Doing the best I can to stay fit, I jog the National Mall a few days a week. I start out early in the morning, typically before the sun has peaked over the horizon. Running, which I’ve found is the best way to keep my weight in check, has also become therapeutic for me. I usually run alone and without any music. I like to take in the sights and sounds of the majestic scenery; of a capital city waking up.
One of my favorite monuments is the Lincoln Memorial. Jogging west from the Capitol Building, it’s about 2 miles to the Lincoln Memorial at the far end of the Mall. The classical Greek Temple structure sits near the banks of the Potomac river. The Lincoln Memorial, being one of the most recognized structures in the world probably, attracts a lot of visitors. Even in the early morning pre-dawn light you’ll almost always see a few people, sometimes even a group, sitting on its steps or wandering among its Greek Columns. I usually climb the temple steps and stand in reverential silence before the grand statue of Lincoln. I always tell people it’s a spiritual experience.
At about 5:30 a.m. yesterday morning as I approached the Lincoln Memorial I stopped and took this picture with my iPhone:
Even Plato, and before him ancient poets like Hesiod, complained that society was going to hell. And think about that, western civilization was just getting started! Throughout the Platonic Dialogues (399 to 347 BC) there’s this undertone of a longing for the past, the sense that something is being lost, that the youth (of Athens) were being corrupted by “the new ways.” The source of this corruption was in the spread of immoral art (too much Homer Simpson), scientific style explanations of nature (which angered the deniers), irreligiousness or heresy, and a disrespect for the old ways, i.e. traditions. So…not much has changed really.
And it’s interesting because Plato isn’t really viewed as a conservative, thanks in part to Karl Marx, and yet Plato’s overall philosophy is, well, about conserving the inherited forms of the moral and political order. Plato (through Socrates) is ultimately saying, in some form or another, that whatever you believe it shouldn’t usurp the established moral and political order—because God knows what you’ll end up with! And for Zeus’s sake, Plato irritatingly prodded, at least, if you’re going to challenge the mos maiorum, try to understand what you really believe and be able to explain it. Define your terms! Ask questions damn it! Relativism—the bane of social cohesion—isn’t very solid footing!
Okay, so this brings me to David Brooks’s lament about the Crisis of Western Civ in a recent column. Brooks starts out—I have to note this—his column by plugging one of the best set of books (I’ve had two sets over my life so far) you can read if you have, and this is the big issue, the time. The Story of Civilization is an 11 volume set running almost 10,000 pages. Definitely not a “I’ll knock this out in a weekend” read. This is a reading project you plan for over, say, a year or more. Even though Will and Ariel Durant finished the series in 1975, the Story of Civilization is still one of the best liberal arts educations you can get on your own. The education is broad, the writing is excellent, and you’ll gather a whole stock of great quotes.
So back to Brook’s column. There is a Western set of values, a grand narrative, though you’d be hard pressed to find many people who could explain it to you, that has animated the rise of Western Civilization. (Note to some Americans reading this: You’re actually part of Western Civilization—just incase you missed that class. 😉) If ideas rule the world, as Lord Keynes assured us they do, then this set of ideas, known collectively as Western Civilization, have guided the rise of the most prosperous and free, most powerful, civilization in history. So probably not a bad idea to hold on to these values. But then who’s judging, that’s just so Western. Anyway, Brooks provides a brief explanation of what these Western values entail:
This Western civ narrative came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and most important provided a set of common goals.
Now there’s a lot more to what makes up Western Civ or culture, but you get the gist. But regardless of how we define it, Brooks wants to remind us the whole project is in trouble, and has been for a while.
Starting decades ago, many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke. Now many students, if they encounter it, are taught that Western civilization is a history of oppression.
It’s amazing what far-reaching effects this has had. It is as if a prevailing wind, which powered all the ships at sea, had suddenly ceased to blow. Now various scattered enemies of those Western values have emerged, and there is apparently nobody to defend them.
