Dedicated to our principles

Sean Foley Landon School blog

The following blog post is taken from the ethics speech that English teacher Sean Foley (pictured above, center, with several of his students) delivered to Upper School students and faculty. He shares why he believes that Landon's motto "Virtute et non vi" ("By virtue and not by force") unites us as an ethical community in pursuit of a shared goal—but this motto is hollow if we are not passionate about upholding, in both thought and action, the principles that support it.

Part I: Words Matter

I am compelled, and not only pro forma, to begin by saying thank you. Thank you, Mr. Bellaschi, for the privilege of speaking in front of our polity; thank you, Mr. Amitay, for the gracious introduction; thank you for that stirring musical prelude; and thank you, members of the audience, for the honor of your attention. I will try not to abuse this honor by placing unreasonable burdens on your attention.

I hope that you are wondering about two unusual things I just said. I hope that you are asking yourself:

What is pro forma? And what is a polity?

Or, if you know what these unusual words mean, that you are asking yourself: Why did Mr. Foley choose to use these words?

As I am an English teacher, you may think that I have a perverse love of odd and obscure words. You may think I love them because they are odd and obscure, or because I am trying to sound smart. However, you would be wrong. I do love poetry and enjoy the music of unusual words placed in meaningful order, but I also love philosophy, and am above all interested in precise meanings. Pro forma and polity are more than flashy word-ornaments: I am using them because they are precisely the words that I need, because they are essential to my speech today.

If reading or listening to a person who appears to have something to say, you ought, as Landon students, to pay attention to that person's diction — their word choice. If they are saying anything of significance, they will choose their words carefully. If they truly choose their words carefully, they are bound to say a word that they understand in greater depth than you. If, additionally, they are capable teachers, they will be able to explain how and why they are using that word, and thereby — one would hope — enrich your life. Therefore I ask you to hold onto these words: pro forma and polity. Their meaning is at the root of what I will propose to you today. Before I delve further into their meaning, however, I want to tell you a story.

That story will be about my education, and the central importance of ethics to my education.

I will then talk about our school motto, Virtute et non Vi, and how our motto relates to the words polity and pro forma.

Finally, I will — very briefly — take a broader view of Virtute et non Vi, discussing Abraham Lincoln, the American Civil War, and the events that transpired in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past summer.

Part II: Educational History

Now, my story:

Stories make the most sense when you know how they end: You can see with greater detail where everything is headed, and why it is happening. The end of this story is, well, the fact that I am standing here in front of you. This is the story of why I am a Landon Bear.

I often tell my students that I came to Landon for two reasons: the first is the Form V Humanities course, the second, our Code of Character. These are not simply things that I happened to start caring about when I got to Landon. No.

Before I arrived at Landon, something was missing from my life. I felt a need to devote my life to the study of Great Books in a community united by noble principles. Before I arrived here, my life was incomplete, and I was incomplete, because these two things were not a part of it. This might be impossible for some of you to fully understand because you are too young to have had the experience; it is, however, similar to the feeling of missing a person that you feel deeply attached to, which, sadly, I'm sure many of you have already experienced at your still-young age.

I missed these things, I missed them like I miss my grandmother, who passed away when I was a junior in high school, and I felt a need to find a place where I could be happy. Though I believe these particular needs were always there, I did not always feel them. My desire to learn from the greatest minds in Western civilization, and my desire to be part of a school founded on principles, were eclipsed by other desires, by priorities that felt stronger and more urgent.

It took me 27 years to put my finger on those things that I most needed and to seek them out, so I will briefly tell the story of how I came to that realization.

If you recall my speech from our Martin Luther King Day assembly last year, you'll already know that, for the most part, I grew up abroad. I was born outside of Atlanta in the southern United States, but my family moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, when I was a toddler. We moved again to London, England, a few years after that, and it was in London where I spent most of my early life. There, I was granted admission to some highly competitive schools which, like Landon, were schools for boys with high ethical standards. They were among the most vibrant educational institutions I have ever been a part of, and I was truly happy there. Part of this, of course, was due to the fact that I was surrounded by intelligent and motivated students; but the true source of the schools' vibrancy and my happiness was the ethical life. It was the school ethos that channeled our intelligence and energy in a common and fruitful direction, giving our lives purpose. With this sense of purpose, all of our actions were meaningful, and it was from this sense of purpose that I derived a deep sense of happiness and fulfillment.

