When I hear good people say good things, I like to pass them along. So I want to share three items from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ commencement speech to the graduates of Hillsdale College.
1. Benefits don’t exist without responsibility.
The small farm of his youth taught Justice Thomas that you reap what you sow. There are no crops if you don’t take care of the land. “If we didn’t work, we didn’t eat. If we didn’t plant, we didn’t harvest.”
In the same way, good neighbors make a good neighborhood. A good city, state and country require good citizens. The same goes for school and church.
“If there was to be independence, self-sufficiency or freedom,” he explained, ”then we had to first understand, accept and then discharge our responsibilities.”
2. Feelings and desires shouldn’t dictate actions.
Justice Thomas is a descendant of slaves, and he grew up poor during times of racial unrest. Yet “just because someone else wronged us did not justify reciprocal conduct on our part. Right was right, and two wrongs did not make a right.”
Justice Thomas’ grandfather often said they were “duty-bound” to do the right thing.
“What we wanted to do did not define what was right, nor did our capacious litany of wants define liberty,” said Thomas. “Rather, what was right defined what we were required to do and what we were permitted to do.”
3. A good life makes a big impact.
Justice Thomas exhorted the graduates to address their own obligations and responsibilities “in the right way” because that helps “to ensure our liberties and our form of government.”
Justice Thomas shared how this virtue-based ability to self-govern taught him “important citizenship lessons.”
“For the most part, it was the unplanned array of small things,” said Thomas. “There was the kind gesture from the neighbor. It was my grandmother dividing our dinner because another person showed up unannounced. It was the strangers stopping to help us get our crops out of the field before a big storm… small lessons such as these became big lessons for how to live our lives.”
The Justice encouraged the graduates to live out their commitment to what is good and right. “Who will be watching you, and what will you be teaching them?” he asked.
“These small lessons become the unplanned syllabus for becoming a good citizen, and your efforts to live them will help to form the fabric of a civil society and a free and prosperous nation where inherent equality and liberty are inviolable.”
Justice Thomas’ words are deceptively simple – the kind of advice that’s easily understood but takes a lifetime to master. In a world where a sense of entitlement seems to govern so much of what we say and do, learning the counter-cultural principles of personal responsibility, duty and honor also takes divine help.
Perhaps that’s why, in closing, Justice Thomas told the graduates, “Do not hide your faith and your beliefs under a bushel basket, especially in this world that seems to have gone mad with political correctness. Treat others the way you would like to be treated if you stood in their shoes.”
I encourage you to watch Justice Thomas’ speech, which I am including, below.