2001 Paul Harris Fellow
Thank you and good evening ladies and gentlemen, members of the Noonday Rotary Club and fellow Rotarians from Los Dos Laredos. I am humbled and profoundly honored to be named a Paul Harris Fellow. The supreme measure of a person’s spirit is the degree to which his or her thoughts and convictions continue to inspire and to guide those who come after. Paul Harris’s vision of the power of professional people, drawn from all walks of life , united in a common pledge to work together for better communities, better states, better nations, a better world, could hardly offer us a more timely inspiration for these troubled moments. Rotary International, Paul Harris’s great legacy, champions all manner of initiatives that bind together the human family in a just and equitable whole. Rotarians have championed and funded, among countless other noble causes, an end to polio, through a vastly expanded immunization program. If ethnic hatreds, bigotry, and racism, are ever to be curtailed, that better understanding between peoples will surely be, in part, because of Rotary’s aggressive sponsorship of programs for travel, for study, and for cultural exchanges and professional exchanges between nations.
It is to the question of international relationships, ethnic division, racial divides that I address my remarks tonight. Much airspace has been filled, much ink spilled in recent weeks as professional commentators, pundits, and even serious thinkers have, stirred by the events of September 11th, ask profound questions concerning international relationships in the human family. First, the extreme, apocalyptic position. We repeatedly read that our way of life is forever changed, that we can never return to what we were before September 11th, and even that the challenges and questions we now face are without precedent and, in their gravity, without equal. As always, history serves as our only helpful companion in these uncertain times. Imagine, it you will, living in Rome in the summer of 1527, as the Holy Roman Emperor’s troops first take and then sack the city. The Pope, Vicar of Christ and temporal ruler of central Italy, flees down the long causeway from St. Peter’s Church, his acolytes running beside him to lift up his heavy skirts and allow his legs to move more quickly. Finally, he reaches the temporary safety of what we call the Castello d’Sant Angelo, the late classical monument built to be the Emperor Hadrian’s tomb. From the castle’s ramparts, Clement VII watches as Spanish, French, Italian, and German troops loot, kill, burn, and reduce to rubble the Eternal City. It was hard for anyone who witnessed these events, and most of all for Clement VII, to imagine how life could continue. More than four hundred years later, as Europeans again saw their continent wasted and ravaged, many questioned, after World War II, if life could ever be the same again, if indeed it could continue. Elie Wiesel, the great Jewish novelist and philosopher who himself survived the Holocaust, posed a terrifying question: Did perhaps those unthinkable events, the pitiless and unprovoked slaughter of 6,000,000 Jews, signal an end to Yahweh’s covenant with Israel?
Both Clement VII and Elie Wiesel were correct; life after 1527 and 1945 could not ever be the same. But life would continue, beautiful, flawed, imperfect, mysterious. And the very human labor of investigation, questioning, and discussion flows on in our day, unabated, as we try to understand how, repeatedly, internal and external bonds between peoples and nations, domestic and international pacts of conduct, could suddenly have given way to barbarism, violence, and cruelty. Are there any precepts or principals of conduct or universal truths to guide and to restrain our fears and impulses? How do we reconcile the contradictory, dizzying variations on the human condition? Institutions and thinkers and political leaders crowd us with solutions first authoritative, and traditional, then permissive and progressive; first spiritual and poetic, then numerical and scientific; first conservative and cautious, then aggressive and revolutionary. And to add to the confusion, one basic human reality: all of us find practices outside our own culture alien, disquieting, even wrong. Are there any unique lessons one people may offer another? How can we begin to think constructively about the Other, the unfamiliar, the threatening?
To examine these vexing questions, we have as our guide the profoundly lucid writings of Isaiah Berlin, Russian-born Oxford dom, Professor of Social and Political Theory, who died in 1997, and who devoted the last years of his life to a study of pluralism—moral, ideological, cultural, ethnic—and a consideration of our shifting responses to this fundamental human dilemma, the curse of “otherness” which doomed humankind’s most grandiose, and most famous common undertaking—the Tower of Babel.
In our oldest record of purposeful disputation, Plato presents his great teacher, Socrates, as the spoilsport who continually forces rational, logical, and universally intelligible constraints upon all discourse. And that spirit still inspired the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the attitude that brought forth our nation: “We hold these truths to be self-evident...” provides a perfect window onto Enlightenment thinking. All right-thinking persons can grasp the truth, which describes a universal reality, intelligible to all reasonable persons, not contradictory, part of a perfect whole. Renaissance poets and philosophers likened the universe to music, perfect order and perfect harmony, even if they did think it depended upon the sun going first over a flat earth, then around a spherical world! Only Machiavelli, as Berlin shows, saw the fissure in our fond imaginings of the truth. Only Machiavelli saw “an insoluble dilemma”, thereby “planting a permanent question mark in the path of posterity.” Put simply, the claims of God and Caesar cannot be reconciled. The “Great Goods can collide....one cannot have everything.” Surely among rival cultures or peoples, but even within the same culture, “ends equally ultimate, equally sacred, may contradict each other.” System of value come into conflict without possibility of arbitration, Berlin tells us, and this is not a tragic or isolated occurrence but the basic truth of the human condition. The Romantics, who rebelled against the universalism of Enlightenment reasonings, saw human life as fragmented, messy, protean, conflicted, hodgepodge, cosmopolitan, mixed-up. Today we call it , multidisciplinary, multicultural, multiracial, multilingual, multinational. And we no longer imagine a world in which values and truth can be harmonized into one intelligible whole.
Isaiah Berlin’s inspiration, his realization that our experience of the world and our view of life is a Romantic, not Enlightenment one, Rousseau and not Mr. Jefferson, came from Johann Gottfried Herder, who in 1774 wrote the following description of the human condition. Note how Herder extols the unique quality of each human being and each culture. The human story has many and varied parts. Missing are the universal claims put forward by our Founding Fathers.
