Scalia's Cohonguroton

Each year the senior class valedictorian of the College gives what is known as the "Cohonguroton Oration," during Tropia Exercises, the College's awards ceremony.

In 1957 this person was Supreme Court Justice Antonin Gregory Scalia, who passed away earlier this month and was one of the few justices on the Court who believed words mean things.  To put it another way, Scalia believed the rule of law and the Court's continued legitimacy require interpreting our nation's Constitution based on what the words in it actually say and the original intent of the Founders.  He believed that if someone didn't like what was or wasn't in the Constitution, the proper response was to amend it, and not engage in attempts at twisting it to fit whatever current political fashions demanded.  The reason, of course, is because if the words in the Constitution can mean anything a majority of justices at the time say they mean, then they ultimately mean nothing at all.

Cohonguroton is the word local Indians used to refer to the Potomac River.

For your pleasure, here's a young Scalia's address to his fellow Hoyas.

 

 

THE FLAMING SUN has set beneath the green hill to the West, and returned to the bosom of the fertile earth which gave him birth. Above, the yellow moon has won domination of the skies, and shares her silent realm with twinkling stars. Below, up from the waters of the river that our fathers called Cohonguroton, up from her secret depths the damp mists of night steal towards us. It is the time when men are wont to sit about a glowing fire, and talk of past and future things. So let us sit and talk tonight.

When a traveler has reached the summit of a lofty hill, he does not descend at once, but pauses a moment, to look back across the land he has traversed and ahead into the valley where he will descend. From such a height he can see clearly the general features of the land which he saw only vaguely, piece by piece, disconnectedly, while he was crossing it. And he can look ahead, to survey the paths that lie before him and avoid the swamps and rapids, chasms and insurmountable cliffs. We stand on such a mountain peak tonight. Many years have we spent climbing up the rugged slope of training. Tomorrow we begin the descent into the valley men call life.

 

 

The hour is late now, and it is time for us to rise and go our separate ways. The fires around which we have sat these past four years will no more warm us. But they will not go out. Others come to take our places here, to learn as we have done, to hear the ancient wisdom of our tribe, to join its hunt. We go out into life, and leave all this behind. The camp stays ever fixed, like the river Cohonguroton, while we, like his waters, pass through to the sea. 

 

 

First of all, then, let us turn our gaze back, back while the season came and went four times, and we camped here above Cohonguroton’s shore. Our days were spent in hunting; but our prey was more elusive and more valuable than any forest dear or mountain bear or prairie buffalo. For we were seekers of the truth. Truth has no bones, no flesh, no solid earthly form. You cannot hear her creeping through the forest glades by night; you cannot see her running through the forest paths by day; you cannot watch you arrow speeding straight to thud into her heart. For those who seek her, she is everywhere; for those who do not love her, she is nowhere.

But we have not been alone in our hunt. We have been aided by the stories of the hunts that others made, the great pathfinders in the forest of the mind, long long ago and far away from us. From their successes we have learned, and from their failures profited. These tales were told us by the Blackrobes, who have made themselves the link between our ancestors and us, the ancient and the now, the Old World and the New. They have handed down a treasure to our care, the precious heritage of a tribe not limited by tongue, or color, or continent, the sacred wisdom of the tribe called man. But neither they nor we have fully caught the truth. She is too quick, too brave for us. No man can say that he knows all the truth. He can love and pursue her. Then we call him wise.

We have not succeeded, then, in capturing our prey. In any other hunt this would mean failure; but the hunt for truth is unique. The seeking is its own success, for only man is able to hunt the truth. The fishes, birds, and other beasts of earth do not hunger for it; the spirits and all-knowing God already eat their fill. Man alone can hunt the truth; to seek truth is to be most a man. We should measure the success of these past four years, not by the particles of truth that we have captured, for they are only grains of sand along an ocean shore, and soon even these may trickle from our memories. But if, by means of them, we have learned to love the truth, learned the art of hunting her, learned how to think, how to take an idea that lies dead between the pages of a book and make it live within our minds, then we leave here wise, we leave here ardent, skillful seekers of the truth, we leave here men.

So much lies behind us and is past. Now from this mountain where we stand tonight, let us turn around and look ahead, down across the broad green valley into which the trail of our existence winds. What we will do separately in the future is not completely different from what we have done together here in the past. New duties will be added; we shall have to earn our own livelihood, raise a family, nourish and support a new generation of our race. But besides all this, what we must do as men, the essential and distinctive duty of our tribe, is to continue searching for the truth. This goal can never change.

What is the difference, then, between these past four years and the days that lie ahead? It is symbolized by these feathers which I wear tonight. They are the feathers of a chief. We must be leaders where once we followed. We are to head the quest for truth.

Perhaps you think that I exaggerate our mission. But look about, and you will see the truth of what I say. If we will not lead, who will? Eliminate the great number of men who have never heard the voices of the past, who know nothing of the heritage of human wisdom, who begin their hunt alone and totally unaided. These may follow, but they will never lead. Eliminate again the men who have not heard the Word of Christ whispered to the soul. They search, but they do not know what they are searching for. They are not chasing truth, but merely clutching at her shadow. Their eyes can see only the ground, and watch this shadow, while truth wings high above them. They lack the eyes of faith, which alone can pierce into eternity, and so are doomed to lose the way, and miss the truth, and overlook the light.

Who, then, remains? Only ourselves, trained in reason and in faith. If we will not be leaders of a real, a true, a Catholic intellectual life, no one will! We cannot shift responsibility to some vague “chosen few.” We are the chosen few. The responsibility rests upon all of us, whatever our future professions. For the intellectual life, which is essentially the never-ending search for truth of which we spoke, does not belong only to the college and the university. Men are specially trained for it there, as we have been. But it should stretch far beyond, to wherever there is a man to think. It is our task to carry and advance into all sections of our society this distinctively human life, of reason learned and faith believed. If we fail to do this, if we allow the cares of wealth or fame or specialized career, to stifle our spirit of wonder, to turn us from the hunt, to kill in us what was most human, then we shall have betrayed ourselves, our society, our race. If we really love the truth, we will believe that we have been shown a marvelous pathway, that we must brace ourselves at once to follow it, that life will not be worth living if we do not otherwise! The prize is great. The risk is glorious.

The hour is late now, and it is time for us to rise and go our separate ways. The fires around which we have sat these past four years will no more warm us. But they will not go out. Others come to take our places here, to learn as we have done, to hear the ancient wisdom of our tribe, to join its hunt. We go out into life, and leave all this behind. The camp stays ever fixed, like the river Cohonguroton, while we, like his waters, pass through to the sea.

Published in: The Georgetown College Journal, Autumn 1957 edition, Vol. 86, pp. 12-14