The following is the text of the Baccalaureate Sermon delivered by President Lowell yesterday afternoon in Appleton Chapel.
President Lowell took as his text Psalm CXXI:6: "The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night."
The psalmist promised to the faithful freedom from both sunstroke and moonstroke. The meaning of the first of these is clear--especially in the hot climate where the psalm was written. But to most people at the present day the second promise is either meaningless, or a reminder of an ancient, and obsolete superstition that the shining of the moon on the face during sleep will cause insanity a superstition still preserved in our word lunatic.
Although we have long ceased to believe that the moon has any connection with mental disease, the intent of the benediction is as vital as ever. In present day prose, it might be expressed thus--"You shall be free from illness in body or aberration in mind", and of those the second is the more important to the man himself, and of by far the greater moment to the rest of the world. If to err in thought is an evil, and to escape it a benefit to oneself and others, there is also a duty to keep one's mind from error and to think aright.
Public Opinion Rules
We say that public opinion rules the world, and we often say so carelessly, because by public opinion, we are apt to mean merely the ideas held by ourselves and the little group of people to which we belong. Nevertheless it is true that public opinion does rule. The slave trade was abolished by it, and so later was slavery--although in this case not without a struggle. Taking the civilized world over, corruption in public life, while not indeed, abolished has been greatly reduced, in the last two hundred years by the force of public opinion; and this has occurred not so much from a perception that corruption is practised at the cost of the whole community, but chiefly from a sense of its inherent iniquity. Cruel forms of punishment for crime, torture in obtaining evidence have disappeared in the same period under the pressure of this compelling influence. In short, the advance of civilization in its social and moral conditions is caused and measured by the progress of opinion.
Every One Counts to Some Extent
Public opinion is, therefore, of the highest consequence to mankind. But after all the stuff, it is made of is only the opinions of individuals combined into a mass. In its information some men count for more than others, but everyone counts for something; and most men count for more than they are aware. We are much too inclined to think that hasty judgments, idle words, careless statements of passing impressions are unimportant; and yet these may have a distinct influence on those who hear them. Everyone truly counts to some extent, for although many people from no opinions of their own and merely reflect their surroundings--Laodiceans, neither hot nor cold--spineless drifters without self-direction--still they have an effect, and may both prevent the spread of right thought and promote a mischievous course. They are a shitting cargo in the ship of state, a peril if the bulkheads break.
Public Morals Based on Private
All this is true, not only of opinions about public matters, but also about what is right, just, honorable and generous in personal conduct. As a rule, indeed, public morals are built upon private morals, and a stable commonwealth does not stand upon an unsound moral foundation. Let us repeat, therefore, that morals, public and private, depend upon opinion. The morality of a people is sustained by a general opinion of its rightfulness, and a general condemnation of its violation. All men sometimes do, and a few men often do what they know to be wrong; but even so they usually try to justify to themselves, or at least to palliate, their sins. In the main men conduct themselves, both in public and private life, in accordance with their moral opinions, or the opinions of those they respect, or the opinions prevalent among the people with whom they mix. If so right opinions are of supreme importance, and the duty of holding right opinions is one of paramount obligation.
Difficult To See Aright
This does not mean that all true men should think alike. Men differ, must differ, and ought to differ; but that does not affect the momentous results of wrong opinions, or the imperative duty of thinking aright. Nor is it any excuse that other people think the same. It is quite as bad, and often worse, to think wrong with the majority as to be in the wrong alone. If truth were so easy to ascertain that all honest-minded people instinctively thought alike the duty to think aright would involve too little effort to need an exhortation. Life is so complex in its personal, social, public and international relations, it has so many facets, refracts the light in so many different ways, that it is very difficult to see aright, or to take into account in due proportion all the manifold elements it contains.
Form Judgments With Care
We must strive to see as much as we can, to keep our minds as clear from error as possible, and form our judgments by earnest, painstaking effort. We must beware of assuming that an idea is true because it is old or because it is new, but try simply to discover whether it is true or not. To put the matter more accurately, we must endeavor to ascertain how much of truth or error it contains; for from history we learn that the common mistake of men has been to assume that of two opposing views one is absolutely right and the other wholly wrong, when in fact each had a savor of truth confused by exaggeration and error. From this cause have flowed political and religious struggles, resulting indeed in progress, but progress less complete and less durable than might have come from earnest effort on both sides to seek for what was right in each. In such cases the elements of truth on each side were not brought face to face and weighed in the balance; but men have weighed what truth there was on their own side against the errors on the other. To see clearly one's own modicum of truth and what is wrong in one's opponents is an easy way of forming a judgment, but not a method that leads either to truth or harmony.
Citizens Should Strive for Truth