As Encaenia Speaker, I think it is my first duty and privilege to congratulate this year’s graduating class. At King’s we call this graduation day “Encaenia” – a Greek word, meaning “commencement”, the beginning of something new. Today, your alma mater – the “fair mother” of your education, sends you forth into a wider world, to begin a new chapter of your life. Congratulations on your many achievements! May the grace of God go with you!
It is also my privilege to thank Convocation for the honour bestowed upon me and the other honorary doctors and honorary Fellow. We thus perpetuate a tradition which goes back at least as far as the XIIth century, when Lothair, the Holy Roman Emperor, is said to have bestowed the title of “doctor” upon Peter Lombard.
Dean Willard Sperry, of Harvard, used to speak of the University as “the beloved community of memory and hope”, and I’m going to make that the theme of my few remarks this afternoon. Not my personal memories of King’s – although my sixty years of association with the College, as student, alumnus and professor, might seem to entitle me to some reminiscing – I want rather to speak more generally of memory, of recollection, as the foundation of education, and the matrix of hope and renewal.
The past is past, no doubt; yet, paradoxically, the past is also present and becomes more contemporary in our recollection of it. Indeed, it is that presence of the past which constitutes the basis of our very recognition of the present, and establishes the horizon of our expectation. Without recollection of the past, the present moment would be as abstract and dimensionless as the mathematical point, which has position, but no size. The concreteness and sanity of our understanding of the present, therefore, will depend quite radically upon, and will be in direct proportion to, the clarity and integrity of our awareness of the past. Without that dimension, we would be as those who suffer a crippling amnesia, which renders them disoriented, and (in the etymological sense of the word) idiotic. As Lady Philosophy informs a sick Boethius, as he wallows in a dismal fog of confusion and despair, the essence of the problem is forgetfulness. The healing of this malady demands a course of recollection.
Recollection is the fundamental task of education. It must make what is sensibly past, or hidden, clear and contemporary for intellect; it must evoke the past, recent and remote, so far as possible in all its fulness and coherence, so as to make of it the nutriment of present memory; to establish thus the perspective, the substantial dimension of the present, fleeting moment.
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Quaestiones de potentia, offers a marvelous account of the history of thought, from the Pre-Socratics on, and parallels that historical development with the development of our own processes of knowledge, from sensible perception to understanding. Precisely because that development has been achieved historically, in the past, it can become our own possession in the present. It is as that past is present to our recollection, that we share its intellectual achievement. Therefore, the past must become contemporary to us; its sages must be made to speak, here and now, to us; and, as Homer already knew, those blurred and breathless shades will consent to be contemporary only if we entice them with a sacrifice of living blood. That is the meaning of our academic labours.
In the academic world, we reclaim the past mainly through the medium of books; but there are, of course, many other potent ways in which the past is made contemporary in forms of recollection, and those ways also are important for the nutriment of memory. To cite just a few examples: the ancient Praxiteles and the medieval Ghiselbertus, great sculptors, whose names were for centuries more or less forgotten, are still present and articulate in their works of sculpture. The reputation of Cimabue, the painter, was, as Dante tells us, pretty much eclipsed by the rise to fame of Giotto; yet the paintings of Cimabue, as well as those of Giotto, are gazed upon with admiration by untold multitudes of our contemporaries. The music of Bach went quickly out of fashion, and was virtually forgotten until it was revived by Mendelssohn and others in the 19th century; yet few voices speak so powerfully as that of Bach to our present age. The lovely twelfth-century Church of San Clemente, in Rome, hid for seven centuries beneath its floor an early Christian basilica, and beneath that again, it hid an ancient Roman Mithraeum, and domestic apartments belonging to the first century of our era. Archeologists have unveiled all that, and there it all lies open to contemporary eyes.
All these old monuments of divers kinds are part of our contemporary world. They belong to our shared contemporary experience, and they speak to us in the present, in so far as we can learn their language. For instance, Giovanni Pisano’s statues of Plato and Aristotle, which he carved to stand among his figures of the prophets on the thirteenth-century façade of the Cathedral of Siena, bear witness still; not only to that great sculptor’s impassioned genius, but also to the way in which medieval thinkers might interpret and esteem the pagan Greek philosophers – a witness which may also challenge us with new possibilities of interpretation.
