Justice Antonin Scalia gave a high school commencement address last week. As he routinely does on the Supreme Court and in his public speeches on judicial philosophy, he took modern platitudes that have become conventional wisdom and dismantled them. The gist of it was this:
[A] platitude I want to discuss comes in many flavors. It can be variously delivered as, “Follow your star,” or “Never compromise your principles.” Or, quoting Polonius in “Hamlet” — who people forget was supposed to be an idiot — “To thine own self be true.” Now this can be very good or very bad advice. Indeed, follow your star if you want to head north and it’s the North Star. But if you want to head north and it’s Mars, you had better follow somebody else’s star. …
Movement is not necessarily progress. More important than your obligation to follow your conscience, or at least prior to it, is your obligation to form your conscience correctly. Nobody — remember this — neither Hitler, nor Lenin, nor any despot you could name, ever came forward with a proposal that read, “Now, let’s create a really oppressive and evil society.” Hitler said, “Let’s take the means necessary to restore our national pride and civic order.” And Lenin said, “Let’s take the means necessary to assure a fair distribution of the goods of the world.”
In short, it is your responsibility, men and women of the class of 2010, not just to be zealous in the pursuit of your ideals, but to be sure that your ideals are the right ones. That is perhaps the hardest part of being a good human being: Good intentions are not enough. Being a good person begins with being a wise person. Then, when you follow your conscience, will you be headed in the right direction.
This is anathema to the left, of course. For the left, “self-realization” is the highest ideal. And results matter so much less than their heartfelt intention and their hard work (for which they never tire of seeking approval). Moreover, Scalia’s notion that there are “right ideals” is no doubt horrifying to the moral relativists and cultural levelers.
Scalia also offers up a refreshing dose of humility in a world in which those with minimal life experience and capabilities not only assert that their own insights, hunches, preferences, and cravings are worth pursuing but also dare not be second-guessed. Scalia contends that it is essential to look to external, fixed principles and reminds us how easy it is to confuse your own desires with morally superior goals.
Yes, there’s a bit of judicial philosophy in there. (It doesn’t matter what you’d like the Constitution to say; it only matters what it does say and what those who wrote it intended.) And, yes, there is a jab at Obama implicit in Scalia’s indictment of the mindset of the left. As the epitome of the sort of condescending, self-important, and egocentric liberal who dominates universities and the media, Obama exhibits much of what Scalia deplores. The president and his spinners never tell us how hard he works. To combat criticism that his policies are destructive and wrongheaded (e.g., his stance toward Israel, a time table for troop withdrawal in Afghanistan), he reiterates the purity of his intentions (devoted to Israel, he says) and boasts about how thoughtful his decision-making is (what president could conducts months of seminars on Afghanistan?). All this is meant to substitute for or distract us from evaluating the rightness of the decisions, the effectiveness of his conduct, and the gap between his ideology and reality.
Scalia’s is a simple and poignant plea for personal restraint and objective truth. It’s not only what underlies his judicial philosophy, but it is a fine recipe for maintaining a just and decent society. It’s also a helpful reminder to avoid presidential aspirants whose emotional and intellectual habits resemble those of incoming college freshmen.