Hmmm, grim. To some degree I agree with Brooks. There does appear to be some cracking in the Western Civ narrative, and generally speaking that can be a bad thing for the health and long term viability of Western society…If, and this is important, these cracks in the narrative end up leading to a break. Cracks are typical with wear and tear and require constant repairing, but breaks are very hard to fix and mean things are definitely going to hell.
Brooks contends that the Western Civ decline started “decades ago” (almost sure Brooks means the 1960s), but the evidence seems to suggest, like Plato and Hesiod, that cultural decline is an observation going further back. Take T.S. Eliot, an astute observer of society, he wrote these words in 1948, during the rise, please note, of the Greatest Generation, “We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline. The standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity.” So Eliot sees decline all around him. It’s all going to hell! A Google search will reveal quotes from across Western history about the decline of society. So we can at least say that the Idea of Decline is something built right into the Western narrative itself.
So Western Civilization is falling apart, but it seems to be taking so damn long and somehow it keeps recovering and then continues falling apart, recovering again, and then back to falling apart again. Might the current fracturing simply be symptoms of Western society going through a stage of development within Western Civilization? I might be wrong (yes, I’m hedging), but this seems very probable. Stages in the growth of a society or civilization (as in the individual) are typically disruptive events; they’re times of change, reflection, discovery, a sense of falling away from old ways, and the altering of perspective. Think of the Enlightenment. The old order, typically, isn’t going to be happy with the change. Now, of course, like Rome ultimately, the whole project could, and likely will, eventually fall into ruin. The course of empire will assert itself. Let’s not forget, for those who paid attention in Sunday school growing up, this is a “fallen world.” One just doesn’t know if we’re experiencing a fall or a stumble…or a stumble leading to the fall; a crack or the beginnings of a break.
I think the real question, since the idea of decline has always been with us, is whether we’re actually facing a Germanic invasion (the cause of Rome’s immediate collapse—the beginnings of a break) or are some people simply reacting negatively to change (as many older generations do): to the defeat of old politics and old ways, to a new generation not like them in many ways, with different ideas, and on the verge of taking power in the society. With new perspectives will come changes, to some degree, always has, in the moral and political order. It’s unavoidable. But does that mean the new generation is giving up on Western values? Does this mean we’re seeing the end of Western Civilization? Or, is the new generation simply reinterpreting these Western values in light of their experience? Hasn’t every generation in Western history, to some degree, done this?
These are my thoughts as I sit here drinking coffee this morning. I’m trying to remain positive as you can see. But hey, tomorrow, after scanning my Facebook feed, I might think it’s all definitely going to hell.
This post is mostly about my love for history, but it’s also partly about being a memento for my youngest son to remember our trip by.
“In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream.” — Joshua Chamberlain at the Dedication of Maine Monuments, Gettysburg, PA, October 3, 1888
This past October 29th my friend Rich, my youngest son and I, visited the Gettysburg, PA, battlefield. It was a beautiful fall day for being outside. The temperature was perfect and the skies were clear. The autumn colors were near peak. It was a lovely day “to ponder and dream.”
Like with any meaningful place, there’s a unique spirit-of-place to Gettysburg that stills the soul and leaves a lingering presence, haunting the corners of your mind long after you’re gone.
The impetus for this particular trip had three things behind it:
First, my love for history and biography. I’ve read and learned a lot about the Civil War and the leading characters of this epic historical drama. The battle of Gettysburg was the biggest, mostly costliest battle ever fought in this hemisphere. At the end of 3 days of savagely intense fighting, there were upwards of 51,000 casualties between the two armies. Consider that for a moment. Over an approximately 72 hour period, there were almost as many casualties incurred at the Battle of Gettysburg as there were U.S. troops killed (59,000) in the entire 10 years of the Vietnam War. For any student of American history, you can’t learn enough about the Civil War or what happened at Gettysburg and how it changed the direction of American history. Authors like Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote have produced some of the finest literary histories ever written on the Civil War. Stephen Sears wrote one of the best, most comprehensive histories of the Gettysburg campaign. And who can forget the absolutely absorbing, pulitzer prize winning, historical novel by Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels, and the movie based on it. There’s a lot of great literature about the Civil War. Any aspiring writer can learn his or her craft just by reading Catton and Foote alone.
