Inspiring Commencement Speeches | Elmer Hewitt Capen

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Now, on to today’s reading, which was edited and adapted from The College and the Higher Life by Elmer Hewitt Capen, published by 1905.

Many people appear to think they are right so long as they are within the letter of the law. Technical morality is the only morality they know. But formal obedience is not enough. We must have regard rather to the ever-varying circumstances of human experience and need. This we cannot do by marching up to some rigid boundary line of duty fixed and determined by a definition that is unchangeable and eternal.

It is important that those who are starting out in life, or who are entering upon a new and untried way, should bear this in mind. We cannot simply frame our own standards. The whole compass of human duty cannot be embraced in a single formula, however broadly conceived or skillfully drawn.

The truth is we all stand under the boundless canopy of God. We confront a multitude of responsibilities whose complicated bearings are absolutely endless. Moreover, the imperatives which each of us must heed are inextricably involved with our own endowment. Because we are what we are (not merely as a child of God, but as the product of history and civilization), we are summoned to our own unique work.

Every individual should look within and around. You should make an inventory of what you have, and consider how the things in your possession are related to the things you would wish to acquire — how being and doing are parts of the same abiding reality and are to be present in every achievement. Thus, and thus only, can you properly interpret the everlasting commands of your soul.

Let me remind you that your talent, your endowment of intellect and moral perception, is a gift. This is what you brought with you into the world. It affords no ground for vanity, nor even of self-congratulation. You have no more right to pride yourself upon it than people have to pride themselves upon inherited wealth.

It should rather make you humble; though of course it may invite to gratitude. It may make you thankful that you are thus gifted and set apart. But even though you may be conscious of unusual power and means of accomplishment, it affords no reason for elation. It is only so much to start with.

Neither is there any occasion or justification for depression because you realize the limitation of your powers. The single talent is to be exercised for its own enrichment and for the “good of all” just as faithfully as the many talents — for it has just as much dignity and importance. The world requires from you not brilliant performance (striking and great achievement), but fidelity, steadfastness of purpose, and devotion in whatever station in life you are called to fill.

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