Buried in two large cardboard boxes in the basement storage room of our Northern Michigan cottage are eight thick books filled with speeches. They represent the work of a lifetime.
Sometimes Polly will get to poking through them in search of some ancient memento. Like last week.
We were entertaining some old friends, classmates of mine from grammar school and high school. Polly wanted to show them a commencement speech I gave at the University of Detroit High School back in 1969 The Jesuit faculty liked it well enough to have it printed and sent to their alumni.
I had talked about freedom, and here is what I said:
“If I were 18 years old, as you are, my dear graduates, and I could walk out of here into the cool night air and take a deep breath and look at all those zillions of stars in the sky, My definition of freedom would be: ‘I can do anything I want to do.’
Maybe that’s your definition – it’s not bad for starters. But there are some holes in it. I'm thinking now of the story of the two delegates to the elbow bender’s convention, who are looking out of the hotel window at a motionless figure on the sidewalk below, and one of them says,
‘Did you see him jump?’
And the other says, ‘He didn’t jump. He was trying to fly up to the roof.’
And the first one says, ‘Why didn't you stop him?’
And the other replies, ‘I thought he could make it!’
So the first limitation to our definition of freedom is that we are only free to do those things which are physically possible.
And the same goes for financial possibility, as well.
You may all be free to do anything you want to do. And you may all want to own a Cadillac convertible. But for the moment, at least, you probably have more hope of flying up to the roof.
So our freedom is limited to doing those things which we can do.
But our freedom is also limited, in a funny kind of a way, by the last half of our definition. ‘I can do anything I WANT to do.’
We are not actually free when we do those things which we actually do not want to do.
Take a man who languishes in the county jail for 30 days. If he doesn't want to be there, then he isn't free. There are some men who actually want to go to jail. Particularly when the cold weather sets in, and the park benches are covered with snow.
And there are some people who freely stay in prison for other reasons. I'm sure, for example, that St. Thomas More was a free man in the tower of London, because he freely chose not to speak the words which would have turned the jailer's key, and opened the door to slavery.
So you see you are not free to do those things which you do not actually WANT to do.
What are those things?
Well, you don't want to break the law. You don't want to commit sin. You don't want to hurt your parents, or your friends, or your neighbors, or your country. And you don't want to get sick, or be made the object of ridicule.
So here is our nice, neat, simple definition of freedom. Freedom simply means that you can do anything you want to do that is not:
- physically impossible
- financially impossible
- legally prohibited
- morally wrong
- harmful to your parents
- unkind to your friends
- injurious to your neighbors
- disloyal to your country
- bad for your health
- or just plain foolish.
Now that may not sound like a whole lot of freedom to you, but it's the nearest thing to perfect freedom that you have any right to expect.”
When you give a speech you never know who is in the audience or how your words will land on them.
Twenty five years after I gave that talk I got a call from a suburban Detroit lady who told me that her brother had graduated from U. of D. High in 1969 and that she was at that commencement. She wanted to get a copy of my speech because she wanted her 16 year old daughter to read it.
She made my day.