The study of war is so much more than a study of strategy, maneuvering, and the calculated application of violence. The history of warfare (as all history does) teaches us many things, but it’s an especially good tool for teaching leadership, whether it’s for the personal or professional domains of our lives. Violence, to be sure, is the shroud of war. But within this covering fabric is the vast interweaving of human qualities, both base and noble. To study and learn from this collision of circumstance and character is one the best educations about human nature, human excellence, and human folly you’ll ever get. “History is,” Lord Bolingbroke once said, “philosophy teaching by example.” Hopefully this type of liberal education, as it was intended, inspires each of us to emulate the virtuous and the noble. An education in any of the Liberal Arts is ultimately about improving the heart and mind, but historical study in particular provides the best laboratory for examining what human beings have actually done, said, and suffered. Literature, historical or otherwise, has the potential to greatly expand our empathetic and intellectual horizons. It’s a never ending journey of discovery. It has the potential to positively transform your life.
This brings me to a brief aside. I think it’s important to remember the great teachers of our life, those who helped make us who we are today. I date the beginning of my lifelong fascination and love for history to my time in Don Fuller’s history class at Kempsville Junior High School (now Kempsville Middle School) in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Don Fuller was a retired Naval Officer and teaching was his second career. He had a real passion for teaching and he really knew how to make history interesting and relevant to my understanding of the world. I can still remember how I’d approach him after class to get more details about a famous person, battle, or event he’d discussed during class. He would take his time with me and often draw on the chalkboard to illustrate his point. I can still remember him drawing the details of Hannibal’s “bending bow” strategy at Cannae. He knew so many interesting things about the battle and the characters involved. I remember being fascinated by the depth and breath of his knowledge, and thinking to myself how I’d like to be that knowledgeable about history one day. I can still recall the sound of his unique voice. About a decade or so after attending his class, I visited him at Kempsville Junior HS, where he was still teaching. He remembered me at first sight and was glad to see me. We had a good long talk standing in the hallway. He was still the teacher, and I was still the admiring student. He was a big influence in my early life and certainly a big reason history has been one of the passions of my life. In its original Latin derivation, the word inspire means “to breath into.” Don Fuller inspired me. I really admired him, and I will never forget him.
I also wanted to visit Gettysburg because my good friend Rich had never been there, and he wanted to take some pictures (I didn’t know at the time, that another motive for Rich wanting to go was his secret mission to help get me out of the house so my lovely wife could prepare for my surprise birthday party, that afternoon, when we got home!). And lastly, but most importantly, I wanted to go to Gettysburg so I could spend some quality time with my youngest son, Seth. This would be his first trip to Gettysburg and hopefully one among many to historically significant places over his life.
Our first stop that morning, after touring the visitor center (where I bought my son a toy musket and canteen), was the federal army’s position along Cemetery Ridge. Union or federal army troops had retreated to this position (the high ground) and formed defensive lines during the 1st day of battle (It was a 3 day battle, July 1-3, 1863).
The battlefield, especially the federal army side, is replete with monuments and memorials. The largest and most impressive is the Pennsylvania memorial. All around the outer edge of this massive stone structure are large bronze tablets with the memorialized names of approximately 34,000 officers and soldiers from the Pennsylvania regiments that fought in the battle.
While walking around the Penn memorial, Seth and I discovered that it had an upper level for viewing the battlefield, so we headed up. My son was nervous about being up so high. He leaned against me protectively and held my hand tightly, as we climbed the narrow spiraling stairwell. As we continued up I heard his shaky voice, slightly strained with fear, say “I’m afraid of heights dad.” I’d never heard him say this before, so I pulled him closer and we continue up. We emerged onto a circular viewing platform and a magnificent view. From this position we were near the center of the federal army line. To our south the line runs to Little Round Top—the far left end of the federal army line— and then turning our gaze northeasterly, we saw Culp’s Hill, which is the far right end of the federal army line. Directly to our West was the confederate army position in a tree line along Seminary Ridge.
