Turning Statues of Stone into Humans with Hearts

Pygmalion and Galatea by Giulio Bargellini (1875-1936)
Pygmalion and Galatea by Giulio Bargellini (1875-1936)

This address was delivered by C.J. Armstrong at Concordia University Irvine’s graduation ceremony on May 7, 2016.

President Krueger, it is an honor to have been asked to deliver the commencement address this year. For this I thank you. And I repeat the welcome to our distinguished guests, our honorees, the regents of our university, my fellow faculty, the parents, family and friends of our graduates. But above all my hat is off to the Concordia University Irvine graduating class of 2016.

It’s a special honor for me because it wasn’t too long ago that my hat was on here, when I walked across this stage at the Bren Center, graduating from University of California, Irvine after a lengthy study of the greatest poet ever born on earth, Ovid, who died on this very day, give or take a month or two, one year shy of 2000 years ago. You know Ovid: he’s the poet who told all those wonderful mythological stories in the Metamorphoses about people turning to stone through divine retribution or bad luck, and even a couple who change from statues into real human people. You know, like the story of Pygmalion, who didn’t like any of the girls in his class so he made a statue of a woman and prayed to the gods that he might love someone like his ivory girl; he kissed the statue and it came to life. What a story!

I might ask, what does a classicist like me, someone who reads mythology and talks to dead guys like Ovid all day long, have to share with you graduates? I’m no particular leader of this honorable institution (much less of the free world), honorary degree candidate, prime minister of a foreign land or celebrity. Just a professor. But I think as professor and pastor I can offer this much—some words of a pagan poet certainly more educated, more talented, and possibly even better looking in a toga than me. His as much as any, and in my opinion better than most, is a voice of humanity in the midst of inhuman forces, ingenuity in the midst of the dull and derivative, and freedom in the midst of oppression. What he tells us today was written around the time Jesus Christ was a teenager, and the poet himself had been relegated to an exile’s fate, but he still sings these immortal lines:

Adde quod ingenuas didicisse fideliter artes
emollit mores nec sinit esse feros.
(Ex Pont 2.9.47-48)

Graduates know what this means of course, but I’ll translate for your guests who are yet to take my class—weekdays at 7:30 this fall, but spots are filling up fast! Here’s what this poetry is saying:

Note this: that to have learned the liberal arts, the artes ingenuae, to have learned them faithfully molds character, your mores, that is, it softens your heart and makes you human, and finally allows us, frees us, even burdens us not to be savage, wild, or cruel.

Turns out the liberal arts might be good for something after all—to free you from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, something that can change you—it’s the promise reiterated by the promise of our Lord Jesus Christ himself!—so the liberal arts go hand in hand with transformation, an effect that the pagan Ovid would happily call a metamorphosis.

I’ve been teaching a long time. Some of you know this. Some of you feel like that’s an understatement after even the first hour of my history class as we all join in asking the human questions of the great conversation: What is truth? What is beautiful? What is good? What is it to be human? What is virtue and how do I live as a virtuous human? And what’s the purpose of an education—all summed up in my favorite Latin phrase, cui bono (“to whose profit”)? We call these enduring questions, not because you had to endure them for four years, but because they endure past your graduation, through your lifetime, through your children’s and their children’s lives too.

So you won’t have to endure me for very much longer, but the questions remain. I have not taught so long though as to lose my optimism that Ovid’s artes ingenuae, the liberal arts, are still one lifesaving rope in a sea of savagery and cruelty. As a scholar I have often been tempted to encourage education as an end unto itself, a higher good, contemplation that should shy away from the practical, everyday, worldly sphere, but such selfish idealism makes a mockery of what we do here in these hallowed halls.

What you’re graduating with today is a foundation in something that is utterly practical, that takes seriously, finally, and far more than most people on earth, the reality of the situation around you and the good of having learned enough to wake up and open your eyes wider to it.

We celebrate you today because you’re free—not free from school, but free from the slavery of having no choice, from the slavery of your own assumptions, with a mind free from the bonds any force would enslave you to. What will you do with that freedom?

Ovid knows, and so do you graduates, that to have learned these arts is better than any average citizen of Athens or Sparta who arrogantly believed they were equal to the gods and chauvinistically that citizens were more human than other human beings. Chauvinism is slavery to the assumption that you’re worth more than other humans—but your education has given you the freedom to choose a better way. Ovid knows, and so do you graduates, that to have learned these arts is better than your average Roman who narrowly believed that the only good that could come of an education was a graduation to power politics. Is a lopsided vocational education really freedom, or is it slavery? Your education has freed you to see something beyond just a job. Ovid knew, and so do you graduates, that what is at the root of the ills of society comes down to no more nor less than the twisted, bestial, brute evil force at work in the human heart. Is ready gratification of my heart’s desire slavery or freedom? With your education, you can choose.

