THE BLOG

Massey College, Mastery and Senator Segal

01/03/2014 04:58 EST | Updated 03/05/2014 05:59 EST

Senator Hugh Segal, CM will retire from the Upper Chamber to embrace the post of Master of Massey College in the University of Toronto. To most Canadians this may seem like just another rung in the ladder of accomplishments of Mr. Segal, who has figured prominently as an intellectual and public servant for decades. Mr. Segal will begin his seven-year term as Master after he steps down from the Senate in June.

Masseyites, present and former, are well aware that assuming the position of Master requires stepping down or, more precisely, stepping behind. This is perhaps surprising. For following in the shoes of great women and men, such as the saintly novelist and Founding Master Mr. Robertson Davies, CC -- Mr. Davies won many accolades in his day and, recently, he earned a posthumous postage stamp -- must surely turn even a humble man into a peacock.

But we know at Massey that, to inherit the Master's post you must be not a hero but a Fifth Business. The Master orchestrates connections like a puppeteer; he is responsible but behind the scenes. On Centre stage are quick-witted graduate students with agile minds. The Master lets the light shine on their brilliance.

To wit: At Massey College, we recently were treated to the current Master's last Gaudy over which he presided as Master. A Gaudy night at Massey College boasts glittering music and wit and, especially a story, the last having been recounted, and written, by The Master, Mr. John Fraser, CM. It was called "Great Bull," a stunning conclusion to the Master's annual Gaudy bedtime stories. The stories have just been inscribed into a book, The Master's Menagerie, and let it be said that this book, like all of Master Fraser's books, is, simply, a vigorous masterpiece.

Also at this Gaudy, as every year, we heard the results of the literary competition, a fierce battle. This was the fifth year of my failing to win first, second or third prize. I never stood a chance, really. Especially this year, where Elizabeth McCallum, the Master's wife and herself grand and witty on the stage where the Gaudy's songs and hymns are sung, pronounced that too-serious entries like mine were not deserving of praise; she was right. The competition rules stipulated, in 70 to 75 words, to pen a pithy, witty quotation to replace the George Santayana quotation that concludes, "To be happy, you must be wise" - with an inspirational equal designed for posterity.

My entry did not deserve the palm of victory. I only print it here since it conveys the need for humility in any Master:

"Mastery is not the taming of dragons. It is not logged in leagues, anciently sailed to gain sovereignty over new lands and authority over new tribes. Nor is Mastery the shattering of atomic particles or the sighting of the Big Bang. It is not, as many dream, the personal subduing of ambitions and angers. Any true Master forges links: global links among peers, links with generations past and with generations that will surely follow." - Neil Seeman

I thereafter discovered that my young colleague, Alexander Mosa, a Junior Fellow undertaking graduate work in virology, had written a more trenchant tribute to the qualities of Mastery, specifically, Mastery of the soul. He writes:

"Solitude starves the soul. Do not consider your great work Great. Consider your smallness in the yawning gulf and be humbled and freed by the brevity of memory and the Eternity of the forgotten. Walk contently with the Will of Necessity. The opposed are forced and the free go willingly. Only what is loved Endures. Passing Happiness is from not loving, or not loving truly, or too truly loving oneself." - Alexander Mosa

George Santayana's quotation, featured in red and black ink around the stony inner perimeter of Ondaatje Hall in Massey College, reads thus:

"Happiness is impossible, and even inconceivable, to a mind without scope and without pause, a mind driven by craving, pleasure or fear. To be happy, you must be reasonable, or you must be tamed. You must have taken the measure of your powers, tasted the fruits of your passion, and learned your place in the world and what things in it can really serve you. To be happy, you must be wise." - George Santayana

When you step down from the Upper Chamber, Senator Segal, you will be stepping behind the scenes, but you will become the backdrop to a drama in Brownian motion that, without you, cannot achieve an ordered goal: wisdom.

The ghost of Robertson Davies awaits you.