University of Rochester Library Bulletin: John Slater on Man

Volume XIV · Spring 1959 · Number 3
John Slater on Man


[The following address was written and delivered by Professor Hoffmeister on the occasion of the presentation of the Rotary Club award to Dr. Slater on May 12, 1959. In its preparation Professor Hoffmeister spent many hours reading through the manuscripts and publications of Dr. Slater, files of which are preserved in the University archives in the Library. Throughout his long career at the University Dr. Slater was very close to the Library, serving as a member of the University Library Committee for many years, and as Acting Librarian in the year 1939-1940.]


Gentlemen, you are today honoring one of Rochester's great citizens, and you have honored me by your request that I say a few words on the occasion. This is an assignment which I have approached with pride and trepidation. Pride because of the pleasure in being selected, and trepidation because I have always been a little afraid of this man. His wide knowledge, his deep insight, and his wisdom have created in me a feeling of awe and reverence which has persisted during all the years I have known him. Yes, John, I'll admit I still am a little awed in your presence.

Now it was suggested that I might talk on some such subject as "The Sciences and the Humanities," "Wide Horizons," "Learning and its Interpreters."

I'm sure I could have selected any one of these topics and delivered to you a most erudite speech which you would have promptly forgotten--forgotten by the time I had read the last line. This is what I determined should not happen, because I want you to remember this talk. This meeting centers around a man, a very unusual man. Certainly, therefore, the talk I give should also center around "Man." No man in particular, just man in general. I know of no more fascinating subject.

Man was created by God--the highest of all His creations. He made him strong-weak, loyal-treacherous, good-sinful, happy-sad. God made a very complex being when he made man, and he loved him. "What is man that thou art mindful of him?" What is man?

As geologist and paleontologist, I know that, physically, man is no different today than he was 75,000 years ago. The men who dwelt in the caves of Central France, tens of thousands of years ago, are, anatomically at least, the same as the men who inhabit the plush skyscraper apartments of today. In that remote period, Homo sapiens, the wise man, was evolved. No biological evolution has occurred in the species since then. Bone for bone, structure for structure, present man is identical with that of the first man. And, what is more important, there is no difference in the size and power of the brains of these two humans.

We have long realized that an infant born of well-educated and cultured parents, if raised in a primitive tribe in some spot remote from civilization, will not rise above the level of the tribe. It seldom occurs to us, however, that, if an infant born 50,000 or more years ago could be miraculously transplanted into a modern home and brought up as the other children in the home, one would not be able to recognize the difference between little Harry and little Cro-Magnon. This is a point which has also been stressed recently, in a leading magazine, by Dr. Jean Rostand, one of France's leading biologists.

But certainly there is a great difference between the men who fashioned paleolithic weapons and those who build missiles with atomic warheads, and between the men who made crude drawings on the walls of their caves and the man who painted the Mona Lisa. This difference, however, has been brought about by human experience acting over a long period of time. Man through the ages has painfully acquired new information. By trial and error, by hard work, and by occasional flashes of insight, man has produced and transmitted from generation to generation a vast body of knowledge and culture. This is not biological evolution; rather it is human evolution. Present-day man differs from his ancient ancestor only as a result of the latter.

But what is man today? What is the nature of the changes which have been brought about by human evolution? The paleontologist can proceed just so far. The sociologist, the psychologist, and the philosopher must be called on to continue the picture.

I told you earlier that I wanted you to remember this talk. I didn't mean that I myself could produce ideas and words which would be lasting. You will remember the talk not by anything I have said, but rather by the words of John Slater. Sociologist, psychologist, and philosopher are here combined in one person who has devoted his life to the understanding of man and who has acquired the ability to express his interpretation in words which will live long after all of us have passed away.

What is man? We will let John Slater answer this question.

On the River Campus of the University, at the end of the Eastman Quadrangle, stands the Rush Rhees Library. Carved in the massive slabs of Indiana limestone on one side of the great central door are these, his words:


On the opposite side are these words:


Here in a few words is the story of man's past and man's future--both good and evil. Here is the summary of human evolution. Evolution which, although retrogressive at times, is progressive in the main. Progressive evolution, which, because of the character of man, never stops and therefore gives reason for hope.

These words will become a part of generation after generation of college students. Because of them each individual and each generation will more understandingly play a part in the never-ending parade of that unique being called Man.

Man is different from all other organisms. He has the ability to elevate himself and his kind. There is no end to his potentialities. He seeks to prepare himself for his destiny.

Dr. Slater gave the address at the time of the induction of Alan Valentine as President of the University of Rochester. He asked the question: "What does it take to make a University?"

"Certainly money, but money is not enough . . . 
Literature, but literature is not enough . . .
Beauty is a spirit, but beauty is not enough . . .
Even religion is not enough . . .

"All these are good, but they need to be fulfilled for each generation in human lives. To make a university it is life we need--great life from the dead, new life for the living. The aim of education is not system but personality. Books and methods are only means. Intelligence and character grow less by instruction than by example.

"In college the principal thing that can be learned is the quality of human greatness. Man, the audacious, the undefeated, is the lesson set before us. He explores the atom, and asks strange questions of the stars. He plumbs deep waters and ascends into the frigid solitude of the stratosphere to measure cosmic rays. He uncovers the secrets of the past, and by his daring transforms the future. He makes the unknown his goal, and worships the infinite. He seeks the universal: and therefore he makes a university, to crown the school of life.

"For modern education, so conceived, as a study of human achievement, both past and potential, we need leaders. We seek men of clear minds and firm purpose, fearless and reverent and kind, to guide us toward that great society which we dream of, but may not live to see. It will come; it is already on the way."

Man is unique in the possession of that peculiar quality called insight. Insight--the ability to see through the commonplace, the everyday things of life, and interpret their greater meaning.

