delivered upon the
by William B. Allen
Each American generation heretofore has closed its career of social contribution richer than it began. That is true for every realistic and reasonable scale for calculating the active life of a generation and for any starting point from 1492 through 1776. It is no less true despite numerous episodes of war, the ravages of diseases, and the deeply oppressive sufferings of enslaved peoples. At no time in this nation’s progress has it preferred the retard to the advance, whether materially or politically, and this despite numerous well‑organized and righteously phrased invitations to do so, from know‑nothingism to “small is beautiful.” The collective life of the people of this nation, to the extent it has assumed a single voice, a single hand, has become in word and deed the very idea of prosperity, that same idea which today so powerfully moves states less prosperously designed toward fundamental reform. For the American prosperity is not a goal of perestroika but an habitual expectation, so routinely have we waxed from increase to increase in shaping our national existence.
I mention these considerations at the outset, that you may reflect upon the trials that await you as you take your place in the front lines of a new generation. You are among the first—if not the very first—1988-89 graduates. Whether your advance signals the accomplishment of a receding generation or the first stirrings of an emerging generation, the perspective is similar. You must look upon yourselves as participating in a parade of American generations. Indeed, though it seem idle, one could do worse than just to inquire what generation he or she belongs to any way. Youngsters are born every year—every day—and not just every twenty-fifth or every fiftieth year. That fact serves to disguise the generations as a continuing chain of living flesh stretching on into eternity. There are nevertheless sound reasons for paying attention to the differences, the larger links in the chain.
In the first place, we get to count ourselves as heirs to our traditions only insofar as we do not ourselves bear the responsibilities of creators or founders. That is no small matter, for the founder defends his work with a zeal unlike that of the heir. In order that a generation close richer than it opened, it must quite literally spend more time and energy creating than consuming. While some today would prefer to apply such a reflection to America’s current account deficit in world trade, I have rather more in mind the analogy of Hypocrites’ apothegm: “In their ages animals are like the seasons and the year. They do not wear out, but improve with moderate use.” [Humours, X, i.] If the American people have lived that way anywhere from two hundred to five hundred years, they would certainly be distinguished in the annals of humankind.
It is easy to see that I do not speak with the spirit of a disapprover regarding the American past. That will disappoint those who count on ritual renunciation of all things of the American past on account of slavery, the dispossession of the Indian, or similarly grave ills. I shall come to those subjects in a moment. While sins do indeed color our past, suffice it for now to observe that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of America’s sins have been greatly exaggerated.
In the second place, and perhaps still more importantly, where we locate ourselves within a generation may profoundly influence our expectations of ourselves. I, for example, take a time span of fifty years as appropriate to the shape of a generation—and I count the American generations from 1492. This means that we in the United States are moving toward counting 500 years of generations.
Have there been 500 years of unbroken prosperity in America? No one who has read of the starving time in Plymouth colony, let alone the multifold sufferings since, would say so. Rather, we have had 500 years of ups and downs—yes, of poverty’s and injustices as well as of wealth and political innovation. It is nevertheless correct to say that America has prospered, above all the past 200 years. We may not succumb to the nay‑sayers, who would hold our good cheer hostage until every the last incidence of human suffering be erased from the earth. It is also a virtue among human beings, to be able to bear success with good grace. If I may rely upon the wise Hypocrites again: “The diseases that medicines do not cure are cured by the knife. Those that the knife does not cure are cured by fire. Those that fire does not cure must be considered incurable” by man. [Aphorisms, VII, lxxxvii.] Concerning social ills, the cure by fire is the prosperity‑creating American republicanism. That is the lesson which I carried to East Palo Alto, in reflecting on that troubled community’s ills, when I called it the “most important city in America.” The trials opened by our civil rights movement will not be completed successfully until we see the claims of East Palo Alto resolved on grounds of American prosperity. It is a test of the American proposition, that there are nowhere human beings—no permanent underclass—who will not prosper when entrusted to American republicanism.
