The following speech was delivered on December 16, 2007 as part of the Ashland University Baccalaureate Service.
This is a day for giving thanks to the Lord for the good that you have received through your education, and a day for reflecting on the great challenges that lie ahead in your lives. Our Scripture reading for this morning, from the Book of Psalms (Psalm 1:1-3,6a and Psalm 16:5-9,11), deals with these very things, for it tells us something about how to find happiness, despite the uncertainty and trials of life. The first part of the Psalm tells us that to attain happiness we must refuse the counsel of the wicked. But the “delight” of the blessed or happy man is in meditation, particularly meditation on the “law of the Lord.” It is through the contemplation of the nature of God and His design and purpose for human beings that the happy man, like a well watered tree, yields fruit in all that he does, and his happiness never withers. But it is not simply the meditation or the seeking of knowledge that leads to life’s greatest pleasures. For the blessed man also “does”—knowledge must be accompanied by works.
All of these things—wisdom, work, and the happiness that can be achieved by them—are part of what King David calls in the Psalm the “delightful inheritance” that we receive from the Lord. And it is these things—the good things that we have “inherited”—to which I will direct our attention this morning. We should not take this inheritance for granted, though the temptation is such that, often, we do. It is part of the challenge of life, and the great task with which God has charged us all, to appreciate the things we have inherited and to make the most out of them.
The ability to attain happiness is itself one of the greatest gifts that men have inherited from God. Scripture is emphatic on this point, but so were many of the greatest thinkers on human nature. Happiness, Aristotle tells us, is the highest good and the ultimate purpose of human life. Every human action aims at promoting happiness. But he also tells us that happiness does not consist solely in the pursuit of physical pleasure or in the accumulation of wealth. Some degree of both (in moderation, he says) obviously is important to the life of the blessed man. But in this respect, happiness becomes somewhat subject to chance, and we deceive ourselves if we believe we can account always for her whims or even, in satisfying them, find the full meaning of happiness. Instead, he says, happiness is found mainly in activity itself—not just physical activity but also the activity of the soul and the work of the mind. Aristotle tells us, acting well or acting ill is a reflection of the activity of the soul. A sound mind and a good soul will produce good works, and it is the goodness of our activity—our work—that will contribute to or detract from our felicity. Thus we learn also from
the Book of Ecclesiastes, “I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion.” (Ecclesiastes 3:22)
The very ability to work, therefore, and to derive happiness from our work, is part of the delightful inheritance that we have received from the Lord. To continue from Ecclesiastes, “Every man to whom God hath given riches and wealth, and hath given him power to eat thereof, and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labour; this is the gift of God. For he shall not much remember the days of his life; because God answers him in the joy of his heart.” (Ecclesiastes 5:19-20) In other words, if you delight in your work because it is good, the happiness you experience throughout life will make all of the troubles and hardships you have endured seem trivial.
Along with the gift of work comes the gift of liberty, the ability God has given us to choose our actions freely. But with liberty we also inherit great responsibility, for the use we make of our freedom can lead to benefit or to harm, to justice or to injustice, to virtue or to vice, and thus also to happiness or to misery. God has given us liberty as the means to winning happiness, but in His goodness He has left us free to merit, by our own actions, either happiness or misery. In this sense, the choice between happiness and misery is in our hands in the same way that the choice between success and failure is also in our own hands.
God charges us with great responsibilities. The first is that we must make the fullest use of our liberty in the choice of our work and our actions. We will be judged according to whether we squander our liberty or make use of it in our lives. The second charge is that we defend our liberty and not surrender it to the “counsels of the wicked.” As Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” (Galatians 5:1) Finally, we must be ever careful to avoid following freedom down the path of licentiousness, for as Peter tells us in his first epistle, “So is the will of God, that with well doing you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.” (1 Peter 2:15-16)
In America, especially, we should never take for granted the liberty with which we have been blessed. Most of you know that liberty was the watchword during the time of the American Founding and the cause for which we fought the Revolution. For more than a hundred years before our Revolution, American preachers taught that liberty was a gift from God and that it must be used in accordance with His designs for our felicity—that is, liberty is the means by which we can do good works, and is not intended to be used for evil ends. The Reverend Samuel West instructed Americans in his congregation on the true meaning of liberty, saying, “If we consult our happiness and real good, we can never wish for an unreasonable liberty, viz., a freedom to do evil… To have a liberty to do whatever is fit, reasonable, or good, is the highest degree of freedom that rational beings can possess.”
