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Annapolis Commencement Address
Warren Winiarski, Class of 1952
May 16, 2010
Some things are different; some things are the same. The class – is it really a class, in more than the sense that you all came to St. John’s in the same year? You all have journeyed together – you all are graduating together – all commencing together.
What is also the same, as I understand, is a certain amount of anxiety about what your time at St. John's has given to you that will help in your lives going forward. Let me try to expose some parts of that question – (which is what I was asked to do) – using, in part, my own history. So I will ask you in advance to forgive a dwelling on myself more than would be seemly, but for your wish for me to do so.
I will start however, by letting you know that I admired the wonderful commencement remarks given here in 1984, a short 26 years ago, at my daughter’s graduation ceremonies, by Robert Fitzgerald, the poet and translator of Homer. His “invitation” to that class was, to put it in its briefest form, “Keep your eyes open.” He justified that suggestion by recounting a story about what happened to him when he was translating the Odyssey while living for awhile in a small Greek village. A time ago, after the last Great War, in many of these villages there were no street lights at night. So it was quite dark except for some dim light that might be coming from partially shuttered windows. Well, Fitzgerald was working deep into the night, caught up and fully absorbed in the characters, the mood, the time, and the texture of the narrative of the poem when his spell was broken by a sound just outside the door leading to the narrow street beyond. He recounted how he went to the door and opened it, as the full light from his room streamed out onto the street and, as if in a beam, it illuminated a beautiful, black-haired young woman. Startled, he blurted out in English, “Who are you?” And the answer came back, “Athena.” As it turned out, Athena was from some place in Ohio, visiting for the first time relatives who had remained in Greece, when her parents immigrated to America. But Fitzgerald’s question to the class was – “She said she was from Ohio, but was she?”
I think what he meant to suggest was that his experience that night was related to his invitation to them to “keep your eyes open.” And so I pose this question: If you were asked now to “keep your eyes open,” what is it you would be looking for? What should you be expecting to see?
Let me try to frame this question a bit tighter by going to the second part of my remarks. This will be “my story” that your class has said you wanted to hear. When I made my commencement (when I commenced) after leaving St. John's, I studied at the University of Chicago graduate school. First, in the department of Political Science and later in the Interdisciplinary Committee on Social Thought.
At the university, I consider myself fortunate to have been a student of Leo Strauss. Some time in those years, further research into the works of Machiavelli led me to a year of study in Italy, where along with Italian, I learned about wine as a daily meal-time beverage. Someone once said, “For Italians, a day without wine is like a day without sunshine.” And so, for me, Italy was full of sunshine and also some meals had included a glass or two of wine. It was of course, a pleasant beverage and it made the daily meal more interesting, refreshing, and lively. Previously, my familiarity with wine was only with tiny sips on celebratory occasions in the family household of my childhood. Some of you might remember that during Prohibition, the law permitted heads of households to make a limited quantity of wine for family use. My father did make wine then. After Prohibition was repealed, he continued to make it and we used the wine at family holidays as a special treat. (I might point out that my name Winiarski means in Polish “from a vintner” or “vintner’s son.”) After the year in Italy, I returned to the University of Chicago to resume my course work and began to teach a modified St. John’s curriculum in the Basic Program of the University College. The sunshine of Italy seemed far away then and the habit of wine hid behind the clouds of Midwestern sobriety. Until one day when a friend from Boston brought a bottle of wine made on the East Coast to a luncheon at our faculty housing apartment on campus. At this time, Barbara (Dvorak, Annapolis 1955, from which she was the first class of women at St. John’s College) and I had been married for four years and we were blessed with one child. The wine was, objectively, not remarkable in any way – it may not even have been made from vitis vinifera, the noble grape of European origin, but the experience of that wine was for me an Athena moment.
In the tasting of that wine I found myself asking not “who are you?” but “what are you?” – for wine was revealing itself to me not as a beverage but in the form of an epiphany. Something similar to that experience occurred for me at St. John’s. Some of you might also remember your freshman laboratory when the question was put to us, “What determines a flat plane surface?” Now the meaning of “flat” was to me then, as taken for granted as the parts of my body. But when we saw in the lab experiment that the meaning of flat was determined by three points – and those three points were determined by something called evenness - that was a revelation! And the revelation quality of that experience seemed to come from the transformation of what I had taken for granted. What was taken for granted became then grounded in what was then “seen” as being in the nature of a “proof”- not capable of being otherwise.
And so, my epiphanel illumination about wine in Chicago, at that moment led gradually to a rethinking of my original life goal - to pursue an academic career. After some additional time, I felt a need not only to know wine in taste, but to know about it and eventually, I felt the need to make it because knowing it alone did not seem complete.
