Trinitas Blog

Finis Initii: Not Departing from the Path

Posted by Trinitas on Jun 16, 2024 4:48:29 PM


The following is adapted from the Commencement Address delivered by Dr. Clifford Humphrey on May 17, 2024, at Trinitas Christian School.

Graduation, the word comes from the Latin verb graduari, meaning to take a gradus, a step. You have made it to the last step, the last rung on the ladder. It’s the end. It feels good, right? Like you can practically retire now and take it easy: this long race you’ve been running is over. But wait: this ceremony is also called commencement. What does that mean? Beginning. Why would we call this ceremony that? What might be beginning now?

In August 1942, the Allies achieved a critical victory at the battle of El Alamein in Egypt, halting the Nazi advance in the Desert campaign before they could reach the Suez Canal. It was 1942, the grueling Battle of Britain had lasted nearly a whole year, from the summer of 1940 to the summer of 1941. The Brits had given what they thought was everything they had already. You would think that after this victory, Winston Churchill would want to give his people a sense of relief that the end was finally in sight. But he wouldn’t have them rest on their laurels. About the victory at El Alamein, Churchill told them: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” So too for you, this day marks not really the end, or even the beginning of the end, but perhaps it marks the end of the beginning.

You have probably heard Proverbs 22:6 numerous times as a student at Trinitas: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” As a Proverb, this is a standard conditional statement: If this, then generally that. But the news I have for you today is that the hypothetical part of this conditional statement is not yet complete for you: if you want the promise to come true—not departing from the path when you are old—you will have to complete the training yourself. It is not complete yet, and in fact it is at a critical juncture: from this point the whole thing could be abandoned, or it could be brought to completion.

I could sum up the thesis of my speech thus: the entire end that your whole education hitherto is meant to serve can only be fulfilled by your choosing it for yourself, and you have not had opportunity to do that until now. None of this education you have received here at Trinitas—all the blood, toil, tears, treasure, and sweat that you and your parents have poured into getting you to this point—will have a lasting impact unless you choose to make it your own. You have been put on a path and made to walk it now for many years, but it is up to you—you alone—if you will stay on the path and continue toward the destination to which it points you.

What do I mean by “stay on the path”? It has less to do with becoming an even greater scholar or a professional wage earner of some kind and more to do with making good choices for the dilemmas that will inevitably come your way, whether as a homemaker or a bread winner. You must shoulder now what the philosopher-country music singer Kris Kristofferson described as the “burden of freedom.” We can call this ceremony today commencement because it is the beginning of the test of choices that come with your new-found freedom that will determine the course for the rest of your life. Let’s get concrete, though, and think about what this abstract idea means for your life. I have several examples for you to consider.

We can start with something very simple: appearance and style. You have been made to wear uniforms for years. You’ve been forced to wear clothing that is probably more formal than what you would choose to wear if you were picking. Well, you now have the freedom to dress as a slob every day. That’s right, you can depart from the classic, dignified style, which your uniforms reflect, and you can now follow fashion, that ever-elusive and mercurial goddess worshiped by the innovators, the avant-garde. How will you clothe yourself? It’s up to you.

I had an acquaintance at college whose name was Samuel. It came as a rather awkward moment when in junior year we found out that his real name was Jude. He was so bent on reinventing his high-school self in college that he adopted a new and random name. Now that’s an extreme case, but you get the idea: embrace the past markers of your style (I refuse to use the quite modern word identity), or reject them and reinvent yourself. But beware of trying to please the false god of “authenticity”; you will find yourself ultimately unique, just like everyone else.

As C. S. Lewis remarks on the final page of Mere Christianity: “Even in social life, you will never make a good impression on other people until you stop thinking about what sort of impression you are making. Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original.” Lewis notes instead “Your real, new self…will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him,” for Christ, by staying on the path you’ve been put on.

I’ll add that you have also been forced to maintain a physical regimen to some degree here at Trinitas—either in PE or in school sports. If you will continue to stay in good physical condition, being a good steward of the body God gave you, you will have to seek out opportunities to strengthen yourself. It will not happen naturally. The default is to become lazy and weak. The choice is yours. I beckon you to stay on the path.

