Graduations

Graduation address given by Associate Professor Peter A Gerangelos

Associate Professor Peter A Gerangelos gave the following occasional address at the Faculty of Law graduation ceremony held at 2.00pm on 27 May 2011 in the Great Hall.

Graduation address

Deputy Chancellor, Dean of Law Professor Triggs, Distinguished Professors and Colleagues, New Graduates, Ladies and Gentlemen

In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Caroline Bingley declares: "I should like Balls infinitely better if they were carried on in a different manner ... It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing was made the order of the day." "Much more rational, I dare say," replied her brother, "but it would not be near so much like a Ball." The same might be said of a graduation; much more rational if degrees were simply handed out, without the processions in gowns and hoods, music, and speeches in the Great Hall. More efficient and rational, I daresay, but it would not be "near so much like" a graduation. For a graduation, like a Ball, or a wedding ceremony, is attempting to communicate something which, while rational, cannot be contained within the confines of pure reason or words, even the grandest encomium. It is touching upon something far more lofty, and yet lofty in a purely joyful, indeed jubilant, sense. Even Plato, who despised the poets, said that the most profound of philosophical thoughts can only best be expressed when chanted or sung.

A graduation then is more like a triumph put on by the University celebrating great deeds. Our alma mater ("nourishing mother" from the Latin) is today rewarding you, our new graduates and members of the Academy, and celebrating with you; for the years in which, like a Roman matron, she has been a rather hard task-mistress, compelling you to read much, to attend many lectures, pursue scholarship long into the night and otherwise "serve with rigour". She has compelled you to limit, and oftentimes deny, even the most innocent and sweet pleasures of youth in the hope that you may acquire a taste for the even more exquisite pleasures of the life of the mind and the spirit; for the gaining of wisdom and, one hopes, character, without which of course you are rendered nothing but a clanging cymbal or sounding brass. Character immunes a person from the folly and the "spin" of pure worldliness, and which once led old Diogenes, John the Baptist-like, to walk the streets of Athens with his lantern proclaiming, "I seek out a true human being."

To make amends then, Alma Mater is inviting our new graduates today to drink from a cup of fine wine, indeed to dance with her at this Ball which we call a graduation ceremony.

But, beware the cup she is offering. The wine is red, strong, full-flavoured, and there will be moments when you will beseech her to let this cup pass from you. "How can that be so?" you may ask. Surely, graduating as lawyers, the road ahead is indeed opening up a path to honours, power, wealth and a seat at the most sought after tables in the land. It enables one to be a champion for all manner of persons, whether it be in your Phillip Street Chambers or in the more humble, though no less important, office of the family solicitor. The lawyer's voice is listened to, her words will have impact, his very presence will have influence.

The problem is that this road, in all its myriad byways, does not traverse only through “broad, sunlit uplands” - if only that were so - but rather winds its way tortuously through scenes of suffering and lamentation, deceit and injustice, indifference and callousness. For, in the words of John Milton, "Sin and Death rejoice to arrive on Earth, ready to glut themselves on fallen Man, Beasts and Nature." Of course, many members of the public will think that a large proportion of lawyers are only too happy to make a party with Milton's personified Sin and Death; that conceiving rich pickings with their deep involvement in the conduct of human affairs, the fraud and corruption which they will witness, prosecute and or defend, the ease with which humans enter conflict and are solicited into litigation, that they too will readily proceed to glut themselves.

But that is not what Alma Mater intends. She hopes, rather, that you will be a remedy, an antidote to all this, a champion for the very things the darker lights of our nature seek to trample upon: for what is just, proper and true, for equity and mercy, fair dealing, the just resolution of conflict at all levels of society, the defence of liberty and of the downtrodden, of the proverbial "widows and orphans", strangers and outsiders, and all those against whom "Sin and Death" have wrought their outrages, whether they be nations, persons or the values of common decency and humanity. She hopes that, in the original words of the oath you one day may be taking, you "will do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will." In the very taking of such an oath, it must be realised and appreciated that it is not just a form of words which sound very nice indeed. Think hard on it, because one is in fact putting up as surety their very soul, their very inner being, for a promise that one is prepared to suffer, sometimes more dearly than realised, to uphold such high principles.

