We Shall Defend Our Ideals


By CHARLES SEYMOUR, President of Yale University

Baccalaureate Address, June 15, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 603-605

A YEAR ago I spoke to the graduating class in this hall upon the power that comes from faith in an ideal. It was a moment when the mind of the Western World was shaken by the sudden and complete overthrow of the French armies. Military and political developments which had previously been scouted as fantastic impossibilities were brought, within a few short weeks, into the circle of active probability. An international revolution had been inaugurated, and one which, if successful, must vitally affect the maintenance of ideals to which our own nation is consecrated. Today, when the external threat to the safety of those ideals has become even more obvious and perhaps more immediate, my purpose is to consider the qualities that must underlie the decisions we make, as we face that threat; and especially the kind of loyalty that is necessary to implement our faith in American ideals and is essential to their defense. For in one way or another, regardless of the course of events, we shall defend them.

I have chosen a few passages from scripture and elsewhere to illustrate these qualities. The first, which might serve as a comprehensive text, deals with a story as dramatic as any in the Old Testament, perhaps in all ancient literature. You will remember the image of gold set up by King Nebuchadnezzar and his command that at its dedication, when a vast variety of musical instruments sounded, every person should fall down and worship the image, on pain of being thrown into a furnace of fire. Three captive Jews refused. The King, in rage and fury, called them into his presence, granted them a second opportunity, but threatened "if ye worship not ye shall be cast the same hour into the midst of a burning fiery furnace; and who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands? Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the King, O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hands, OKing. But if not, be it known unto thee, O King, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up."

No blood is so slow as not to be stirred by this reply. Consider the quality of loyalty to faith expressed by the three young men, captive and helpless and facing immediate destruction in the most horrible pain. There was no mistaking the determination of the King, no question as to the reality of the fire in the furnace; we read later that "because the King's commandment was urgent and the furnace exceeding hot" the flame of the fire slew even the servants who brought the prisoners to it. Their reply to Nebuchadnezzar breathes a sublime courage. But there was more than courage that inspired their loyalty. They saw not merely the fire, but looked beyond to recognize a power which was able to save them; a power in any event superior to the vivid reality in front of them, and one to which regardless of consequence they would not prove disloyal. They had a vision of an eternal principle, outlasting the fire, to which they would attach themselves.

Let me read another passage from the Old Testament. In the wars between Syria and Israel the prophet Elisha became something of a thorn in the side of the King of Syria, since because of his rather special powers he could foretell the strategical movements of the Syrian army, and he proceeded to warn the King of Israel of them. The King of Syria, not unreasonably irritated, organized a special expedition to capture the prophet. "Go spy where he is that I may send and fetch him. And it was told him, saying, Behold he is in Dothan. Therefore sent he thither horses and chariots and a great host: and they came by night, and compassed the city about. And when the servant of the man of God was risen early and gone forth, behold an host compassed the city both with horses and chariots. And his servant said unto him, Alas my master how shall we do? And he answered Fear not: for they that be with us are more thanthey that be with them. And Elisha prayed and said Lord, I pray thee open his eyes that he may see. And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and behold the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha."

The particular events that followed this incident, brought complete blindness upon the Syrian army, and led to its capture may or may not appear credible to historical scholars. But it is precisely such faith in the incredible that solidifies loyalty and ultimately transforms the impossible into the actual. The old prophet's servant, honest but shortsighted, is looking at realities, a narrow range of immediate facts beyond which he cannot see. He is frightened, thinks merely in terms of the supposed material superiority of the enemy's side. In his timidity, his false standards of measurement, his lack of complete information, he cries out, "Alas . . . how shall we do?" He is ready to give up. The prophet discerns the moral and the spiritual values opposed to the material forces involved; he sees the chariots of fire, the ministering angels that bring the spiritual aid the young materialist does not dream of. "They that be with us are more than they that be with them. . . . Lord open his eyes that he may see."

