Nicholas Murray Butler.

Scholarship and service; the policies and ideals of a national university in a modern democracy online

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general or special. Without these, your learning and
your skill, however great, will be wasted. Clear
thinking implies, too, a detachment which holds
passion and temper at arm's length while opinion is
forming, although warmth of feeling has its proper
place in the subsequent expression of conviction.
Passion for the truth is quite different from passion
at the truth.


Fortunately, the pathways to the art of clear think-
ing are many, and each student in this university finds
one opening before him. The patient dissection of a
mathematical problem, of a grammatical construction,
of a bit of matter living or dead; the careful analysis
of a judicial opinion, the diagnosis of disease, the
observation of human minds all these lead to the
exercise of the powers upon which the art of clear
thinking depends. If these pathways be trodden for
four years or even for a shorter time, the student has
gained thereby a precious intellectual possession which
outweighs any amount of variety of mere information.

The skilful authors of the Port Royal Logic, the
precepts of which have had much to do with the
exquisite order, precision, and clearness which charac-
terize the scientific and literary expositions of the
writers of modern France, pointed out no fewer than
nine different ways of reasoning ill. To be avoided,
these ways of reasoning ill must be known, in order
that they may be recognized in one's own mental proc-
esses. For these and other practical matters which
affect the art of clear thinking, and its opposite, I
commend to you the admirable tract on The Conduct
of the Understanding by the philosopher Locke. For
the student who cares for clear thinking and what
student does not ? and who wishes to avoid slovenli-
ness and inaccuracy of mind, it is perhaps the most
useful book in the English language. I wish that each
of you might not only read it, but own it and open it
often. As a guide to the understanding of one's own


mental processes and states and to a knowledge of the
obstacles and aids to clear thinking, this little book
of a hundred pages seems to me to have no equal.
Hallam said of it years ago that it gives the reader
"a sober and serious, not flippant or self-conceited,
independency of thinking."

Be assured, too, that clear thinking lies at the basis
of the art of expression. He who cannot explain does
not wholly understand. He who fully understands
has taken the first long step toward attaining the
power to make known. Columbia would gladly make
the art of clear thinking and the power of lucid and
elegant expression the mark of her sons and daughters.
That you have gained something, much, in each of
these directions, we hope and we believe. Do not
relax your vigilance in after years, but help these good
habits to become positively irresistible through con-
stant and adequate exercise.

You take with you, each and all, the sincerest good-
will of the university of which you have been student-
members and to which you will ever belong. May
you be equal in all ways to the high demands of a life
which is, in the words of Burke, a life of manly, moral,
regulated liberty!


Address on Commencement Day, June 10, 1903


Columbia University parts to-day with another
goodly company of her sons and daughters. Regret
and expectancy are, I doubt not, the feelings upper-
most in your minds; hope and confidence are those
which the university cherishes for you. Your pres-
ence here is a mark that you have done what has been
asked of you academically, and the future lies with
you alone.

Let me lay stress for a moment or two upon the
point of view from which your work in life is to be
approached. There is, I feel sure, neither happiness
nor usefulness to be found in cultivating indifference,
cynicism, or pessimism. There are those who feel
that the educated youth of our land are apt to hold
themselves aloof from popular interests and move-
ments, and to view from one side, or from above, the
active life of our democracy. This impression is not,
I think, a just one; at all events, it is certainly less
well founded now than ever before; but such founda-
tion as it has should be rudely taken from it by your
efforts and by your careers. If education and training
are to unfit men, mentally, for sympathetic participa-
tion in the every-day life of the nation, then the less of
education and training that we have, the better. In
that case we are starving the soul to feed the mind.



But the education of to-day is not of that sort. It is
insistent in its demands for practical application, for
service, for human sympathy. It implies faith in God
and in man, and joyous participation in human efforts.

There is no true life-gospel but the gospel of hope,
the gospel of belief; not that all is as right as it can be,
but that all is righteous and can be made more right-
eous still. Carl Hilty, in his charming essay on Happi-
ness, has truly said that "Pessimism as a permanent
habit of mind is, for the most part, only a mantle of
philosophy through which, when it is thrown back,
there looks out the face of vanity; a vanity which is
never satisfied and which withholds one forever from
a contented mind." The vain, the self-centred man
is at bottom a cynic, for even his own self-satisfaction
is not perfect.

This university would put upon its graduates the
stamp of earnestness, not paltering; of enthusiasm,
not indifference; of hope and cheerfulness, not despair
and gloom; of active interest in our fellow men, and
not supercilious contempt for them and their affairs.
Do not fear to be in earnest, and pay no heed to the
whisper that it is "bad form" to be enthusiastic. Be
human; be real.

