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Make the Good of Others Our Own — Without Counting the Cost 


by O. Carter Snead
Charles E. Rice Professor of Law
Director, de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture
Concurrent Professor of Political Science
University of Notre Dame
Commencement 2024
Thomas Aquinas College, California


It’s a great pleasure and honor for me, as an alum of St. John’s College — your secular cousin — to address this extraordinary community of learning on this special day. But I should say, in defense of my alma mater — where Jewish scholars, including some former students of Heidegger, who fled Nazi Germany to teach the Great Books to students drawn mostly from Presbyterian and Methodist families — it is true, as the saying goes, that St. John’s College is the place where “Jews teach Protestants how to be good Catholics.” And there were indeed a significant number of conversions around the end of sophomore year, after grappling with The Bible, Augustine, Aquinas, and Anselm. Here, by contrast, there is less beating around the bush!

O. Carter SneadAnd while I’m not an alum nor a TAC parent (yet!), I am profoundly grateful to the College on behalf of my dear friends who are, and on behalf of the Notre Dame Law School, which is often richly blessed with your wonderful graduates as students, including one of my very favorites, the late Timothy Cantu (’10), who tragically passed away in 2021. And it is a treat for me to see in person some of the students from the dynastic TAC families that I have come to know from afar — Kelseys, Lessards, Haggards, and, of course, Grimms. (Elizabeth Grimm ’98 Forrester and her husband, Michael ’95, are dear friends.)

For the past four years, through their encounter and struggles with works including Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Shakespeare, Dante, Austen, Dostoyevsky — not to mention the complexities of calculus, special relativity theory, electromagnetism, and Zuckerkandl’s Sense of Music (yes, we have that in common also!) — these seniors have developed habits of mind, virtues, and practices that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

They have learned to read, think, and speak with care. They have come to understand that learning requires vulnerability and the willingness to take risks. At TAC they have developed the confidence that comes from grappling with great ideas and hard questions, but also the humility that emerges from this same encounter and struggle. Here at TAC, you have learned that truth, goodness, and beauty are real — not imagined or merely constructed.

But perhaps most importantly, and, of this, more in a moment, they have learned at TAC that learning, growth, and awakening require a community. They cannot be done on your own — they require encounter, cooperation, and struggle with others. Genuine education requires friendship in the richest sense.

“Here at TAC, you have learned that truth, goodness, and beauty are real — not imagined or merely constructed.”

Now, I would like to address the graduates directly. Congratulations. You did it. Thank those whose made it possible and take a moment to enjoy your accomplishment.

OK, you done?

Let’s talk about what comes next. You are about to embark upon an exhilarating new chapter in your lives marked by dramatic new freedom and opportunities for discovery, creation, including self-discovery and self-creation. This is good. And it is important. But it is not the whole story.

Being TAC students, you rightly appreciate and excel in the life of the mind. And, thus, you may be tempted to think of yourself as simply a mind and a will. This temptation grows as your experience is mediated and even curated by technology, including the virtual world of social media. The temptation to define yourself — your personhood — solely as an individual mind and will may increase still as you grow into your powers in the new freedom you are about to experience. And you may come to believe that the sum and substance of your flourishing is to search the depths of yourself to discover, express, and configure your life plan according to the authentic, original, and perhaps unprecedented truths that you discover within. And you may come to see everything other than your mind and will, such as your body, the natural world, and human relationships, as purely instrumental to these ends.

You should resist this temptation. Don’t be fooled. You are not a disembodied mind and will. You are something far more interesting and mysterious than that — a dynamic and integrated unity of mind and body. You are an embodied soul — an ensouled body. You are what philosopher of biology Hans Jonas called a “psychophysical unity.” You don’t merely have a body, you are a living body. You are an incarnated being.

And that means a few things. First, as an embodied being living in time, you are fragile and finite. You will get sick, get injured, age, and you will die. In other words, you are profoundly vulnerable. The arc of a life humanly lived is not defined merely by freedom and self-invention (as important as these capacities are for those privileged enough to be able to exercise them). It begins in complete dependence and vulnerability — even before you are born. And in the best-case scenario, it follows a gentle upward climb of growth, development, and independence when you reach the peak of your powers, when you immediately pivot downward in a gentle decline back into total dependence once again.

And this reality stands us in a particular kind of relationship to one another. Because our lives as embodied creatures render us vulnerable, we are mutually dependent upon one another. Human beings are unique among mammals for our long period of biological dependence at the beginning of our lives. But it doesn’t stop there. As embodied beings in time, we need one another for basic survival throughout our lives. We all exist “on a scale of disability,” as Alasdair MacIntyre has said. But it is not for mere survival that we need one another. We need one another to learn to become the thing we are meant to be; we need each other for human flourishing. More on what that entails in a moment.

Consider, first, in light of our dependence, what we need to survive and flourish. We need not the freedom of the unencumbered self, but rather what MacIntyre calls “networks of uncalculated giving and graceful receiving,” composed of people who are willing to make the good of others their own good without counting the cost or seeking anything in return. These networks are a web of relationships defined not by transactions for mutual benefit formed by consenting parties, but rather defined by unchosen obligations and unearned privileges.

The late Sir Roger Scruton puts it this way:

For us humans, who enter a world marked by the joys and sufferings of those who are making room for us, who enjoy protection in our early years and opportunities in our ma­turity, the field of obligation is wider than the field of choice. We are bound by ties we never chose, and our world contains values and challenges that intrude from be­yond the comfortable arena of our agreements.

The pristine exemplar of such a relationship is that of parents and children. Parents don’t care for children because they are contractually obliged to do so. Children don’t earn or bargain for the privilege of being cared for by their parents. It inheres in the relationship itself.

By participating in these networks, we survive. But even more than that, we flourish. And our flourishing, I submit to you, consists precisely in becoming the kind of beings who can make the good of others our own without counting the cost.

In other words, by virtue of our embodiment, we are made for love and friendship.

“Lift your gaze up from inside and look around you to find the weakest and most vulnerable. They may be in places you never expected or didn’t think to look.”

So, what is needed to create and sustain these networks of giving and receiving? Again, not the radical freedom of the atomized individual will to create his or her own future. Instead, what is needed are what MacIntyre has described as the virtues of acknowledged dependence. These virtues of uncalculated giving are just generosity (giving according to need), hospitality (welcoming the stranger), misericordia (making the suffering of others your own). The virtues of graceful receiving are chiefly gratitude (all is gift), which engenders humility (along with openness to the unbidden and tolerance of imperfection), solidarity (we are all in this together), respect for the intrinsic equal dignity of every member of the human family (regardless of condition or circumstance), and truthfulness.

In other words, the virtues needed to flourish are the virtues of genuine and authentic friendship. To practice these virtues, you need to cultivate your moral imagination to see the faces and hear the voices (even when obscured or silenced by conditions or circumstances) of those who are in need. Lift your gaze up from inside and look around you to find the weakest and most vulnerable. They may be in places you never expected or didn’t think to look.

Genuine human flourishing is not about self-invention and the projection of the will (as important as those might be). It is about loving your neighbor as you love yourself. We are most human when we are caring for one another, especially for the weakest and most vulnerable.

Never forget that love is more important than power.

And to be clear, in this as in other things, you (and I) will fail. A lot. But don’t ever quit. Get back up. As Samuel Beckett said, “Fail again. Fail better.”

Graduates, your parents and I are proud of you. Congratulations once again. And let us again pause to give thanks for this miraculous network of uncalculated giving and graceful receiving that is Thomas Aquinas College.

Take care of yourselves, and more importantly, take care of one another.


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