'Our Lives Are Short, Our Arts Long'

November 7, 2019
Professor Mark Jordan
Professor Mark Jordan. Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

Mark Jordan, Richard Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Divinity, delivered the following remarks at Morning Prayers in Harvard's Memorial Church on November 7, 2019.



September. 3. 1693. / A.M. I preached at Boston. P.M. I preached at Cambridge. Memorandum. As I was riding to Cambridge, I prayed to God. Begged that my labors might be blessed for good to the souls of the students, at which I was much melted. Also, saying before the Lord, that some workings of his providence seemed to Intimate that I must be returned to England again… In this there was something extraordinary either divine or Angelical.” (A reading from the diary of Increase Mather, President of Harvard College, 1692-1701).1

We may regard this early service as a vestige, quaint or troubling, of Harvard’s now distant religious origins. But the service also records our descent from British colleges. Morning Prayer—typically with choral fellows—counted as a collegiate obligation. Attendance was compulsory here until 1886, when “godless Harvard” abandoned it at the urging of the Plummer Professor of Morals—who was reminded by the coerced congregation of state prisoners.2

Two centuries before, when Mather rode to Cambridge, he had already spent years in England advocating for the colony and its college. He had persuaded the king to authorize new legal recognition for Harvard. His fervor in prayer—his “melting”—did not exclude political cunning. We date the founding of medieval European universities by charters that grant rights of self-governance. Indeed, the medieval word, universitas, refers to a type of guild. We regard the robe I wear as costuming for graduation. It is, in fact, the uniform of a congregation of skilled artisans. Master of arts, that is, teacher of skills.

If a guild seems too pedestrian a model for intellectual life, I suggest that it provides clarifying reminders and cautions. It is, to my mind, clearer than our depleted word “community” or—worse—our sentimental analogies to an ideal “family.” Harvard is not my family—and on some days I have been grateful for that. Still, belonging to this or any universitas imposes obligations. It requires, for example, your long commitment to the cultivation of learning. Reaching a degree—that is, a step or stage—marks progress along a path that has no end.

The guild-model also issues cautions. Any guild can become a monster—puffed up with pretension, bellowing for the strict enforcement of some orthodoxy or prejudice. All of the university guilds, in Mather’s time, excluded women. Some authorized the execution of heretics. Mather was awarded Harvard’s first doctorate, in theology, during the witch trials at Salem—trials that he sought to stop.

Even when members of a guild act with justice and faithfulness, they face the temptation to mistake the guild for its arts, the means for the end. Perhaps I should return to England, Mather worries. There are funds to be raised. Contracts negotiated. He forgets in the melting moment that the college exceeds its arrangements. We entrust our learning to charters and corporations; dress it with crimson robes and heraldic shields; house it in monumental buildings—as if those arrangements were sufficient to protect learning from persecution or deformity. The arrangements are at best preparations for pursuing our arts. The guild’s best defense is always their ardent cultivation. Like stonemasons or painters or singers, we are judged according to the skilled beauties we learn to make together.

Vita brevis, ars vero longa, begins a canonical text from the faculty of medicine, but its lesson applies to all.“Our lives are short, our arts long.” It is sometimes good to recall the high-flown claims expressed in our charters, but better still to seek daily help from the highest and most benevolent advocate. Whatever Mather’s crimes or delusions, I would not hesitate to join him in one prayer: “that [our] labors might be blessed for good to the souls of the students.” Our own souls too. And, I would add, for the flourishing of the arts to which we are each apprenticed.


1M. G. Hall, “The Autobiography of Increase Mather,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 71 (1961): 272-360, at 345.
2Samuel Eliot Morison, Three Centuries of Harvard, 1636-1936 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936), 366.
3This is one Latin version of the opening of Hippocrates’s Aphorisms.