Nearly forty years ago Thomas Carlyle made a
famous address to the students of Edinburgh as Lord
Rector of the university. It abounded in wisdom and
common sense, and its advice to the Edinburgh stu-
dents is comprised in the one sentence: Be diligent.
But Carlyle went on to tell what he meant by dili-


gence. It included, he said, all virtues that a student
can have, all those qualities of conduct that lead on to
the acquirement of real instruction and improvement.
Most of all, it included honesty, intellectual as well as
moral honesty. "A dishonest man cannot do any-
thing real." That is a fine sentence and a true one;
it may be paraphrased by saying that character makes
knowledge worth while.

I would rather have this great company of students
face the world with cheerfulness and hope and with
complete honesty than endowed in any other way.

You go out to-day from under the shadow of a great
tradition. For nearly a century and a half it has been
slowly forming. Lives without number have been
built into it. The years have crowned it with power
and with beauty. It is a branch of something far
older, that runs back till it loses itself in the beginnings
of things. It marks the rise and dominance of the
human spirit. Here you have come under its influence;
here you have caught something of its meaning.

May you each in his own way be a bearer of the
tradition which you have come to know. May you
all find usefulness, and if it be God's will, happiness
also. Mere success, as the world judges success by
outward signs, I pass by. It is not worth having save
as an incident to usefulness.


Address on Commencement Day, June 8, 1904


It is an anxious moment when an engine, long in
building, is finally to be put to its practical test. Will
it work ? Was its plan well made and was it wisely
executed ? The steam is let into the cylinder, the
piston-rod moves, and the wheels begin to turn. The
machine works, and the labor put upon it is worth
while. The behavior of the machine in practice is the
supreme test of the wisdom and skilful execution of
its plan.

What is true of an engine is yet more true of men
and women. The university scans closely the faces of
those who pass out of its gates from year to year, in
order that it may, if possible, forecast the future. Will
these men and women work in practice ? Has their
training been wisely planned and skilfully executed ?
If so, the university has done its part. But one cru-
cial question remains. Can and will each individual
student who bears the university's name, worthily use
the training it has given him ? This is the question of
personal responsibility, and it cannot be shirked.

It is not at all hard to bring home the feeling of
responsibility in the abstract, but it is often a matter
of extreme difficulty to enforce it in the concrete. We
are always ready to legislate standards for others, but
not so quick to apply them to ourselves. I hold a feel-
ing of high responsibility to God and to man for the



use of one's knowledge and training, to be an essential
part of an education that is genuine. Subtract that
feeling, and the most cunningly contrived intellect
becomes an engine without a governor. With it, even
an imperfect intellectual machine will accomplish use-
ful results.

The college and university graduates of to-day need
to reflect long and earnestly upon their responsibility.
The parable of the talents applies to them. They
must give some return for what has been so freely
given to them. Moreover, they must feel the re-
sponsibility for giving this return, and must act upon it.

These graduates owe to themselves and to their
community many things. One is intellectual honesty.
You who have studied logic and you who have applied
scientific method to the solution of innumerable prob-
lems know the relation between premise and con-
clusion, and you know that the truth-loving and truth-
seeking mind will not permit contradiction between
the one and the other. It is your bounden duty to
exemplify this in practical life. Fashion, fear, am-
bition, avarice, all will tempt you to deny your honest
beliefs. If you yield, your education here is in so far
imperfect or you thereby renounce your responsibility
for the use to which you put that education.

It might be said of responsibility, as Emerson said
of truth, that you cannot have both it and repose.
You must choose between them. "He in whom the
love of repose predominates will accept the first creed,
the first philosophy, the first political party he meets,


most likely his father's. He gets rest, commodity and
reputation; but he shuts the door of truth." So also
he shuts the door of responsibility. Whatever his be-
belief, in action or rather inaction he denies respon-

No educated man can afford to prefer repose to
responsibility. He must act continually and coura-
geously, and with all the light that his education has
given him. Then and then only can he approach an
understanding of the meaning of the high praise that
Matthew Arnold gave to Sophocles:

Who saw life steadily, and saw it whole.

There is a university visible and a university in-
visible. The one is made up of these stately build-
ings, of the throng of teachers and students, of these
recurring ceremonials. The other exists in the spirit
which animates the whole and which, overpassing
these near bounds, inspires and guides the thousands
who have gone out from us. To-day you are crossing
the line beyond which lies the university invisible.
Over there you are none the less in and of Columbia
than you have been while here. Henceforth it is
yours to share the responsibility for that school of the
higher learning which was called into being a century
and a half ago, not only to promote a liberal education
but to make that education "as beneficial as may be."


Address on Commencement Day, June 14, 1905


Matthew Arnold is responsible for a significant story
of the poet Shelley. Mrs. Shelley was choosing a school
for her son and asked the advice of a friend. The
reply was: "O! Send him somewhere where they will
teach him to think for himself"; to which Mrs. Shelley
answered: "Teach him to think for himself! Teach
him rather to think like other people." Which is the
easier, and which the more important ?

