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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 first of two he gave that day; click here for the second address.

Leges Sine Moribus Vanae

Jaroslav Pelikan

The motto of the University of Pennsylvania, which appears (in Latin) on the diplomas being awarded to you tomorrow, reads: "Leges sine moribus vanae, Laws without morals are useless."

If you have taken the right courses during your years as a student at the University of Pennsylvania--and if you haven't, it's never too late to make up the deficiency at your friendly local bookstore or library--you will recognize in this maxim one of the several insights, like the search for wisdom and the quest for justice on which the two major sources of our spiritual tradition, the Judaeo-Christian and the Graeco-Roman, converge. The Hebrew prophets thundered against the all but incurable tendency to equate legal conformity with moral uprightness, insisting that obedience to the will of God is better than sacrifice and that the sacrifice most pleasing to God is a willing heart. Jesus' Sermon on the Mount is one uninterrupted polemic against meticulously keeping all the rules while nursing a hatred for our brother in our heart, and the apostle Paul devoted his two most important epistles, those addressed to the Romans and to the Galatians, to an attack upon what he called "the, righteousness of the law" at the cost of what he called "the liberty with which Christ has set you free-" Meanwhile, as John Stuart Mill said in On Liberty, "Mankind can hardly be too often reminded that there was once a man named Socrates": what Socrates lived for--and, lest we ever forget, what he died for--was the superiority of moral integrity to all laws and conventions, the ultimate authority of that mysterious inner voice which he called his Daimon, which no Athenian court and no cup of hemlock could successfully extinguish. In making "leges sine moribus vanae" its motto, therefore, this University proves once again that its roots lie deep in the Western tradition--however much some of its more nihilistic sons and daughters may try to deny this.

We do not, of course, have to reach back to the Bible and to Socrates for corroboration of this principle. Within the living memory of many of us here this afternoon, and within the shared memory of this entire nation, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who in his turn did indeed reach back to the Bible and to Socrates (and to Mahatma Gandhi), took dramatic action at Selma, Alabama and many other places and used his powerful rhetoric at the Washington Mall and many other places, all to prove that laws, howsoever hallowed they may be, can be fundamentally immoral and that therefore there are times--there must be times--when a truly moral person has no alternative but to disobey such a law and to take the consequences--as he did! Note please that be meant laws that were truly immoral to obey, not merely inconvenient or annoying or stupid or even unfair (and there has never been any shortage of such laws in any human society, either), but genuinely contrary to morality. Significantly, Dr. King stood consciously in the heritage of the central and unifying theme of the Hebrew Scriptures, which his own heritage had unforgettably enshrined in the words of the spiritual:

Go down, Moses,

'Way down in Egypt lan'

Tell ole Pharaoh

To let my people go.

For 'leges sine moribus vanae," so that even the supreme law of this land, the Constitution of the United States, required correction by the morality of the Declaration of Independence and of the Fourteenth Amendment. As Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote at the bicentennial of the Constitution in 1987, "While the Union survived the Civil War, the Constitution did not. In its place arose a new, more promising basis for justice and equality--the Fourteenth Amendment, ensuring protection of the life, liberty, and property of all persons against deprivations without due process, and guaranteeing equal protection." That is what finally brought the leges into line with the mores.

Yet even when laws are not basically immoral, the principle holds, because, in one of the many profound insights of Blaise Pascal in the Pensees, "the heart has its reasons that the reason knows nothing of." We would all, with a mixture of sweet and of bitter reminiscences acknowledge those words to be true about the ways of our own heart as it reaches out to others-it really does have its own reasons, which are often unpredictable and can sometimes be downright wild or even wacky. My colleagues on the Penn faculty, who live as I do in a universe where it is books and ideas, not feelings, that have hands and feet, would also testify that when they fell in love-whenever, or even however often, it may have happened-reason did indeed have its reasons, but that what prevailed after those reasons, and sometimes over those reasons, was the ultimately mysterious reasoning of the heart. As Moses Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas both knew very well without having some modern smartaleck to point it out to them, their carefully formulated and delicately balanced proofs for the existence of God based on the Aristotelian principles of reason about the First Cause and the Prime Unmoved Mover would not ever argue anyone into the faith; nor did their own faith stand or fall on this basis. For Maimonides had learned from the Talmud and Aquinas had learned from Augustine-and all of them had learned from the Psalms--that there does come a point in the relation of human beings to one another, and supremely in the relation of human beings to the divine Source and Judge of their lives, where "the heart has its reasons that the mind knows not of." Also Surah 24 of the Qur-an spoke for such a faith and such a morality:

God is the light of the heavens and the earth.

The semblance of His light is that of a niche

in which is a lamp, the flame within a glass,

the glass a glittering star, as it were, lit with the oil

of a blessed tree, the olive, neither of the East

nor of the West, whose oil appears to light up

even though fire touches it not,--light upon light.

God guides to His light whom He will.

So does God advance precepts of wisdom for men,

for God has knowledge of every thing (tr. Ahmed Ali).

And since it is in those "precepts of wisdom," in relation to our Creator and to our fellow creatures, that the grounds of morality are found, the reasons of the heart do trump the reasons of reason in shaping the principles and the practice of the moral life.

