One of the commencement speakers at Saint Louis University was the great Russian chess player and democracy advocate, Garry Kasparov. His commencement address is worth reading in full, but here is an especially moving excerpt, wherein Kasparov discusses the example of St. Thomas More as the prelude to an affirmation of American and human rights.
But what is intelligence, education, and effort without the guiding hand of morality? 483 years ago today, on May 16, 1532, Thomas More resigned his position as Chancellor to the King of England, Henry VIII. Three years later More’s downfall was completed with his execution, when More said that he died “as the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Thomas More was a complicated figure, a man of principle. As you might expect of a lawyer like More, in his novel Utopia he writes often of the law on his fictional perfect island. But instead of describing a flawless set of laws as he imagined them, More wrote that in an ideal society based on clear principles, many laws were not necessary. He wrote, “They have but few laws, and such is their constitution that they need not many.”Advertisement
And so More’s Utopia also had no lawyers. Don’t worry, I’m happy to tell those of you coming from Scott Hall today that a world with no lawyers is only possible in Utopia.
How many laws we have is not the point. The world is a complicated place, far more complicated today than when Thomas More wrote his novel 500 years ago, and laws must keep up with the times. What has not changed, what should not change, what cannot change, is the need to base our laws, and our lives, and our dreams, on eternal human values.
We can fight for our values or we can trade them away for comfort and temporary security. This is a challenge for all of us in today’s globally connected world. Every day we make choices large or small: individuals, companies, entire nations. Are those choices guided by the values we treasure? Are we loyal to the principles of individual freedom, of faith, of excellence, of compassion, of the value of human life? Or do we trade them away, bit by bit, for material goods, for a quiet life, and to pass the problems of today on to the next generation?
These moral values are also the values of innovation and the free market, by the way. It is no coincidence that these founding American values created the greatest democracy in the world and also the greatest economy in the world. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urged his believers to be a “City on a Hill”, a shining example to the world, a phrase used to describe America by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. I saw that America from the other side of the Iron Curtain and I can tell you that it mattered. And it matters still.
If America is to continue as a “light of the world” it will be up to you and to your generation to hold fast to these values and not to trade them away for a safe and stagnant status quo. Risk is not only for entrepreneurs. Risk is for anyone who will fight for these values in their lives and in the world every day.
See his full address here.