The. late provost of Trinity College, Dublin, Doctor
George Salmon, learned alike in mathematics and
theology, found no difficulty in coming to a prompt
conclusion: "The labor of forming opinions for them-
selves," he once wrote, "is too much for most men and
for almost all women. They look out for some author-
ity from whom they can take opinions ready made,
and people value their opinions by a different rule
from that according to which they value their other
possessions. Other things they value in proportion to
the trouble it has cost them to come by them; but the
less labor of their own they have bestowed in forming
their opinions, the greater their scorn for those who do
not covet them, the greater their indignation against
those who try to deprive them of them."

These quotations put strikingly before us the time-
old problem of the behavior of the individual in the
presence of the mass. In one form or another this



problem has perplexed the human mind for nearly
three thousand years. The ancient moral philoso-
phers, the schoolmen of the Middle Ages, the logicians,
moralists, and scientists of to-day, have- all struggled
and are all struggling with this same problem in one
or another of its aspects.

Reduced to its lowest terms and applied to the con-
crete interests of the moment, our question is this:
Shall the university so train its students that they
think for themselves or that they think like other
people ?

Let us choose the first alternative. The university
shall so train its students that they think for them-
selves. Confident and jaunty the happy company of
students go out into the work of the world. Each
thinks for himself. Here and there is one who is
sternly logical and who will not be denied the con-
clusions that follow from his premises. He thinks for
himself in regard to some questions of public order,
some questions of property, some questions of re-
sponsibility and liability. The heavy hand of the
law is suddenly laid upon his shoulder and he is haled
to a prison or to an asylum for lunatics. His protest
that he is an educated man, thinking for himself, is
unsympathetically jeered at. He is so individual that
he is a nuisance and a danger, and the community
suppresses him at once. Apparently, then, our choice
was a wrong one, and the university should not teach
men and women to think for themselves.

Let us turn to the second alternative. The univer-


sity should so train its students that they think like
other people. Cast in one mould, they step across
Alma Mater's portals, outward bound, conventional-
ized, and ready to do homage to what Goethe so felici-
tously describes as

Was uns alle bandigt, das Gemeine.

For them whatever is, is right, and the only progress
is to stand still. For some reason or other, this result
fails to satisfy as an ideal, and we cannot resist the
conclusion that, after all, it is not enough for the
university to train its students to think like other

Idiosyncrasy and convention, then, are alike un-
satisfactory, and we travel back to the wisdom and
human insight of Aristotle for a clew to the escape
from our dilemma. "Excess and deficiency," he said,
"equally destroy the health and strength, while what
is proportionate preserves and augments them."

The university is to train men and women this
means in part to think for themselves and in part
to think like other people. They must think like
other people sufficiently to make their thinking for
themselves worth while. They must have a fulcrum
for their lever, and that fulcrum is the common appre-
hension and comprehension of the lessons of past
human experience, particularly as that experience
crystallizes into the institutions of civilization. The
world and human society cannot now be built over
just as if no plan had been prepared, no foundation


laid, no work already done. It is society formed
which must be taken as the basis for society reformed.
It is from this year of grace and not from the creation
that he who is to think for himself must take his
departure. The university must in so far train its
students to think like other people; this much assured,
it must then train its students to think for themselves.

As persons you are raised above the domain of
things and into a dominion of your own. Persons
must look with their own eyes, judge with their own
minds, act with their own wills. To stand up to the
full measure of manhood or womanhood is task enough
for any one, and it is the business of the university to
train you for that task by teaching you first to think
like other people and then to think for yourselves.
Mrs. Shelley's mother instinct guided her aright as to
where to lay the emphasis in the education of the
erratic genius who was her son. For him to learn to
think like other people was more important than to
learn to think for himself. For most of us the reverse
is true. I am confident that the university has in one
form or another pressed this lesson upon you all.

For the older members of the university I extend to
these younger ones hearty congratulations and every
good wish for the years that are to come. 'May you
always look back upon the years spent here as the
happiest and most fruitful of your useful lives.


Address on Commencement Day, June 13, 1906


For the American of ambition and education who
would use his powers to best advantage in the service
of his country and of humanity, there is no book of
instruction equal in value to the life of Abraham
Lincoln. That life tells the story of a noble soul nur-
tured from humblest beginnings by severe self-disci-
pline, by contact with men, by constant occupation
with large human interests and with lofty thoughts;
a soul endowed with "a patience like that of nature,
which in its vast and fruitful activity knows neither
haste nor rest." Tested and tried as never ruler was
before, distraught with conflicting counsel and urged
hither and yon by every powerful influence, Lincoln's
nature never lost its poise nor his judgment its clear-
sighted sanity. He saved a nation because he re-
mained tranquil amid angry seas.