Let's pause a second here and take stock of what, exactly, I'm saying: I was happy in school because I had a purpose, and that sense of purpose was due to the school's ethos, or its ethical life. But what exactly are ethics, and what is an ethos?

Ethics are often equated with morals, and morals have to do with good and evil. A whole system of moral principles defining what is good and what is evil is often referred to as an ethical system or an ethical code. Another way to view ethics is that they are applied morals: Morals are the principles of what is good and what is evil, and ethics are how you live in accord with these moral imperatives. I am using ethics in this second way, but in both of these perspectives, we see that morals and ethics aren't quite the same thing, and this is very important: Morals have to do with thoughts, and ethics have to do with actions, which are guided by those high-minded thoughts.

It can be very difficult to live ethically because, when applied to real life, moral rules are often in conflict with one another. For example, I was raised to always tell the truth, always respect teachers, and always be kind. These teachings are in line with the morals in Landon's Code of Character: Honesty and civility are good; dishonesty, disrespect and meanness are evil. However, when I was in Middle School, I had just arrived in the United States from London, I was confronted by a situation that made it challenging to live by these moral precepts. My teacher, Ms. Lee, was giving out cupcakes to the class. Before she gave anyone a cupcake, she asked, "How much do you love me?" and each student responded with extravagant displays of affection. This much, Ms. Lee, this much! Then it was my turn. If I was being honest, I did not love Ms. Lee at all. Even in seventh grade, I had a strong aversion to saying that I "loved" someone without truly meaning it; words mattered. I thought her question was completely unprofessional and betrayed personal insecurities. But, if I was going to be kind, I couldn't say that. Instead, I compromised, and responded that I loved her "adequately." She was deeply aggrieved by this, and, out of respect, I listened to her tell me so without betraying my own deep sense of injustice, as she had put me in a compromising situation.

In this scenario, I didn't live up to any of my morals in an ideal way, but I still think I acted ethically. I didn't sacrifice my integrity for a cupcake, or for Ms. Lee's feelings — I was as honest as the situation would allow. Ethics, as you can see, involve responding to circumstance as best as possible. Most of the time, as with my story, this happens without thinking about it: You simply act, responding by instinct to the situation because that's your general disposition — you usually act a certain way. The term ethos refers to the sum of those actions: the pattern of activity that displays your habits. This is what we mean when we talk about character at Landon School: We are referring to the general disposition that you have, and the pattern of activity that results from that disposition.

Ethos is closely related to the Greek word ethe, which means emotion. Ethics involve feelings: You hate lying, so you tell the truth whenever you can and are actually upset when you lie. You can think of emotion working in two ways in ethos. In the first place, it is related to the action: When you are reacting to circumstances based on your best instincts, you are guided by your emotions. In the second place, and this is really important, it is related to the attachments that are at the base of those instincts: You feel more strongly about one moral principle than another, and so that moral principle elicits your response.

A school's ethos, then, is the sum of the attachments that students and faculty have and the actions students and faculty take based on those attachments. An ethos is our collective ethic. In these ethics speeches, we try to reflect on and define our ethos.

Questions we should try to address are: Do we feel the same way about the most important things, and do we generally act the same way based on those feelings? For instance, do we simply believe in theory that honesty is good, or do we feel outrage when someone we know is dishonest? Do we feel shame when we are dishonest? Do we simply believe, in theory, that respect is good, or are we outraged when someone we know is disrespectful?

If you don't feel attachments to our ideals, then you probably won't act when they are dishonored. While reason might convince us that there is a principle worth holding, it is passion for that principle that will cause us to act. Ethics are about emotions. My purpose here is to evoke some passion for our principles, and I hope that future ethics speakers will do the same.

