'Tis the season for college graduation speeches, with celebrities major and minor dropping inspirational nuggets to be forgotten with the first sip of celebratory champagne. Do you remember anything said at your commencement, or even who said it?
When Chris Matthews asked an assorted panel of guests on his NBC-TV shout show what they might say on Graduation Day at Slam Dunk U., the answers ranged from the practical to the pretentious: don't run up credit card debt, tell your parents you love them and thank them for their efforts, and whatever you do, "don't follow your bliss." That presumably means "don't do your own thing." No quarrel here with that. Nobody expects much wisdom or even wit with the pomp and circumstance, but one guest decried the study of the humanities. Can't have our politicians stumbling over words of more than a syllable, and who among them could absorb the insights imparted by the arts, by letters and literature?
But just as all politics is local, so is the best of literature, which starts in the human imagination and rises to the universal. The finest literature is always political in the broadest sense of the word. No one can read Sophocles' "Antigone" without contemplating the relationship between the private life of family and the public power of law. That tension is central to our democratic system, and the best op-ed pages brim with examinations of how much the government should restrict liberty for the public good.
When Achilles, for example, throws a jealous fit against Agamemnon when the commander of the Greek forces steals his mistress, he raises questions about his authority and qualifications for leadership. Bill Clinton, for another example, was impeached for lying under oath about a similar private matter, raising questions about his public judgment. Woodrow Wilson, no stranger to matters of the mind, insisted that "Shakespearean range and vision" are crucial to understanding politics.
Op-ed pages once regularly published poetry. John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline brought high culture to Washington; Robert Frost read a poem at his inauguration. The original verse was called "Dedication," hailed as a tribute to the new Augustan Age in America, made of strength and pride, "firm in our free beliefs without dismay,/In any game the nations want to play./A golden age of poetry and power." When the glare of the sun on newly fallen snow blinded his view of the podium, Robert Frost, aged 87, fell back on his memory of another poem, "The Gift Outright," which celebrated the nation's emancipation from colonial rule.