John Belvedere Cavitt, my paternal great-great uncle, went to school at South Western Presbyterian University in Clarksville, Tennessee. and graduated in June 1883. I am indebted to him for many things, not the least of which is his library and his tender care for my grandmother and her baby sister when their mother was widowed in 1890 by the bullets of two assassins. I see from his commencement record that he majored in ancient languages, philosophy, and English literature. Commencement week seemed to be a big deal in town and not only the graduates and their families, but the whole town turned out for the speeches and musical events given by various university societies.
The substance of John’s speech is recorded in the June 9, 1883 Clarksville Weekly Chronicle:
The first speaker was Mr. J. B. Cavitt of the Washington Irving Literary Society. His subject was “The Necessity of Doubt.” Mr. Cavitt is a young gentleman of frank countenance and prepossessing appearance. He delivered his oration well, though he showed signs of evident embarrassment [sic]. He begun [sic] by saying that Doubt inspired investigation and had for that reason always been the main factor in dispelling error. Doubt was the parent of truth. It was by doubt only the world could be brought into the possession of a robust faith and healthy truth. What the world considered settled truths and established facts were challenged by Doubt. Mind was great but not infallible. It was often warped by prejudice. Prejudice, passion and sloth stand in the way of progress. Mind must act. Intellectual inactivity was worse than death. Doubt was generated in an active mind and dared to investigate preconceived opinions however sacred or venerable. Man is a dear lover and tender nurse of the truth but error is on every hand. The fondness for truth inspires doubt and investigation is thus instituted. A large portion of the scientific works of to-day are clothed with skepticism, but we can’t afford to give them up on that account, but we must be cautious in their use. Mr. Cavitt closed with the advice to his fellow students to take “Rational Doubt” as a watch word, and on taking his seat was overloaded with flowers by his female friends. This was followed by instrumental music, three violins, flute, piano and organ, several well known ladies and gentlemen of Clarksville being the performers.
Huh, this still sounds like good advice 130 years later.