We lingered a little while and I took some pictures. We waved to Rich who was still in the parking lot below getting his camera equipment together. He took a picture of us waving from the top of the memorial. My son didn’t want to linger, so we walked around the memorial dome, taking in the view from all sides, and then headed back down.
We moved from the Penn memorial to another part of Cemetery Ridge known as the “bloody” Angle. This is the point confederate General Robert E. Lee focused his main attack (known as Pickett’s Charge) on the afternoon of July 3rd. Pickett’s Charge, comprised of about 12,500 men, was ultimately repulsed (with over 50% casualties), but not before a brigade of Virginians led by Brigadier General Lewis Armistead breached the federal line at the Angle. Armstead’s men fought bravely, but there simply wasn’t enough of them to exploit the breakthrough. There’s a plain stone marker at the spot where Armistead was hit and fell during the close quarter fighting. That spot is known as the High Watermark of the Confederacy.
I stood there staring at Armistead’s memorial stone, my glance moving from the stone to the vast distance beyond it, where Armistead’s men would have started out from, and imagined what Armistead must have been thinking and feeling that warm afternoon. Certainly Armistead had talked to his commander, Lieutenant General Pete Longstreet, who’d told General Lee during the planning of the assault, “It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.”* Longstreet thought the attack was doomed from the start. Those feelings would have been hard to hide. Continue reading “The Ghosts of Gettysburg”→
The new Trump Administration has been a boon for sales of George Orwell’s book 1984. The novel is a literary masterpiece. Originally published in 1949, it’s a dystopian novel about authoritarianism. The most famous quote, which you’ve probably heard at one time or another, is “Big brother is watching you.” The novel introduces us to concepts like Newspeak, doublethink, and thoughtcrime. The decades old novel is suddenly back on the bestseller list (an Amazon #1 recently) because some of the book’s ideas are speaking to us at this unique time in American history. What this book does, or I should say what all good literature does, is provide us with a vocabulary for articulating our feelings and thoughts. Being able to speak about something allows us to better understand it. Freedom of thought, as the novel tells us, is partly brought about by an expansion of expression via language. Thought and language are tied together.
This brings me to a general theme in Orwell’s work. Like every good writer Orwell was concerned with the truth. For example, Orwell had fought in the Spanish civil war on the side of the Republic against the fascist. He had personally witnessed some of the key events in the war. After the war, he’d read a lot of reports about the war and found a lot of what he’d read contained blatant falsehoods. He knew what was happening. The fascist had ultimately won the Spanish civil war and they were now attempting to shape it’s history through propaganda…or as Orwell might say, they were purposely trying to create its fascist history. Authoritarian leaders, i.e. Franco, Hitler, and Stalin, where not just trying to control the present and the future, but also the past. Propaganda and lies were replacing history and fact and what actually happened. This terrified Orwell:
This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. . . . Nazi theory indeed specifically denies that such a thing as ‘the truth’ exists. There is, for instance, no such thing as ‘Science’. There is only ‘German Science’, ‘Jewish Science’, etc. The implied objective of this line of thought is a nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only the future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’ — well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five — well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs — and after our experiences of the last few years that is not a frivolous statement. (Underlining added)
I’ve read the entire, approximately 3 inch thick, volume of the Everyman’s Library edition of George Orwell’s essays. It’s one of my top 10 all time favorite books. Orwell’s novels are excellent, 1984 is one of the finest literary achievements in the English language, but it’s in Orwell’s essays and non-fiction books that we get the George Orwell that’s so admired and respected as a social critic and writer. His essays are a first class education in the humanities and writing all by itself. Take my word on that. We could have a college level course just on Orwell’s essays and it would be a fascinating intellectual and moral adventure.
