Wolves, Serpents, and Doves
Remarks for Commencement Exercises
Montpelier, Vermont - January 14, 1996
In the tenth Chapter of Matthew, Jesus calls his twelve disciples together and gives them a set of instructions prior to sending them out to preach. One of the things he tells them - this is in Verse 16 - is: "Behold, I send you out in the midst of wolves; so be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves."
When you think about it, this is a curious injunction. For how can a person be, at the same time, as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove? I've been puzzling about this for almost fifty years now, and it would be pleasant to say that I've come to definite conclusions about it. But I can't. I remain, in a way, just as confused by it now as I was when I first heard it. I sometimes think that's what Jesus had in mind. Maybe he said to himself, "I'll confuse the hell out of these guys, and then, at least, they won't be arrogant."
We can't be sure. Scarcely anyone - other than, maybe, Jerry Falwell - knows exactly what Jesus had in mind. Still, though we can't fully grasp his meaning, his words do seem worth attending to, or, at least, they have seemed so to lots of people over the centuries. With that in mind, I've planned this morning briefly to think out loud with you about these three animal metaphors - wolves, serpents, doves - to see if we can find any guidance in what they symbolize.
Before I turn to them directly, though, I'll digress just enough to point out that the passage I've selected for my text exemplifies perfectly what we are looking for in liberal study. It says something to us, something specific enough to set our minds to working. Yet, it is not a statement that we can, finally, get to the bottom of. There is always something else about it that we need to explore. It is endless in the questions it sets before us. We can't play fast and loose with it, yet, on the other hand, we can't completely pin it down. It gives us room for interpretation, but it does not give us room for irresponsible interpretation. In short, it means something, but not something we can fully digest.
I'll tell you this, frankly: as a long-time participant in pedagogical wars, it frustrates me to see students spending their time on texts that can be briefly and fully digested. That is the kind of reading we should be doing while watching Seinfeld; it is not worthy of our exclusive attention. And, among the things I hope for our graduates today, one is that receiving their baccalaureate degrees will not mean that they will give up reading that cannot be fully digested, in favor of an endless diet of newspapers, self-help books, and Time magazine.
Now, to return to our three animals - wolf, serpent, and dove: one of the lessons I try to get across to my students is that when they're confronting a symbolic passage, the first thing to do is to take in the obvious meaning. If a teacher can persuade his students to pay attention to what's right in front of their faces, a big part of the educational battle has been won. What's right in front of our faces in Verse 16 of the Tenth Chapter of Matthew is that wolves are the creatures we are going out amongst, and creatures we have to be on guard against. They are not the creatures we are going to become, not if we do what's right.
I must pause to say, lest there are wolf lovers in the audience, that I'm speaking here of metaphorical, and not of natural, wolves. I'm aware that recent zoological investigation has indicated that natural wolves are noble animals, and I have no quarrel with that finding. But, metaphorical wolves exist as creatures who slash, and rip, and tear for the purpose of getting their meat. That's all they care about, and they will rip and tear and slash anyone who gets in their way.
It's probably worth noting that the Jesus of the Gospels, though he has managed to get a pretty good press over the centuries, is not, in modern psychological parlance, an up-with-people guy. He came to preach not the goodness of humanity but the truth, and the goodness of the Kingdom of Heaven. He doesn't hesitate to point out that when you go among the people, you are going among wolves who will slash and rip and tear you if you get in their way. He did say, later in his story, that they don't know what they are doing when they do this. But they do it nonetheless, and when you're on the receiving end of the ripping and tearing and slashing it's not a great consolation to know that you're being ripped and torn and slashed by people who don't know what they're doing.
Even though this ripping and tearing and slashing is out there in the world, Jesus doesn't advise his followers to take it up themselves. He doesn't say, "fight fire with fire" or "if you can't lick 'em join 'em. He doesn't have what might be called a Nixonian approach to the world. Rather, he says that when you go among the wolves, be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.
You'll note that these two things are enjoined together. You can't get by being as wise as a serpent alone, and you can't get by being as innocent as a dove. You have to be wise and innocent together.
This brings us back to our confusion. For, how can we be two things that don't seem to fit with one another?
Recently, I've been struck by the general similarity of Jesus's message to that of Epictetus, a Greco-Roman philosopher who was born several years after Jesus died, in A.D. 50, and lived a long life, well into the second century, till the year 138. There's no indication that Epictetus ever heard of Jesus, no mention of Christianity in the works he left us. Yet, as I said, his advice and Jesus's advice have many commonalities. So, I thought I might look to him for a hint about what it means to be wise as a serpent.
