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Judge Waller R. Staples

"Self-Reverence, Self-Knowledge, Self-Control"

Address Of Judge Waller R. Staples, of Roanoke, Virginia, to the Graduating Class, June 16, 1915

It is a privilege highly valued, this opportunity to speak to you to-day. It is a day which will stand out clearly in your memory so long as you may live; it is a day whereof each act and thought here done and uttered will by reason of its mere association find a lodgment within the deep recesses of your mind and heart.

Except the tie of parent love and childhood home, no bond is ever knit more closely to the fibre of our heart strings than the comradeship of college days. Those whom your heart and mind have certified to you as true and loyal will never through changing years entirely give place to others. You have traveled the same trail—have kept with them the faith of the bread and blanket, and now your paths separate. It is an hour freighted with sadness.

You have labored earnestly, or your name would not be on the roll of graduates. You have taken your work seriously as men bent upon achievement; you have, perchance, made heavy sacrifices to remain here, or what has been harder for you, have seen others make such sacrifices, to the end that this great institution might set the seal of its approval opposite your name, and certify to the world your worth and merit, and now is your harvest hour. It is an hour crowned with achievement.

You pass to-day into the ranks of the greater strife. You take your place in the trenches; you feel yourself equipped and accoutred for the action; the heights of your aspiration rise before you, the ensign of an exalted purpose floats above you, the red blood of courage throbs in your veins. It is an hour haloed with hope.

An hour tinged with sadness, crowned with achievement, haloed with hope will never be forgotten. And so I say that every act here done and every thought here uttered will, by reason of its mere association with this time and place, find lodgment within the deep recesses of your mind and heart.

"Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control, these three alone lead life to sovereign power." The thought is the thought of Marcus Aurelius; the words are the words of Tennyson.

In his little poem Œnone he tells the story "The Judgment of Paris." Œnone is the daughter of a river god; her mother is Mount Ida, which stands at the side of Olympus. Paris, son of Priam, king of Troy, is her lover and has come into the "vale in Ida lovelier than all the valleys of Ionian hills," to woo and win her. He tells her how a stranger came into the Pelean banquet hall and threw among the gods and goddesses a golden apple, engraven upon its rind "To the most fair," and how after much controversy it has been agreed that he, Paris, is to judge between the three rival claimants, Heré, Pallas and Aphrodite. Later, when all the gods are assembled to hear his judgment. Œnone has hidden in a thicket "to see her Paris judge of gods." Heré comes and promises him unending power, unceasing revenue, homage, tax and toll. Pallas pleads only her right to be adjudged the fairest; Venus promises him "the fairest and most loving wife in Greece." Venus gets the apple; and Paris gets a lemon. But the words which I have quoted are the words of Pallas as she seeks to answer Heré's offer of power, saying that real power cannot be given; it must come as an achievement. Self-knowledge, self-reverence, and self-control, these three alone lead life to sovereign power.

Tennyson has amalgamated the teachings of the schools of Athens, Rome and Sparta. Socrates was all for self-knowledge. Once while walking with a pupil in one of the groves on the outskirts of Athens they passed a statue which had been set up to commemorate some rare service which a beautiful Athenian girl had rendered the State, and Socrates' companion and pupil asked that he tell him the story of her service, but received no reply; his question was repeated, but still the old philosopher was silent. Upon the third and more insistent request he at last replied, "I have no time for such things; I must first seek to know Socrates and what is in him."

The Romans were taught self-reverence in a sense different from that in which the term is used by Tennyson. They were taught self-exaltation; reverence of the self that is, rather than the self sought to be; but the real self-reverence is an abnegation of the sentient self before the exaltation of the ideal aspiration of self-perfection.

The Spartan was taught self-control in the stoic sense, the subordination of the physical senses, an immunity from or indifference to pain.

Tennyson has amalgamated these into three coordinate elements which make for achievement and vital force. To know thyself is the ancient God-given command, according to the Greek legend. To take your own self measure, to find yourself in the sense that the prodigal son came to his better self as he fed upon the husks among the swine.

In every mensuration of material things or material forces there are three elements. To the physicist there are length, breadth and thickness, also volume, density and cohesive quality; the electrician has his units, the ohm, the ampere and the watt; the mechanical engineer deals with the slide, the lever, and the helix; the hydraulic engineer with volume, velocity and static head; the structural engineer with tension, thrust and torsion; the geodesist with latitude, longitude and elevation; and so it is with man seeking to take the measure of himself: he must know his capacity with respect to the three coordinates of his vital force; capacity for thought, capacity for purpose and capacity for labor.