But, back to my story:

At my schools in London, we all felt similarly about a few key things, which meant that we all acted similarly in order to honor or pursue those things. For example, we all believed that academic excellence was among the highest virtues, so we studied hard and respected most the students who were able to perform at the highest level.

You might say, well, look Mr. Foley, that's not very remarkable. Loads of schools value academic excellence. But, I would rejoin, remember that we are not talking about principles or morals, we are talking about ethos. At my schools in London, we did not simply agree in theory that academic excellence was good; we patterned our lives according to that belief. Students held one another accountable for academic excellence; there was constant competition, but more importantly there was a shared sense of duty. When someone didn't do their homework, for example, they were ashamed to face their classmates just as much as the teacher. That person, by falling short of our ideals in such an egregious way, was disappointing his friends, and you really felt the repercussions of having fallen short of expectations. In that kind of environment, the more you lived by your principles, the happier you were in an immediate sense — there was instant gratification or punishment. But because those principles were worth holding, the pattern of our lives in accord with them set us up for more lasting satisfaction.

When my family moved back to the United States and I began attending public school in New Jersey, that strong ethos was nowhere to be found, and I became completely unmoored. Academic excellence was no longer anything but the most abstract of principles; there was no true feeling of attachment to it. People just went through the motions. They said they believed in academic excellence, but didn't commit to it fully. Though there were plenty of intelligent students in my new public school, there was no sense of purpose. The so-called purpose was to get into a good college, then the so-called purpose was to get a good job... But these "purposes" did not have enduring meaning; they are attainable and uninspiring. They were short-term goals, not true lifelong purposes; enduring purposes forever recede. Even after a great achievement, you can always become more excellent. And that is what a true purpose looks like.

I can't say there was a true ethos at my high school in New Jersey, because it wasn't truly ordered by principles. We paid lip service to academic excellence, but the reality on the ground was that students would do as little as possible to get by. In fact, people were belittled for trying hard in school. Getting good grades was OK, but you had to do so without putting any work in. That was the only way to earn respect from your peers. It was a bizarre situation, but one that was further catered to by low expectations from teachers: You could "succeed" without trying very hard.

I suffered from this culture shock for a year, and this was one of the darkest periods of my life. My sources of meaning were no longer viable in this new environment; my principles, which I had felt so good about holding before, were now being ridiculed by classmates and were largely unsupported by teachers. There was no common purpose; we weren't moving in the same direction — we weren't even attempting to look in the same direction — and amidst all this disorder I was utterly lost. I remember distinctly — it was during my first month at an American school — wishing that I didn't have to go on living.

Reflecting on this moment of despair years later, I realized that I was far too young to have seriously considered suicide; I wasn't even 13. Instead, it seems to me that this way my first existential crisis, which, properly speaking, is not a threat to actual existence — you know, not a threat to life. Rather, an existential crisis is a threat to the essence of the thing: its definition, what it means for it to be. I was so attached to my principles, so strongly imbued with the ethical life of my former schools, that I really could not imagine what life would mean without that ethos.

But, facing this adversity, I gave up. I stopped trying to live ethically. That's not to say that I lived completely without thought, but simply that I did not live according to principles. I found that when I did this, I started living by baser instincts, but I justified this to myself on the grounds of rational self-interest: I would do the thing that seemed good for me at the time rather than striving for the right thing. And I stopped feeling strong attachments to the right thing. I questioned whether there truly was a right thing beyond serving my selfish interests. I found nothing that would suggest otherwise, and soon enough I wasn't living a principled life at all. I was simply acting in my own interests as best as possible, without any thought of what effect that was having on my soul or my character.

I became pig-headed, worse than pig-headed. I was so short-sighted. My parents can attest to the fact that I was a wild child. In fact, they kicked me out of the house when I was 17. We're on better terms now, but it took a lot of work to repair the relationships I had damaged.

