by Dr. Hugh Nibley
Editors Note: The following article is a condensation of Dr. Hugh Nibley's commencement address given on August 19, 1983 to the summer 1983 graduating class at BYU. Hang in there with this one. It is worth reading to the end.
Twenty-three years ago on this same occasion I gave the opening prayer, in which I said, "We have met here today clothed in the black robes of a false priesthoodâ€¦." Many have asked me since whether I really said such a shocking thing, but nobody has ever asked what I meant by it. For my own relief, I welcome this opportunity to explain.
Why priesthood? Because the robes originally denoted those who had taken clerical orders, and a college was a "mystery" with all the rites, secrets, oaths, tests, feasts and solemnities that go with initiation into higher knowledge.
But why false? Because it is borrowed finery, coming down to us through a long line of unauthorized imitators. It was not until 1893 that "an intercollegiate commission was formed to draft a uniform code for caps, gowns, and hoods," in the United States.
Before that there were no rules - you designed you own; and that liberty goes as far back as these fixings can be traced. The late Roman emperors, as we learn from the infallible Ducange, marked each step in the decline of their power and glory by the addition of some new ornament to the resplendent vestments that proclaim their sacred office and dominionâ€¦
There is another type of robe and headdress described in Exodus and Leviticus and the 3rd Book of Josephus 'Antiquities, i.e. the white robe and linen cap of the Hebrew priesthood, which have close resemblance to some Egyptian vestments. They were given up entirely, however with the passing of the temple, and were never even imitated again by the Jews. The original idea behind both garments is the same - to provide clothing mare fitting to another ambience, action and frame of mind than that of the warehouse, office, or farm.
Both the black and white robes proclaim a primary concern for things of the mind and spirit, sobriety of life and concentration of purpose removed from the largely mindless, mechanical routines of your everyday world. Cap and gown announced that the wearer had accepted certain rules of living and been tested in special kinds of knowledge. What is wrong, then, with the flowing robes? For one thing, they are somewhat theatrical and too easily incline the wearer, beguiled by their splendor, to masquerade and affection. In the time of Socrates, the sophists were making a big thing of their special manner of dress and deliveryâ€¦
And down through the centuries the robe have never failed to keep the public at a respectful distance, inspire a decent awe for the professions, and impart an air of solemnity and mystery that has been as good as money in the bank. The four faculties of theology, philosophy, medicine and law have been the perennial seed-beds not only of professional wisdom, but of quackery and venality so generously exposed to public view by Plato, Rabelais, Moliere, Swift, Gibbon, A.E. Houseman, H.L Mencken and others.
Shift from leadership
What took place in the Greco-Roman as in the Christian world was that fatal shift from leadership to management that marks the decline and fall of civilizations.
At the present time, Captain grace Hopper, that grand old lady of the Navy, is calling our attention to the contrasting and conflicting natures of management and leadership. No one, she says, ever managed men into battle. She wants more emphasis in teaching leadership. But leadership can no more be taught than creativity or how to be a genius. The General Stab tried desperately for a hundred years to train up a generation of leaders for the German army, but it never worked because men who delighted their superiors, i.e. the managers, got the high commands, while the men who were delighted by the lower rank, i.e. the leaders, got reprimands. Leaders are movers and shakers, original, inventive, unpredictable, imaginative, full of surprises that discomfort the enemy in war and the main office in peace. For the mangers are safe, conservative, predictable, conforming organizational men and team players, dedicated to the establishment.
The leader, for example, has a passion for equality. We think of great generals from David to Alexander on down, sharing their beans or maza with their men, calling them by their first name, marching along with them in the heat, sleeping on the ground, and first over the wall. A famous ode by a long-suffering Greek soldier, Archilochus, reminds us that the men in the ranks are not fooled for an instant by the executive type who thinks he is a leader.
For the manager, on the other hand, the idea of equality is repugnant, and indeed counter-productive. Where promotion, perks, privilege, and power are the name of the game, awe and reverence for rank is everything, the inspiration and motivation of all good men. Where would management be without the inflexible paper processing, dress standards, attention to proper social, political and religious affiliation, vigilant watch over habits and attitudes, etc. that gratify the stock-holders and satisfy security.
"If you love me," said the greatest of all leaders, "you will keep my commandments." "If you know what is good for you," says the manager, "you will keep MY commandments, and not make waves." That is why the rise of management always marks the decline of culture.
On the other hand, leadership is escape from mediocrity. All of the great deposits of art, science and literature from the past on which all civilization must feed come to us from a mere handful of leaders. For the qualities of leadership are the same in all fields, the leaders being simply the one who sets the highest example; and to do that and open the way to greater light and knowledge, the leader must break the mold. "A ship in port is safe," says Captain Hopper speaking of management, "but that is not what ships were built for she adds, calling for leadership."
There is necessarily some of the manager in every leader as there should be some of the leader in every managerâ€¦.the LORD insisted that both states of mind are necessary, and that is important: "This ye must do (speaking of bookkeeping) but not neglect the other." But it is "the blind leading the blind he continues, who reverse priorities, who "choke on a gnat and gulp down a camel." So vast is the discrepancy between management and leadership that only a blind man would get them backwards. Yet this is what we do. In the same chapter of Matthew (chapter 23:16-18), the Lord tells the same men that they do not really take the temple seriously while business contracts registered in the temple they take very seriously indeed.
Moroni scolded the management for their "love of glory and the vain things of the world." But what exactly are the things of this world? An easy and infallible test has been given us in the well-known maxim; "You can have anything in this world for money." If a thing is of this world it can be had for money; if it cannot be had for money it does not belong to this world. That is what makes the whole thing manageable - money is pure number; by converting everything all value to numbers, everything can be fed into the computer and handled with ease and efficiency. "How much?" becomes the only question we need to ask. The manager "knows the price of everything and the value of nothing," because for him the value is the price.
Look around you. Do you see anything that cannot be had for money? Is there anything here you couldn't have if you were rich enough? Well, for one thing you may think you detect intelligence, integrity, sobriety, zeal, character, and other such noble qualities - don't the caps and gowns prove that? But hold on! I have always been taught that those are the very things that managers are looking for - they bring top prices in the marketplace. Does their value in this world mean, then, that they have no value in the other world? It means exactly that: such things have no price and command no salary; you cannot bargain with them because they are as common as the once-pure air around us; they are not negotiable in the kingdom because there everybody possesses all of them in full measure, and it would make as much sense to demand pay for having bones or skin as it would to collect a bonus for honesty or sobriety. It is only in our world that they are valued for their scarcity "Thy money perish with thee," said Peter to a gowned quack (S. Mangus) who sought to include "the gift of GOD" in a business transaction.
The church was full of men in Paul's day "teaching that gain is godliness, and making others believe it. Today the black robe puts the official stamp of approval on that very proposition. But don't blame the college of Commerce! The sophists, those shrewd businessmen and showmen started that game 2,500 years ago, and you can't blame others for wanting to get in on something so profitable. The learned Doctors and Masters have always known which side their bread was buttered on, and taken their place in line.
Business and "Independent Studies," the latest of the late-comers have filled the last gaps, and today, no matter what your bag, you can put in for a cap and gown. And be not alarmed that management is running the show-they always have.
Most of you are here today only because you believe that this charade will help you ahead in the world. But in the last few years things have got out of hand; "the Economy," once the most important thing in our materialistic lives, has become the only thing.
In a forgotten time, before the Spirit was exchanged for the office and inspired leadership for ambitious management, these robes were designed to represent withdrawal from the things of this world - as temple robes still do. That we may become more fully aware of the real significance of both is my prayer.