When the directors of a geological or geodetic survey send their topographers into the field to map in detail a given territory, they furnish him with a plane table and its accessories. Upon the table is fastened a sheet of paper which has on it one great triangle marking the limits of his labor. He knows nothing except the relative position of the three points of that triangle represented on the ground by three great signal stations. When he goes into the field to make his map, he selects some convenient point from which he can observe, measure and map a part of his triangle, and his first task is to locate on his map the position which he has chosen for his starting point. This is known as the three point problem; it has but one condition precedent to its solution; namely, that he must be within sight of the three great signal stations which are represented on his map by the points of his great triangle. He has chosen his starting point so that he can see all three of these signals. And so this problem of self-knowledge may be termed the three point problem of life: to know at any time and place what and where you are, you must be able to observe and note your bearings from your capacity for thought; your capacity for purpose; your capacity for labor.

First, of your capacity for thought, which means capacity for orderly and efficient thought. Order is Heaven's first law, and it is only when it has become the first law of your life that for you "day unto day uttereth speech and night unto night showeth knowledge." Capacity for thought waits upon the habit of orderly thought which comes only from patient care and training. The gentlemen who for these four years have given you so generously of their learning, their talents and their patient care will not claim that they send you into your professional life a master of your calling; they will be well content if they may say of you that you have acquired the habit of intelligent study attended with a knowledge of how and where to seek the secrets which science discloses only to her most patient and persistent wooers. You have graduated only in a course of how to study and how to think. The habit of thought must be developed; that is, you must become farmers of your brain. The soil has been prepared; its fertility is your gift; the seeds of thought have been sown—see to it that you observe the first rule of agriculture: take from the soil no more than you put back into it, if you would preserve and increase its fertility and perennial power. Human thoughts are material things; that is, they are material forces, like the electric fluid which is unseen except it be manifest through its potential effect upon other things; a force which has existed through the ages, which disclosed itself to man through hundreds of centuries only in what was thought to be the wrath of the gods, but which at last came to be in part comprehended and in a measure mastered and harnessed to the service of mankind. So it has been with human thought; thought is not a meteor from some unknown source passing through the atmosphere of our being on to an unknown destination. It is rather like the flora of the earth—her fruits, her trees, her grasses, grains, and flowers. The seed lay hidden many years awaiting the fullness of the Master's hour; it has grown to its present great advancement, watered with tears and enriched with the blood of its martyrs, for in all ages men have suffered and given their lives that what seemed a new, strange thought should not perish from the minds of men.

Your mind is your farm; don't make it a one-crop farm, but divide it into its fields of grass and grain, its gardens for fruit and flowers, its groves for the sessions of sweet silent thought. Don't plough it all into a field of grain; don't exhaust your thought in the tasks of daily labor in your business or profession, and go home to a sodden indolence of so-called rest like the man who is brother to the ox. Leave your thought of crop and profit before the sunset hour; give some hour to the care of flowers and fruit, the social, friendly, ornamental side of life, and above all, let me urge you to preserve for the shady grove of quiet contemplation

"A little pause in life while daylight lingers
   Between the sunset and the pale moonrise,
When daily toil has passed through tired fingers,
   And thin grey shadows veil the aching eyes."

Cultivate the habit of contemplation for at least an hour of each day. I once read, I cannot tell you where, an apostrophe to a telegraph pole. A very prosaic, unpoetical thing is a telegraph pole, but the last lines have lingered with me many years:

"Strip all the leafage from life,
   So let its profits increase.
Then when you turn from strife,
   Where are the shadows of peace?"

Preserve a part of your domain for a grove of contemplation where the stately oak, the bearded hemlock, or the sighing pine stand, the giants of human thought, enduring through the years of storm and tempest, where nature sends you the whisper of her breezes and the roar of her mighty winds. Preserve some hour of the day for quiet contemplation. I would fit each young man with three quite inexpensive things—a Bible, a long-stemmed pipe and a small battery light—and I would urge him to take with these one hour of his day, whether at twilight or at midnight, whether in park or lawn, in grove or attic. I would have him turn on his light, and read a verse or two; turn off his light and think it over, and remember the words of the Psalmist; how in the night watches he meditates of the heavens which declare the glory of God and the firmament which showeth His handiwork; how he lifts up his eyes to the shadows of the mighty hills from whence cometh his strength. Then the cares of the day will fold their tents like Arabs and as silently steal away, and your sleep will be deeper and sweeter; the morning will bring new strength; and unto the labor of the busy hours you will, without knowing it, carry the influence of the strength of greater things.

