"I know of nothing more worthy of a man's ambition than that his son be the best of men."
I saw that quotation from Plato quite by accident. Our family was among the last to squeeze into the ornate hall for an honors assembly at our son's university almost 25 years ago.
The program was about to begin. It was very warm. The master of ceremonies, a graduating senior, was ready to address the assembled parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, faculty and students. As she asked for quiet, I saw the quotation. There were Plato's words imprinted above her in gold leaf on the wainscoted mahogany wall.
I looked up to get a better view. I was mesmerized by the words. Unaware of the ceremonies, I was struck by the universality of the quotation. Fathers do have great dreams for their sons, their daughters, too. This was true for me. I was more anxious for his success and happiness than I could remember being for my own. But more than that, I wanted him to be a good person, one who would help others in this life.
I saw his graduation as another marker in his life and mine. He was on his own. I suppose that most parents transpose their desires and dreams to their progeny. We have great expectations for a son or a daughter. Eventually, we let the fantasies go and our children find their own dreams.
"Nothing more worthy of a man's ambition," I thought. But what control does a father have over the actions of his son? Surely not much by the time he's graduating, it seemed to me. It's true that you try to give a good example as a parent. It might even be wise to stop there, but no parent ever does. We go right on, giving more advice than even a baby hippo could swallow. And kids listen and dutifully assent to what we tell them and then do what they do. It is a curious business, this growing up and growing older.
I'm sure that Plato knew there was an element of self-love in wanting one's son to be the best of men. For isn't this just another way of wanting one's offspring to do what one couldn't or wouldn't do? This aspiration reflects our hope of immortality reflected in our children's eyes. So it seems to me that wishing one's son to be the best of men is a filial instinct ingrained in us far beyond the gold leaf on the wainscoted mahogany wall.
That hope was there before I dated his mother. It was there before carbon dating. It existed when fathers and infant sons looked at each other on the grassy plains of Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago. It was there when our ancestors sat in the hold of a ship coming to this country.
The hope was in my own father's eyes when he and my mother drove me home from Mount Mercy Hospital in 1937 to an upstairs flat on South Park Avenue, across from Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna.
The fraternal wish is a profound aspiration. That wish equally includes daughters. It forges a link in the great chain of being stronger than any space-age material. It even enables parents to sit through others' graduation advice and admonitions. There is poetic justice in that. One might even call it love.
Michael D. Langan and his wife, Joanne, married 52 years on June 20, have three children and seven grandchildren.