“In my youth,” a wise man once said, “I wanted to change the world. I became a bit wiser, and decided to focus on changing my country first. Again I became a bit wiser, and decided to focus on changing my city. But now I realize that first I must change myself.”
Today, social activism is all the rage. Society, it is said, must be changed, and “we,” the would-be heroes, the avant-garde, are the ones to do it. “We” must demonstrate and thunder against white privilege, against restrictive and bigoted sexual ethics, against greedy capitalism, against evil imperialism. Yet, amidst all the idealism and impassioned activism, somehow it does not appear that the would-be makers of the brave new world are paragons of virtue. More often, they seem to be abusive bullies who are too fragile to even countenance an opposing viewpoint. While Martin Luther King, Jr. suffered assault and jail, today’s delicate revolutionaries flee to their safe spaces at the first sign of adversity. And many would argue that Donald Trump’s GOP primary success would indicate that Republican voters are also susceptible to favoring promises of societal change (“Make America Great Again!”) over personal virtue.
It was, therefore, quite refreshing to watch the recent commencement speaker at Hillsdale College, Justice Clarence Thomas (watch the speech below). The ancient Greeks spoke of the philosopher king; Justice Thomas may justifiably be termed the “philosopher justice.” Justice Thomas opened his remarks by stating that he intended to avoid “what seems to be some formulaic or standard fare at commencement exercises, some broad complaint about societal injustice and at least one exhortation to the young graduates to go out and solve the stated problem or otherwise to change the world.” The preservation of our liberty, he stated, depends on good citizens discharging their daily duties in their daily obligations. Justice Thomas recalled the lesson he learned from his grandfather: “If we were to have a functioning neighborhood, we have to first be good neighbors. And if we were to have a good city, state and country, we had to first be good citizens.”
All this is not to deny the importance of conservative activism, especially in current times where conservative values are under sustained assault. But we would do well to recall the words of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a great twentieth-century Jewish sage:
“The most fundamental principle of all is that man must create himself.”