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Baccalaureate Address by Jaroslav Pelikan, Sterling Professor Emeritus of History at Yale; Visiting Scholar at Annenberg School for Communication, May 16, 2004. This is the second of two he gave that day; click here for the first one.

Morals Without Laws are Unstable

Jaroslav Pelikan

Madam President, colleagues, fellow members of the Class of 2004. At the first of these baccalaureate ceremonies I took as my text the motto of the University of Pennsylvania, which appears in Latin on the diplomas being awarded tomorrow: "Leges sine moribus vanae, Laws without morals are useless." I do not take back a single word of that when I propose in this second baccalaureate to invert that into my own Latin formulation, "Mores sine legibus vagi, Morals without laws are unstable." For as I did say, the truth of the University's motto is a dialectical truth. P.S. so are most others.

 In spite of the image of the moral hero who does not need laws and rules but lives openly and spontaneously, all of us know that most of the time for most people the moral life is in fact quite unheroic, even routine. Siegfried, the bumptious young hero of Wagner's Ring, whom we saw and heard again last month at the Met, may have opened each morning with "Zu neuen Taten! Upward and onward to new deeds!" regardless of how those turned out to be. But on most mornings the stuff of the moral life must be very old deeds, the little courtesies and small tasks that keep our lives, our marriages, our communities, yes and our universities from unraveling; and these are the business of law. Just how important those are, will become immediately evident when someone neglects to observe them, the only reason the heroic morality can be free to improvise is that law is still there keeping the hearth.

The hero's disdain for rules and laws can in fact easily become a cover for the altogether immoral distortion of freedom into what Immanuel Kant called "the radical evil that corrupts all maxims." For when we are honest with ourselves and about ourselves, we all know just how clever and devious we are capable of being when we manipulate others for our own aggrandizement while meanwhile construing our actions, though not theirs,  as a generous concern for their welfare, you will thank me some day. If you have never acted this way or don't admit that you have, then you have the benefit of great literature to provide you with cautionary tales. For me as a scholar and an intellectual, the two characters from literature who have served as such cautionary tales--from the only modern books that I have read every year since my teens--are Goethe's Doktor Faust and Dostoevesky's Ivan Karamazov. Faust is the highpriest of German Wissenschaft, who has worked his way through all four faculties of the medieval university and still is thirsting for knowledge and wisdom. But by the time Goethe has probed the depths of Fausts's devious heart, we see that behind the thirst for knowledge is a lust for power that is prepared to bargain away his soul to gain dominance. And Ivan Karamazov is the clever debater, quick to use his rhetorical skills to mock the conventions of the Orthodox church. But by the time the root causes of his father's murder have been fully exposed, and above all when in the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, Ivan takes us into the barren nihilistic moonscape that he inhabits, we recognize the full effects of that mockery, in what must be the most chilling credo, or "non-credo" in all literature Ivan's words: "If there is no God, anything is permitted!".

For it is the function of the leges in relation to the mores to provide and to define the minimum without which civil society cannot function. We all look back with admiration and respect to the moral achievement of Mahatma Gandhi, who used the tactics of nonviolence as a weapon against oppression and who brought down the British Empire. But the question is by no means irrelevant: Just how would that nonviolence have worked in a country ruled by Joseph Stalin or Adolph Hitler?  For in a profound sense it was the British system of leges and the British sense of fair play, that permitted the Gandhian morality to work. Moral heros come and go, and thank God they do often arrive on the scene just when they are needed. But we have no guarantee that they will, and in many times of crisis they have not. Meanwhile we need to build our plans and hopes on laws--laws as wise as serious men and women can make them. Laws as flexible as the circumstances of human society require and the exigencies of human history permit, but as stable as good legislation and constant enforcement can devise. The repeated tendency of some brands of Christian morality and other liberal sentimentalities to shun laws as "useless, vanae"--has just as repeatedly needed the correction of the Jewish devotion to Torah to rescue it from moral chaos.