Epictetus's message, throughout his four discourses is very definite on the subject of wisdom, and is summed up by this passage. He asks, "Can you then show us in what way you have taken care of the soul? For it is not likely that you, who are so wise a man and have a reputation in the city, inconsiderately and carelessly allow the most valuable thing that you possess to be neglected and to perish.”
Readers of the Gospels will be immediately struck by the close affinity of this sentiment to Matthew, XVI, 26, where Jesus asks, "What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
So Jesus and Epictetus both are telling us that the wisest thing we can do is to possess and to take care of our own souls. And both are fairly clear about what that means. Here is Epictetus, for example: "But, if you ask me how you will fare, I can tell you: if you have right opinions you will fare well; if they are false, you will fare ill."
So, when we go out among the wolves, we need to be in possession of who we are, of our inner selves, of our own souls, and we need to have our minds in right order. And this will help protect us against the ripping, and the tearing, and the slashing of the world.
Still, though, there's this dove business. "Be as innocent as doves." We have to try to come to grips with that.
To get at the quality of innocence that I sense Jesus was talking about is the hardest task facing us in the modern world. This is because the very purpose of the myth of modernity - the myth that we live and breathe and use to tell ourselves how intelligent we are - is to destroy innocence. For better and for worse, the great prophet of the modern myth remains Sigmund Freud, and it was Sigmund Freud who said, "The goal of all life is death," and "Religion is comparable to a childhood neurosis." For a century now, sentiments such as these have operated as the essence of sophistication. They are so firmly established in the world of intellect that to raise questions about them is to be consigned, automatically, to simple-mindedness.
The myth of modernity teaches us that only we, the people of this era, among all the people who have ever walked the earth, know, really, what's going on. And, what's going on is exceedingly naturalistic, exceedingly determinative, and exceedingly nasty. And if you take your vision of reality from your daily newspaper, you'll doubtless conclude that the myth of modernity is damnned right.
I am reminded that the Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle, who clearly saw the dawning of the myth of modernity as early as the middle of the 19th century, and who predicted its influence in a letter to John Stuart Mill where he said, "I could have been the merriest of men had I not been the sickest and the saddest," tried for the first time, when he was in his mid-fifties, to subscribe to a newspaper. But he very quickly had to give it up because he said he was "wearied out, reading night after night of human violence and imbecile delirium from Paris and all other places."
In the modern world we have fixed our minds on human violence and imbecile delirium, and, lo and behold, we are finding more and more of it.
There are, though, faint hints that we might be right at the edge of something different. Perhaps you've noticed that we seem to be in the midst of a revival of interest in Jane Austen. A whole series of films have been made recently from her novels, and this very night, on the Cable Channel A&E there's going to be shown the first episode of a new version of Pride and Prejudice. I'm very glad to see this revival because throughout my teaching career I've been talking up Jane Austen, and I can tell you that hasn't always won me a lot of favor, particularly not in an up-to-date place like the ADP.
One of my favorite passages from Jane Austen occurs in her novel Emma, where the title character steps out of shop, looks up and down the street of her village, and is characterized by the statement: "A mind lively and at ease can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that will not answer."
Just think what an innocent thing that is to say! The very idea of a mind lively and at ease is naive. For isn't the mind a seething cauldron of turgid neuroses?
Well, I don't know what it is. I guess it's one thing at one time and another thing at another. Certainly, I'm not going to stand her and tell you that I, a child of the 20th century, can dismiss all the lessons of modernity. Because I can't.
I do, however, find some relief from modernity in the knowledge that, down the ages, people have continued to debate the question of whether humanity has any control over the mind at all. The smartest people have often argued that we don't. We can revert, once again, to Thomas Carlyle for a statement of the prevailing intellectual belief: "I now perceive more clearly than ever, that any man's opinions depend not on himself so much as on the age he lives in, or even the persons with whom he associates." I suppose from a social-scientific point of view that's true. But people keep on raising the question of whether we have to be governed by the social-scientific point of view? Another way of putting the question is to ask whether we are free to shape the minds we want to have?
To return to what I'm supposed to be talking about - that is, the dove business - it seems clear to me that the innocence Jesus was advocating is the ability to control one's own mind, and thereby to be lively and at ease, to look at the world freshly and directly, and not through the lens of neuroses, and to concentrate on beauty in the midst of much that is not beautiful.
As I said at the beginning, I don't know whether that's possible. But I do think that's what Jesus was telling us to try for, and that innocence of that sort married to deep self-knowledge is the only thing that can protect us from the ripping and tearing and slashing of the world.
So now, I'll come clean and admit that I'm naive enough, childish enough, to hope that Jesus was right, and furthermore, to hope that these graduates whom we gather here to honor today will, as we send them out among the wolves, be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves, and that by being so they will secure for themselves whatever blessing this strange universe has to offer.