Effective loyalty must be inspired and strengthened by a capacity to see beyond the material facts which surround us. Otherwise it can never survive the inevitable mutations and transformations of those material things. The so-called realist is imprisoned by that which is immediately about him. Those surroundings may be tangible, hard, apparently incontrovertible, but nothing is more certain than that they are impermanent. "The things which are seen," wrote St. Paul, "are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal." Thus the realist, as he terms himself, is by necessity an opportunist; he must shape his course by shifting circumstance, he must live by the best guess as to what will happen next month or next year; he foregoes the power that comes from reliance upon immutable principle.

It is the capacity to look beyond the immediate difficulties and ranges of a situation that explains the power of those men who have manifested complete loyalty to a principle. This is the promise that Christ gives his followers. When James and John came to Jesus asking that they might sit on his either side in the Kingdom of Heaven, he replied, "Ye know not what ye ask; can ye drink of the cup that I drink of and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? And they said unto him, We can. And Jesus said unto them, Ye shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink of and with the baptism that I am baptized withal shall ye be baptized." This strength he guaranteed. "Are ye able. . .?" "We are able. . . ." "Ye shall. . . ."

History is filled with apparent miracles achieved by men who in the face of impossible odds held loyal to their basic principles of life, looking beyond the immediate present and regardless of contemporary scepticism. Consider the "incredible" things in which the great inventors have believed, the "impossibilities" which the scientists have created, the "miracles" that have occurred upon our own athletic fields.

This power is none the less effective because it does not necessarily guarantee that the particular aspiration will be fulfilled. Jesus promised his disciples spiritual power but he refused to promise them the achievement of their ambitious desire. "To sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give; but it shall be given to them for which it is prepared." There is no absolute assurance of safety or of material success. The loyal man will recognize the peril that will attend his course and the chance of material failure; but he will balance that chance against the consequence of disloyalty.

You will remember how in the "Pilgrim's Progress" Christian clambered up the steep slope of the hill Difficulty. "Now when he was got up to the top of the hill, there came two men running to meet him amain; the name ofthe one was Timorous, and of the other Mistrust; to whom Christian said, Sirs, what's the matter? You run the wrong way. Timorous answered that they were going to the City of Zion, and had got up that difficult place; but, said he, the further we go, the more danger we meet with; wherefore we turned, and are going back again. Yes, said Mistrust, for just before us lie a couple of lions in the way, whether sleeping or waking we know not, and we could not think, if we came within reach, but that they would presently pull us in pieces. Then said Christian, You make me afraid but whither shall I fly to be safe? If I go back to mine own country that is prepared for fire and brimstone, and I shall certainly perish there. If I can get to the Celestial City, I am sure to be in safety there. I must venture. To go back is nothing but death; to go forward is fear of death, and life everlasting beyond. I will yet go forward. So Mistrust and Timorous ran down the hill, and Christian went on his way."

So also, in the case of the captives who refused the commands of King Nebuchadnezzar. They had no guarantee that God would save them. They had faith that he would. But if it turned out otherwise, nevertheless they would remain loyal to him. "Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us. . . . If it be so . . . he will deliver us out of thine hands. . . . But if not, be it known unto thee, O King, that we will not serve thy gods. . . ." They had considered the price they might have to pay for loyalty; their eyes were open; they were willing to meet the cost.

I repeat, their eyes were open; for it must not be assumed that the loyalty we have in mind is a blind devotion, uninspired by the qualities that characterize the more highly civilized man. Loyalty not merely looks beyond its temporal surroundings, but assesses with intelligence the nature of those very surroundings; it must be ready to transform conviction into action; and it must recognize the social responsibilities inherent in the relations of citizenship. There is another passage in the "Pilgrim's Progress" with which I wish the American people might have been more familiar during the course of the past decade or even today. Bunyan relates how Christian left the Interpreter's House: "I saw then in my dream that he went on thus, even until he came at a bottom, where he saw, a little out of the way, three men fast asleep, with fetters upon their heels. The name of the one was Simple, another Sloth, and the third Presumption. Christian seeing them lie in this case, went to them, if peradventure he might awaken them and cried, Ye are like them that sleep on top of a mast, for the Dead Sea is under you—a gulf that hath no bottom. Awake therefore and I will help you off with your irons. He also told them that if he that "goeth about like a roaring lion" comes by you, you will certainly become a prey to his teeth. With that they looked upon him and began to reply in this sort: Simple said, "I see no danger;" Sloth said, "Yet a little more sleep;" and Presumption said, "Every tub must stand upon its own bottom." And so they lay down to sleep again, and Christian went on his way."

