Character and Destiny

Speech by Professor Pericles Lewis, President, Yale-NUS College
First Year Assembly 2015
Yale-NUS College, Singapore
6 August 2015


Governing Board Chairperson Madam Kay Kuok,

National University of Singapore President Tan Chorh Chuan,

Governing Board members,

Yale-NUS colleagues,

Students of the Class of 2019,


Welcome to Yale-NUS College and to our new campus. We are delighted to have you here with us.

As you begin your studies, I hope you will ask yourselves some questions about what you plan to achieve and how you wish to develop over the next four years.

I am sure that you want to learn and to express yourselves in many different ways and on many different levels. You will take certain courses, including our common curriculum, and major in a particular discipline, engage in extra-curricular activities, make friends from all over the world, prepare for life after college, and perhaps also travel or study abroad. But what deeper purpose underlies all of these valuable experiences?

I am a professor of literature, and as sophomores and juniors will tell you, I usually quote a poem in each of my speeches. Today I will try something different—and quote a couple of philosophers. In your course on philosophy and political thought this semester, you will read the works of many philosophers including these two, Aristotle and Confucius, who both raise essential questions about the growth of the human mind and character that is the purpose of college.

Followers of Confucius, who lived in the sixth and fifth centuries BC in China, collected many of his views and observations in a book called Lunyu, or Conversations, known to us by the Greek name Analects.

In the first lines of the Analects, Confucius says “Is it not a pleasure to learn and, when it is timely, to practice what you have learned? Is it not a joy to have friends coming from afar? Is it not gentlemanly not to become resentful if no one takes notice of your learning?”

I think that we can all agree, at the beginning of your college career, that learning should be a pleasure, that putting your learning into practice can be fun, and—as we welcome students from over thirty countries—that it is a joy to have friends coming from afar.

In a few moments, I would like to come back to the question of “gentlemanly” conduct that Confucius mentions in the third sentence I just quoted. But let me say for now that the kind of education we practice at Yale-NUS is very much based on “conversation,” conversations between past and present, conversations between cultures, and especially the conversations between students and faculty in the classroom and the less formal conversations among all members of the campus community that supplement the learning in the classroom.

In the fourth century BC, at the other end of the Eurasian land mass, another philosopher made some observations similar to those of Confucius. Aristotle begins his Metaphysics with the observation that “All men desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves.” As with Confucius, the emphasis is on the importance of understanding the world around us, although Aristotle characterizes knowledge in terms of perceiving the world around us, whereas Confucius begins with learning and conversation.

Both of these philosophers emphasize not only the attainment of knowledge but also putting that knowledge to good use. Confucius speaks of ren or humaneness, which we might also translate as benevolence, and which Confucius tends to connect to self-restraint and avoiding harm to others. In a more positive sense, scholars have interpreted ren as “internal beauty of character.”

In contrast to Confucius, Aristotle places the highest value on intellectual virtue and the contemplative life, but he distinguishes intellectual virtue, which can be taught, from moral virtue, which he says “comes about as a result of habit,” and he points out that the word for morals in Greek,ethics, comes from the word for custom or habit, ethos, which can also be translated as character.

Many educators today have discussed the role of schools, whether elementary or secondary schools, or colleges and universities, in forming students’ characters. Aristotle’s distinction between intellectual and moral virtue is relevant to us here at Yale-NUS. In the classroom, and in your reading and your written assignments, we are cultivating intellectual virtues: inquisitiveness, rationality, the use of evidence, perceptiveness, honesty. But these intellectual virtues do not exist on their own. In fact, Aristotle makes it clear that for the intellectual virtues to flourish they must be undergirded by the moral virtues, such as courage, temperance, liberality, magnanimity, good temper, truthfulness, ready wit, friendliness, and modesty.

We might come up with a different list of virtues that would include for example, integrity, sympathy, or industriousness. But the question is how to inculcate the habits of these good virtues. We cannot just assign you readings or even exercises or problem sets to teach you how to be friendly and courageous. Rather, the hope of Yale-NUS, and of residential liberal education in general, is that by living and working together, and by venturing out of the classroom in our co-curricular and experiential learning programs, you will yourselves make the connections between your studies and the kind of person you want to become.

The complexity of character education today lies in the fact that we may not all agree on what constitutes a virtuous character. Take the virtue of temperance. We can probably all agree that drunken rowdiness should be discouraged, but we may disagree on whether a few drinks are acceptable or whether it is better not to drink alcohol at all. Or, to take a more controversial example, I can advise you that you should respect your own and others’ bodies, but if I were to try to prescribe in detail what activities are permissible between consenting young adults, you would perhaps rightly ask what business it is of mine.

Even if we examine an accepted norm, such as industriousness, this challenge persists. I am sure we can all agree that students should work hard, and that by the university level, they have also earned a certain amount of autonomy. So the College does not establish particular hours at which students must study. It is up to you to get your work done and to determine for yourselves the right balance among various activities, although our Dean’s Fellows and other residential staff are happy to help you try to find this equilibrium.

Likewise, if we look back at the virtues praised by Aristotle, or the gentlemanly conduct encouraged by Confucius, we may wonder whether the prejudices of their own times reinforced their ideas of character. There may have been greater consensus in their communities about ethical matters, but this may also have been a product of their backgrounds. In particular, the virtues they both praised tended to be those associated with “gentlemen,” that is, well-born or aristocratic men. Yet both Aristotle and Confucius had a democratic element in their philosophies in that they believed that these gentlemanly virtues could be attained by any free citizen. And of course we might add that they can be attained by women too. In fact, one of the notable features of the word “virtue” is that it has gone from being associated mainly with men in Roman times to being associated more closely with women in modern times.

More importantly, the values we designate by “character” are clearly not the monopoly of any class, race, or sex—and yet different cultures, and different people within any given culture, may view them differently. I invite you therefore not just to develop the habits that Aristotle, or Confucius, or current-day educational theorists, may think are most important, but to question your own assumptions and prejudices and to decide what sort of character you want to develop. We can then all work together, as part of a supportive community, to try to help each other learn the habits of character that we agree to admire.

And this brings us to the role of the college as a community and as a place to train young people for citizenship. The second president of the United States, John Adams, was perhaps not the most democratic of the founding fathers, but he had a particular view of the role of liberal arts colleges in developing citizens for the new republic. During the debates about the US Constitution in the 1780’s, he wrote that “By gentlemen are not meant the rich or the poor, the high-born or the low-born, the industrious or the idle: but all those who have received a liberal education, an ordinary degree of erudition in liberal arts and sciences. Whether by birth they be descended from magistrates and officers of government, or from husbandmen, merchants, mechanics, or laborers, or whether they be rich or poor.” In other words, like Aristotle and Confucius, Adams thought that there were certain virtues associated with being a gentleman regardless of a person’s background, and he thought that an education in liberal arts and sciences was the prerequisite for being a gentleman in this sense. At least since the time of John Adams, one of the goals of liberal education has been cultivating character and citizenship.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Republic of Singapore here in Singapore’s first liberal arts college, we are proud to be trail-blazers in the local and even the international educational landscape. I hope that the education we provide at Yale-NUS will help you to develop both the intellectual and moral virtues to contribute actively to civic life within your immediate community and beyond. I trust that you will examine your own assumptions about the good life and the best way to live it. I know that you will work together to cultivate a broad ethos of service, as Professor Tan has described. The Greeks also said that “character is destiny,” and I believe that you will collectively take the opportunity to shape and improve your own characters and thereby shape your destinies.

Thank you.