The great Romanesque imperial cathedrals of Germanic lands, by their peculiar architectural arrangements, with the Emperor’s choir at the West balancing the sacerdotal choir at the East, and their symmetry of eastern and western towers, bear mute, but nonetheless eloquent testimony to the balance and tension between temporal and spiritual powers in the political life of the Holy Roman Empire. That conception of divided powers is fundamental in the past history of Europe, of course; but it also has much to do with characteristic current policies and attitudes, and tensions between Western policies and those of different cultures, where no such division can be recognized.
By way of contrast, the Byzantine basilica, with its very different, unitary conception of sacred space, bespeaks a very different conception of political life, a very different vision of the meaning of Holy Rome. That different mythology of empire, with the eventual identification of Moscow as the third and final Rome (after Rome itself and Constantinople), is perhaps, with certain transmutations, at least as significant in the life of modern Russia as the works of Marx and Engels and Lenin.
Often these ancient monuments can tell us things which lie quite outside their own original intentions. The glorious Charlemagne window of Chartres Cathedral, for instance, tells us something, certainly, about the heroic feats of that great monarch; but those radiant pictures tell us even more about the mythic stature which had accrued to him in the imagination and esteem of the thirteenth-century French.
We cherish these monuments, we pamper and restore them, not just because they are beautiful, or graceful, or entertaining; certainly not because they are profitable or convenient – which most of them are not; not just because the loss of them would reduce our store of information; but because they belong to the integrity of common memory, constitute the depth of our perspective in the present, and shape and extend the horizons of contemporary perception. Therefore, we cherish and commemorate them. The basic term here is precisely that: “commemoration”, which means not merely a recalling of the past as past, but rather a uniting of past and present, the celebration of the past as present in the present life of memory, personal and shared, here and now, in the contemporary world.
I suppose this idea of commemoration belongs especially, and paradigmatically, to the realm of ritual and liturgy, and it is certainly in that sphere that one finds the most striking examples of its meaning. The sense of commemoration pervades, of course, the whole of the liturgical year; but it becomes especially intense in this season of Easter and Ascension, when the sense of past events as contemporary experience can be quite overwhelming. In the liturgy of the Easter Vigil, for instance, the deacon sings an ancient chant, probably composed by Ambrose of Milan, in the fourth century, in which he proclaims Haec igitur nox est: “This is the night”. This is the night of Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian slavery, this is the night of the pillar of fire in the wilderness, this is the night in which the chains of death are loosed, and darkness is turned to day. “This is night”: all is in the present tense. And, indeed, that sense of vital presence of the past is at the very heart of liturgy. Anamnesis is the technical term: the presence of the past in all its virtue; the historical past as present reality for present understanding.
Liturgy effects that dramatic conflation of temporal divisions in a special way, because it has an explicit point of reference in the “Eternal Now”, in which all moments are contemporary; in which, as Eliot puts it, “all is always one”. It has its focus in the still point on which the dance of time depends, “that point from which depend the heavens and the whole of nature”, as Aristotle says in his Metaphysics. Liturgy has, therefore, a deep and special sense of the contemporary, but I think that its perspective may also well serve as the ideal paradigm of all commemoration.
The integrity and sanity of our sense of the contemporary are functions of our present memory, our whole commemoration of the past, personal and historical, in a continuum of consciousness. To forget that past, to consign it to oblivion, or to “deconstruct” it, is not to be historically pristine. No draught of Lethe can truly liberate our contemporary feelings, beliefs and judgements. The past is always and inevitably here, and our choice is only whether to possess it consciously in recollection, or to possess it in the form of unreflective prejudice, devoid of understanding. The implication of the latter choice, as Dante shows us, in Canto X of the “Inferno” in the shocking figure of Farinata, is imprisonment in an insubstantial present, in which dissociated past and future can appear only as fragmentary, totally abstract, and essentially irrelevant information. Dante paints for us a picture of an empty present, which, he says will be the death of all our knowledge; and that is, in Dante’s judgement, a virulent form of hell.
Recollection is the fundamental business of the University – not recollection as dwelling in the past, but recollection as basis of renewal in the present, and hope and expectation for the future. Thus, King’s College, “beloved community of memory and hope”, among the most traditional of universities, has been able to be most fruitfully innovative. May it long continue on that path; and long may it be commemorated in the minds and hearts of its Bachelors, Doctors and Fellows.
Delivered by The Reverend Doctor Robert Darwin Crouse (BA ’51, MTH ’57) at the 2007 Encaenia Ceremony on May 17, 2007