How unspeakably difficult it is to convey the particular quality of an individual
human being and how impossible it is to say precisely what distinguishes an
individual, his way of feeling and living; how different and how individual everything
becomes once his eyes see it, once his soul grasps it, his heart feels it. How much
depth there is in the character of a single people, which, no matter how often observed,
and gazed at with curiosity and wonder, nevertheless escapes the word which attempts
to capture it, seldom so recognisable as to be universally understood and felt.
Berlin’s answer to the question of how we can ever understand each other or live together in a world so diverse and so divided is implicit in the words I just read from Herder. Among those qualities we possess that mark us off from the brutes, empathy alone may be a uniquely human experience. A mother crocodile cares for her newly-hatched little crocs. Does she consider that another mother croc, nearby, may be as anxious for her own? Would it occur to one dog to say to another dog, in Bertrand Russell’s famous example: “My parents were poor but hardworking and honorable”? Empathy is perhaps best illustrated by a remark attributed to Golda Meir after the ‘67 War: “We can forgive the Palestinians for killing us. We cannot forgive them for making us kill their children.”
Empathy may, of course, in a few holy men and women, spring spontaneously and freely from the simple goodness and wisdom inherent in the soul. For most of us, however, empathy grows and takes root as we understand another person, another culture, another view of the world. To live and to study in another country, to learn the traditions, language, and history of other peoples offer the only sure environment for empathy to flourish. I will conclude tonight by sharing with you three examples that surely stimulate empathy for Spanish culture, three voices from Spanish literature whose special slant on the human condition reveal essential elements of Spanish nature, essential parts of the Spanish story.
First, from the 11th century, the anonymous minstrel who sang the Poema de Myo Cid, heroic telling of the life of Rodrigo Díaz, named respectfully by his Moorish enemies el Cid.
Describing a conflict between the Cid and his king, Alfonso VI, the poet exclaims:
¡Dios, qué buen vassallo, si oviesse buen señore!
What a great employee! If only he had a good boss!
Rodrigo has been exiled from his home and his family by a harsh and unfair judgment of his king. While the poet denounces the judgment and calls into question the King’s character, the Cid himself offers no condemnation of Alfonso’s order to exile. As he emerges in the poem, the Cid embodies all the characteristics still at the heart of Spanish culture: a ferocious sense of self, tempered by a deep loyalty, even submission, to the king and to the Church. Fearless warrior, faithful husband, tender father, reverent Catholic, honorable friend, dutiful servant of his king. For Rodrigo Díaz, his moral qualities and the actions they reflect do not depend upon how he is received by his superiors, by society, or by the world. Although the King’s treatment is unfair, the Cid will not sway in his loyalty; he does not betray his principles. “Antes quebrar que doblar.” Better break than bend. A very common Castilian saying. The reverse proverb exists in the more pragmatic, English tradition.
From San Juan de la Cruz, in his Cántigo espiritual, comes our second example of how Spanish culture reveals itself. San Juan speaks of la cena que recrea y enamora. supper that restores life and love. I often think of these lines as I am on my way home in the evening. No stresses in our professional or public lives can dim the simple joy of returning home. These lines suggest that most Castilian virtue: llaneza. Deliberate, direct, unadorned, simplicity, in one’s character, person, and surroundings. The meaning of llaneza becomes very clear during a visit to El Escorial, the great monastery-palace-library-necropolis-basilica erected by Philip II in the latter part of the sixteenth century. The royal apartments designed by Philip for himself and his family, fortunately preserved as he left them, are simple, sober, uncluttered, reflecting the humble piety Philip felt before God. All splendid decoration is left to the high altar in the basilica, with Philip’s simple little bedroom accessible through a small door on one side of the magnificent altar. Adjacent to this sixteenth-century palace the eighteenth-century Bourbons created elaborate halls—marble, gold, silk, fine furniture. No llaneza, no simplicity here. The French cousins, when they came to rule Spain, fashioned for themselves private spaces adorned in a manner the Castilian design had reserved for God alone. A respect for restraint, for directness in human relationships and simplicity in human life, remain essential components of the Spanish tradition.
Finally, from the twentieth century, a dramatic statement of the Spanish conviction that each of us bears an unrepeatable image, an identity and destiny forever our own, never to be repeated by another. In García Lorca’s famous poem, a young gypsy, handsome and well-dressed, a bit too well-dressed, dies as his cousins knife him to death. As they kill him, the cousins taunt him: you weren’t man enough to defend the family honor. So we are killing you. As the young man falls dead, his profile is outlined against the sky.
Tres golpes de sangre tuvo
y cayó de perfil.
Viva moneda que nunca
se volverá a repetir.
Three bloody blows he took
and died on his back, his profile raised.
Living coin that will never be struck again.
These lines capture what is perhaps the most widely held, sacred conviction of Spanish tradition:
each human being plays his or her own, unique, unrepeatable part in the human drama.
At no time has the world’s messy jumble of cultures and races and peoples produced greater potential for blessing or for pain. Because we have the capacity for so much good or evil, the challenge has never been greater for all men and women of good will. The programs and works envisaged by Paul Harris and continuing in his name offer a means for exchange and understanding—the climate for empathy to grow. Gabriel Miró, whose novels explore the mysterious relationships between love, sensuality, and the Church in twentieth century Spain articulates as the supreme human virtue a love of the world, love rooted in experience and in understanding. “Sólo hay un heroísmo. Ver el mundo según es y amarlo.” There is only one heroism: to see the world as it is and to love it. Paul Harris’s legacy proclaims the truth of Miró’s vision and promises a means for the dream to come true.