And Ovid knows, like you graduates, the trepidation and the burden of having been educated, no longer a statue but a someone, using your voice to address the invisible powers of oppression at work in our world today. And it’s oppression of the kind that makes people comfortable to ignore the facts around them, snoozing like a sleeping statue straight from a story of mythology, stuck in the midst of forces they think are too powerful to challenge. But we celebrate you today because an education like yours has freed you to see the forces and finally to free others from them too.

You don’t have to be an ancient historian to wake up and realize that most of human history has been a scramble between survival and violence. You don’t have to be a theologian to notice that as a rule the individuals of the human race are only out for number one, the rest of the world be damned. You don’t have to be a founding father to know that freedom of speech is a precious commodity, bought with blood, but sold again so willingly and cheaply to demagogues of many stripes and questionable hairstyles. You don’t have to be a thoroughgoing Marxist to wake up to the fact that the state actually is a tool of private individuals who have control over the means of production. And you don’t have to be Orwell to know that the reality of the world you live in is that even if all animals are equal, some are more equal than others, or that the government might not be the problem, or the progressives, or the rich or the corporations or the capitalists or the women or the immigrants or the slaves.

The problem is none of those, and all of those. The problem is us, when we ignore the reality, unplug from the community of ideas and thought and debate and civility and honor and respect and conflict and all that comes with the great conversation and the enduring human questions, when we sleep in stone instead of doing the harder job of thinking and reading and writing, instead looking out for number one, giving up my freedom and feeding my belly and my eyes and my mind with the junk that people I think are better and richer and smarter or at least more devious than me tell me I should like, as they mold me into a silent, sleeping statue in their own image.

When we unplug from the great conversation, the enduring questions of what makes us truly human, and plug rather into a cheap imitation of life, we do so at the cost of our own humanity.

What do you do with imitations of life? With statues? Can they ever come to life? If anyone knows about a statue coming to life, it’s Ovid. He says the artes ingenuae emollit mores—the liberal arts soften the heart of stone. They’ve softened you. What I celebrate most today is that you are educated and you prove it by having a human heart. You’re the one who’s come to life, and we celebrate that life today.

You have a free choice before you every day graduates, and I celebrate you today, and speak for these people up on stage, the faculty, and everyone in this place who celebrates you as well. I celebrate that you have made the choice for a liberal education because this is the thing that softens hearts, that turns statues of stone to humans with hearts, no longer sleeping, silent statues without a choice, but free of the shackles that bind the world to brutality.

It’s what you’ve learned and how you’ve learned that can change other silent sleeping statues too. Those artes ingenuae, those liberal arts, have actually made you read things that your eyes hadn’t seen before, hear things you’d been deaf to, think thoughts unthunk—but now that they’ve been thunk your thinker can’t think thoughts in the same old way anymore. In other words, there’s life where before there was none. The sleeping statue has come to life with a reading read, a debate debated, a speech speeched, and a victory victoried . . . not to mention a Cui Bono fireside talk and Core Convocation or two.

When a statue is freed from the marble and the stone it was stuck in, what does the heart of flesh do? It’s free. It’s free not to be savage, wild, or cruel; its shackles are gone. It’s free to be civilized, free to be wise, honorable, cultivated. And that, finally is what we celebrate in you today, graduates.

Though with wisdom comes great sorrow, as eyes and ears are open to the human condition, nevertheless, look at your wrists . . . no shackles there, no slavery to ignorance, opinion, or unquestioned assumptions; rather wisdom that can see the shackles of others and point the way to freedom. Though with honor comes great cost, as obligations and duties force you to die to your own individual glory, nevertheless look at your wrists . . . no shackles there binding you to a block of stone, but free to use hands to serve the many, to do your duty. And though with your own cultivation comes dissatisfaction and a bar of excellence you will think few of your fellow humans will ever actually measure up to, nevertheless look at your wrists . . . no shackles there binding you to mediocrity, but free to reach, free to achieve, free to strive and serve by freeing others from settling for anything less than greatness.

The freedom that is the fruit of the artes ingenuae finally does two things. It makes you see yourself as a human in the great tradition. And it makes you see others not as statues but as human as well.

But not all humans are awake, not all humans are free. Use your heart of flesh to battle brutality, to counter cruelty, and finally to free those imprisoned to their own statuary comfort before it crumbles. And the God of peace, whose heart was broken for you, whose heart was pierced for you in Christ, go with you to where you are called to free the captives, even as you are free.

Graduates of the class of 2016, my hat is off to you. Your shackles have been done away with. Wake up the sleepers, and serve them not with a heart of stone, but with a heart of flesh. Our Lord Jesus Christ bless you this day. Thank you.

C.J. Armstrong is Associate Professor of History and Theology at Concordia University Irvine