Luckily, athletics saved me from total nihilism. I turned away from the classroom and toward football and wrestling. On those teams I found the sense of purpose and duty that I had so sorely missed; these groups had a direction, and I felt a similar sense of shame when I didn't move in the same direction as the group. Within this structure, I was able to hold myself together well enough to go to a decent college. When I found myself at that school, which had some semblance of an ethos, I was like Dante in the first Canto of the Inferno: I realized how lost I was. So, while working on living a life of integrity once again, I also committed myself to sustaining a community that would help guide young people toward the sense of purpose that I had so craved and needed as a young man.

Part III: Virtute et non Vi

It took me some time to get my priorities in order, to understand how important ethos is to me, and to find a position at a school that, though imperfect, has its sights set on enduring things that matter most rather than those passing fads and expediencies. In short, it took me some time to find a polity. Remember that word?

So, what is a polity?

Well, it is a group of people unified in thought and action — not thinking the same thing, but thinking about the same thing; not doing the same thing, but working toward the same goal. It is like a team, but instead of being organized in pursuit of short-term goals like winning the game, it is directed toward what is good. In short, a polity is an ethical community.

A few weeks ago, I was speaking with a colleague from a peer school who, when prompted with the question "What does it mean to be an American?" said, simply, "Being an American means you live in America." I suggested that her definition did not have any deep meaning, that she was thinking of America as a community and therefore appealing to the lowest common denominator rather than trying to capture the essence of what it was to be an American. I suggested that America was not simply a community, but a polity: It is not simply a group of people in a physical location, but a group of people united by the ideals of our founding charter, the Declaration of Independence. This didn't go over as well as I had hoped.

I do think, though, that the difference between a community and a polity is a vitally important one. Community appeals to what is common; it's facile, it's the most general way to describe what connects a group together. My students may appreciate my disdain for generalizations: I detest them when it comes to serious thought. Community — as a generalization — eradicates those things that makes a group of people distinct; it eradicates all order. It pulls all nuance under a single blocky heading and places an equal sign between each part. Generalizing it is the enemy of significance.

Unlike a community, a polity implies a deeper unity: A polity is a civilization, a civil order, or a civil society. Any group of people can be a community, but a polity is of a higher order. Institutions, and the individuals who give life to institutions, are what constitute a polity.

So, why are we a polity?

Well, I contend that it is because of our ethos. Because we don't simply have principles in theory like every other school, but we embody those principles in our actions. We live out our principles. If we cease to do that, we cease to be a polity. We become a mere community. We become a group of people who spend four years together, who are united by a few coincidental experiences, but nothing deeper — that is, nothing enduring and essential that binds us together.

You know well our Honor Code, Civility Code, and Code of Character: These are statements of belief around which the ethical life of the school is ordered. However, I will posit now that our ethos is also rooted in our motto:

Virtute et non vi.

This Latin phrase translates to "By virtue and not by force." I contend that this is what defines our polity and undergirds our other codes of conduct. Ignorance of our motto and its meaning is, therefore, an existential threat to our polity: not a threat to actual existence (the school will stay open), but to its essence, its definition, what it means for it to be.

Therefore I take this motto very seriously, because I truly believe the school "has something to say" — the school's founding members would not have adopted this motto if these words were not precisely the words they needed, or, worse, if these words were meaningless. The school did not adopt this motto merely pro forma. Ah, we're back to it again:

What is pro forma?

Simply put, it's following a form — going through the motions. Forms, by themselves, are meaningless because they are empty of any content. For example, listen to these lines of poetry: "So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee." These lines follow the form of iambic pentameter. But so does this line: di-dah di-dah di-dah di-dah di-dit. Meaningless.

If you're doing something according to a form, but aren't following that form in order to convey a meaning, you're doing that thing pro forma. You might do plenty of things pro forma at school. But true polities move beyond pro forma. Members of a polity do not go through the motions of upholding their ideals; they are deeply attached to their ideals, and they feel passionately about them; that is at the heart of an ethos.

"By virtue and not by force" cannot be something that we simply say, pro forma. It must not simply be a logo, but it must have logos — that is, an essential and vital meaning. It has to be something that we bring to life through our actions.

But what would that actually look like?

We will have to do some work to better understand it. I have read the two histories of Landon School, and have not found a satisfactory account of why this is the school's motto. Therefore, in this part of my speech, I am hoping to begin a conversation about its meaning with you.