There may be many of my professional colleagues, veterans of countless brutal, albeit genteel, battles in the courts, and whom the years have condemned with an everthickening hide of cynicism, who will snigger, or at least be embarrassed by, such high sounding, hopelessly altruistic sentiments. Which one of us indeed, who has been through such things, is immune from such cynicism, made more understandable by the fact that it is often those who have made the most noise about such things who have been found the most wanting? But the lawyer must not shy away from these principles and the trials they entail. For as Sir (later St) Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England in the reign of Henry VIII, said: "We may not at our pleasure go to heaven in feather beds, it is not the way." Amidst all the strife and rigours of professional life, it is these ideals from your youth, from the cup which Alma Mater is today offering you, which will sustain you.

But how can one stand? How can one perceive, let alone resist, even those whispers to cut that first corner, to take that easy but suspicious shortcut, to tell that little lie which eases the way, to break that small but important promise because something better has turned up, to tread ever so easily on just the foot of a colleague so that one might take that step upward, to acquiesce in silence at the betrayal of a friend who is now perceived a rival or, pusillanimously, out of simple fear of getting involved. Because, as we know, the first step on the slippery downward slope to scoundrelhood seems the easiest and the most harmless. Even Lady Macbeth started no doubt with a seemingly innocent and pleasant thought: "Wouldn't it be nice to be Queen one day?" It was only when it was too late that she yelled, again and again, "out damned spot!", over the last remnants of innocent blood on her hands which she could not wash off. But how could she now silence her outraged conscience, making its last stand, which was itself making the "spot" indelible.

Here the voice of Alma Mater will whisper in the other ear because she has taught otherwise. She has not simply trained us to be technicians, although she has insisted that we be that too, and good ones at that. She has taught us something else besides. For it was in the Academy, in fact at its very founding two and half thousand years ago, that was posited a fundamental and non-negotiable principle by its founder Plato. In his Republic, Plato made this the subject of his dialogue: Is it better to be powerful, rich and famous, though unjust, or better to live the just life, even if obscure and in poverty?

In order to shred from the issue all extraneous considerations he set up the following extreme dichotomy: "Let the unjust man be entirely unjust, and the just man entirely just," said Plato. The former type must be the person who, desiring fame and wealth, committed every crime imaginable to achieve it; yet was never found out. Although utterly cynical, corrupt, and venal, wealth and the highest offices in the land are his, every accolade and glory that the world can bestow, together with the reputation of being completely just. "And at his side," continued Plato, "let us place the just man in his nobleness and simplicity, wishing, as Aeschylus says, to be and not to seem good. There must be no seeming, for if he seem to be just he will be honoured and rewarded, and then we shall not know whether he is just for the sake of justice or for the sake of honours and rewards;...[Rather] [l]et him be the best of men, and let him be thought the worst; then he will have been put to the proof; and we shall see whether he will be affected by the fear of infamy and its consequences. And let him continue thus to the hour of death; ...[T]he just man who is thought unjust will be scourged, racked, bound, will have his eyes burnt out; and, at last, after suffering every kind of evil, he will be impaled." The rest of the dialogue continues to defend that, even in these extremes, which I hope none of us will have to endure, it is ultimately the latter person that lives the better and happier life, the one to which we ought aspire. It is the latter life which has the greatest significance and lasting influence for good on future generations.

These words have had continuing influence and consequences through the centuries. Five students in their twenties, four men and a woman, and Professor Kurt Huber, from the University of Munich, were arrested and sentenced to death for distributing pamphlets in Germany which denounced National Socialism during the Second World War. One of the students, Christolph Probst, was a married man with two very young children. They knew that they were launching their protest against an overwhelming power that would inevitably destroy them. "What does death matter," said Sophie Scholl after her arrest, "if thousands are stirred and awakened by what we have done?" She was twenty three. They printed and distributed leaflets in the name of "The White Rose". While millions acquiesced, these five, not much more than boys and girls, fought. "Down with Hitler" they painted at night on buildings in the Ludwigstrasse and the single word "Liberty" over the University entrance. The leaflets, too, were simple and direct in language. We are told that they had been reading Plato and Aristotle, St Augustine and St John Chrysostom, Pascal and their own German writers Goethe, Schiller and Novalis. The Schiller quotation reads thus: "Everything may be sacrificed to the welfare of the State except that of which the State itself is only a means. The State itself is never the aim; it is important only as a condition for the fulfilment of the aim of humanity." And in another pamphlet, one of the last, they wrote: "We must attack evil where it is most powerful....we shall not be silent; we are your importunate conscience: 'The White Rose' will give you no peace."