Being Orwellian, I think, should also mean having a scrupulous concern for precision, integrity, and facts in the way you think, write, and speak. The truth is usually complex and sometimes very difficult to get at, but it can only be genuinely approached along this Orwellian path.
For over 25 years I’ve been fortunate to have worked in one of the most unique and impressive, if sometimes notorious, places on the planet: The U.S. Capitol or “Capitol Hill.” I realize there are many negative things we could say about the U.S. Congress, I suspect that’s always been the case, but if we’re honest with our mostly hypocritical and righteous selves we’d admit the problems are just a reflection of us, the mostly fickle, many times ill informed voter. But enough of that. I’ll save a elaboration on those thoughts for another time.
For now, I’d like to note my thoughts on an experience I had at the Library of Congress recently. But before I go on about that let me provide some background.
Let’s go back a little in history for a moment. In the lead up to Abraham Lincoln’s first inauguration (March 4, 1861), the federal government believed there was an assassination plot against President-elect Lincoln. Because of this, the President-elect arrived in Washington DC, via train, under the cover of darkness. In the rush to get Lincoln into Washington during the night, Lincoln’s baggage was misplaced and along with it the Lincoln family Bible. The bags and the Bible would not make it to Washington in time for the inauguration and swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Capitol Building.
Saving the day was the Clerk of the Supreme Court, William Thomas Carroll, who provided a Bible he’d kept for official occasions. And it was this Bible, which Abraham Lincoln would place his left hand on and take the official oath of office, that became known as The Lincoln Bible. The only other U.S President to use the Lincoln Bible for the oath of office was President Barack Obama for both of his swearing-in ceremonies in 2009 and 2013. And then recently, September 14, 2016, the newly appointed Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, used the Lincoln Bible for her swearing-in ceremony. It was just prior, literally maybe 20 minutes, to Carla Hayden’s swearing-in that I got my chance for a personal viewing of the Lincoln Bible.
Reverence. In some sense, I think, reverence for events, people, or things that serve as important connections to the past is a waning virtue right now in our history. The “mystic chords of memory,” to quote Lincoln, connect us to a shared fate and a shared destiny.
I believe, have always felt, that some things should invoke a feeling of respect for great things and people and the sacrifices made in forming this great, if not perfect, nation. There’s a good reason the constitution begins with the words “to form a more perfect union.” A perfect union wasn’t possible. From the very beginning the founding of this nation was a compromise deal. The nation’s birth was only the beginning of a task, a continual building and improvement upon an experiment in democracy. The task of improving, of making a more perfect union, would always be the task of those who’d inherited this Democratic Republic. Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, and the civil war brought on by it, were the first great test to determine whether this experiment in democracy, this union, this “nation so conceived,” could be saved and preserved through the growing pains of forming a more perfect union. Lincoln and his vision, his leadership, thank God, prevailed.
And so there I was, standing there listening to Mark (a Library curator and guardian of the Bible) give me a brief history of the Lincoln Bible. I actually stepped up to the table and stood for a moment almost as if I were viewing a deceased friend or loved one at a wake. I looked down on the Bible and thought of the so many events and people that have come and gone since Lincoln laid his left hand on this Bible and took the oath of office and then, after his destiny complete, passed into “the ages.”
What immediately grabs you about the Lincoln Bible is how small it is. The Bible is an 1853 Oxford Press KJV edition. Its 6 inches long by 4 inches wide and about 1.75 inches thick. The Bible is bounded in a burgundy red velvet with gilt edges. The front cover is stained, worn, and faded with blackened stains along the spines edge. I thought of Lincoln’s left hand resting on the Bible as he began to recite the oath, the emotions he must have felt, and how his mind must have been occupied with the gathering storm of rebellion. And I thought of all the subsequent people who’ve held this Bible and reflected on Lincoln, his times, and what his presidency and leadership meant to the nation.
For those brief but solemn moments I felt privileged for this opportunity to be touched by those mystic chords of memory.