Honor, Star Wars, and You

Thank you President Krueger, for your generous welcome. And now I address you, regents, faculty, parents, and family here gathered, and especially the graduating class of 2019. We rejoice with you this day as things begin – a commencement is a beginning, an initiation, a start, an origin, the first step of things to come, things that commence from this point forward. We are all about origins, being a people who are not averse to the risks entailed in digging into the  questions of origins – the origin of life in the medical sciences, the origin of the world in our theological formulations, the origins of the English language and the modern state, the origins of my personal psychology and my motivations to think the way I do, the origin of that wrinkle, that age spot, that ache in my aging bones. And today, that origin of a life outside of undergraduate education, the life that some call the real world, the life of vocation, the higher and honorable calling of being a wise and honorable and cultivated citizen, in your home, your family, your business, your church, your city and community, your state, your life that commences today, day one.

And while commencements and commencement speeches are fraught with meditation on that day one and day two and days ever after until the cows come home, leading some in my position to offer advice (such as keep your partying tonight moderate – it may seem fun on May the Fourth, but you won’t want to face the Revenge of the Fifth) – it may seem appropriate to dish out such advice, but I’m a practitioner of law and gospel seasoned enough to know that you’ll be hearing advice aplenty, in congratulation cards and pats on the back that come with a reminder that this is what you should do next, ought to do then, must think about, had better remember. And such things are lessons of the law – they have their place, of course.

But because you have heard and will hear so much of that over the course of the next day and year, I plan to carve out this space of just a few minutes to talk not about you, and what you’re supposed to do and think and say in your future, but rather dwell on what is, right now, at your origin, at your commencement, and has been since you became a human being, at the origin and commencement of your life. I’m going to talk about honor. And I want you to believe that you possess it. Because western civilization has confused you, confused you with a paradox, an invisible intrusion, a ghostly peril, indeed, a Phantom Menace. And it can confuse you. I’m not talking about my class – that confused you too, though I hope I’ve helped you try to tease out the confusion, which is that for the last 20 to 40 years of your life you’ve been told to be all you can be, strive for number 1, get the grade, make the mark, but at the very same time kept you down, don’t get to big for your britches, remember humility, don’t get a big head. That would be confusing for a five year old and a twenty-five year old alike. But this kind of double-speak is not the product of a sinister plan, no imperial conspiracy, no Attack of the Clones; it’s largely the product of the heritage of the ancient Greeks and their view of glory and fame, mashed up with wave of Judeo-Christian history wrapped up in the love of God in Christ, all served up to you as an inheritor of this western tradition. Congratulations. It means we think about honor in a couple of fundamentally paradoxical ways.

When I graduated from University of Arizona, I did so as many of you will in a few moments, with Latin words for honors on the end of my diploma, cum laude, magna cum laude, or summa cum laude, which in my case translates from the ancient tongue as “I’m really good at school.” I graduated with other honors and recognitions too, from that and other schools, stoles, medallions, awards, lines on my resume and curriculum vitae. But graduating with honors and  recognitions is not what I mean today by honor. Honor is one of those words that’s undergone some changes over the years, and we use it in our language primarily these days to convey what people think of you, as a measure of esteem or commendation, awarding you for a job well done. We honor our athletes, we honor our artists, we honor our achievers with prizes and pats on the back, we make much of their merit and proudly promote their positions.

But honor as I mean you to believe it and trust you have it is more than that, and we lose something important if we simply single out as special those scholars and citizens whose contributions are so extraordinary that we say, that’s honor. The problem with honor is that its synonym, respect, is etymologically connected to gazing and seeing and peering, and making sure you come out looking good, or at least better than your compatriots as you compare yourself and get compared by others. It’s about competition, it’s agonistic, it’s that ancient Greek arrogant side of be all you can be so that you can get the glory which is in short supply, the limited resource that not everyone can have. And that’s not what I mean by honor. That’s being spoken well of. That’s, in a word, fame.

But what I’m saying is that from the beginning, from your commencement, and for all of your education, for all of our training in virtue, honor is something you possess in unlimited supply, a Force that Awakens when you realize it comes by virtue of our willingness simply to do what is right.