I see it this way, and invite your response: In our motto, virtue is set up as the opposite of force. Force pushes you: Refugees are forced to leave their homes. They don't want to leave, they are pushed out. Virtue, on the other hand, pulls you: People immigrate to America by choice, because the ideals of the country appeal to them, because they imagine a better life for themselves here. Virtue attracts, drawing you in like something beautiful; it is a magnetic force.

For something to occur by virtue instead of by force means that it is occurring freely, naturally. I posit that this is our motto because what we are doing here — providing an education not only of your mind, but your character — requires that we refrain from the use force as a means to our ends. If we were to use force, we would be eliciting pro forma responses from you. You would pay lip-service to our ideals, but never truly commit to them; you would never shoulder those duties fully and willingly, with the passion required of an ethical life. We would never be a polity under these conditions.

This is in line with Aristotle's understanding of virtue, which he sees as being intimately related to character. He taught us that a person becomes virtuous by doing virtuous things and learning to delight in pursuing virtue for its own sake. People become virtuous not because of external force that compels them to go through the motions of virtue, but from the attractive force of virtue itself, which they feel as happiness.

So, at Landon, we set examples of what life can be like — happy, whole, and joyous — when you strive for admirable ideals in admirable ways. We believe that when you see that, you can't help but be drawn to that mode of existence, because it is unmistakably good.

This, I believe, is the assumption underlying our motto: it reveals a high degree of faith in the ultimate goodness of our ideals, but it also implies your personal involvement. The best we can do is invite you to follow the good. We cannot force you. Funnily enough, you can see this on green slips, which are given out for "breaches of self-discipline." The language of the green slip assumes that you have adopted our principles, are striving to live ethically, and need reminders from time to time about our ethos.

This is assuming a lot, but without this aspiration, we would be without purpose. We would be any other "prep" school — not one that prepares you for a principled and fulfilling life, but one that simply prepares you for an empty pursuit of so-called self-interest.

Part IV: Lincoln and Virtute et non Vi

I'm continually shocked by the degree to which students — and Americans in general — have been influenced by the idea of self-interest. It's as if anything that someone does must come down to selfish motives, in essence or at least in part. However, I don't think this is the case for anyone who has made an enduring contribution to humanity, and most of those who have made enduring contributions have done so by pointing us away from rational self-interest and toward more high-minded ideals. Look, for example, to Abraham Lincoln, who, more than any other politician I'm aware of, embodied the spirit of our motto, "Virtute et non vi." You may think this is a strange statement about the man who was president during the deadliest war in American history. But allow me to explain.

As you know, Lincoln won the presidency by campaigning against the expansion of the institution of enslavement into the territories of the United States. He believed that enslavement was a moral evil, and that it should not be allowed to expand any further. His debates with Stephen Douglas were intended to educate people about the intentions of the founders, who had accommodated the reality of enslavement out of necessity — because it existed — but did not at all condone it as a moral good.

They accommodated an evil so that they could form the Union, but did not intend to set up a Union in which that the evil would exist in perpetuity. Lincoln famously stated that "a house divided cannot stand." He was referring to the existential threat that existed in the form of enslavement. It contradicted the ideals of the country, and as such posed a threat to the meaning of the United States.

Yet, notably, he did not threaten the institution in existing states: He recognized that federal intervention, even one that was motivated by moral goodness, would have been unethical. He did not believe that the federal government had the right to abolish that evil institution in states where it already existed. Yet, he also had firm faith that it would die out of natural causes. This is because he believed in the virtue of the Declaration of Independence: that all men were created equal, that all men have a right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. He believed that words matter — and the ideals those words stand for have enormous power: the power of virtue. He believed that, given enough time, people would of their own free will abolish the institution because they would be attracted to the virtues of the United States. This means that he did not condemn Southerners as being irrevocably corrupted; he condemned their beliefs. He maintained that Southerners were good people, and he believed that as good people, they could — and would — come to love the good by their own accord. I imagine he believed this because living life by false principles simply doesn't lead to happiness, as I found out the hard way.