Second example, what about technology? I’m sure many of you have smartphones already, but the freedom to use them has been severely restricted while you have been at Trinitas. For most of you, those limits will gradually be removed now. What will your relationship with technology look like? Will you give yourself free rein to let screens have as much of your time and your relationship space as your present feelings dictate, or will you draw on the guidance and limits your Trinitas education has given you to draw a more circumspect path? This choice will be much harder than you imagine.

I’m told that on average, 16-24 year-olds spend over seven hours a day on internet-connected devices. I’ve got news for you: the odds are that you will be average. Most people are after all. Will you choose to depart from the exception path and become average? It’s up to you. Do you feel the weight of this decision? You should.

A third example: what about manners and mores? You’ve been made to defer to your teachers, elders, and peers in various ways. You have been encouraged to see yourself as a “gentleman” or “lady.” Will you continue to act the part with an appropriate development commensurate to your age and station? Are you aware of the immense leveling pressure that the democratic ethos of our world will put on you? You will be made to feel awkward for deferring to elders with the decorum that Trinitas has been instilling in you for years. You will feel great pressure to exchange a “yes sir” with a “hey, man”: our society cannot abide hierarchy, even though you have been taught that without hierarchy there is no civilization. Have you thought of this at all? Do you feel this pressure now already?

One final example: a life of the mind. You have been made to read… a lot. You have been given hundreds of reading homework assignments and boni libri requirements on top of that! Ideally, you had the chance to read something like Leo Tolstoy’s short The Death of Ivan Illych, and the book and class discussion about it was so good that you have just been itching now to dive into War and Peace, but haven’t had time. Well, now you do! You are free! You can read War and Peace… or you can binge-watch whatever latest propaganda has been dressed up as a spectacle on Netflix.

Will you continue to cultivate a life of the mind toward which your Trinitas education has hitherto ushered you? Or will you become a person who perhaps slowly at first but then eventually never really reads books and spends your leisure time more with images than with words? The choice is yours now. Again, do not underestimate how difficult a decision this will be. Remember, the odds are that you will be average. Can you beat the odds?

When I taught here at Trinitas, I had my Magna Traditio students read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In that satirical novel, if you recall, children are programmed through behavioral manipulation to have a dislike for books because reading does not serve the purposes of the regime at all and fills their minds with dissident thoughts: citizens are encouraged instead to spend their time on frivolous activities that cost money and keep Gross Domestic Product up.

Decades after its publication, Huxley published a companion collection of essays called Brave New World Revisited. In one of those essays, he commented on the hopes of classical liberals like Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill that all man needed for self-governance was a high degree of literacy and freedom of the press. They assumed, Huxley notes, that people would naturally want to read the news and voice their informed opinions in the public square. He wrote,

They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies - the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.


We might paraphrase this point by noting that most people would much rather play Candy Crush and watch cat videos than read The Federalist Papers. Again, the odds are much greater that you will be part of the “most people” than the exception, especially if you do not take this point seriously. Again the choice is yours.

I think I have stressed this point enough now and provided enough examples for you to chew on. I want to move now to a new point.

You might have had opportunity to read Josef Pieper’s influential essay “Leisure as the Basis of Culture” during your time at Trinitas. In that essay, Pieper notes that the etymology of the word school should lead us to associate it not with work and drudgery: the word in fact comes from the Greek word schole, which means leisure. That’s right. When you are at school, you are at leisure to learn things that you would not be able to learn if you had to spend all day working in a factory or out in the field.

Consider what this means: you have been at leisure these last 12 grades at Trinitas, and that leisure is now over (unless you are fortunate enough to go from here to a good liberal arts school where your leisure time will be extended so you can delve deeper into humanizing studies). If you are going to start working now or pursue a career that requires you to spend your college years in job training, then your extended leisure period is over: the time, in other words, that you will have to learn a new language or read interesting books will now be drastically restricted.