Dr. Slater has written a number of brief essays illustrating this quality. I have chosen one at random. It is called "Earth." This is what he says in part:

"May with its lilacs, June with its roses; then all the wealth of summer. Blue delphinium and Canterbury bells, yellow coreopsis and calendula, the gorgeous colors of phlox and zinnias and cosmos, the fragrance of honeysuckle and lilies--these are all more than they appear. Insight wonders at the familiar miracle of blossoms that seem so extravagant a way of making seeds, more seeds than this world can ever use. Is it all just a blind effort of life to make more life, or a deep design of beauty re-creating beauty? Which of these two is the human race?

"October in the forests paints more colors than are needed to advertise decay. Why so much crimson and gold for a declining generation? This pomp and bravery on the verge of frost finds grave rebuke in the unchanging pines and spruces and hemlocks on the hills. They are never gay and never forlorn. Swaying in all winds, they drop their brown needles quietly to form deep covering for the soil; a less dramatic way of weathering Winter.

"But who would really wish to be ever green? A time comes when leaves should fall, when they are ready. There is a naked grandeur of elms in Winter. The structure is revealed. Man is best deciduous; but only if his roots are deep."

One of man's chief attributes is his ability to have faith. Faith in the unknown. Try as he will, he cannot always tell why this is so. This makes some unhappy--others are not disturbed.

Dr. Slater in one of his chapel talks asked the question: "What is the use of living?" Then answered it this way.

"We live in order to apprehend, to comprehend, to discover, to love, and to create. So does God, who knows all and creates all every hour. For we must assume infinite wisdom and infinite benevolence underlying this puzzling world, even without full proof of them. Why we make that assumption would take a long time to find out. We know too little to demonstrate divinity, but we nevertheless assume there is no river without rain, no night without morning, no death without life, no thought without a thinker, no logic without a Logos."

Man's faith is not limited to faith in the Divine. Faith is an integral part of his being.

The graduating class of 1942 walked out of the University into a very chaotic world. The United States had just entered the World War and the students were confused, excited, and pessimistic of the future. If ever a group needed guidance, a steadying influence, and a purpose for living, this group did. Dr. Slater supplied these in his Baccalaureate Address to the class. He said, among other things:

"The light of faith still shines in darkness. Faith is not believing in something that you know isn't so. Faith is believing in something that never has been and never can be completely proved in advance, but so beautiful that we act as if it were here already. We in America have faith in democracy, in liberty, in equality, though they have never completely existed, and probably never will. It is the approach to them that we love, trying to make them true...

"No, what we have faith in here in America is something. not yet realized. There has never yet been a government wholly of the people, by the people, and for the people, but there was a Lincoln. All men are not created equal and their rights are not inalienable, but there was a Jefferson. Their phrases had no magic, but their memory has power.

 'America the Beautiful' is not yet finished; it is hardly begun. But we want to carry it on. We believe in it because we can still breathe its air, say what we please, and worship our own God in our own way."

The qualities possessed by Man are universal. All men possess faith and insight and a desire to elevate themselves and their kind. These attributes are found in all of us in greater or smaller measure. They are not limited by race or creed or nationality or by position. Dr. Slater wrote a tribute to a man by the name of James Craigie, a veteran janitor at the University, and it was published a few days after Mr. Craigie's death.

"There was a man in Anderson Hall for more than thirty years who served God with a broom. He swept up our dirt. He cleaned up after the rest of us quit work for the day. He erased from the blackboards many wise and many foolish words. Summer and Winter at dusk he placed his red lanterns on the circle to warn off reckless drivers. Whether he mowed lawns or shoveled snow, it was his mission in life to save the open spaces. Whether he repaired broken benches or broken steampipes, he tried to make bad things good again. In shabby old Anderson Hall he fought a losing battle with smoke and dust, but it was always an honest fight against the inevitable...

"It has been an education to me to watch Mr. Craigie growing old gracefully. It may have been an education for many others to see him work out silently these many years the words of George Herbert:

'Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws
Makes that and the action fine.'

"It takes all kinds of people to make a college, and a faithful janitor is not the least of these. Mr. Craigie has helped to make the University of Rochester by trying to keep it clean. In his younger days he had been a deep-sea sailor, and something of the discipline and the stoicism of life before the mast lingered with him. When he was young he traveled far; and now he has gone down to the sea again. He will rake us no leaves this fall. He will dig us no more paths through the snow. His work on land is done; for the sea has called him. Honest sailor, with your old pipe in your mouth, I salute you, outward bound."

Finally, Man is a creature who asks himself, "What should I get out of life? What are the rewards? What can I hope for?"

This is how John Slater answered that question when he spoke to a group of Phi Beta Kappa initiates on the old Prince Street Campus years ago.

"Initiates of Phi Beta Kappa, your Rochester days are nearly over. You came to this college with expectations, and you shall not leave it without hope. You came for more learning, and you must not go away with anything less than light. On this old campus for more than eighty years the past has spoken to the future, and the future to the past. From these few green acres many young men and women have gone out in their brief springtime to meet the present. They have met it well. So will you.

"When you pass through the iron gate to University Avenue, remember that University Avenue leads to the universe. You are now citizens of the world. In some degree your world will be what you make it. If you are free, you can help to make it free. If you defend the freedom of the mind, both for yourselves and for those who differ from you, you will have good society. By giving up a dogmatism which you could not keep, you will gain friends whom you cannot lose. You will live by ideas and serve the republic. You will honor the great and not despise the small. You will defend justice when it is in danger, and charity when it is forgotten.

"So you will earn, in exchange for your life, whether it is short or long, the lasting peace of your own mind, the respect of your friends, and the final forgiveness of Almighty God. Is not that enough?"

John Slater on Man
Words to be remembered!