We Have Been Friends Together

Editor’s note: This is a slightly edited version of an address given for the Phoenix Institute Graduation, July 22, 2010 at the University of Notre Dame. – Robert Royal

As the Phoenix Institute graduates you this evening, I’ve been asked to speak for five minutes. Those of you who took my class, those few, those happy few, that band of students, know that I am therefore likely to speak for at least thirty-five, perhaps forty-five minutes. After fifty-five, you may, of course, get up and leave without offending me. I asked my wife, “what could I possibly say in five minutes?” Without a pause she replied, “Goodbye; good luck; goodnight; God bless.” It ought to be clear to you who does the real talking in my family.

I said you are being graduated. Graduate is in fact something the Institute does to you; it is not something you do. This is a bit of a cliché at graduation ceremonies. The speaker explains that while you have achieved great things in your education here, nonetheless graduating you means that we the faculty are sending you forth, or, at the very least, pushing you out the door. Don’t come back, and all that. Well, Aristotle says that no position is so false that there isn’t a grain of truth in it. And what is the grain of truth here? It’s that you have been given a gift. You have had the opportunity over the last three years to study with outstanding scholars who have tried, as Socrates says, to turn your heads in a certain direction to look at aspects of reality that you perhaps had not noticed before. The gift is not a bunch of information, but of having others point out a road, “a way” that you must walk, if you are to travel it at all. This gift is given to you as a kind of friendship.

What I would like to concentrate upon now as you are graduated from the Phoenix Institute is: we have been friends together. Friends give one another gifts. In this instance: a habit of mind that seeks understanding. Every answer leads to more questions, as a great man once said. You should not leave thinking that you have all the answers. Our hope is that you leave here with the gift of an inquiring mind. It’s not that you did not already have such a mind – God first gave you that gift. But as your teachers we have tried to nourish and discipline that gift. We might be accused of acting for selfish reasons. But as friends, we long to hear what you have to say, how you see the world, how you can turn our heads to see things we would not otherwise. We are only your teachers because we have been at this longer, and are a bit farther down the road; and as you leave you must continue down that road.

It is not selfish to desire friends. By nature we have been given the gift of a friendship with all human beings, the friendship of a common destiny – we are on this road together. This gift is the basis of human dignity and rights. In his Commentary on Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, St. Thomas Aquinas repeats Aristotle’s claim that there is a natural friendship among all human beings. Aristotle writes, “that is why we praise those who love all human beings [philanthropos]. Certainly in one’s wanderings one will see that every man is an acquaintance and friend of every other man.” And yet St. Thomas adds: “this is most clear when the path is uncertain, for everyone calls back even an unknown and foreign stranger from going the wrong way, as if every man is naturally an acquaintance and a friend of every other man.” The point can and should be taken metaphorically for every course of human action, particularly seeking to understand the world and our place in it. We are friends together travelling along a way, helping each other to move forward and not become lost.

As you help your friends along the way you may make mistakes in thinking you understand when you don’t, just as we your teachers do. But you must be confident that you may really have something to share with your friends to help them along that way. Be not afraid to act as if you love them when you help them, and you will love them. And your friends are not just your fellow students in the Phoenix Institute, or some collection of people back home. We have not come together to manufacture what C. S. Lewis called an “inner ring,” a secret and elite circle of “know it alls” who stand in judgment of the uninitiated. We have no secret handshake; no special look; no membership card. Your friends are, as St. Thomas says, anyone you meet, even the stranger.

The gift you have been given by God, and we hope to have nurtured, the capacity to seek understanding, is not for you alone. You are an Image of God,  Imago Dei, when you take that gift and give it in turn to everyone you meet along the road, whether your profession is engineering, law, pharmacy, public relations, business, even philosophy. If you nourish this gift within you, then you too can give it to anyone as the occasion arises. And you will not simply recognize their human dignity, or respect their human rights while caring nothing for them as persons – loving humanity but hating your next door neighbor. No. You too will be able to say of everyone you meet along the road, “we have been friends together.” My firm conviction is that if you do so, then when you go to God, He will say to you in return, “we have been friends together.”

Goodbye. Good luck. Goodnight. And may God bless all of you.

John O’Callaghan is associate professor of philosophy and director of the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame. This column is a shortened version of a presentation he made this week at the university for a conference on, “Darwin in the Twenty-First Century: Nature, Humanity, and God.”