Lincoln had just as much faith in these people as he did in the principles of the United States. As such, he was clearly in line with the Landon motto, and a true conservative: He did not impose his morality on others by force, but rather trusted that they would be won over by their virtue. He sought to educate by persuasion, not to tyrannize by force.

The South seceded out of fear that Lincoln would not be a man of his word and would unilaterally abolish enslavement; they seceded because they didn't trust him. It was only then that Lincoln used force: out of necessity, in order to preserve the Union. The Civil War was not simply an existential threat, but a threat to the very existence of the United States, making force necessary. You've probably learned that Lincoln, before signing the Emancipation Proclamation, gave the Southern generals three months forewarning, and the option to return to the Union with enslavement intact. This, again, was in the spirit of "By virtue and not by force." However, those generals gambled on a long shot of winning the war, which prompted a unilateral declaration that — though avowedly a moral good — Lincoln never wanted to enact. Rather, he wanted people to be given the chance to choose what was right by their own free will. He wanted the United States to be a true polity, moving in the same direction freely and naturally, toward the ideals on which we were founded.

Part V: Charlottesville, Falling Short of National Ethos

I find Lincoln's restraint in the execution of his duties truly remarkable. Though clearly pained by moral evils, he still balanced his pursuit of one moral goodness with the imperative of others. He was supremely ethical. He was also a true believer in the virtue of the ideals on which America was founded, and had immense faith in the power of what is good. Famously, he "re-founded" the country on the Declaration of Independence rather than the Constitution; the Constitution contains the rules by which our polity operates, but the Declaration contains principles that explain why we are a polity. Our country as a whole is given direction, purpose and meaning when we keep these principles in mind. We are also given direction, purpose and meaning when we consider Lincoln's example of how best to pursue these principles: how best to live by them in an ethical manner. Putting these two things together, we have the grounds to consider, in an aspirational manner, what could be the ethos of the United States. That ethos can be summed up with our motto: Virtute et non vi.

Our national failure to live up to this ethos is why I was so startled and aggrieved by the events that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past summer. I'm sure, at this point, that you are all familiar with the facts, so I will not recapitulate them again. At the risk of testing your patience, I'll say as briefly as I can the obvious connection to our motto: The principles of neo-Nazis are antithetical to those of our country and our school, but that does not give anyone the right to take the law into their own hands by physically assaulting them; we must trust in the power of our virtues to win out when we advocate for them through free speech.

However, there is one additional thing that bears highlighting.

I read a news article that featured an interview with a former teacher of the 20-year-old man, James Alex Fields, who stands accused of murdering a woman, Heather Heyer, during the Charlottesville protests when he drove his car into a crowd of people. This teacher said that he knew Fields was a white supremacist, he knew Fields held extreme views and felt passionately about them. This teacher had a good rapport with Fields, and would discuss those views, trying to convince his young student that his beliefs weren't worth holding. The teacher said, "I would do all that [I could] to show him how wrong these views were, how evil they were." And yet these appeals to reason and morality were insufficient.

I found myself wondering whether this boy, if he were a part of our polity, would have been persuaded away from his racist ideology by virtue of our ethos. Though his teacher's arguments had fallen on deaf ears, perhaps they had been inadequate because they simply appealed to his intellect and to his moral compass; he didn't feel the goodness of alternatives. And, I wondered, would he have felt compelled because of our ethos, would he have felt compelled by the examples set by our students? You are, after all, the ones who give life to our principles through your actions; you are the ones who move us beyond the mere pro forma; you are the ones who define what it really means to be a Landon Bear. Is Landon a place where we pay lip-service to our ideals, or is it a place where we live ethically by them?

Would this young man have replaced his attachments to ugly principles with attachments to our good and noble ones because he really felt how important and good our principles are?

This is a real question that I want you to answer, but one that you cannot answer with words. You can only answer it by moving in the same direction as a polity. I offer this question to you as an open invitation to act with humanity and purpose, to act by virtue and not by force. I hope that you will join me in this worthy pursuit.