Sunday, June 10, 2018

Be Like Larry

My final regular school year Chapel Talk at The Hill School:

Be Like Larry

I suppose you’ll all remember that we had my official gushy sentimental good-bye Chapel Talk back in November, on Founders’ Day, when Ms. Lim directed that huge ensemble of singers and instrumentalists in a performance of “A Hill Anthem.” I listened to the piece again with pleasure the other day on YouTube ( ): Preparing it was, I know, a huge amount of work, and I’m still grateful to all of the participants for doing it.   
So, then, since all the mushy getting-ready-to-leave stuff is already out of the way, at this point I can do an everyday chapel talk, perhaps with extra added advice. In thinking about that everyday task, and about certain everyday requests for a shout-out, I eventually came to the conclusion that I basically had my choice of two Italians to discuss this morning. One would be my advisee, your President, and the other would be Lorenzo de’ Medici, a Renaissance ruler of Florence who died back in 1492, 526 years ago yesterday.
Naturally, I decided to go with the dead guy. So, since Lorenzo is the Italian form of “Lawrence,” the title of my talk is “Be like Larry”—and I do want to be clear that that’s not the same, God forbid, as “Be like a Larry.”
Now, when I say “be like Larry,” I also have to be clear to begin with that Lorenzo de’ Medici had a lot of characteristics that no-one would want you to copy. Being a ruler in Renaissance Italy wasn’t a whole lot less brutal than being a ruler in Game of Thrones (for instance, Machiavelli dedicated his famous book The Prince to Lorenzo’s grandson) and perhaps one of the nicest things you could say about Lorenzo was that he wasn’t always all that good at it. At one point, he managed to get the whole Republic of Florence excommunicated by the Pope, and he nearly caused the collapse of his family’s banking empire—though, on the other hand, as Wikipedia points out, he eventually got not only one of his sons but also a nephew elected to be Pope, and he did maintain the balance of power in Italy under a treaty that kept peace for his lifetime.
But after you take note of all of his negative qualities—and I haven’t even mentioned that in an age that idealized beauty he was also short and unattractive and badly needed a nose job—even after you take note of all those, there is still a lot to be said for Lorenzo. One of the reasons that the family banks got into trouble, apparently, was that he and his family gave away and paid in taxes for arts and civic projects in Florence 663,000 florins—almost half a billion dollars in current money. He founded what is still one of the world’s greatest libraries, with an invaluable collection of ancient manuscripts; he helped Leonardo da Vinci get the job that resulted in the painting of The Last Supper, and Michelangelo was his house guest for five solid years. He himself was one of the great poets of his generation, writing in both Italian and Latin. In brief, he was literally the kind of person they had in mind when they came up with the phrase “Renaissance Man.”
So, be like Lorenzo. If you happen to have a chance to found a library, take it: if you’re lucky enough to be able to give half-a-billion dollars to charity—and some of you may—then do it. Write great poetry, if you can: encourage the next Michelangelo, if you have the opportunity. All of those are worth doing, and indeed they are worth doing even on a small scale, if you can’t afford a grand one: giving one book to a library is still a good thing, and there are literally charities out there that do good work by getting half-a-dollar at a time, not half-a-billion. But: what I really want to push you toward isn’t just recreating those virtuous details of Lorenzo’s life, whether large scale or small.
In fact, what I actually want to hold out to you is not specifically anything about Lorenzo’s life, though that life clearly had something to do with it, but rather his nickname. Rulers attract all sorts of nicknames, of course, many of them less than complimentary. Lorenzo’s own father, for instance, has gone down in history with the medical epithet “Peter the Gouty,” while Lorenzo’s son, who succeeded him, was called “Peter the Unfortunate.” There was a King of France called “Louis the do-nothing,” and there was even an eighth-century Byzantine Emperor known as “Constantine the Poopy-christened,” because of an unfortunate accident during his infant baptism. So historical nicknames can be a little bit mean. The people of Florence, though, were looking to compliment Lorenzo when they gave him an epithet, and so, apparently even during his lifetime, he was known as “Lorenzo il Magnifico,” Lorenzo the Magnificent. So this is what I mean when I say “be like Larry”: be magnificent.
Be magnificent. Literally, the word “magnificent” means “doing great things,” and as I’ve said, if you have the opportunity to do great things on a scale that will benefit human civilization, as some of you in years to come may very well have,  then by all means do them. But the first great thing to which I want to urge you is closer to hand: the first step in personal magnificence, if I can put it that way, is something Damian mentioned in his excellent chapel talk last Friday. That first step is to be uncompromisingly yourself, to be the very best version of yourself that you can be, and nothing less than that.
To expand a little bit on what Damian said, this business of just being ourselves is a deep philosophical issue. When the ancient Greek philosophers talked about how something could become evil, they decided that an increase of evil was a loss of being, a kind of fading away, becoming more and more of a shadow rather than a really existing thing. (If you’re a Tolkien fan, by the way, that’s why the One Ring makes its wearer invisible: the Ring is infectiously evil, and it draws the wearer toward nothingness.)