This great company of graduates goes out from the
university into the active work of the world at a par-
ticularly important and critical time. Unless all signs
fail, we are entering upon a period of social and eco-
nomic, perhaps even of political, reconstruction. A
spirit of unrest is abroad, not only in our own land,
but in other lands as well. So far as this unrest has
an intellectual foundation, it appears to be the con-
viction that the eighteenth-century formulas and
axioms upon which our social and political fabric is so



largely built do not work as they were expected to
work. So far as this unrest has an economic founda-
tion, it appears to be dissatisfaction with actual and
possible rewards for industry. So far as it has a polit-
ical foundation, it appears to be a perception of easily
demonstrated inequalities of power and influence and
of an equally easily demonstrated inequality of benefits
from governmental policies.

That this unrest has been and is being used by
ambitious men for their own selfish ends and for gain
by journalistic builders of emotional bonfires is cer-
tainly true; but it will not do to dismiss this spirit of
unrest with a sneer on that account.

It has passed far beyond the bounds of the dreamers
and visionaries, the violent-minded, and the naturally
destructive. Men accustomed to honest reflection and
themselves possessed of property, always the sheet-
anchor of conservatism, have come under its influence.
Policies that not long ago were dismissed as too extreme
for serious discussion are now soberly examined with
reference to their immediate practicability. What has
brought about this change ?

An answer is not far to seek. An increasing number
of men have come to distrust the capacity of society as
now organized to protect itself against the freebooters
who exist in it. An increasing number of men believe
and assert that law and justice are powerless before
greed and cunning, and they are the more ready to
listen to advocacy of any measure or policy, however
novel or revolutionary, that promises relief. Their


imaginations, too, cannot help being affected by the
appalling sight, so often called to our attention of
late, of that moral morgue wherein are exposed the
shrivelled souls and ruined reputations of those who
have lost in the never-ending struggle between selfish-
ness and service that goes on in the human breast.

Where amid all this shall the university graduate
throw his influence ?

The first duty of the trained and educated mind
when it faces conditions such as these and must take
a definite and responsible attitude toward them is not
to lose its balance, its poise, its self-control. It is
worth while to look back at the majestic figure of
Lincoln, crowned now with immortality's laurel, tran-
quil amid far angrier seas than ours.

Not much is to be gained by passionate denunciation
of principles and men, if there is no clear perception of
where the difficulty lies and of what it is that is to be
remedied. A first step, then, is an analysis of the
conditions complained of and their genesis. I lay
particular emphasis upon their genesis, for most re-
builders of society are singularly neglectful of history.
Their lip-service of evolution does not often carry
them to the point of considering our present institu-
tions social, economic, political as evolved, and,
therefore, as having the weight of years and human
experience behind them.

Looking back over a thousand years or more, it is
plain that civilized man has travelled far. An exami-
nation of his progress will show, I think, that it rests


mainly upon three principles, gradually evolved and
erected into institutions: Civil and industrial liberty,
private property, and the inviolability of contract.
Upon these as a corner-stone rests what we know
to-day as civilized human society. That our society
has its evils, terrible and dangerous, cannot be denied.
That greed for gain holds an appalling number of men
in its grasp and that the moral tone of large business
undertakings is painfully low are only too evident.
But it is quite too rash a conclusion to infer that so-
ciety must be destroyed and its corner-stone displaced
before those evils can be remedied. It may be true
and I think it is that the difficulty is not so much
with the tried and tested principles upon which society
rests as with the honesty and intelligence with which
those principles are worked. The abounding pros-
perity of our country with its untold opportunities for
material success, the loosening of the hold of some of
the old religious and ethical sanctions of conduct, and
the weakening of parental control and discipline, have
united to place upon American character a burden
which in too many instances it has not been able
to bear.

It is our own individual characters that are at fault
and not the institutions whose upbuilding is the work
of the ages. Sound and upright individual human
characters will uplift society far more speedily and
surely than any constitutional or legislative nostrum
or the following of any economic or philosophical will-
o'-the-wisp. Unethical acts precede illegal ones and


speedily lead to them. Given an acute perception of
the difference between right and wrong, a clear con-
ception of duty, and an appreciation of the solemn
obligations of a trust, our social and political system
would, perhaps, be found to work equitably and well.
Without these traits no system is workable. Moral
regeneration, not political and economic reconstruc-
tion, is what we chiefly need.

This view of our present-day problems I press upon
you with all the emphasis at my command. Most of
all I ask you to keep your balance and poise in the
presence of excitement and turmoil, and to learn well
the lesson of him who led men

"By his clear-grained human worth,
And brave old wisdom of sincerity"

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Online LibraryNicholas Murray ButlerScholarship and service; the policies and ideals of a national university in a modern democracy → online text (page 13 of 18)