For the alternative to chaos is order. When people ask me after all these years of historical study--I set out to win this hood at the University of Chicago 60 years ago this summer in 1944--whether I have ever discovered any lessons of history, I usually take a deep breath and change the subject. But one such generalization I do permit myself: when people are confronted by what they perceive, correctly or incorrectly, to be a choice between order and freedom, they will more often than not choose order; for if you have order without freedom you always have a chance to regain freedom, and if you have freedom without order all you have is chaos. The endemic distrust of institutions that underlies the privileging of morals over leges rests on the assumption--from Rousseau--that although the natural human condition is to be free and to express that freedom in an unfettered moral life, the chains of structure and tradition have replaced the original freedom: if we can only break the chains, we will find authenticity, President Rodin quoted Nitezsche. My favorite quotation from Nietzsche, "Advice to a young revolutionary, be careful you are not crushed by a falling statue." Because what replaces the tyranny of tradition is what Lord Acton once called the tyranny of the air we breathe." Structure and tradition are not the natural enemies of moral spontaneity, but the natural framework within which that spontaneity can be free to breathe.

Doubly is this true when the issue is moral continuity and its transmission from one generation to the next. As your parents and grandparents gather over this grand weekend to celebrate your achievements and to take a measure of justifiable pride in them, and as you use this as an opportunity to thank them again for the love and the sacrifice that have made it all possible, do please thank them, too not only for the tuition payments but for the inspiration and moral example they have been. Through the recent research of psychologists, including my sometime Yale colleague in psychology Professor Judith Rodin, what ever happened to her? We are better informed than we have ever been before about the mysterious relation between nature and nurture, and in Judy's case it is nurture also in the literal sense, though much of the mystery remains. Within the mystery of nurture, we also understand as least something about the distinction between what is taught and what is caught: laws, are taught, in school, in church, and synagogue, and above all in the home; morals have to be caught in all those same places, and they are caught best in an atmosphere where the laws are being taught.

As one colleague and Plato scholar put it after a lifetime of teaching undergraduates "there is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative."  In such a relativistic atmosphere, it does little good to say that "laws without morals are useless," because both laws and morals have melted into the universal solvent. This Republic was founded, eleven score and eight years ago in this very city, not by those who had come to the conclusion that nothing is absolutely certain except that nothing is absolutely certain, but by those who felt able to ground their Declaration in the declaration: "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Of course they knew, as thoughtful people have always known, that there are wide divergences between cultures in how they define both laws and morals, but they strove to find a law beyond and beneath the laws and the morality. Whether you should drive a car on the left side of the road or the right side of the road can be a matter of life and death, as some of us have discovered in the United Kingdom; but no one would claim that the American system or the British system is determined by natural law, it is a question of cultural difference. What is determined by natural law as a self-evident truth, is that in a particular place everyone should drive on the same side (except, or course in Italy!).

Through much of the history of the relation between law and morality, therefore, it has not been a play on words, but profound metaphysical insight, that the word "natural law" means both this law behind laws and the structure of the universe, the law of gravity for example. The ultimate function of the laws by which our individual and collective lives are regulated is to relate us to an order of reality beyond ourselves, what the Greeks called the "music of the spheres." And I come to believe that whenever I listen to the Bach B-Minor  Mass or the "Ave verum corpus" of Mozart or the final string quartets of Beethoven or when you hear in a moment the Brahms played on brass. The ultimate purpose of law therefore is not merely to make us to behave ourselves, but to give us an occasional glimpse of the world as Kosmos, a world of sublime beauty, dynamic balance and ultimate dynamic order.

The realm of music is also a source for my favorite way of talking about mores and leges. The string quartet, is defined by strict laws and I don't care how creative you are as a composer you have to stick to those laws. Beethoven did and look what happened. And even Stravinsky had to. Or to revert once more time to Richard Wagner, whose music intoxicates me even as his ideology disgusts me: Die Meistersinger, the most accessible of all his operas, is the story of the young Walther who has learned to sing from the birds and who, to win the hand of his beloved Eva, has to compose a song that meets all of the stuffy old rules of all of the old master singers. And when he finally does so in the glorious Morgenlicht, he then says "and I want to be saved without a Master's degree!"  To which Hans Sachs replies, "Do not, I say, despise the masters, but honor their art," for it is in the art defined by their leges that you will find the spontaneity you seek."

Yes the University should not change it's motto, "leges sine moribus vanae" and therefore--not nevertheless, but therefore--morals without laws are unstable."

What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.



  Almanac, Vol. 50, No. 34, May 25, 2004