The totalitarian power they challenged simply crushed them with indifference, like so many annoying bugs underfoot. They were all executed by beheading. Christolph Probst wrote to his sister before the end: "I never knew that dying is so easy....I die without any feeling of hatred...Never forget that life is nothing but a growing in love and a preparation for eternity." And in their lives and deaths, they fulfilled the words of Pericles in his Funeral Oration for those who had died on the field at Marathon: "Our love of things of the mind does not make us soft".

From this potent, bitter-sweet cup of alma mater, of which the youthful members of the White Rose partook, myriads of other young people have also shared. Lieutenant Constantine Koukides was the officer on flag duty on the Acropolis when it, and all Athens, was occupied by the Axis forces in 1941. Ordered by the usurper to have his men lower the blue and white flag of his nation, each of the nine stripes of which represent the nine syllables in its motto, "Liberty or Death", he stood at attention, in his full ceremonial uniform and kilt, raising his sword to salute the blue-eyed maiden as she came down, tears unashamedly streaming down his face. He folded her neatly and kissed her as his men presented her to him. As the Swastika was being raised over the Parthenon - the perverse symbolism of this scene I am sure is not lost on anyone here today - it was as if some part of his whole emotional and spiritual world had died. Partaking of a full draught of the cup of Alma Mater, he refused to hand over his nation's flag and his regiment's colours to the senior German officer who demanded it; instead unfolding her and, despising the arrogant impertinence of the invaders, led her in a few steps of the battle dance of his people, handed down the centuries from their Homeric ancestors. Before anyone realised what he was doing, he embraced her close, took the final salute from his men and proceeded to march with her over the cliff of the Acropolis to his death. By the very blood from his youthful body he washed clean the desecration of that scene.

Such deeds do not go unnoticed. "Their sound is gone out into all lands; and their words unto the ends of the world". Churchill, moved, rose in the House of Commons: "Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks." It is our wish and hope today that in the future, because of you, people will not say that Sydney Law School graduates practice law like eminent jurists, but that eminent jurists practice law like Sydney Law School graduates.

My aim today is to the put the question: "What is the ultimate principle by which the law is to be directed?” Are not these stories perhaps too remote from this? Not if you think, as the Law Lord, Viscount Radcliffe did, that "the ends of law are to be learnt from many sources other than its own primers and textbooks and there is no source more compelling than the judgment of those who in their own lives have confounded man's law by a higher test. We cannot learn law by [only] learning law. If it is to be anything more than a technique, it is to be much more than itself: a part of history, a part of economics, a part of ethics and a philosophy of life. It is not strong enough in itself to be a philosophy in itself. It must stand rooted in that great tradition of humana civilitas from which have grown the institutions of the Western world. Cut it away from that tradition, no matter for how good a reason, and it will lose what sustains its life. The great tradition which has sustained our civilisation...was in fact never intended merely for the lawyer. It was the product of the moralist, the theologian, and the philosopher. Their teachings were aimed at everyone. They spoke to the lawyer certainly but even more directly to the prince or legislator, individual or assembly: they spoke to Pope and Emperor, Archbishop and King, as well as to priest and magistrate; and, most importantly, to the heart of each individual
person. In one sense we are all committed."

Those of us who have been your teachers send you off with best wishes and good will. Alma Mater will worry about what will happen to you, for she knows that those of you of goodwill and good heart must needs suffer. But she urges you, as did Edmund Burke two and half centuries ago, that: "It is [nevertheless] our business, carefully to cultivate our minds, to rear to the most perfect vigour and maturity, every sort of generous and honest feeling that belongs to our nature. To bring the dispositions that are lovely in private life into the service and conduct of the commonwealth...Public life is a situation of power and energy; he trespasses against his duty who sleeps upon his watch, as well as he that goes over to the enemy."

And so, I figuratively raise my glass in salute to the new graduates. I welcome them as full members of the Academy, and I salute their parents especially, and their families, many of whom I know have spilled blood, perhaps some literally but certainly metaphorically, to get you here today; like my own recently late father (to whom, with your forbearance, I wish to pay tribute) and my mother; especially those of you came here from far across the seas with nothing more than hope and determination in your hearts and a dream that one day your children will be able to stand here today to be toasted at the feast of this University. In every beginning there is a magic force. I wish you joy of your great achievement.