The Reality of Ideas

![Shultz talked about how ideals and visions can bring about practical change. (Chris Seewald/The Stanford Review)](/content/uploads/Shultz.jpg)
Shultz talked about how ideals and visions can bring about practical change. (Chris Seewald/The Stanford Review)
Throughout the first part of May, George Shultz—who served as the sixtieth U.S. secretary of state in the Reagan Administration and who is presently the Thomas W. and Susan B. Ford Distinguished Fellow at the Hoover Institution—spoke at a series of events to Stanford students and the community at-large as the 2009 Rathbun Visiting Fellow.

The fellowship is endowed by the “Harry and Emilia Rathbun Fund for Exploring What Leads to a Meaningful Life.” It invites great leaders and thinkers to reflect on questions of purpose, moral inquiry, and the values, beliefs, and motivations that have guided them throughout their lives. Last year, former Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Sandra Day O’Conner served as the first Rathbun Visiting Fellow.

Harry Rathbun had been a professor of law at Stanford from 1929 to 1959, and his annual last lecture became legendary, drawing such large audiences that it was eventually held in Memorial Auditorium. The Rathbuns were also known for hosting students for dinner at their home and discussing weighty issues and the eternal questions of life at these gatherings.

The centerpiece of Secretary Shultz’s fellowship was a talk given to a packed Memorial Church in the tradition of Harry’s Last Lecture, under the title “The Power of the Ought.” In it, Secretary Shultz reflected on “the idea that you have a vision out there, a place you should go, and how powerful that is in getting you there.” He explained, “I argue for the tremendous importance of the Ought — recognition that causes us to test what is the case and commands us to try to bring it to the right ought. We see this in the struggle under many settings, where sometimes something is done under great pressure but deviates in important respects from the Ought.”

Harry and Emilia’s son, Richard Rathbun, the president of the endowment, introduced Secretary Shultz, observing, “This evening is about meaning and purpose…the ideals by which we create a compass for our lives. This evening is about who George Shultz is.”

Secretary Shultz has long been known as a great storyteller, and throughout the evening he regaled the audience with the parables he has developed over the course of his long and influential life. This writer still remembers the day three years ago when he first heard the secretary recount the time he was given his rifle as a soldier in the U.S. Marine Corps, a story he told again during the Rathbun lecture. His drill sergeant told him, “Take good care of this rifle. It’s your best friend. And remember one thing: never point this rifle at anybody unless you’re willing to pull the trigger. No empty threats.” Secretary Shultz advised, when he told this story again this month, “We have to be careful, in making all too many empty threats, saying something or other is unacceptable and then it happens and we don’t do anything. When that happens, your words begin to lose their credibility. So if we’re not prepared to do something we shouldn’t say anything, and when we say something, we should have figured out what we’re going to do to see that we bring it into force.”

One subject Secretary Shultz considered that evening, and on other days of his fellowship, was golf, a sport he has practiced and enjoyed for decades. For him, this seemingly lighthearted subject had a serious lesson in it. “People love golf,” he said, because of its “relentless accountability” regarding the individual who is playing. “There is an ought—it ought to be that way. For the game to be good that’s the way it ought to be. And in the game of golf, the ‘Is’ is right next to the Ought. That’s one example, but this principle has wide applicability.” All too often in life, he observed throughout the evening, the Ought is not right next to the Is, and it is up to individuals to work to bring the two closer together.

In discussing how people grapple with the world as it is and try to bring it closer to how they believe it ought to be, Secretary Shultz recalled President Reagan’s famous slogan, “Trust but verify,” explaining, “In other words the job of keeping the Is close to the Ought needs help.” Simply believing in ideas and ideals is insufficient; individuals and countries must work hard and long to bring the reality of the world as it is closer to the world as we think it should be.

Recalling a speech his close friend Max Kampelman gave in 2006 at the Hoover Institution on the 20th anniversary of the Reykjavik summit, Secretary Shultz called attention to “the importance in America of the movement from what is of our present day to the ought to which we aspire, and how that movement has made our democracy the country we cherish today.” He considered the United States’ long journey of bringing the ideals of the Declaration of Independence from the transcendent world of the Ought into the world of the Is. “Our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, contain many oughts, such as ‘All men are created equal.’ In 1776, are you kidding? It has taken us many years to end slavery, grant voting rights to all our citizens, and to guarantee civil rights to give a few examples. We’re proud of our Declaration of Independence, and we talk about it all the time — we say ‘All men are created equal’ — that’s the ought. And Max [Kampelman] argued that the Ought has had huge power. It helped get the Is closer to the Ought by having it out there. And what he argued was that we should put another ought out there for us — the abolition of nuclear weapons.”

Secretary Shultz has for many years worked with others — including former Secretary of Defense William Perry, Former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Senator Sam Nunn, the physicist Sidney Drell, and many others — for a world free of nuclear weapons. In his talk, he drew on his work in this effort — as well as on his many diverse experiences in academia, business, and government — to illustrate another important characteristic of the relationship between the Is and the Ought. Putting forward a vision such as a nuclear-free world, he said, should also be accompanied by an outline of the concrete actions and steps needed to get there. He observed, “Without the bold vision — the Ought — the actions will not be perceived as fair or urgent. Without the actions, the vision will not be perceived as realistic or possible. So there’s an interactive process between the vision and the things you need to do to achieve the vision.”

Throughout the evening, George Shultz offered other examples of the power of an ought to move the world of the Is. He recalled, in addition to the goal of reducing nuclear arms, getting human rights to be a regular item on the agenda at negotiations with the Soviets, and how putting those ideals forward as a legitimate topic of discussion opened up new paths for the world. Ideas that at first might seem “outlandish” can gradually bring about a change in perspective, a change in the ideas that guide the individual actions that together help to create the world of the Is. Noting the recent joint statement on the part of American President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in which the two leaders pledged their countries to a commitment to achieving a nuclear free world, Secretary Shultz observed that historically the ideals of the Ought “have extraordinary staying power,” and when an ideal’s time has come, “there’s an obligation for all of us to help make it happen,” because “it takes a lot of hard work over many stages.” The way forward is to proceed carefully, with what he termed “careful urgency.”

In concluding his reflections, Secretary Shultz noted, “By combining realism with idealism, we can find a way, through practical steps, from what is — a world with a risk of increasing global disaster — to a world that ought to be — a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons.” He observed that this issue starkly illuminated a subject of great importance to the Rathbuns, “the sacred duty to repair the world.” At the evening’s end, the Dean for Religious Life at Stanford, the Rev. Scotty McLennan, heralded Secretary Shultz as “a prophet moving us toward a vision of bringing the Is and the Ought together” as we continue toward our uncertain future.

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