DLCL 2022 Commencement Address

Commencement address at Stanford


Sarah Prodan, Assistant Professor of French and Italian addressed the graduates at the DLCL 2022 Commencement on Sunday, June 12, 2022 at Dinkelspiel Auditorium with the following speech:

"Hello, and a warm congratulations to our graduates! My name is Sarah Prodan, and I am a faculty member in the Department of French and Italian. It is my pleasure and my honor to speak to you on behalf of the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages.

In preparing for today, I contemplated many different addresses. Some of them humorous. One of them titled “Of Unicorns”:  not the rare start-up valued at over a billion dollars, but rather the fantastical creature that has dominated the human imaginary for at least a millennium – a figure that in the West has symbolized indomitability, gentleness, civility, and grace as well as our irrepressible capacity and abiding commitment to dream.

At the first in-person convocation since 2019, you see, I wanted to sound an optimistic note and to speak to the perennial gifts of a humanities education. I hope to do both with my address. Rather than speak of unicorns, I thought I would ground my discussion of universal things in a very concrete, historical particular with the words one friend wrote to another in the year 1513:

When evening comes, I return to my home, and I go into my study; and on the threshold, I take off my everyday clothes, which are covered with mud and mire, and I put on regal curial robes; and dressed in a more appropriate manner I enter into the courts of ancient men and am welcomed by them kindly, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born; and there I am not ashamed to speak to them, to ask them the reasons for their actions; and they, in their humanity, answer me; and for four hours I feel no boredom, I dismiss every affliction, I no longer fear poverty nor do I tremble at the thought of death: I become completely part of them.

The author of these words, originally composed in Italian, is none other than the Italian Renaissance writer and political thinker Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527). This famous personal letter from which I have shared but a brief excerpt ranks among the most memorable in the Italian epistolary tradition. In it, Machiavelli describes his existence in the Tuscan countryside – the new life he was attempting to build, or re-build, on the ashes of the old. The previous year, he had been imprisoned and tortured on the suspicion that he had engaged in activities against the newly restored Medici rulers of Florence whose recent return from exile signaled the end of the Florentine Republic. A former high-ranking bureaucrat, and a diplomat personally acquainted with the most powerful rulers in his age, Machiavelli found himself suddenly out of work, out of favor, and out of luck. 

Among the daily activities he undertook during that difficult time, reading and study were central. He began his day with the great poets of the Italian literary tradition, Dante and Petrarch. In the evening, he set aside time to commune with the great thinkers and writers of antiquity, from whom he sought both wisdom and comfort.

His letter describes the ritual he established. His words convey the sacredness he attributed to the affair and the transformative effect of the exercise. He writes of sustenance, and the resonances are religious. The monastic tradition encouraged rumination on sacred text as a way to assimilate and embody divine knowledge.

It is left to our imagination whether Machiavelli’s dialogue with the ancients took the form of a literal conversation – a séance with the dead, if you will – or rather a more figurative kind of engagement on his part with the texts his favorite authors had left behind: artifacts of a lost world containing valuable knowledge and insight for the modern age; relics of great thinkers to be revived and revered. 

Machiavelli was no passive adopter of history or tradition, nor was he an individual given to mystification. He was the very founder of modern political theory. He became so, in part, because, like Leonardo da Vinci and the other great polymaths of his day, he opened himself to the truths and authorities of the past, then submitted them to critical analysis and rigorous testing, revising and reproposing concepts and narratives that they might better reflect current knowledge and circumstances and better serve the moment and the people inhabiting it.

Is this not the essence of the humanistic enterprise? To open oneself to a text, a language, or another. To seek engagement, understanding, and insight. To imagine and re-imagine the world and our stories about it. To interpret and re-interpret, to create and re-create human realities and our narratives about them in meaningful ways and forms that might positively impact our lot as individuals and societies.

This letter reveals but one facet of Machiavelli, or one of many Machiavellis, if you will. To me, it is the most beautiful one, a Machiavelli both fragile and fierce. One with whom I can find common ground despite the differences in culture and character for which the great Renaissance thinker would have likely denied me this podium and the very education we celebrate today.

The Machiavelli of this letter is an individual who met adversity with ingenuity. An individual aware of his humanity and the importance of the stories we tell (and he could craft a good tale!). More importantly, it is a Machiavelli who understood that certain kinds of light can only be perceived under particular conditions of darkness – shrouds of mystery and shadows of night. He likely conceived of humanistic study in a manner akin to the way Plato understood education: as a “re-orientation of a mind from a kind of twilight to true daylight” (ct, Book 7).

Machiavelli’s ritual was a nocturnal exercise, one conducted as dusk yielded to the darkness of night – a time “more sacred than day,” to borrow the words of the great Florentine artist and poet Michelangelo, for “only shade will do for sowing mankind” (“ma l’ombra sol a piantar l’uomo serve”).

Michelangelo meant both literal and figurative sowing, acts of procreation as well as self-cultivation – such was the playfulness of Michelangelo and the character of Renaissance wit. But the metaphor of cultivation has a long tradition, from the garden philosophy of the ancient Greek sage Epicurus through the eighteenth-century French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, who expressed through his character Candide the importance of sowing and tending: “il faut cultiver notre jardin” (“We must cultivate our garden”).

Machiavelli’s letter suggests not only that the humanistic pursuit is sacred and transformational, but also that it’s a continuous process, a collective endeavor, and an enterprise born of love and fueled by it. His letter speaks to the allure of literature; to the power of history and other imagined realities to stimulate the mind; and, to the continuity of discourse, dialogue, and project between one generation and the next.

Like Machiavelli, you’ve pierced veils and discovered new worlds. Like him, you possess treasures that will never leave you: your education and your experience – two things that can never be taken from you. Those throughout history who have suffered the worst this world can offer attest that this is everything.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from a Plato, a Michelangelo, a Machiavelli, or your time at college, is that behind committed engagement lies deep love – the kind that gets you through a degree in the humanities at Stanford; the kind that enables us to help each other through a program or a pandemic.

As we celebrate your numerous achievements and look forward with anticipation to the ones that surely lie ahead, I wish for you to appreciate the importance not only of what you’ve done, but also of who you’ve become.

You are imaginers, interpreters, bridge builders, and gardeners. In ways big and small, you are world-shaping events. Each a galaxy, with its beauty, power, and quintessence; its unique modes of thinking, feeling, expressing, and operating. Each in a constant state of evolution and becoming.

I have many wishes for you – the present you and the you(s) to come. Chief among them is that your education be more than an adornment of your person or your wall; that it be a vital and vitalizing instrument; a living flame to warm and illuminate skies, personal and collective; an enduring promise to yourself and to your communities, for here’s the twist: while your education and your educational experience is deeply personal, it not only for or about you. A liberal arts education never has been.

Your education is more than the ideas to which you’ve been exposed, the habits you’ve developed, the metaphorical bread you’ve tasted. It is a sacred trust. Plato’s philosopher king did not leave the cave to see the light and walk away. He had a duty to return, armed with a new perspective, a new consciousness about the cave and its dwellers. As you prepare to re-enter the world beyond Stanford, you do so with similar gifts and responsibilities.

And so, I wish for you to wear your education lightly, with joy and a sense of freedom. I wish also that you deploy it wisely in service of personal goals and development but also social and civic life. And like that enchanting horned creature that I did not speak to you about today, may you embody the kind of rare hybridity for which it has been made to stand: keenness of intellect complemented by openness of mind; strength of will tempered by tenderness of heart. May the best, and the best of you, be yet to come!

Thank you."