How will you spend this precious little time? After I graduated college, I was determined to learn a trade, so I moved to New York City and got a job in a cabinet shop in The Bronx. I had made the ill-informed decision to study psychology as an undergrad, and I wanted to study political philosophy in graduate school, so I was determined to spend my evenings after work reading an undergraduate worth of primary sources in political philosophy before graduate school.

I worked eight hours every day in a physically intensive job, walked a mile both ways to subway and bus stations, and fought rush hour crowds on the train for an hour both ways. I was continually frustrated by how little progress I was making each evening with the very little time and energy I had left at the end of the day. I longed for the leisure of my school days. Note that it will be much harder than you realize to make the time to cultivate a life of the mind when you lack the leisure you have enjoyed hitherto, especially given the competition for your attention that all other distractions provide today.

It was here in this very Grand Hall that I first heard someone make this next point. In Greek, there is something called the “alpha privative,” a way of showing negation. Consider these English cognates: what happens when you append an “a” to theist? You get atheist. What about gnostic? You get agnostic. So on with moral and amoral, typical and atypical.

Consider now the old verb to muse. Obviously it comes to us from the nine Greek Muses, and it means to wonder, to consider something carefully, to get lost in thought about something. To muse is the activity you engage in while at a museum. Well, what word do we get when we add an alpha privative to muse? Amuse, right? So there you have it: what is Six Flags and all other amusement parks, but places where you go to check out mentally? But now you can check out right in your own living room or wherever you go with your phone whenever you want.

So here is the choice: will you spend your precious leisure hours to muse on things or to be amused? Trinitas has tried to give you a taste for those things worth musing on for the rest of your life, but you don’t have to follow it anymore. You can choose to lose a life of the mind. All of this comes down to this point: much of your life is in your own hands, in God’s providence. What will you make of it?

Here we must make an important observation. In order for an action to count as progress toward virtue, three conditions must be met, according to Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics:

  • the action must be done knowingly (i.e., it can’t be an accident)
  • the action must not be a one-off but part of a pattern of choices that contributes to a settled position, that is a habit or at least the germ of one
  • the action must be chosen for its own sake

Let’s reference the examples I gave above: keeping dress and appearance in accord with a modest and classic style, 2) keeping healthy limitations with technology, 3) maintaining manners and mores, 4) continuing to cultivate a life of the mind. For the most part, you have fulfilled the first two of Aristotle’s conditions while doing these things as a student here at Trinitas: you have done them knowingly (if begrudgingly at times) and you have done them repeatedly as part of a pattern and settled condition. Consider the third condition, though: the action must be chosen for its own sake. You have not yet had an opportunity to do this, for all of these actions you have done not for their own sake but for some other reason, namely to please and honor your parents (or, let’s be honest, to avoid punishments).

Note what this means: all the times you made the choice to comply with your parents’ wishes and the school’s code of conduct, you were only in the realm of potential virtue: it doesn’t actually count for the long run until the actions are chosen for their own sake. Yes, the Lord will honor your obedience to your parents as He promises in the Fifth Commandment: “…that your days will be long in the land your God has given you,” but for the long run, the final step is yours to take. Your parents and school have pushed you to the edge of the choice over and over and over again, and now they have dropped you off there. Will you walk on and take the next step, or will you abandon the path?

Unfortunately, all the efforts you and your parents have made to help you build these habits can be easily undone on account of this missing third condition. Alternatively, solidifying these habits into settled ways of being is also much, much easier for you than it would be for someone lacking the years of practice. But practice is over: it’s game time now.

Before working for the Florida Department of Education, I was the executive director of the Institute for Leadership Development at Troy University. While in that position, I learned that the modern world is both obsessed with the study of “leadership” and that it has very little understanding of what that term means. My own classical education gave me the categories by which to understand it properly.

At its most fundamental, leadership is a combination of moral philosophy and rhetoric. Interestingly, you will search in vain for the subject of “leadership” among any college curriculum before the 1980s or so. The classical subjects of moral philosophy and rhetoric were understood to fulfill the same function: colleges never called those fields “leadership studies” until recently.