A number of practical difficulties had to be solved. Barbara and I now had two children and there were family needs. Making wine and growing grapes in Chicago would have been a hoot. California was a long way off. So many things had to be learned and there was not time for school; also, we had no money, no joyous leaves of green. Eventually, all these problems admitted of solutions which appeared (at first) to be merely tolerable, but some eventually turned out to be life-enhancing adventures and delicious experiences:
I secured a paid working apprenticeship at a small winery-vineyard in the Napa Valley. There, each step of the process could be observed and learned starting from grape growing to the sublime edification of sugary juice to a beverage that nourishes the spirit. Barbara and I were starting life anew in a Garden of Eden, where it seemed to us, that God had smiled broadly on the day of its creation. We used a station wagon containing the whole family, and pulling a trailer full of books and with all of our family possessions we trekked from Chicago to the Napa Valley. We were in time for the harvest of grapes in 1964 (the same year the Santa Fe campus began).
So what was it like learning the skills of a body and soul to become a wine maker and a grape grower? It was, in many ways, of the “way” of the St. John's curriculum – by means of books and balances, getting down to the bottom of each step in a complex sequence of things that can be described by means of some of the methods you all have used in your curriculum inquiries: “what is it,” “how is it,” “where,” “how much or little” and similar modes of pinning things down.
Getting to the bottom of the craft of grape growing and wine making also required for me, since I had to catch up quickly and make up for lost time, an unremitting license to ask “Why?” Now, my teacher in this two-man, small winery was not the kind of man to say each morning “This is the lesson for the day.” His winery was a workplace and we had jobs to do – so while being a good master, in the sense that he was a good practitioner of the craft, his morning greeting was followed by the words “This is the job for today.” Being thrown back on my own resources required a certain reliance on my training in those skills of questioning and reflection that I had learned at St. John’s. After awhile I realized I was getting good at knowing why step B followed Step A – and that step C would be next or else, given the end to be achieved, step D might be the alternative. I also began to see that to achieve a goal, some means would be better than others that were in general practice at that time in the wineries of the Valley.
For example, you all know that because California has a Mediterranean climate, there is sunshine in abundance during the ripening of grapes. This makes possible the accumulation of large amounts of sugar. Sugar gets converted into alcohol through fermentation. Lots of sugar means powerful wines. Wines that are too powerful destroy or mask the subtlety, finesse, and wonderful complexity that are present in wines of moderate alcohol. So I asked myself, remembering the quadrivium, “Where, in such powerful wine, is music – harmony, measure, limit, and number, ratio and proportion?” The proper ripeness and therefore the proper balance must be a unique point. I asked myself how to find that point – where there is growing toward the proper balance on one side of it and a growing away from it on the other. I was looking for that point of noon. The wine that went to Paris in 1976 reflected my wine-making effort to find that point of limit and balance. That it was favored by the French judges who tasted it was a fulfillment (after roughly 200 years) of Jefferson’s dream that American wine would someday be seen as “doubtless as good” as that of Europe.
I now come to part three of my remarks to you. Sometime after being very much engaged in the life of vineyards and growing grapes, I became aware (another Athena moment) of a way of understanding this plant that I think you might find helpful in thinking about your concerns about your future use of the St. John’s education. And I think I can say to you that that understanding brings pretty good news to you, your parents, and loved ones. The grape vine is a woody, fruit-bearing perennial plant and as such, its life and death is related to time in three ways. It has a part that lives for only one cycle of the sun – its green leaves. It also has a part that lives for one cycle of the sun but can convert itself to live for a number of cycles. Those parts are the annual shoots which convert to the woody trunk and arms. It has another part which also lives for only one cycle of the sun - the grape berry. But inside the grape berry, hidden from view, there is another part, the seed, which by its form and its function, expresses the plants longing for eternity.
It is marvelous to observe how, in any given annual cycle of the sun, this plant as a whole, is dominated in its overall allocation of resources by one or the other of these three parts.
And what I would like to suggest to you is that you have, for the last years, dedicated your lives to that part of you, also hidden from view, which longs for eternity in the form of the knowledge of the things that truly are. And the College has tried to provide through its curriculum of the Liberal Arts, the conditions to midwife and support that longing.
What will happen now that you are moving from the St. John’s phase of your cycle of the sun, to another phase perhaps more dominated by “need” - the needful part of our nature?
Don’t worry too much. Your education will be part of you. You will have experienced the bright illuminations and the joy of learning and knowing. Remember these experiences and they will feed the desire for more of similar kind. Do not forget the habits of the soul which brought you these illuminations and joys and “Keep your eyes open for Athena.”