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Varium et Mutabile: Varying and Mutable

Fall 2002


But the moment he sensed Odysseus standing by
He thumped his tail, nuzzling low, and his ears dropped,
Though he had no strength to drag himself an inch
Toward his master.
(Odyssey XVII, 305, tr. Fagles)

Returning home to Ithaca after his voyages, disguised, his life and family forever altered, Odysseus will pass unnoticed by all save Argos, his noble and now ancient dog. The changes Odysseus has endured render him unrecognizable to his wife Penelope and son now grown to manhood. Only Argos knows him. Ordinary human perception, Homer shows, cannot penetrate the altered state, the change that propitious and adverse fortune have brought Odysseus.

From its inception in the Homeric poems, European literature has continually probed the mystery of change, the inescapable law of mutability. For the Greeks, change is the tragic mark of mortality; only the gods continue in strength and feminine malady: "Varium et mutabile semper femina." A variable and changing thing, always a woman. For mortals, change confuses, separates, destroys.

Renaissance poets inherited from the ancients an uneasy view of change, an anxiety that life's joys be grasped before they pass away, expressed in the famous Horatian admonition "carpe diem," seize the day. In Spain, de la Vega urges the young to "grasp the sweet fruit of your happy springtime," while "the colors of roses and lilies are still to be seen in your face." Shakespeare insists only the true lover endures and bears change, unchanging even as time alters the "rosy lips and cheeks" of the beloved: "…love is not love/Which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove." Change ravages. True love continues defiant or change, "never shaken."

Another Renaissance voice, Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, in his "Oration on the Dignity of Man," identifies our most human quality as our capacity for choice and for change, for reflection and for action. Pico believed human dignity resided in each human being's unique power to determine his or her moral destiny, to become "makers" and "molders" of our own lives.
For the student, often young and often a lover, change is the consort, the companion of growth. Properly understood, the University becomes the first precinct of thought, then of change, and finally of growth to new life. The University's mission, to educate, from the Latin "duco, ducere," means not to study or to learn, but rather to lead, to guide, to show the way. Three thousand years of warnings against change are muted, if applied to life in a University.

For in a University deep reflection, thoughtful testing, profound analysis, prolonged meditation—all imply a tentative frame of mind, an openness to change. Students at Texas A&M International University should encounter encouragement and nurture, but must also be challenged, aroused, pushed. It is a serious misconception for a student to anticipate in a University a comfortable experience.

They should seek out other students, teachers, and areas of study quite unlike life familiar. The most nourishing collegiate environment, the most invigorating University experience, will lead a student to a new way of thinking about themselves, about society, about history, about love. New thinking leads to new being, in one's mind and in one's heart. To serve its students and its community, a University must foster new modes of thinking, new life.

But if our University does its work well, are our students condemned to grope and to sway, forever searching and changing, never at rest? To a degree, yes, for an education cultivates an eternally restless mind. Our inspired faculty convey an attitude of healthy skepticism, of life and knowledge as an unending journey toward new insight, new growth.

Isaiah Berlin has defined well the dialectic that complicates our journey, yet animates all well-trained minds and vibrant lives. We "shift uneasily from one foot to another," from harmonious reason to romantic revolt, from conservative to revolutionary, from Santa Teresa to Benito Juarez. Within this uneasiness, this tension, we make and mold ourselves as we would be. At the same time, we acquire a new and empathetic frame of mind, a historically and psychologically enriched capacity for understanding men and societies."

If, then, the University is successful in instilling a lifelong passion for learning, that habit of the soul will be girded by a lifelong willingness to re-assess, to re-examine…to change. This is what is meant when we hear that University life keeps us young. A variable and changing thing…always a student.

Ray M. Keck III

Professor of Spanish
Texas A&M International University