Learn to know by the test of the influence of contemplation your capacity for thought.

And thoughts without purpose are but rambling, wondering dreams; your purpose is the beacon light which marks the direction of your thought, which gives to the habit of orderly thought the force of continuity. Human thought is what lifts us above the brutes, and makes us to be a little lower than the angels. Purposeless thought is like a child lost in a great forest; like a leaf in the wind; like an unanchored invertebrate adrift in the currents of the sea; like a boat with sail, but no rudder; like a mariner without a compass and without chart or knowledge of his port of destination.

I remember hearing, many years ago, a story which many of you have doubtless heard. When a railroad was first built into the mountains, an aged couple accompanied by a pet fise dog*, walked many miles to get their first view of a train. It came and paused and moved on; they stood and stared, but the little dog with much barking scooted off down the track after the train. The old lady touched her husband's arm and with much seriousness said, "John, do you think he'll ketch it?" John replied, "I don't know, Matildy, but I'm wondering what he'll do with it if he does ketch it." The dog evidently had been thinking, and was in violent action, but he had no purpose.

You can really have no orderly or efficient thought except it be in the prosecution of some settled scheme of life, unless some aim and purpose gives direction to your thought, some vision of the haven of your hopes.

But thought and purpose are of no avail, unless the element of labor brings them to their rich fruition. Labor conquers all—when inspired by earnest thought and guided by a settled purpose. Labor of itself can accomplish little. If you cannot give it efficient application and intelligent direction you will be the servant of some man who can, and it is likewise true that the master must labor just as hard as the servant. It is the labor of life that makes rest sweet to us and makes the inevitable end not all unwelcome. Thought, of course, involves and includes labor, but the labor of execution must follow the labor of design. Too often an indolence follows the birth of an idea, and some man of energy will steal the thought, while the thinker dreams, and forge it into an achievement. Action is essential, but alone can accomplish little. It is the coordination of thought, purpose and labor which brings life to its achievement, and knowledge of your capacity for these is the only real complete self-knowledge.

One signal point of the triangle will not give the topographer his position, nor will two. The line of vision to all three must be clear and unobstructed.

I don't like some things said by the late William Shakespeare, among them the words of Hamlet:

"Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action."

It is only explainable when we recall that he probably presents Hamlet as a trifle crazy. I think Mark Twain gives the better interpretation of the crazy Hamlet when he makes the Duke of Bilge-water quote him, "I say you, you fair Ophelia—ope' not thy ponderous and marble jaws." No enterprise of great pith and moment was ever from its current turned aside because of conscience or of earnest thought, though many so inspired have lost the name of action from indolence of the thinker.

When you have taken the true measure of your capacity for thought, for purpose and for labor, you can claim to have attained a fair measure of self-knowledge.

But coordinate with self-knowledge must come self-reverence and self-control; self-reverence, not self-exaltation, a setting up of a high ideal as a pattern for self-development and a reverence of a self that you would be; checking off the mistakes as the merchant does the losses at the end of the year; pruning off, like the fruit grower, the dead and barren limbs, not remembering them as failures, but as lessons.

"Come, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garments of repentance fling,"

discarding that which is not good, reverencing that within you which is true and tried. With St. Paul prove all things, and hold on to that which is good. Hold no discouragement for what might have been, but an abiding faith in what is to be, never ceasing to plan anew the bright pattern of your hopes which may yet be woven from the warp and woof and mystery of life; reverencing that part of yourself which you know to be good, and through self-mastery carrying forward the real purpose of your life. Only self-control will enable us to bury the dead things of the past and renew the hopes of a right spirit within. There can be no true reverence of the self which is without a capacity for self-control.

"Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control—
These three alone lead life to sovereign power,
Yet not for power * * * but to live by law,
Acting the law we live by without fear;
And, because right is right, to follow right
Were wisdom in the scorn of consequence."

The quality of self-abnegation here expressed is the real spiritual force which gives moral power to the material strength of life. It is the fourth dimension which we cannot measure, but which involves all things included in the other three. It is the cohesive and vital force of life. The great Bacon has said: "It is the mind which makes the man, but our vigor is in our immortal soul." It is the surrender of life which gives us the real life; as Tennyson has said:

"Love took up the harp of Life and smote on all the chords with might;
Smote the chord of Self that, trembling, passed in music out of sight."

