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Kimberly Rivers

Kimberly Rivers, director of the University Studies Program, was appointed interim dean of the College of Letters and Science (COLS) in August 2020 while UW Oshkosh grappled with the pandemic. She joined the history department in 1995 and was promoted to professor in 2010. Rivers previously served as an associate dean in the COLS and two terms as history department chair.

The following are Rivers’ prepared remarks from the morning ceremony during UWO’s 148th spring commencement:

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Thank you, Provost Koker. Chancellor Leavitt, Provost Koker, Distinguished Faculty, Graduates, Guests, I am honored to greet you today.

When I was recently asked to watch Full-Metal Alchemist on Crunchyroll by a member of my household who will remain nameless, I hesitated at first and then agreed. Although anime is not usually my first choice for TV series, the recommender had been right about other shows, so I decided to give this one a chance. In the Full-Metal Alchemist series, a high-stakes conspiracy is perpetrated by mysterious villains. As we watched the show, I was a bit surprised when Greed turned out to be one of them. Huh, I thought, that’s unusual.

A few episodes later, Envy, Lechery, and Gluttony made their appearances. Ah-hah, I thought, I know where this is going. Where’s Pride, I asked my unnamed household member? And surely Sloth and Wrath will turn up soon? (They did). Given that I am a medieval historian who studies intellectual and religious culture, especially preaching, I recognized these enemies as the Seven Deadly Sins, the subject of countless sermons in the Middle Ages. I was hooked.

However, before they were known as the Seven Deadly Sins, they were the Seven Capital Vices. While the main characters in the anime series had to fight these evil forces with their powers of alchemy (which sometimes got them into major situations), medieval thinkers recommended a different weapon—the Virtues. Each of the seven vices had an opposing virtue, which could be used to counter the vice. So, Humility was the counter to Pride (as Vain Glory), Patience the counter to Wrath, Charity the counter to Envy, and so on. While the virtues may appear to a modern person as the equivalent of showing up unarmed to a gunfight, they were in fact more powerful than they appear. The Latin word for virtue, virtus, also means strength or power. Virtues were the powers of the soul to battle against the vices, and they came into the lexicon of the Middle Ages through monastic writers searching for a way to defeat the vices in their inner lives.

They in turn were influenced by Aristotle, who wrote a treatise on ethics that defined the role of virtues in life. The treatise is devoted to the topic of the happy life (as relevant a topic in antiquity as it is now), and Aristotle thought happiness stemmed from acting in accordance with the virtues. For him, a virtue is not so much the opposite of vice but rather a median “between extremes of deficiency and excess,” both of which are vices. For example, the virtue of courage is not the opposite of cowardice but rather a midpoint between cowardice and recklessness. To be courageous is have the right attitude toward a dangerous situation, not to run away from it but not to rush into it blindly either. The virtue of generosity is the median between extravagance and stinginess, while gentleness is situated between short temper and apathy. For Aristotle, correct or virtuous action was always a midpoint between extremes relevant to us, that is the median point would not be the same for everyone. The habit of acting in a virtuous way was the key to a happy life and to a stable society because politics, a key interest of Aristotle, required virtuous citizens. Now, neither virtue nor moderation are popular topics these days; vices tend to grab the attention. However, I would argue that they are relevant to all of us. It’s long been my opinion that our society tends to run toward dichotomies, to an either-or, right or wrong, mentality rather than to search for the midpoint where a viable solution may lie.

So, to you graduates, in this moment that feels anything but stable, I ask you to consider finding the virtuous path, that is, the median appropriate to you and your situation between extremes. I recommend this course of action to you in different spheres of your life. First, in your personal life, in the search for physical and mental well-being, allow yourself to find the midpoint that’s right for you between extremes of appearance, athleticism, diet and whatever else is being urged on you on social media. Only you know where that sweet spot is.

Second, in the pursuit for work-life balance, try to find a midpoint between striving to reach the pinnacle of whatever work or career choice comes next and doing nothing. Neither extreme is likely to lead to a happy life. If the last two years have taught us anything, it is that work is not the only important thing in life, but neither are we happy never leaving the couch.

Third, in your relations with other people, look for the mid-point between extremes and find the right spot relevant to your situation. Be careful about where you set the mid-point, because sometimes one side has pulled further out than the other side has. Finding the appropriate median will require talking to people, making judgements and distinctions, thinking critically, problem-solving, all things that your UWO education has taught you how to do. Right now, you need the power of balance in your own lives, and the world needs you to be people who can pick the correct path out of a plethora of bad choices urged on you by strangers on social media.

To return to the Full-Metal Alchemist, it’s not surprising that while the Seven Deadly Sins have starring roles, the only virtue that is specifically mentioned is Charity, that is Love.

Nonetheless, it’s clear by the end of the series that the protagonists’ quest has been for nothing other than the happy life, which they achieve by working with others, including people they had once considered enemies, and by finding the right moment to exercise the virtues of humility, charity, patience, and fortitude.