Father Leahy, Chair of the Board of Trustees John Fish, Members of the Board of Trustees and the Board of Regents, Honored Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, and Graduates of the Class of 2022,
Thank you so much for inviting me to speak with you today, in a city that is dear to my heart, and at a College that is literally part of my family’s DNA.
It is a great honor and a real pleasure for me to have the opportunity to address you today, but I must confess that I almost didn’t make it. When Father Leahy invited me to offer the commencement address several months ago, I quickly accepted.
But a few weeks later, I was invited by President Biden to an official visit at the White House on May 16th, exactly a week ago, and by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to address a joint session of Congress a day later.
But all those blessings posed a great dilemma for me. What to do between DC and BC. Τhe simplest answer would be to stay in America the whole nine days, perhaps visiting some of the vibrant Greek communities. But with war raging 500 miles from Greece’s border, there was no way I could be away from home for all that long.
The next but most exhausting option was to make four transatlantic plane trips during those nine days. Go to Washington, then go back home to tend to business, and then fly to Boston for the Commencement today.
The final possibility was to ask Father Leahy to give me a rain check for another year. But there are three important reasons why I knew I couldn’t do that.
One, my wife Mareva graduated from BC with a political science degree in 1989, and I knew I would greatly disappoint her, even though she might not say anything. Two, my son Konstantinos graduated from BC in 2020 as a history major, and I knew he would have plenty to say if I didn’t come.
Third, there was no way I would give up the chance to address the graduates of the most prominent college in America with a Greek motto — “Aen Aristevin,” “Ever to Excel.” All in all, that is why I ended up flying from Greece to America twice in the past 9 days, and I am so pleased that I did so!
You know Harvard’s motto in Latin “Veritas” – Truth, and Yale’s is in Latin “Lux et Veritas” – Light and Truth. But let’s face it, when your philosophy is “ever to excel” you already know how to pursue Truth and Light and you are better off choosing a motto in the Greek language of the original philosophers. Too bad the founders of those other esteemed schools didn’t have a Jesuit education.
Speaking of excellence, let me congratulate coach Jerry York on his amazing career. We know very little about ice hockey back in Greece but I guess that 1162 wins and four national championships certainly fits the “ever to excel” motto. Happy retirement coach.
Ladies and gentleman,
As I was preparing to address you today, I remembered the days when I was graduating from College a full generation ago, in 1990.
The Commencement speaker at my graduation in those heady days was the Chancellor of West Germany, Helmut Kohl, who was already laying the groundwork for the reunification of his divided country.
“This is a time of joy, pride and gratitude,” Chancellor Kohl told us. “Freedom and unity is becoming reality. The dream of a free, peaceful and just world will materialize, provided that we do not relax our common efforts.”
He, but also we in the audience, had every right to be enthusiastic. Just eight months before my graduation, the Berlin Wall, the concrete symbol of the divide between freedom and democracy on one side and repression and totalitarianism on the other, had come crashing down. I still remember getting goosebumps watching the events unfold on television.
Within a year the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe would be toppled, the Soviet Union would cease to exist, and the last vestiges of the Cold War would be swept away.
It is difficult to convey to you how optimistic those times were. We did not just savor the moment, but we also made predictions about the future.
In a much cited essay titled “The end of History?” -notice the question mark- political scientist Francis Fukuyama proposed the thesis that “the triumph of the Western idea, is evident in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western Liberalism”. That seemed such an obvious statement at the time.
We believed then that the West’s economic triumph over the Soviet Union had irrevocably demonstrated that democracy was the ideal form of government for all time and all people.
We believed that global capitalism, free trade and the breakdown of communication barriers, what we call today globalization would usher in a new world of prosperity for all.
We believed in the power of technology and innovation to solve all problems.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, rather than achieve that free, peaceful and just world, Chancellor Kohl talked about, my graduating generation and its leaders – I am afraid – took its foot off the gas, coasted on our comfortable liberal complacency. And proceeded to “relax our common efforts” as the good Chancellor put it.
Back then, the signals were harder to pick-up amongst the noise of optimism – the signals that the world was indeed much more complicated and that freedom and democracy would face a tsunami of challenges including the rise of populist and nationalist sentiment across the globe. But I must tell you, those signals were there.
But my generation thought that democracy was easy, neglecting the fact that it requires constant effort and systematic civic engagement.
When your great president Abraham Lincoln spoke so eloquently about the “unfinished business of democracy”, he intended to propel those words to the future, but back in the nineties they got stuck on the pages of history.
In the euphoria of the collapse of communism, politicians and political scientists thought that economic liberalism would create more open societies in both Russia and China. And temper the ambitions of autocrats who always regard the pillars of democracy – free expression, free press and free elections – with disdain and seek to topple them by whatever means necessary.
They confused a rising stock market with global prosperity, failing to see that all great upheavals produce not just winners but also losers. It took my generation and its leaders time to understand that our democracies are threatened by the sirens of populists who offer easy solutions to very complicated problems. Their voices are heard, primarily because income inequality has increased in our societies and many, justifiably, feel that they are left behind.
These are the new divisions within our own societies -divisions exploited by a failure to appreciate the power of identity, of belonging to a community, and its importance for people who simply could not make sense of a rapidly changing world.
For the past thirty years now, we have wholeheartedly embraced rapidly advancing technology as a force of good, without fully analyzing its economic, social but also moral implications.
Take social media. A decade ago it was unquestionably heralded as a societal revolution, upending the traditional top-down hierarchy of information and media. The apotheosis of free speech. A god-sent tool that allowed democratic forces all over the world to organize themselves against authoritarian regimes and break down government censorship of information.
