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2012 Induction Ceremony

Remarks by John Svarlien [Listen]

On behalf of the faculty and the August term scholars, let me welcome you, the class of 2016, to the first First Engagements seminar. We are today starting a new tradition at a college that has a long and proud history. We are delighted that such a strong academic class as yours is here to help write another chapter in Transylvania’s story.

“A book plus imagination is a force to be reckoned with.”

The seminar you begin Monday marks for each one of you a new stage in your own history. You will be the author of that tale. In the next three weeks, as you get to know faculty, the August term scholars, the campus staff, the Lexington community, and the resources of Transylvania, begin imagining the adventures that lie before you and the stories you will be telling four years from now.

I’d like to stick with the notion of storytelling for a bit because narrative is perhaps the single most meaningful way we have within our powers for making sense of living our lives. The Romans believed that telling stories was the best way to teach. So too native Americans. Nana Lampton, Kentucky poet and painter, made a strong case when she spoke this summer at Transylvania and said that in her experience as the CEO of American Life and Accident Insurance Company of Louisville she has found storytelling a powerful means of persuasion, and that persuasion is more effective than top-down initiatives when it comes to running a company successfully. It’s in stories that the most profound ideas find their most powerful expression —think of the stories in the Bible, think about the Iliad and the Odyssey. Just how essential storytelling is to each of us is underscored every night of our lives: our mind is the storyteller when we dream. 

Over the summer we read Come and Go, Molly Snow by the Kentucky novelist Mary Ann Taylor-Hall, a story about a young woman who graduates from high school in Florida and takes off for Lexington, Ky. It’s an example of what literary critics call a Bildungsroman, a novel about how someone grows up, about an individual’s education. Another way to describe such a novel is that it’s a story about a young person’s efforts to make sense of her or his own life. Carrie Marie Mullins struggles mightily to understand her own experience and to discover who she is. The pages of the novel show whether she becomes the hero of her own life. No spoilers for family and friends who haven’t read the novel yet.

Nearly two thousand years ago another novelist, Apuleius, born in the Roman province of Africa, wrote a story entitled Metamorphosis or The Golden Ass.  It’s a Bildungsroman of sorts, a story about change, transformation, education. Near the beginning of his tale, Apuleius addresses us from across the centuries with the following three words: Lector, intende: laetaberis. A rough translation is: “Reader, pay attention. You will be happy you did.”

Classical Latin is a wonderfully economic language; it packs a lot of meaning into a word. Let’s unpack these three words and see what we find.

Lector, Latin for “reader,” comes from a verb meaning to “pick out, select, gather” and accurately describes the process of reading in antiquity when the convention was to leave no spacing between words, to write only in capital letters, and to employ minimal punctuation— from long strings of letters, like beads in a necklace, the reader had to pick out the individual nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc. Reading, in a quite literal sense, was an act of discovery word by word. I have to wonder if reading a computer screen these days is somewhat like the ancient reader’s experience, though speeded up considerably. There’s a lot of scrolling. From the screen crowded with words, symbols, images (many of them moving), the Internet reader must pick out the pieces and make sense of them. A lector, a reader, is given bits and pieces of information, but then he or she must construct meaning. Good reading calls for analysis, sound judgment, creativity, and imagination.

Apuleius’s second word, Intende, is imperative; he gives his reader a command: “pay attention.” If you look up intendere in the Oxford Latin Dictionary you will find that the definitions of the word, along with hundreds of citations from Latin authors to support the definitions, take a full page (a very large page) of very fine print. The basic meaning of the verb intendere is to “stretch, to strain, to concentrate, to be in a state of tension like a bow string pulled back and ready to shoot an arrow.” Or, if you prefer a more pacific image, “like the string of a musical instrument tuned and ready to play.” Good writers always ask their readers to pay attention, to stretch themselves, to rise to the occasion.

In antiquity, it was widely believed that knowledge, almost magically, resided in words; when Adam named the animals in Eden, he was in effect defining them, making them known phenomena. A word expressed the quiddity, the whatness, the essence of what it named. 

So what do lector and intende tell us about the nature of reading? You’ll have noticed how much energy and action both noun and verb demand of the reader. The reader must pay attention, must stretch herself, must collaborate with the author to make new knowledge. It is exactly this kind of collaboration we practice as a community of scholars here at Transylvania. The First Engagements seminar is our invitation to you to join in the collaboration.

So what’s the purpose of this—let’s be honest—hard work? And what’s the reward from reading, from collaboration, from making new knowledge?

Laetaberis, says Apuleius: “you will be glad you did.” The Romans were, if anything, a practical people. The verb laetor means to “be glad, rejoice, be happy, to be delighted.” So if you pay attention in the way Apuleius and the Transylvania faculty ask of you—if you stretch yourself, embrace the challenge—you will be happy. Does that sound like a good deal?