These three men doubtless regarded themselves as loyal pilgrims on the road to the Celestial City. But in each case their loyalty lacked the quality that might have kept them on the road. Nothing is more common than the feeling that simple honesty of intention forms an adequate basis of conduct; and nothing is more dangerous. The sort of loyalty which makes religion a living thing, whether devotion to God or to the country, requires, in its application to the affairs of life, the use of the head as well as of the heart.Mr. Simple represents the well-meaning citizen who, because he is insufficiently instructed and is conscious of the purity of his own intentions, cannot be persuaded of the nature of the situation that threatens him. He wishes harm to no one, desires merely that he be left unmolested; his eyes are closed both to the distant scene and to his immediate surroundings. In Bunyan's story the man is doomed; his honest naivete will not save him from the consequences that follow the stupidity of ignorance.

Equally common and hardly less dangerous is the man who, whatever his intelligence, cannot muster the initiative to give effect to his intentions. We all of us know him and it is possible that if each one of us sat down in the evening to rehearse the events of the day, there might be not a few occasions when we should find ourselves in this category. Even with a willing spirit the flesh is weak. How sweetly sound the words of Mr. Sloth: "Yet a little more sleep." Yet it is certain that failure to come to decisive action when the hour has struck carries inevitable penalty, sometimes light but not infrequently heavy. If it is a matter of missing an early morning class, undergraduate philosophy will ease the pain or the indulgence of the Dean may even lighten the penalty. In later life the business world is apt to show itself less tolerant. In matters of state, where the entire community is involved, the lack of decisive action has in more than one case caused the downfall of a nation.

Presumption is the excessive individualist who has not learned that in a community of citizens the higher loyalty to the group compels the constant sacrifice of personal interests. He does not see that a sense of responsibility to those who form the group is the only basis upon which democratic citizenship can be built. "Every tub," says Presumption, "must stand upon its own bottom." His exasperating and shortsighted self-sufficiency brings him to disaster. We speak of our colonial ancestors as "rugged individualists," but therewere no men in history who laid more stress upon the duties of man before demanding his rights. The need of the sense of responsibility has expanded as our mode of life has changed: the increase in population, the extension of the means of transportation and communication, intensive industrialization, have forced its enlargement. We may resent many of the demands made upon us by the community, but we must heed them. It is a condition we face and not a theory. So in the life of nations and their contacts with each other. A material situation has been developing over the past forty years that makes it impossible for any nation or group of nations to disclaim interest or responsibility for what occurs outside of the nation or group. To close our eyes to the situation in fancied self-security, to assume that any individual or nation is sufficient unto itself, is not merely to court disaster but to forget the implications of the ideal we defend.

Gentlemen of the Graduating Class:

Yale bids you farewell, remembering happily our four years of companionship here, confident that in these troublous times you will quit yourselves with courageous and intelligent loyalty to American ideals. Effective loyalty demands more than a simple pledge to a patriotic formula. It implies the capacity to look beyond the immediate foreground to a distant horizon, to survey the course before us and with open eyes, with appreciation of the perils involved and with determination to overcome them, to choose the path that leads towards the ideal, mindful always of our debt to our fellow citizens. These are qualities the power of which we have learned in theory from our studies, the practice of which, in some measure or other, you have experienced upon this campus. God grant that, strengthened by that experience, such qualities may serve you always, as you serve in the life of the nation.