“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.