Friday, March 24, 2006


“And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” Thus ends America’s Declaration of Independence—a document that cost most of its fifty-six signers dearly in terms of blood and treasure.

Elite opinion today finds such statements of commitment undiplomatic and imprudent—quaint relics from a bygone era when goals other than comfort and self-fulfillment stood at the apex of human aspiration.

In similar fashion contemporary commentators view military service as a barbaric enterprise pursued by individuals with few employment options and limited intellectual firepower. What does it profit someone, they reason, to risk life and limb for the sake of ideals that are subject to deconstruction and ridicule by the likes of themselves? Instead of throwing it all away, these dupes could have pursued a Lexus-load of pleasurable alternatives.

Put succinctly, among the secular literati courage is a virtue that has fallen out of fashion. In its place stand avant-garde cynicism, rhetorical cleverness, and a passion for artistic refinement. Maureen Dowd is their cup of tea, not General Patton.

This shift is understandable. After all, if life has no higher purpose, if ideals are only tarted up neuroses, if patriotism is a mendacious veil for narrow economic interests —then no reasonable person would give up a chance for happiness, short as it may be, for a vocation whose risks are great and whose rewards are largely intangible.

Moreover, most men and women aren’t going to forfeit their lives for the sake of a society that fervently proclaims the necessity of doing your own thing. Nor will they practice self-denial within a culture whose primary philosophical images are those of randomness, materialism, and ultimate extinction.

Over half a century ago C. S. Lewis criticized academics whose disdain for martial endeavors resulted in curricula designed to produce “men without chests” —i.e. persons lacking those noble sentiments associated with, among other traits, bravery and self-sacrifice. Since that time the intellectual landscape has shifted more dramatically in favor of those who “laugh at virtue” and mock patriotism.

When I look at the clash of civilizations that is taking place today, I wonder how long the West can continue to draw on accounts that, in intellectual circles, have long been closed. The phrase “sacred honor” is more likely to produce a guffaw among the pen-wielding set than to promote a series of sacrificial acts. As for “Divine Providence,” this idea has been dismissed by smarter-than-thous—for the sake of human autonomy.

Unfortunately, freedom without a moral context amounts to little more than self-indulgence. And self-indulgence isn’t a medium within which courage thrives.
A decadent culture, it appears, sows the seeds of its own destruction.


Anonymous said...

"It must be remembered that in Mark's mind hardly one rag of noble thought, Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical, merely modern. The severities both of abstraction and high human tradition had passed him by: and he had neither peasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honour to help him. He was a man of straw, a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge (he had always done well on essays and genereal papers) and the first real threat to his bodily life knocked him sprawling." C.S. Lewis, "That Hideous Strength," p.185.
A description of one of the main characters in Lewis's science fiction trilogy. No doubt a critique of the "well-educated elite" of his time, more than 60 years ago in Great Britain. When I first read that passage my heart sank as I seemed to be looking at a near perfect description of myself, my peers, and much of my generation. Where does one find examples of courage presently? And I don't mean the courage necessary to go on a humanitarian peace mission to Iraq or South America. I mean the almost mundane courage needed to finally say something to a grandmother who is in her nineties, but still sees things through a racist lense. Or being able to say something to parents in an upper-middle class neighborhood who think that their children are not getting the public education they deserve because their children also have to share a classroom with "those Mexicans." It is easy to discuss courage and how others don't have it, and hell, it's even easy for me to reflect on how I don't have it. But it seems extremely hard to do when both familial relationships and one's bread and butter are on the line.
Your respectful student,
Lance Gomez

RKirk said...

Your quote from Lewis is powerful. My reference to Lewis came from THE ABOLITION OF MAN where he, like Plato, locates the cultivation of courage in early education--"trained emotions" he calls it. I certainly got more of this kind of training than kids today do. And I know quite well what standing against "popular opinion" means both with respect to my family and my own professional interests. (Then there is the day to day contempt one endures for not mindlessly conforming to ideas that permeate today's educational establishment.)

My general view of academics is that they exhibit the kind of cowardice Lewis describes in your quotation--except they don't realize or admit to themselves how cowardly they are. They give lemmings a bad name. At least the furry creatures aren't arrogant bastards.

As for your own examples, I don't see the point of "confronting" a lady in her 90's. Her goods deeds, I would speculate, populate realms other than "ethical theory." Courage isn't the same as rashness, and tolerating an old lady's bigotry (while indicating, modestly, a lack of agreement or interest) would fall within my understanding of fortitude as it negotiates with familial duty.

Personally, I'd save verbal confrontations for persons who don't have one foot in the grave and on whom a prudent "Here I Stand" statement might have some constructive effect. Perhaps, the middle class parents you mention constitute such a group--but there is nothing to be gained by jousting with windmills.

It's difficult to know when "standing on principle" amounts to "grandstanding" or when "prudence" is really the same as cowardice. I think the admonition of Jesus to his disciples, "Be as wise as serpents, and as harmless as doves," contains a great deal of wisdom. Anyone who is going out looking for a fight will find one--and he will end up having little impact on the persons he presumes to help. On the other hand, anyone who goes out of his way to avoid any conflict, will end up reinforcing the status quo.

Humility saves us from self-aggrandizing martyrdom. And a willingness to suffer removes us from the path of cowardly conformity.

I suspect you'll do well when it comes to acting on principle. But it takes time to establish oneself in a position where taking a stand makes a difference. Someone who constantly finds battles to fight won't survive or be in a position to act courageously when the time comes. That's a hard principle for Americans, especially young Americans, to grasp--convinced as they are that they possess a wisdom that others so clearly lack and that everything can and MUST be done RIGHT NOW.

There is great wisdom and courage in just DOING the right thing, without pointed confrontation--and also in saving one's strength until the time is ripe.