“If Athens shall appear great to you,” said Pericles, “consider then that her glories were purchased by valiant men, and by men who learned their duty.” That is the source of all greatness in all societies, and it is the key to progress in our time.
The second danger is that of expediency: of those who say that hopes and beliefs must bend before immediate necessities. Of course, if we must act effectively we must deal with the world as it is. We must get things done.
But if there was one thing that President Kennedy stood for that touched the most profound feeling of young people around the world, it was the belief that idealism, high aspirations, and deep convictions are not incompatible with the most practical and efficient of programs — that there is no basic inconsistency between ideals and realistic possibilities, no separation between the deepest desires of heart and of mind and the rational application of human effort to human problems.
It is not realistic or hardheaded to solve problems and take action unguided by ultimate moral aims and values, although we all know some who claim that it is so. In my judgment, it is thoughtless folly. For it ignores the realities of human faith and of passion and of belief — forces ultimately more powerful than all of the calculations of our economists or of our generals.
Of course to adhere to standards, to idealism, to vision in the face of immediate dangers takes great courage and takes self-confidence. But we also know that only those who dare to fail greatly, can ever achieve greatly.
It is this new idealism which is also, I believe, the common heritage of a generation which has learned that while efficiency can lead to the camps at Auschwitz, or the streets of Budapest, only the ideals of humanity and love can climb the hills of the Acropolis.
And a third danger is timidity. Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change the world — which yields most painfully to change. Aristotle tells us: “At the Olympic games it is not the finest or the strongest men who are crowned, but those who enter the lists.” “So, too, in the life of the honorable and the good it is they who act rightly who win the prize.”3 I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the world.
For the fortunate amongst us, the fourth danger, my friends, is comfort, the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of an education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us.
There is a Chinese curse which says, “May he live in interesting times.” Like it or not we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind. And everyone here will ultimately be judged, will ultimately judge himself, on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.
So we part, I to my country and you to remain. We are, if a man of 40 can claim the privilege, fellow members of the world’s largest younger generation. Each of us have our own work to do. I know at times you must feel very alone with your problems and with your difficulties. But I want to say how I — impressed I am with the stand — with what you stand for and for the effort that you are making; and I say this not just for myself, but men and women all over the world.
And I hope you will often take heart from the knowledge that you are joined with your fellow young people in every land, they struggling with their problems and you with yours, but all joined in a common purpose; that, like the young people of my own country and of every country that I have visited, you are all in many ways more closely united to the brothers of your time than to the older generations in any of these nations. You’re determined to build a better future.
President Kennedy was speaking to the young people of America, but beyond them to young people everywhere, when he said: “the energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it; and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.” And, he added, “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
Robert F. Kennedy, Day of Affirmation Address, Cape Town University, June 6, 1966