Perhaps, though, one would not wish to grant that America’s political and material increase is progress. Is it indeed progress, when we gain the whole world and lose our soul? That may be said regarding a wide number of social ills that plague us now where we were free of them before. Poverty, perhaps, was always with us, but the blurring of right and wrong is new. We live in a time when even the good Hypocrites, upon whom I rely today, has lost his authority. Physicians once stood upon the oath Hypocrites prescribed, which oath bound physicians never to assist suicides and not to perform abortions. The new American physician swears to a statement of ethics, not an oath, which specifically excludes those commitments, and renders ambiguous the very idea that health may be a moral as well as a material standard. Is that progress? Are we richer when our wealth liberates us not only from want but from moral obligation? I answer, yes, it is progress, but it is not necessarily permanent. A progress marked by deficiencies points in two directions—first, toward the accomplishments which still await future generations; and, second, toward the sins for which, ultimately, we should expect to be called to account.
When we try to account for America’s progress, we might do worse than to recall Christian’s journey in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. It was not an easy but at least a relatively untroubled trip, until, that is, Christian had to cross the final river. Still, even when Christian knew not how, he believed a divine hand sustained him, and would not let him drown. So, too, did George Washington appeal to the invisible hand of Providence to account for America’s progress. He knew, as he affirmed in 1783, that the people had to accept responsibility for themselves, and he believed them capable of doing so. But he appealed to the divine hand to account for their actually having done so and continuing to do so. As the people assumed their responsibilities to generate the prosperity their institutions promised, they were nurtured by an invisible Hand, silently permitting them to see only themselves and the prosperity‑creating American republicanism at work. Hypocrites, again, provides an analogy: “for custom and nature, by means of which we accomplish all things, do not agree though they do agree. For custom was settled by men without their knowing those things about which they settled the custom; but the nature of all things was arranged by [God].” [Regimen, I, xi.]
In this light, I incline to view American prosperity rather as an opportunity than an inevitability. That is the spirit which infused ancient Israel. That is the reason they were promised periodically superabundant harvests, that they might mark them every fiftieth year. They were summoned to a jubilee, to a grand homecoming in which not only all returned to their homes, but in which all past sins came home to them. They were to wipe out past injustices—generally to repair the injured but also to forgive them that had injured—to wipe out the debts of them that owed. They were to share of their abundance with those in need, and to start off a new generation with the charge to prove themselves by their own efforts. In the new generation, at first, prices for commodities were kept low, slowly increasing as the years passed, to reflect the conditions of effort and economic interests until, at length, a rich people were summoned to a new jubilee. The jubilee, it seems to me, functioned in the manner of diet for the athlete in peak condition, as we see in Hypocrites’ account: “Such conditions cannot remain the same or be at rest and, change for the better being impossible, the only possible change is for the worse. [Thus it is advantageous to reduce the fine condition quickly,] in order that the body may make a fresh beginning of growth.” [Aphorisms.]
America is notable, not only for waxing from increase to increase through ten generations, but for having done so without once before having been called to jubilee. Nine earned jubilees have passed silently, invisibly—making us to wonder, as we approach the tenth in 1992, how long the invisible hand of Providence will foster our prosperity, without so much as a bow of gratitude from us. The same idea may be presented to the secular in the form of Hypocrites’ observation, that “diseases do not arise among men all at once; they gather themselves together gradually before appearing with a sudden spring.” [Regimen, I, ii.] If we have long been neglecting a summons to jubilee, we may yet see the Invisible Hand that shaped us, later poised to slap us.
My message to the newly emerging generation is two‑fold—as rich as you are, inheritors of the past, you will end richer still; and your wealth should be counted more in blessings than in gold. Do not hesitate, then; go out and get rich. But remember, that this opportunity is yours only if the receding generation pays heed to its charge, first, to pass on the prosperity-creating gift of American republicanism more vibrant still than they themselves received it; and, second, to pay its dues to the Invisible Hand of Providence. I therefore summon the receding generation to a jubilee, on your behalf, the emerging generation.