Before you answer, it would be a good idea to stop and think: what exactly does “happy” mean. There are lots of very different notions of what being “happy” is. Some people say they’re happy doing things that many other people consider weird or silly. We’re not going to ask you to do anything weird or silly, but we will ask you to think about and debate what “happiness” is. I imagine that we all would agree that “happiness” is a word worth some serious reckoning. We won’t presume to tell you what constitutes “happiness”; we expect you to figure that out for yourself, at least a working definition of “happiness” that you can continue refining in the years ahead. We will help you in that process—by asking you questions in the Socratic tradition.

Here’s a case where simply looking up a word in a dictionary isn’t quite enough if we really want to know its meaning. Ambrose Bierce, for example, defined “happiness” in his work The Devil’s Dictionary as “an agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.” That doesn’t take us very far. Still, a dictionary isn’t a bad place to begin. Look up “happy” in the Oxford English Dictionary and you’ll find that the word comes from Old Norse happ meaning “luck, chance” as in “happen” and “happy-go-lucky.” The word has, of course, evolved in its meaning over time, but still I can’t take much joy in thinking that being “happy” depends fundamentally upon luck or sheer chance.

Let’s go back to Apuleius’ Latin. If you look up laetor and its cognates in the Oxford Latin Dictionary, you will find that the basic meaning of the word is “to be fertilized, fertile, productive, rich, flourishing.” As I said, the Romans were eminently practical. For them, “happiness” was both a state of being, “being fertile” and an activity, “flourishing, producing.” I don’t know about you, but to me this sounds better than being subject to “luck or chance.” For a Roman, being “laetus” meant being “active, productive; recognizing your potential and realizing that potential through reflection and action.” It’s precisely this kind of reflection and action that the First Engagements seminar is designed to cultivate. The word seminar is Latin again: seminarium means “seedbed, sown ground.” Let 350 flowers bloom in the class of 2016!

Lector, intende; laetaberis would seem to be a very good deal indeed. The next three weeks and the next four years give you the chance to test it out. And you won’t be testing it out on books alone. The world is filled with non-verbal texts: music, films, canvas, paper, ceramic. The physical world within us and around us is the biggest text imaginable—infinite for all practical purposes. The rich and exquisitely beautiful language of mathematics can explain things in ways as intellectually and aesthetically powerful as a painting by Leonardo de Vinci. The natural sciences teach us how to read nature. The specialized languages of biology, chemistry, and physics are the most prolific languages in the world: thousands of new scientific words are coined every year to help us better describe and explain ourselves, the earth, and the cosmos. Where would science be without the Greek and Latin roots and stems to build these new words? That rhetorical question nicely illustrates the fundamental interconnectedness of all knowledge and is a shameless plug for classics.

Let me close by calling attention to one aspect of reading we consider very important here at Transylvania. Scott Russell Sanders in his essay “The Most Human Art: Ten reasons why we’ll always need a good story” says that “stories help us to see through the eyes of other people.” The diversity of the human experience is of inestimable value to each of us. We can actually experience only so much of that diversity directly, face-to-face. There are for example, between 5,000 and 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. We encourage you to learn languages, but how many can you learn in a lifetime?

Reading a book, even in translation, written by someone quite different from oneself is one of the most accessible ways of looking at the world from a new angle, to imagine life through the eyes of someone else. Since we are members of a global community, we have, one can argue, a moral imperative to connect with others in that community. We can connect with members of our immediate community directly; to connect with the broader community we must rely on imagination and empathy. With books we can travel in time; we can easily cross national borders and take a look at other cultures. A book plus imagination is a force to be reckoned with. Books give us opportunities to step outside the relatively narrow view of life and the world as seen from any one individual’s own particular moment. Perspective is everything. Think about how the world looked to you when you were seven and how it looks to you now; imagine how it will look to you in four years.

A year has gone into the planning of August Term and the First Engagements seminar. You now will join us in actually making the seminar what it will be. We are a community of scholars united by our love of learning. The First Engagements seminar, a “seedbed, our community garden” as it were, is our invitation to you to be a part of our community and to engage in the creation of new knowledge.

Take Apuleius’ charge to heart: “Pay attention!” He didn’t use that imperative in the finger wagging way that all of us experienced in grade school. He meant it as an invitation: there are wonderful things, he means, in my novel; all you have to do is be alert and notice them. In the next four years, don’t let wonderful experiences pass you by simply because you didn’t notice them. Lector, intende, laetaberis.

Again welcome from the faculty and August Term scholars. We can’t wait to begin the first First Engagements seminar with the class of 2016!

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