By Bianca Lopez, PhD candidate in History
In June of 1862, William Greenleaf Eliot delivered the commencement address for Washington University’s first graduating class, whose numbers included his son Thomas.
The address, an early draft of which is included below, covered philosophical subjects such as the evolution of human reason, the advent of metaphysics as a branch of philosophy, and the achievement of immortality through study.
Although the Civil War still raged on, Eliot made no direct mention of war, an interesting choice considering that many of the young men in the audience, including his son, would soon enlist as Confederate or Union soldiers, and stood the risk of relinquishing their lives for their chosen cause.
Why then, in this time of destruction, violence, and war, did Eliot decide to give a speech about metaphysics? What was he trying to achieve by settling on such a lofty topic?