James M May



Speech by James M. May

On April 24, 2003, at the banquet following the spring initiation, James M. May, Professor of Classics, Provost and Dean of St. Olaf College, delivered the following speech:

“Love of Wisdom the Guide of Life”


Members of Phi Beta Kappa, old and new, parents, relatives, and friends:


I am honored to stand before you this evening as the speaker on the occasion of our annual spring initiation and banquet. My first order of business is, of course, to congratulate all those who have been newly inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. Your academic achievements do, indeed, precede you, and you should be rightly proud of the work you have done and the esteem in which your teachers and peers hold you. To be sure, there is a tremendous amount of brain power collected between these walls at this moment; but as every person in this room knows, that’s only a small part of it—if we calculated the number of hours spent in study and hard work over the past four year by these initiates, not to mention the gallons of sweat poured out in that study, the results would seem even more impressive. The recognition that membership in Phi Beta Kappa brings, perhaps the highest and most visible recognition of academic achievement that an undergraduate student can receive, has been hard earned and is certainly well deserved. My prayer for you today is that you will continue, throughout your lives, to use that same combination of God-given intellectual ability, along with your incredible discipline and dedication, to garner honors and glory throughout your entire lifetimes—not only for yourselves, but more importantly for your fellow-human beings and the communities in which you live.


Indeed, the honor of being a member of this Society will, at least to some degree, persist throughout your lives. People have always been exceptionally proud to include “Membership in Phi Beta Kappa” as line on their resumes or CVs, and graduate/professional schools or potential employers have always been equally impressed to read it there. But this honor, like any and all others we might receive, will have proved empty and hollow if we do not continue to cultivate the ideals, the strengths, and virtues that enabled us to achieve it in the first place.


With this thought in mind, during the few minutes I have with you this evening, I would like to call us all to a consideration of the very name of the society, Phi Beta Kappa. It’s a strange name, to be sure, consisting of three letters of the Greek alphabet, an acronym of sorts—we’ve come to use them all the time; HUD, FICA, NEH, RPC—standing for three Greek words: philosophia, biou, and kubernetes . If you were listening carefully during the initiation while our secretary read the history of the society, you learned how and by whom these words, this motto, was chosen. One of my favorite passages from our initiation ritual bears repeating: “On December 5, 1776, a group of young men, students at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, meeting in the Apollo Room of the Raleigh Tavern, Williamsburg, formed the Phi Beta Kappa Society, which they dedicated to high purposes, with eighteenth century eloquence.” Indeed, much of the source of those 18th century high purposes and eloquence must have stemmed from these students’ immersion in the Greek and Roman classics, that course of study which marked all higher education at the time, as it had for literally centuries before. So, these young men, sitting in a tavern, not really unlike the Rueb-N-Stein, probably drinking something slightly stronger than our iced-tea and lemonade, in a room aptly named for the Greek god of the sun, of poetry, of prophecy, and of healing, were thinking on high purposes in the midst of the war with England, five months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. They chose the motto of their society, Philosophia Biou Kubernetes, and, at that time, kept it a secret by using the initial letters of these three Greek words, a practice that subsequently spread widely among many other honor societies, as well as social fraternities and sororities.


But the motto itself is what concerns me here. Philosophia is, of course, the Greek word of which our word “philosophy” is a direct transliteration. Narrowly speaking, for the ancients the study of philosophy included three branches or areas: dialectic, the practice of discussing and debating an issue on several sides until clarity about it emerged; natural philosophy, which entailed an investigation into nature and the cosmos, its causes and the laws for its operation; and ethics, the study of human character and moral behavior. The modern discipline of philosophy has, of course, evolved from this notion, and though perhaps it would have behooved all of us to have majored in philosophy, this specialized sense of the term was certainly not what the founders had in mind in their choice of the word (at least exclusively). Now all you science majors out there can gasp a sigh of relief!! In its root sense, philosophia literally means “love of wisdom” (sophia), and presently I will return to what I believe this wisdom and such a love of wisdom meant to the Greeks and Romans, as well as to the young men sitting in the Apollo room on that December morn in 1776.

Biou is the genitive form of the word bios, “life,” or more properly “mode of life,” in English. Obviously it is the Greek root from which our words “biology,” “biodegradable,” “biosphere,” and “bioethics” are formed. The third word of the motto, kubernetes, is a fascinating one. In Greek it signifies “the pilot of a ship, a helmsman, a guide.” Its Latin manifestation is gubernator, essentially the same word, as you can hear, from which we derive our word “gubernatorial,” and ultimately “governor,” i.e., one who guides, governs, or controls. As my colleague Ralph Hexter, classicist and Dean of Humanities at Berkeley, has pointed out, the root of kubernetes also forms the Greek word kubernetike, “a rare word, but used by no less a writer than Plato, and revived in our century to describe the science of guiding, governing, controlling by certain machines that would soon come universally to be known as computers.”* Cybernetics—but that’s the subject of another talk!


So, taking it as a whole, we have a motto that can be translated, “Love of Wisdom the Guide/Helmsman/Pilot of Life.” Obviously the metaphor at work, commonly employed in many ancient Greek contexts as well as here by our founders, is that of the ship being steered or guided by the skillful pilot. For us, the metaphor is, perhaps, somewhat hackneyed, or even dead. Indeed, with the development of radar and sophisticated GPS, navigating the ocean in a vessel doesn’t seem to present the challenges or grave dangers that it once did. But imagine for a moment the difficulty of operating a ship in ancient Greek times, or for that matter in the 18th century, across the vast ocean in the midst of so many hazards and dangers; the skilled pilot was worth his weight in gold! So, the love of wisdom, i.e., philosophy, should be for us our pilot, helmsman, or guide in life.