For a moment, let’s regain what honor actually is by hearing again what is at the root of you and what it’s been since the commencement of your life. Honor is actually the bit inside you, inside you all, the bit that grips you, captivates you, motivates you to take action, to take certain actions, and motivates you to abstain from other actions. Honor has less to do with how you see people or how other people see you, and more to do with what’s inside of you to use your powers for good, and how that daily decision makes you a part of your peer group, a colleague in community. This is no Solo job. (And by the way, the ones who understand this best are those students who have served in the armed forces or plan to.)

You may think to yourself, c’mon Dr. Armstrong, that sounds pretty milquetoast – are you saying everyone’s special because they have something deep down inside of them, Jesus’ special sunbeam? That sounds pretty Kindergarten to me. After all, The Incredibles taught me that if everyone’s special, no one is. Aha, I say, that’s a talk I give from time to time – you’re not smart, you’re not special – but it comes to the same thing. Namely, that in some ways through western civilization in the last 20 to 40 years of your life, you’ve been shaped to think striving for the ideal means climbing to number one, getting your 15 minutes of fame or your 8 seconds of YouTube infamy, to be noticed, to be gazed at, to win. And indeed, fame, the pat on the back, the position of preeminence, the being thought well of by others and by yourself, fame is something which must be won. Honor, on the other hand dear friends, dear colleagues, dear families, dear beloved institution: honor is something that can only be lost.

Fame can only be won. Honor can only be lost.

And the loss of fame is simply obscurity. I know a thing or two about obscurity. I deal with ancient languages and fragments and history and literature and the thought of people who aren’t just kind of dead, not just mostly dead, but really dead, like 2000 years dead. I know something about obscurity. And it’s not half bad to be obscure, when you think about it. Fewer meetings and committee assignments for one thing. Fame can only be won, and honor can only be lost. The loss of fame is simply obscurity. But the loss of honor – my dear friends, the loss of honor is shame.

The more people are famous, the less special fame is. But honor – as one philosopher put it once, “Honor is something which we are able and ready to share with everyone.” It doesn’t die, it doesn’t accrue more, it’s what you start with, it’s what you commence with, and it’s what you possess right here, right now, day one, and you’ve had it all along. What’ll you do with it, wise, honorable, and cultivated citizens?

There is honor in learning things you didn’t know before (which is why you have student loans). There is honor in making goals and achieving them. There is honor in serving your neighbor and serving your God. But as I said, I won’t offer you lessons for yourself. But I can talk about me. What is my honor, what is my motivating factor that confirms my decision to act day by day the way I do? To enter a classroom and spray the walls with pedagogy, eliminating ignorance wherever I find it, pew pew (cue laser blaster sound effect)? What is the motivation for me to sit day after day, year after year, with adults like you, rejoicing in my office or weeping (for your pride, your shame, your infamy, your fame) or arguing or teaching me things I didn’t know before? It’s not magic, and it’s not just my drive to entertain myself. The motivation, my honor, is sitting right here before you. It’s these women and men, who for your four years here have encouraged me to use my powers for good, to use your powers for good. What motivates me to serve the way I serve? These hundred people celebrating you today. These thousands applauding and praising this weekend. What motivates me to serve the way I serve? Dear friends, as a faculty respondent, I say with sincerity that I have the honor of teaching beside these hundred and more faculty. I have the honor of serving you, serving my discipline, serving my Lord, discharging my duty.

Because this inspires me. This gives me A New Hope. And I’m a skeptic. But I think this is sufficient to inspire you too. I’m talking to my faculty. I’m talking to my students. I’m talking to undergraduates who today are no longer students but peers of a certain class and caliber, wise, honorable, and cultivated citizens. And so I simply conclude by speaking on their behalf: on behalf of the faculty, it is our honor to honor the graduating class of 2019. May the Fourth be
with you. Always.

CJ Armstrong is Professor of History and Theology at Concordia University Irvine. He delivered this address at CUI’s undergraduate commencement ceremony on May 4, 2019.