And where are we today? Social media is polarizing public debate and transforming the public sphere into a modern-day version of the tower of Babel, where we speak different languages and we only listen to those who share the same views with us.
On top of that we are again faced with the unthinkable. A war on the European continent which is causing unending human suffering but is also threatening us with a global recession.
Not to mention the elephant in the room, climate change. The most complex collective action problem humanity has ever faced.
I am sure you must be thinking, “why on earth did Father Leahy invite this guy to talk about the problems the world is facing on a day of celebration and joy?”
I am doing it exactly because I have such great faith in your generation to not repeat the mistakes of the past. But in order to do so, in order to fulfill your solemn duty to pass on to your children a better world than the one you inherited, you need to do things differently.
I would like to quote Václav Havel, who in his commencement speech at Harvard in 1995 spoke of the concept of “a radical renewal of our sense of responsibility”. “Our conscience must catch up to our reason,” he said at the time. And he reminded me of the words of the famous Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis who wrote “Embrace responsibility, and tell yourself, I alone will save the world. And if all is lost, it will be my fault”.
It is this sentiment that led me into a life of public service, as an elected Member of Parliament, Minister, party leader and Prime Minister. And, it is this underlying message of collective responsibility and individual actions that I hope your generation will carry forward.
Your first responsibility is to radically reimagine democracy in the 21st century by, first of all, not neglecting your civic duties. No, no, I do not suggest all of you should become politicians. But for those of you who are contemplating public service, I wholeheartedly encourage you to pursue this path. Because if the best and brightest don’t enter the public domain, then you are leaving space for others to do so.
A famous Greek rock star of my generation sang a verse which always struck a chord with me. “I am afraid of the things that will happen to me, without me”. Don’t let that happen to your generation.
For those of you who will embark on the fascinating journey of public service, please remember that it is your responsibility to think ahead boldly, not to fear the disfavor of the crowd and to explain again and again that politics is much more than reflecting the interests of specific groups or lobbies.
And for those of you who choose other walks of life, please remember the lesson of Ancient Athens, where Democracy flourished for the first time: in order for a democracy to thrive all its citizens must be involved, in one way or another, in the affairs of the state.
If the city thrives, Thucydides had Pericles say, we will all be better off. In his funeral oration – which in my mind is still one of the most remarkable texts ever written – he said the interest of a private citizen is better served when the city as a whole is more successful than if there is individual prosperity but collective failure. A man may be personally well-off, but if his country is destroyed, he shares in the general ruin. Whereas private misfortune is much more easily survived in a country which itself enjoys good fortune.
Democracy, that elusive rule of the people by the people, for the people, was the most powerful leap of faith in human history. And it placed humans at the center of the universe.
In ancient Greece, buildings were built to accommodate the body and please the eye of men and women, not giants. Gods were portrayed as human beings, not animals, monsters or fantastic creatures.
And the ruler – the lawmaker and the judge – was for the first time an ordinary citizen. As Sophocles wrote in Antigone, “Wonders there are many – none more wonderful than man.”
Reinventing democracy for the 21st century may sound like a tall order. But this is the challenge ahead of you.
I urge you, don’t leave it to others to ensure the survival of our democratic ideals. If you think you are the best and the brightest – which you should, because you are graduating from this great school – then assume your responsibilities. Because you cannot outsource this responsibility to anyone else.
What democracy will look like in 20 or 30 years, when you are in positions of power, is completely up to you.
You are blessed with an outstanding education. I am sure you have all overcome one form of adversity or another to stand where you are today. Do not lose your faith that you can change the world and make it a better place for all.
Your university has taught you the power of rational thinking. Embrace it with vigor. President Obama, speaking at another Commencement address a few years ago, was right to point out that “in politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue. It is not cool not to know what you’re talking about.” But, may I add, do so with humility. With radical humility. As much as you take pride in what you have achieved, do not let anyone accuse you of being out of touch-elite.
Don’t just think inside the bubble. Reach out to those who do not share the same privilege of a university education. Understand their grievances.
Be proud of your achievements but do not succumb to the arrogance of believing that everything you have achieved in life was due exclusively to your hard work. Luck plays a bigger role in life than we think.
Αnd before I take my leave there is a last charge, I would like to make to you from the perspective of my middle years. While you are doing the utmost to improve the world and to make your mark in it, take time to enjoy that great gift God has given you – life.
The pursuit of happiness is a Greek bequest like democracy. The scholar Edith Hamilton, in comparing previous civilizations to the Greeks, noted that earlier cultures were preoccupied with death and focused all their art on it, while the Greeks turned full face to celebrate life.
“To rejoice in life, to find the world beautiful and delightful to live in, was a mark of the Greek spirit, which distinguished it from all that had gone before,” she wrote.
A century ago, the Greek poet Constantinos Cavafy wrote his most famous poem, “Ithaca”. Its meaning was simple. It is not the destination, but the journey that matters.
“Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean”.
I want to wish you all great success in achieving the goals you have set for yourselves today, but in time you’ll discover, as I have, that nothing will bring you as much fulfillment as the relationships you create and nurture in your lives.
Give the coming years the best of your talents and energy, but don’t overlook the love of your parents and siblings sitting here today, who watch you with unconcealed joy as you set out to discover the lives awaiting you in this twenty-first century.
And just as important, give as much thought and care to the relationships you will build in the future with your husband or wife, your children and your friends.
As the Beatles, the great philosophers of my youth, put it, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Above all, that’s what counts the most, and that’s where you’ll find your greatest satisfaction.
The best advice I can give you as I bid you farewell is don’t worry about the winds and storms you may encounter as you embark on life in the real world. Human beings were not made for safe harbors. Set sail for the far horizons. I can guarantee you it’s going to be a great adventure.