William F. Buckley at Yale Commencement Ceremony
New Haven, Connecticut
June 11, 1950
A year ago, the orator for the class of 1949 stood here and told his classmates that the troubles of the United States in particular and of Western democracy in general were attributable to the negativism of our front against Communism. His was not a lone voice jarring smug opinion in mid-twentieth-century America. Rather he is part of the swelling forefront of men and women who are raising a hue and a cry for what they loosely call positivism, by which they mean bold new measures, audacious steps forward, a reorientation towards those great new horizons and that Brave New World.
It is natural at this point to realize that (although we must be very careful how we put it) we are, as Yale men, priveleged members of our society, and to us falls the responsiblity of leadership in this great new positivist movement. For we had had a great education, and our caps and gowns weigh heavy upon us as we face our responsibilities to mankind.
All of us here have been exposed to four years’ education in one of the most enlightened and advanced liberal-arts colleges in the world. Here we can absorb the last word in most fields of academic endeavor. Here we find the headquarters of a magazine devoted exclusively to metaphysics, and another devoted entirely to an analysis of French existentialism. And here, for better or worse, we have been jolted forcefully away from any preconceived judgments we may have had when we come. Here we can find men who will tell us that Jesus Crist was the greatest fraud that history has known. Here we can find men who will tell us that morality is an anachronistic conception, rendered obsolete by the advances of human thought. From neo-Benthamines at Yale we can learn that laws are a sociological institution, to be wielded to facilitate the sacrosanct will of the enlightened minority.
Communism is a real force to cope with only because of the deficiencies of democracy. Our fathers, who worked to send us to Yale, their fathers and their fathers, who made Yale and the United States, were hardworking men, shrewd men, and performed a certain econmic service, but they were dreadfully irrresponsible, y’know, in view of today’s enlightenment.
And it so goes: two and two make three, the shortest distance between two points is a crooked line, good is bad and bad is good, and from this morass we are to extract a workable, enlightened synthesis to govern our thoughts and our actions, for today we are educated men.
Nothing, it is true, is healthier than honest scrutiny, with maybe even a little debunking thrown in. When a dean tells us that our task is to go out and ennoble mankind, we nod our heads and wonder whether the opening in the putty-knife factory or in the ball-bearing works will pay more. When we are told that Lincoln was totally unconcerned with politics, we might ponder the occasion in 1863 when he could not focus his attention on the questions of a distinguished visitor because he was terribly worried over what Republican to appoint postmaster of Chicago. In 1913 Charles Beard wrote his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. It was banned in seven state universities and brought almost nationwide ostracism for the author. Today a study of this analysis is a prerequisite to a doctoral degree in American history.
Certainly civilization cannot advance without freedom of inquiry. The fact is self-evident. What seems eqally self-evident is that in the process of history certain immutable truths have been revealed and discovered and that their value is not subject to the limitations of time and space. The probing, the relentless debunking, has engendered a skepticism that threatens to pervade and atrophy all our values. In apologizing for our beliefs and our traditions we have bent over backwards so far that we have lost our balance, and we see a topsy-turvy world and we say topsy-turvy things, such as that the way to beat Communism is by making our democracy better. What a curious self-examination! Beat the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics by making America socialistic. Beat atheism by denying God.Uphold individual freedom by denying naural rights. We neglect to say to the Communist, “In the name of heaven look at what we now have. Your standards don’t interest us.” As Emerson threatened to say to the obstreperous government tax collector, “If you pursue, I will slit your throat, sir”
The credo of the so-called positivists is characterized by the advocacy of change. Republicanism, on the other hand, is negativism because conservatives believe that America has grown and has prospered, has put muscle on her bones, by rewarding initiative and industry, by conceding to her citizens not only the right and responsibilities of self-government, but also the right and responsibilities of self-care, of individually earned security. The role of the so-called conservative is a difficult one. A starry-eyed young man, nevertheless agressive in his wisdom, flaunting the badge of custodian of the common man, approaches our neat, sturdy white house and tells us we must destroy it, rebuild it of crystallized cold cream, and paint it purple. “But we like it the way it is,” we retort feebly.
“Rip ‘er down! This is a changing world.”
Is our effort to achieve perspective all the more difficult by virtue of our having gone to Yale? In many respects it is, because the university does not actively aid us in forming an enlightened synthesis. That job is for us to perform: to reject those notions that do not square with the enlightenment that should be ours as moral, educated men, beneficiaries of centuries of historical experience. Yale has given us much. Not least is an awesome responsibility to withstand her barrage, to emerge from her halls with both feet on the ground, with a sane head and a reinforced set of values. If our landing is accomplished, we are stronger men for our flight.
Keenly aware, then, of the vast deficiencies in American life today – the suffering, the injustice, the want – we must nevertheless spend our greatest efforts, it seems to me, in preserving the framework that supports the vaster bounties that make our country an oasis of freedom and prosperity. Our concern for deficiencies in America must not cause us to indict the principles that have allowed our country, its faults notwithstanding, to tower over the nations of the world as a citadel of freedom and wealth. With what severity and strength we can muster, we must punch the gasbag of cynicism and skepticism, and thank providence for what we have and must retain. Our distillation of the ideas, concepts, and theories expounded at Yale must serve to enhance our devolution to the good in what we have, to reinforce our allegiance to our principles, to convince us that our outlook is positive: that the retention of the best features of our way of life is the most enlightened and noble of goals. Insofar as the phrase “For God, for Country, and for Yale” is meaningful, we need not be embarrassed to mean “For God as we know him, for country as we know it, and for Yale as we have known her.”