Well, even you philosophy majors out there might be wondering how “love of wisdom” might practically serve as your guide of life. I believe the answer lies in our understanding of the notion of sophia or “wisdom” contained in the word philosophia or “love of wisdom.” Our founders, being good classicists, had not only studied Greek, but also Latin; as such, they provided a Latin acronym for the society as well, SP, which stands for the motto, Societas Philosophiae, or “Society or Fellowship of/for Philosophy.” Our initiation ritual, somewhat surprisingly, translates this phrase as “The Fellowship of Learning,” and in this regard, though not a literal translation, is certainly very close to what I believe is the intended meaning.


You see, even before the time of Plato, wise men called “sophists“ emerged in the Greek world and offered their services for pay. Chief among their teaching goals was to educate fellow citizens in how to become effective speakers before the courts and in the assembly. As this discipline of rhetoric continued to develop, handbooks were written that contained the rules for composing effective speeches, and these became a staple of rhetorical education. Others, who championed the role of dialectic and ethics over effective verbal persuasion saw these teachers of rhetoric as peddlers of deceit, striving in some cases to make the worse seem the better cause. Hence, from these early beginnings of the two disciplines of rhetoric and philosophy, a quarrel arose between them that stood as a constant backdrop to the ancient intellectual scene, sometimes more important, sometimes less so, throughout most of antiquity. The terms “eloquence” and “wisdom” serve in this debate, more or less, as emblems for two competing educational theories. The question is whether people who are being groomed for service to the community should be trained in a narrow, technical sort of way, allowing their own experience and the experience of others, along with the mere acquisition of the rules for effective public speaking, to serve as their intellectual basis (eloquence); or should such leaders, in addition to the education that eloquence (i.e., rhetoric) affords, also be schooled in wisdom, which includes not only philosophy proper, but all of what the ancients called the artes liberales or artes ingenuae, i.e., the liberal arts.


Many throughout the ages tried to reconcile rhetoric and philosophy, with varying degrees of success. Cicero, the great Roman orator of the first century B.C., argued perhaps most effectively of all (in his work On the Ideal Orator) for a bond that linked both eloquence and wisdom (rhetoric and philosophy), insisting that his ideal orator, i.e., the ideal statesman and citizen, should be educated not only in the technical aspects of persuasion (i.e., rhetoric), but in the broader, noble arts (wisdom). Surprisingly, more than two thousand years later, the same, basic quarrel exists.


In certain ways, our world today couldn’t be further removed from Cicero’s Rome; in other ways, however, things have remained remarkably the same. Although the legacy of antiquity in terms of the liberal arts has been filtered, refined, changed, and dogmatized by many events and many institutions, I would submit that certain aspects of Cicero’s ideal, and certainly the debate between the educational theories emblematized by the quarrel between wisdom and eloquence are with us still today and inform our own discussions (whether knowingly or otherwise).


At St. Olaf College, for example, we boast of offering an education based on the liberal arts, and in doing so and in recognizing that “life is more than a livelihood,” we claim to focus on “what is ultimately worthwhile and fosters the development of the whole person in mind, body, and spirit” (St. Olaf Mission Statement). Cicero’s insistence that eloquence be combined with wisdom or that wisdom be combined with eloquence is, in fact, the basis of our approach to education–in other words, we are dedicated to graduating students in the mold of Cicero’s ideal orator. As a traditional liberal arts program, we reject the narrow technical training that would enable students to pursue a career, but in what we believe would be a much less satisfying and incomplete way. For example, students wishing to become nurses or musicians could simply enroll in a nurses’ training program or in a conservatory; and, to be sure, they might become excellent nurses or musicians per se. But that’s not really good enough according to this way of thinking: we want nurses and musicians who, like Cicero’s ideal orator, are not only trained excellently in their own specialties, but who have the broad wisdom offered by liberal studies, wisdom that will inform their own specialties in ways far beyond technical competency. This is the kind of education, the kind of wisdom to which St. Olaf aspires, and indeed, although we are sometimes buffeted by the demands of the marketplace and other such forces, and have at times even made modest concessions, we remain, I believe, firmly committed to an educational philosophy that insists that “wisdom” must accompany our several forms of “eloquence.” This too is the kind of “wisdom” that the founders of Phi Beta Kappa envisioned as serving as their guide of life.


In a very short time, most of you in this room will be headed off to pursue some sort of graduate or professional training, a training that will be intense, focused, and generally narrow in its scope. This is a good thing: you must become “eloquent” in your respective areas of specialization. But in the midst of that study, and in subsequent years, I beg you to recall and to cultivate the wisdom of the noble, liberal arts, the foundation of which you have received at St. Olaf College. This is the wisdom writ large that is spoken of in the motto of Phi Beta Kappa; a capacious wisdom that will continue to cultivate a sense of wonder and inquiry for your entire life; an expansive wisdom that will inform your area of eloquence or specialty in countless fruitful ways; a wisdom that will benefit not only you and yours directly, but your fellow-citizens and your entire community. Put love of this kind of wisdom in the driver’s seat; let the hand of this kind of wisdom steer the vessel in which you take your life’s voyage. If you do, I can guarantee you at least one thing: it will be one heck of a trip!


*Ralph J. Hexter, “The Consolation of Philosophy,” Initiation Address to the Alpha of California Chapter, University of California, Berkeley, April 22, 1999.