Leadership requires knowing what the best direction is and then persuading others to follow you, so you see the roles that moral philosophy and rhetoric play here. Most of what goes by “leadership studies” these days jettisons the moral philosophy component—replacing it with organizational theory or management—leaving only rhetoric, making it no different from sophistry.

Aristotle has a peculiar word for what I think best explains what we all should mean by “leadership,” and that word is spoudaios. It means something like “a morally serious person” whom others find compelling. The spoudaios is the person who is concerned with fulfilling all three conditions for progress in virtue, especially the criterion you are critically lacking: choosing a virtuous action for its own sake. For this reason, I commend you all to become spoudaiotic.

In closing, I will say a little more about what makes the spoudaios peculiar. Everyone makes choices in accord with what they desire, assuming that what they desire is also what is good and right. But of course, there is a moral universe of difference between what is truly good and what merely appears to be good. Who is to judge between these? The answer is the spoudaios, the morally serious person, the one who has chosen to stay on the path, for only he has developed himself to be the kind of person who is able to see things as they truly are. “Leadership” turns out to be what classical education has always sought to produce in students: compelling human excellence.

Aristotle writes “To the spoudaios, then, the object of wish exists in a true sense, whereas to the base person, it is whatever chances to appear good… For the spoudaios judges each case correctly, and in each case what is true appears to him” as such… “but in the case of most people, a deception appears to occur on account of the pleasure involved, for what is not good appears to them as good.”

He goes on to note that “the end appears to each according to whatever sort of person he is. If, then, each person is somehow a cause of his own character, he himself will somehow be a cause also of the appearance of the good.” In other words, we create our own character by pursuing that which appears to us as good, and what appears as good also becomes pleasant to us, making us more likely to choose it again: it is a self-reinforcing cycle. So my last point is in regard to pleasures.

God has sprinkled His goodness all over this earth for us to discover and enjoy. We rightly praise Him for it. But of course, we can learn to enjoy as pleasant those things that are not created to bring us pleasure and will ultimately corrupt us and our ability to recognize what is truly good. We all ultimately pursue those things that we cultivate a taste for. Therefore taste is everything. Mind what you cultivate a taste for, for you will become something of what you find pleasant.

Aristotle notes that the hardest virtues for most people to cultivate are courage and temperance, our settled postures toward potential pain and potential pleasure.

Learn, therefore, not to be controlled by a fear of pain in all its forms, physical as well as psychological. Further, you should expect temptations for pleasure to come to you most often in regard to food and sex. These observations are basic, fundamental, verging on mundane, but a large measure of control over your future happiness depends on them. No one puts it more beautifully than George Washington did in his inaugural address: “there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature and indissoluble union between virtue and happiness.”

It all comes down to this: You should think of your diploma as a property deed: this education dearly bought is yours now, for better or worse. What will become of it in your hands? Have you thought of what you will do to choose to cultivate the habits into the future that you’ve been practicing here at Trinitas, or will you let them slip through your fingers through gradual disuse till they end up as pearls before swine?

         “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live,” Deuteronomy 30:19. To paraphrase Proverbs 22:6: Train up yourself in the way you should go; and even when you are old you will not depart from it.

Tonight is the commencement of your actual final exam. Pencils out. This exam will be open notes and open book. You will have the rest of your life. You may begin.

Dr. Clifford Humphrey is the Executive Vice Chancellor in the Division of Florida Colleges at the Florida Department of Education. In 2020, he received a doctorate in political science from the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. He went on to help found Thales College in Raleigh, North Carolina and then taught moral philosophy and rhetoric at Troy University in Troy, Alabama. He has written extensively on the topics of classical education, higher education, Christianity, American politics, and philosophy.  Before all that he taught classical languages, rhetoric, and Magna Traditio at Trinitas for two years. He is originally from Warm Springs, Georgia, and is the husband of Amelia Grace and father of Anastasia and Penelope.

Topics: Blog Posts, Classical Education, Alumni, Christian Education, True Education, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, Virtue

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