a muscular evangelical Christianity.

Last week at Princeton, however, it was Reunion time for the people who have been Fellows over the past ten years in Robert George’s Madison Program. I was asked to do the opening talk for the two days of panels, but then also to close the meetings. Thanks to the imagination and initiative of Frank Beckwith, we would close with a panel on the twenty-fifth anniversary of my book First Things. It was pointed out that Fr. Neuhaus had taken the name of his new journal from my book. The same point had been noted years ago at a workshop of the Catholic bishops, and I told the bishops that my next book would be called: “Urology and What It Can Do For You.” I wanted to see what kind of a journal my dear Richard would make of that. 

Several friends joined now in Princeton to recall their experience in reading and teaching that book. I remarked, at the outset, on one or two things I had done over the years in amplifying or extending the arguments in the book – and one or two ways to make the argument more quickly, with more economy. But I took the moment also to say some choice things about Immanuel Kant. 

I have been “accused” of being a Kantian. I’m not sure that is an honor I’ve earned or a reproach deserved. Kant has made certain arguments in a striking way, as no one else has, and one can draw upon those arguments without buying on to all parts of his metaphysics, even if I could understand them all. And so I recalled, among other things, Kant’s warning that even a unanimity of feeling could not supply the surrogate for a moral judgment. The unanimity, Kant said, “would be merely contingent”; it would be “only subjectively valid.” Even if we were unanimous in our taste for Coca-Cola, we would not have the grounds for making the Coca-Cola compulsory. 

I recalled, in this vein, an exchange in print with a friend who proposed this pro-life measure: A woman contemplating an abortion should be given an array of photographs of the offspring in the womb at each of the days of development in the pregnancy. She would be directed to the photo that corresponded with the advance of her own pregnancy. My friend’s bet was that most women, seeing photographs of a child at that point, would readily see that it was indeed a child and back away from the abortion.  

But this approach made the whole matter pivot on the matter of perception. As Kant anticipated, perceptions, like feelings, can change day by day. They are ephemeral and contingent. It may be that 95 percent of pregnant women, looking at the photo or the sonogram, would say, “That looks like a baby.” But on what ground would the law stand in relation to the 5 percent who look at the picture and say, “Well, it doesn’t look like a baby to me”? It is not, then, what it looks like, but what it inescapably is. It is a small human being. And the justifications for the taking of its life would have to be as compelling as the justifications we would require in taking any other human life.

Sometime in the 1980s a letter came from a former student, stationed in Japan, writing for Time magazine. He was writing to tell me that the course we had done together, the course from which First Things had sprung, had stirred again the sense of natural law, and brought him now, more firmly, to the Church. This past February, in a visit to Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, a young professor recalled reading the book as a graduate student. 

He recalled that passage in which I had explained the rudiments of a “justification.” That simple thing, he said, jolted him for some reason – it jolted him to make his way back to the natural law, and to the Church that has supplied the main sanctuary for that moral reasoning in our own time. 

All of this I still find bewildering. But not incomprehensible, for it was that moral reasoning that had marked my own path to the Church. As Robert George observed, I had marked the path for others before I had taken it myself. The ways of the Lord are wondrous altogether.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at AmherstCollege. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law
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