Laws without morals are useless also because without morals no law can be counted on to produce and sustain authenticity. This is what the saints and sages of our tradition have taught us with a mixture of defiance and irony. "Whited sepulchers" was the devastating description that Jesus attached to a hypocrisy in which external appearance hid the real truth of the "dead men's bones" within. It is an ancient precept of wisdom that it is difficult to denounce smugness and arrogance without exhibiting them. So also hypocrisy has a special, capacity to put it an appearance at the very moment when we axe trying to avoid it, and never so effectively as when we are trying to avoid it by keeping the law, Remember that in the biblical parable the hypocrite began his boast with the pious words, "Lord I thank Thee that I am not like other men." The mixed motivations that churn within each of us all the time are the reason why authenticity is such a gift to be cherished: `Purity of heart,' Kierkegaard said in the title of one of his most penetrating essays, "is to will one thing." But if that one thing is the punctilious observance of all the regulations, and nothing but that, purity of heart will remain beyond our reach. For regulations and laws do not have the capacity, in and of themselves, to achieve it.

The moral corollary to purity of heart is spontaneity of action. A cynical saying that was making the rounds a few years ago declared, "The most important thing is sincerity: if you can fake that, you've got it made!" But as sincerity cannot be faked, so it cannot be scripted. Laws without morals are useless because conformity to law, even when it is not grudging, is confined to meeting the stated requirements, but does not motivate us to go the crucial second mile: who ever heard of adding a fifteen-percent gratuity to your income tax payment just in case someone needs it? Yet the heart of morality is the very antithesis of checking the index of some ethics cookbook to find the right recipe for this or that situation. Spontaneous moral action does not ask, "How little can I get by with?" but "How much can. I do beyond the recipes?" And all of us know the difference as we watch ourselves in action. We recognize in ourselves those acts and those motives that have bubbled up from the depths of our own reflexive love and joy and that have not been produced by a pedantic observance of somebody else's definition of the - good life. We recognize the same thing, moreover, in the actions of others. Surely you can remember, in. a classmate or a relative, supposedly moral behavior or that was in fact dictated by conformity to the rules, but by no more than a sense of duty. Although you might have appreciated it at the time, you really did not and could not admire it, because you reserve your admiration for actions of moral imagination that go beyond mere conformity. A truly moral action is in this respect like a truly creative work of art, not just drawing lines between set numbers or clumbering out the melody one painful note at a time, but seizing the opportunity and responding to the occasion with insight, sensitivity, and imagination, All of you have, I hope, your special moral heroes and, yes, saints (if I may be permitted to use the word!), those women and men past or present whose example inspires you and whose teaching guides you in the manner described by the still profoundly true (if, to some jaded and over fastidious modern tastes, somewhat corny) lines of Longfellow's 'Psalm of Life":

Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time,

Footprints that perhaps another,

Straying o'er life's stormy main,

Some forlorn and shipwerck'd brother,

Seeing, may take heart again.

If now you call to mind your own special saints and heroes--most of the ones whom I venerate on my church calendar spoke Greek or Russian, and would make the sign of the Cross in the Eastern Orthodox manner at the slightest threat-you will also remind yourself almost instinctively that they are the ones who "made their lives sublime" and who guide us to do the same by displaying the cardinal virtues of loyalty, courage, and kindness when they didn't have to, because "leges sine moribus vanae."

Arguably the greatest philosopher America has ever produced, and one to whom we all continue to owe a great debt even as we have gone beyond his pragmatism on many fundamental issues, was William James, whose Gifford Lectures of 1901/1902, The Varieties of Religious Experience, are the inspiration and the despair of every thinker and scholar since him who has been invited to occupy that Scottish lectureship. Many of his brilliant ideas, for example the need to find "a moral equivalent of war,"' challenge us more than ever. From the tradition of William James comes the definition "that for which you would be willing to die" to identify the object of our ultimate loyalty and commitment. It is a definition that serves well, in recognizing the sort of moral virtuosity that I have been characterizing here. For one thing, you can quickly, almost ruthlessly, mark the distinction between those loyalties that are worthy of you and those that are not, by asking whether they measure up to this criterion--You can also, both as you make your moral decisions for yourself and as you ponder the ones you have already made, use it to take your temperature and to see whether you have been pursuing false gods; for there are plenty of these around! One false god whose idolatrous worship is an especial danger for respectable people like ourselves, who live on the right side of the law, is the god of self-righteousness and legalistic self-satisfaction. For all of us, whether we know it or not and whether we like it or not, are sustained, in our relations with one another and in our relation with God, by the daily gift of forgiveness.

For these last dozen minutes I have, both with and without Latin, explored and expounded the motto that you will see for the rest of your life, every time you look at your Penn diploma, "Leges sine moribus vanae, Laws without morals are useless." Through it I have sought to follow the examples of Socrates and of Saint Paul in urging that we refuse to content ourselves with the shallow and superficial code that defines the moral life as keeping to the speed limit and not crossing Walnut Street except at the 36th Street corner "The unreflected life," Socrates told the jury that would sentence him to death, "is not worth living"--although, as a friend of mine reminded me on one of the innumerable occasions when I quoted that Socratic formula, "The reflected life is no bed of roses either!" But all of this is only half the story; for this truth that laws without morals are useless, like so many of the ultimate truths that define us, is, as the philosophers and scholars like to say, "dialectical": it needs to be set off by its counterpart, the other principle without which it is incomplete and can be dangerous. That other principle, which does not appear on the diplomas you will be awarded tomorrow, is, in my own Latin rather than in the University's Latin, "Mores sine legibus vagi, Morals without laws are unstable." Not because you needed this message and your classmates needed that one, but because one of the laws I believe in keeping is to stick to the imposed time limits, I propose to turn to that principle at the second baccalaureate exercises of the afternoon.



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