Self-sacrifice is the true expression and embodiment of all of the philosophies of life, just as the teachings of Christ include and vitalize all the enduring philosophy of the ages.

These things are true, my friends, of your several individual Jives; they are likewise true of you as a class, and also of the great Republic of which you are a part, which needs you in its hours of peace as much as it shall need you in the times of war. The strength of a nation lies in the strength of its young men; your power is her pride, your vigor is her reliance; she needs strong men, but also she needs men sterling and true. The world in all its ages has produced two classes of so-called great men. One class is composed of those in whom the consciousness and lust of power has been strong, driving them on to shocks, dangers and deeds until endurance has grown sinewed with action, but blinded to their higher obligations their creeds have not forbade them to wade through slaughter to their own supremacy and shut the gates of mercy on mankind. Men such as these have unquestionably written the most thrilling chapters in human history, but they have counted for little in the grand total of human betterment. And then there is the other class of truly great men; men in whom the power of vigorous action has not been wanting and yet in whom the sweeter impulses of the heart have not been stilled to silence by the loud huzzas—to whom it has been given that they might feel as well as act; they have been rare, very rare, almost as rare as angels' visits; but one such man coming within a group of centuries will from the best and noblest of his fellow men build up a nation, and a nation of such character that it will express the faith and fulfill the hope of countless millions struggling and starving to be free. Of these two classes we have as great exemplars Napoleon and Washington. In the power to win and hold the fidelity and fanatical devotion of armies, in genius of battle, the Corsican was probably superior to the Virginian; the one was all brain and ambition, the other was all mind and heart. Compare what each achieved. The empire builded by Napoleon, perhaps the most brilliant and powerful known in history, tumbled about the prostrate body of its builder like a house of cards; but the light and fire of national life, kindled by the genius of Washington, has fed upon the essence of his imperishable spirit and will grow brighter and brighter unto the perfect day.

This nation to-day needs to know its thought, its purpose, and its power; to reverence its ideals, to control its passions, to vitalize these with a spirit of unselfish purpose. Its destiny is the greatest yet disclosed to any nation of the earth; it faces such a crisis as history has never yet recorded.

A short time since a great man sat in the isolation of a high office, burdened with a responsibility and with a task such as has confronted no man since Moses, his mission accomplished, was shrouded by the hand of God and laid to rest beneath the Neboian pines. The whole world waited, expectant to hear what this man would say. As to what his heart impelled, as to what his judgment dictated, as to what his courage justified he held no doubt or hesitation, but he waited, thinking, seeking to know the thought, the purpose, the force and the power of his people. He knew his words must be their words, that unless supported by the resolve and will of his nation his words, though spoken in wisdom, would still be but empty words. The hysteria of the jingo, the dreams of the idealist had no meaning to him, he listened for the heart throbs of his people and listening he heard and hearing he knew, and knowing spoke, and now we wait with faith to see that neither nation nor monarch, nor man nor beast will fail to hear and heed.

If the manhood of this country bring their thought, their purpose, their strength and a spirit of unselfish devotion to his support, it matters not what course the current of impending things may give to the nation's action; it will glorify itself, will serve mankind, will fulfill its great destiny.

Let us hope that above the storms and clouds of war we may still see the spirit of America splendid and serene. That we may hear her, as she speaks to all the nations of the earth, speak in a voice as clear as that of Israfel marshaling the faithful in the fields of Asphodel, as thrilling as the voice of Memnon wakening Egypt from her thousand years of slumber; may hear her speak to all mankind, in all reverence saying of temporal as the Master has said of spiritual things, "I am the light of the world."


From the Bulletin of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute -- The State Agricultural and Mechanical College, Commencement Number, Vol. 8, No. 3, July 1915, pp. 25-33.

* Ed. note: A small spaniel or other pet dog.

Waller Redd Staples was born in Patrick County, Virginia, in 1871. He attended Washington and Lee University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then went to work for the U. S. government. While working for the Land Office, he studied law at the National University. After being admitted to the Virginia Bar in 1899, he eventually moved to Roanoke and formed a partnership. In 1908, he was elected by the Virginia General Assembly to a six-year term as a judge of the Hustings Court (also known as the Corporation Court) for Roanoke City. In 1912, Judge Staples was appointed by Gov. Mann to preside over the Allen trials following the "Hillsville Tragedy" shootout in the courthouse in March, 1912. Judge Staples resigned in 1914 to resume his private practice. He died in 1927 and is buried in Fair View Cemetery in Roanoke.