Civilized Reader:
“If youth knew;
if age could”

In times of cultural transition such as our own, we would do well to heed the words of the great poets, philosophers, and theologians in our tradition to gain insight and guidance.

Numbered among them might be William Faulkner (1897-1962), the noted American novelist and leading figure in what is known as the Southern literary renaissance, which includes such poets and literary critics as John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, and Donald Davidson and novelists and short story writers Caroline Cordon, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Katherine Anne Porter.

Faulkner found in his own mythical Yoknapatawpha county in Mississippi fertile ground for his imagination, where he was able to give form to the central credo of his work: to chronicle “the heart in conflict with itself.”

He was recognized internationally for his work and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949. The address he gave in Stockholm on December 10, 1950 remains a classic statement about the high purpose of the writer in our time.

The award marked a shift in his focus, moving away from a pessimistic and tragic view (characteristic of much of the literature of the first half of the twentieth century) to a more comic and hopeful vision for the human race. In addition to this, a new persona emerged in Faulkner, one assuming more of a public role in American life, giving lectures and interviews.

Several months after the Stockholm address he gave the speech at his daughter’s graduation from University High School in Oxford, Mississippi. The four-minute address was delivered at Fulton Chapel on the Ole Miss campus on May 28, 1951 with the graduates, parents, teachers, and guests in attendance.

The core of the address follows:

What threatens us today is fear.

Not the atom bomb, nor even fear of it, because if the atom bomb fell on Oxford tonight, all it could do would be to kill us, which is nothing, since, in doing that, it would have robbed itself of its only power over us–which is fear of it, being afraid of it.

Our danger is not that. Our danger is in the forces in the world today which are trying to use man’s fear to rob him of his individuality, his soul, trying to reduce him to an unthinking mass by fear and bribery–giving him free food which he has not earned, easy and valueless money which he has not worked for.

That is what we must resist, if we are to change the world for man’s peace and security.

It is not men in the mass who can and will save Man, it is Man himself created in the image of God so that he shall have the power and the will to choose right from wrong, and so be able to save himself because he is worth saving.

Man, the individual men and women, who will refuse always to be tricked or frightened or bribed into surrendering, not just the right but the duty too, to choose between justice and injustice, courage and cowardice, sacrifice and greed, pity and self–who will believe always in the right of man to be free of injustice and rapacity and deception, but the duty and responsibility of man to see that justice and truth and pity and compassion are done.

So never be afraid.

Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion, against injustice and lying and greed.

If you, not just you in this room tonight but in all the thousands of other rooms like this one about the world today and tomorrow and next week, will do this, not as a class or classes, but as individuals, men and women, you will change the earth.

In one generation, all the Napoleons and Hitlers and Caesars and Mussolinis and Stalins, and all the other tyrants who want power and aggrandizement, and all the simple politicians and time-servers who themselves are merely baffled or ignorant or afraid, who have used, or are using, or hope to use, man’s fear and greed for man’s enslavement, will have vanished from the face of it.

One must remember the general climate of the Cold War that existed at this time in America. So intense was the fear that bomb shelters were built and schoolchildren were drilled in safety procedures in case of a nuclear attack. Faulkner knew how this climate of fear debases man and works against fostering proper social relations, especially love of neighbor, which from his startling words is worse than death.

I leave it to the civilized reader to draw out the connections between 1951 and 2021 and to see the truth in Faulkner’s warning.

Faulkner began his talk by citing an epigram of Henri Estienne, a sixteenth-century French classicist, translator, and printer: “If youth knew; if age could.” In this saying, we see both a paradoxical truth and a duty: a truth about youth and knowing, age and ability; and an implicit duty for youth to embark on the path to wisdom and for age to impart it. Faulkner in this address has carried out his part of the task.

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