Medieval philosophers, though, took that ancient idea a step further and said, well, but wait a minute, a thing can only be a good example of whatever it is. A good candy bar is good specifically as candy, and the candy bar is bad when it fails to measure up to the standard for that particular treat: and since the only possible standard for each one of us is to be our self, we turn toward evil whenever we give up the effort to be precisely and authentically who we really are, when we settle for being something other, or less, than our true selves.
To come at the same point about authenticity from another direction: on the gateway into the Oracle at Delphi (the place where ancient Greeks went to hear prophecies of the future), instead of posting a message about understanding the Oracle, the Greeks put the inscription “Gnothi Seauton,” which means “know yourself.” Their point was that if we don’t know ourselves, even a message from the gods won’t be able to help us.
It’s a lifetime’s work to know ourselves, but unless we do, we can’t make sense of anything else, and as we come to know the authentic self, it more and more lays a claim, even a demand, on us. To the degree that we know our authentic self, we’re lying to ourselves and others if we don’t also try to be it.
So, then, my first step toward personal magnificence is to find your authentic self and then be that person, in spite of everything. My second step is to be generous. Partly, I do mean being generous with money, like Lorenzo and his family’s half-billion bucks. I wrote a whole chapel talk on this subject of giving away money three years ago, so I am not going to repeat it all now, other than to encourage you to do what you can, even if it is small. Form a habit of giving away a percentage of your income now, and it will last you a lifetime. Round up the total when you give a tip: it will almost certainly mean more to your server than it does to you. Don’t tie yourself in knots about giving money to beggars and homeless people; give and don’t worry about it. C. S. Lewis once gave some cash to a beggar in Oxford, and as they went on, the person Lewis was walking with said, “Jack, that man is just going to spend that money on drinking.” “Strange,” Lewis said, “that’s just what I was going to do with it.”
Being generous with money is a virtue. But the real generosity I am thinking of, the generosity that helps to begin to constitute personal magnificence, goes beyond the financial. Beyond being generous with money, we need to be generous with other people, generous both in our judgment of them and in our presence with them. At the very minimum, in matters of judgment we can be generous enough to give other people the benefit of the doubt. We can start by assuming that their lives and their motives and their consciences are just as complicated and conflicted as our own. When we wonder why other people act so unreasonably, we can do well to remember how much of our own inner life doesn’t even make sense to us ourselves, and thus realize that it certainly wouldn’t do so to others.
And when I talk about being generous in our presence with others, I certainly don’t want to risk my lifetime membership in the International Association of Introverts. I am not even remotely interested in saying how much time we need to spend with others. But I do want to argue that when we do engage with others, we owe it to them to be fully engaged, in whatever our role may be. Different occasions and different relationships call for different sorts of presence, obviously: but I can’t stand at the altar and say Mass and be thinking about my grocery shopping instead of the congregation; or, to take another example, all of us know, whether we live up to it or not, that we get the most out of classes in which we are actively engaged, not simply passively present.
So, then, my first two steps are to be authentic and to be generous. These kinds of lists can go on and on, of course, but I mean to stop at three steps toward personal magnificence, and my third one is this: be true. I don’t particularly mean “true” in the logical sense, as when we say a statement is true because it corresponds with reality. The English word “true” didn’t develop that logical meaning until as recently as the thirteenth century: before that, “true” meant something about the person who was speaking, rather than about what they were saying. In English, originally, a statement was true because it came from someone whom you could trust, which is in fact a different form of the same word. What I am saying, then, is, be someone whom others can trust. Keep your word to them, keep their secrets for them, and be loyal. Here at The Hill and out in the world, show people that there is, back of each, the strength of all: now and for the rest of your lives, do what you can to create the ties that will never sever. That’s not to say that you won’t be betrayed, sometimes: indeed, most of us are, at one point or another, and it always hurts. But that’s still better than being the other guy, the one who can’t be trusted in the first place.
So, then, finally, here’s my completely unsentimental bottom line: You are people of amazing talent and outstanding opportunity. Indeed, except for pure political authority and piles of actual gold, all of you have more power at your fingertips than any Renaissance prince, Lorenzo de’ Medici included. You can travel farther in a day than he did in a lifetime, you have more information in your pocket than he could have had in a thousand libraries, and you, unlike him, will probably not die, of some undiagnosed intestinal ailment, at the age of 43. So I am not being completely rhetorical if I challenge you to be magnificent: Our everyday world is, after all, shot through with a magnificence Lorenzo could not have imagined. But I am even further from being rhetorical when I offer these three things as first steps for the rich lives that I know lie ahead of you: be authentic, be generous, and be true.

---The Very Rev. John Wm Houghton, Ph.D.,
Dean of the Alumni Chapel

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