By NICHOLAS MURRAY BUTLER, President, Columbia University, New York, N. Y.
Delivered at the 191st Commencement of Columbia University, New York City, June 5, 1945
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XI, pp. 605-606.
MORE than a half century has passed since I made my first visit to Athens. That city then retained many of its history characteristics. Its development into a very modern industrial and commercial center had not yet begun. I climbed the Acropolis in order to see in every detail the Parthenon. I then sat at the foot of the Temple of the Wingless Victory and looked out upon the famous surroundings which lay before me. To the left, apparently carved from the natural rock, were the remains of the great theatre in which 2,500 years ago the 4dramas of Aeschylus, of Sophocles and of Euripides were presented to the public. A little to the right was the spot, covered with beautiful trees and plants, where first Plato and then Aristotle had gathered groups of fascinated students in order to teach them those philosophies which have so long guided and moved the world of intelligence and vision. It was just beyond that Socrates made his eloquent appeal to the Athenian people, and nearby was Mars' Hill from which the Apostle Paul delivered his historic oration. Some miles away but within plain sight was Salamis, the scene of the naval battle which preserved the safety and independence of Greece. Behind the hills to the right was Marathon, where the battle was won that checked the invasion from the east which threatened the Greece of that day. It seemed hardly possible that so much of human history should have been written within the sight of anyone who sat at the foot of the Temple of the Wingless Victory. Nevertheless, such was the case.
What has happened to the thought of those marvelous intellectual leaders of so long ago? What has become of their influence of guidance? Surely a world which had been moved and inspired by the voices of Socrates, of Plato, of Aristotle and of the Apostle Paul could not possibly be such a world as that upon which we now look. What has happened?
It is the purpose and the opportunity of liberal education to offer answer to such questions. That answer can only be found by following the course of the history of human intelligence and of human institutions, and by coming to understand first the reasons for their excellence and then the reasons for their defects and failures.
As the movement westward left behind Athens and later Rome, it spread over a steadily expanding area and moved into countries of different climates, different natural resources and different possibilities for material development. Little by little, and later more rapidly, internal revolutionary struggles began. At first they were, in the main, personal and governmental, but they became increasingly economic and inspired by desire for power or for gain, or both, on the part of individuals, of groups and of nations. These struggles and ambitions exhibited themselves in many different forms, and have written the history of the world for the past 1,500 years and are writing it today.
What can be done and what are we doing to bring to an end this disastrous result of human desire for gain and for power, and to bring our civilization back to the high plane of thought and action upon which those great philosophers of ancient Greece did their best to put it? Our world of today comprises several score of separateand independent nations. There is no longer a dominant Athens or a dominant Rome. The mere existence of these separate, independent and ambitious nations, so different in size and in natural resources, invites that struggle for domination, for power and for gain which is wrecking the world in which we live. It is this which has destroyed millions of human lives as well as so many of the great public monuments of church and state. There is only one way in which this cruel and murderous conflict may be checked and brought to a possible end. That is by international cooperation in which all independent nations, great and small, shall take part. They must work together, in sympathy and with understanding, to restore the world to a rational and moral basis of action and advancement. They must find ways and means to do for the world of today that which the great philosophers of Greece taught to the world in which they were so famous. Is such international cooperation both possible and practicable? Unless civilization is to be destroyed and come to an early end by giving way to savagery, the answer to this question must be Yes.
If there is to be another world in which there are many peoples of different races, different languages and different religious faiths, those peoples must unite together to bring that new world into being—and, believe me, they must doit without delay. Such destruction as we have been witnessing for the past few years cannot go on without resulting in mortal injury to what we have so proudly called civilization. We must quickly create another world. That world will put moral principles and moral ideals before any economic ambition. The desire for service must displace the desire for gain and take precedence over it. Then, and then only, can our generation and those generations which are to follow, look out upon a world in any way resembling that world which those great philosophers of ancient Greece contemplated and to which they offered inspiration and guidance.