It is here that we begin to see the importance of learning and knowledge. For, without these, one is less likely to make the proper choices in life, and more likely to squander or abuse the gift of liberty. As we heard in the Psalm, the blessed man seeks knowledge, and “even at night,” he says, “my heart instructs me.” He is, therefore glad in his heart, for meditation and learning have shown him the “path of life.”
But knowledge and learning are not by themselves enough to lead us to happiness; knowledge for its own sake is good but incomplete. If knowledge is not employed to improve our works and our actions, especially in relation to our fellow human beings, it can be an empty blessing. As George Washington famously wrote to his sixteen-year-old nephew who was about to begin college, “A good moral character is the first essential in a man… It is therefore highly important that you should endeavor not only to be learned but virtuous.”
Knowledge applied to our actions, as Aristotle says, is what we call wisdom. For wisdom tells us the kind of good things for which our actions ought to aim in this life, and also informs us of the bad things we ought to avoid. If we are lacking in wisdom concerning what is just, beautiful, and true, our actions will be directed at bad ends and will, therefore, reflect the unjust, the ugly, and the false. For such a person, true happiness will remain elusive. Thus, as the Bible repeatedly tells us, wisdom is invaluable for happiness:
Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who embrace her; those who lay hold of her will be blessed. (Proverbs 3:13-18)
This is why this morning’s Psalm tells us that the blessed man finds delight in meditating on the law of the Lord. In contemplation of God’s nature and His design for creation, we acquire a kind of wisdom that elevates us and increases our awareness of our duties to God and man. As another early American preacher, Samuel Kendal, said in an 1804 sermon:
Contemplation of God provides a clearer view “of the divine character, and of the duty and destiny of man; and furnishes the strongest motives to virtue by inspiring new and more sublime hopes… It introduces into the mind the idea of goodness, or grace, as the connecting link between men and their Creator; by which they may rise to a resemblance of the great standard of moral excellence… It enforces every precept of virtue by the consideration that present behavior will affect our future condition; that God is the witness, and will be the judge of our conduct.… It forbids the indulgence of the selfish passions, and encourages a generous philanthropy… [It] enlightens the mind and improves the heart.”
Our most direct and obvious path to knowledge, and—one hopes—wisdom, is our education. And this makes the particular kind of education you have had at Ashland University one of the greatest gifts one can inherit. I am speaking specifically of what we call a liberal arts education or, sometimes, just “liberal education.” It is called “liberal” for two reasons. Liberality is a classical virtue akin to generosity, and a liberal education is one that is “generous” in the array of fields and courses that students have the opportunity to take. But the word “liberal” also comes from the Latin word for liberty or freedom. The goal of such an education is to create free human beings, in the sense that they are liberated from blind opinion and narrow prejudice. This is accomplished by allowing students to take courses in a number of different fields, thereby broadening and deepening their understanding of God and His creation, including man. This broad array of coursework, when taken together, is meant to expose one to the heights of human excellence and accomplishment, and to enrich one’s appreciation of God’s generosity.
It is true that your education has helped to prepare you for a professional career; but it also ought to have prepared you for life. In other words, a liberal arts education ought to provide you with the knowledge that is the foundation of wisdom and which, in turn, allows you to make good use of the liberty God has intended for men.
A liberal education ought to challenge your opinions and provoke you to question those things you think you already know about the world. Even if you are leaving this University with the same opinions you brought here four years ago, you should—at least—have a better understanding of what is good or true in those opinions. Perhaps the greatest thing you should have inherited from your liberal arts education is the ability to think for yourselves and freely to contemplate what is just, beautiful, and true. This capacity to think for oneself is the essence of liberty—it is the essence of what it means to be a free human being. Moreover, it is the great defense against falling prey to the enslaving “counsels of the wicked.”
As a means to wisdom, liberty and virtue, a liberal arts education is among the greatest treasures one can inherit. Reverend Samuel Kendal knew this when he said: “To remain free, a people must be enlightened and virtuous; and in order to promote this, they must cherish institutions calculated to promote knowledge and virtue.” This is good advice, and we should heed it. On this I can speak with some authority, for the liberal arts education I received from this very university—many years ago—is one of the greatest gifts that I have inherited.
In closing, I would like to leave you with the advice Peter gave to his friends in his second epistle:
Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God…through the knowledge of Him that hath called us to glory and virtue…Add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:2-9)
Christopher C. Burkett is an assistant professor of political science at Ashland University.
Click here for a PDF version of the Spring 2008 edition of On Principle.