We Need True Visions of Greatness

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President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR)

Thumbing through a book of essays by Alfred North Whitehead, I came across these words I’d underlined years ago while reading the book:

Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness. If we are not great, it does not matter what we do or what is the issue.

Whitehead was defending, or praising really, the superior nature of classical education (reading classics) in shaping a strong moral character. It’s a model based, in large part, on the study of great people in history. Thomas Carlyle once said “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” The idea is that people primarily shape events and history by their actions. By studying the lives of renowned people we learn about “the evil that men do,*” or the nobility they can rise to, or the compromises they’ve made between these two extremes. We witness the subtleties of human personality. We see that life really isn’t, in large part, black or white but black and white. We learn just how human these great people actually were while also learning how they overcame many of the same difficulties we all face in spite of life’s head winds and the internal struggles of their own character. Through it all we can get a vision, even if not in perfect focus, of greatness in the human realm.

Whether people have an innate moral goodness or not is still debatable, but there is overwhelming scientific evidence that supports the idea that “the environment” has a big impact on the moral development of people. The ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t have the research, but they knew this to be true by experience. So ancient students not only learned poetry, history, music, math and about the lives of great Greeks and Romans, but their masters (parents, teachers, or tutors) were responsible for modeling the moral ideal and enforcing the civic/moral behavior expected from a man or woman of a civilized society. And then as the students moved into society and began families and became active citizens, they were expected to uphold these civilized values and model them to the next generation and to their fellow citizens. At least that was the ideal. It’s a conceptual idea captured in the ancient Greek word paideia.

The classical ideal stayed with Western civilization for a long time and finally started breaking up in the early part of the 20th century. World wars and the need for advanced educations in science, math, and technology pushed aside (understandably) the studying of the lives of ancient Greeks and Romans. Of course classical education didn’t die all together but evolved over the past century from strictly a study of the ancients to the study of the Great Books.

In this competitive world, students naturally seek educations that advance their job prospects, not necessarily their personal enrichment, civic awareness, or moral world view—of course, without a good degree of the latter, the former is likely to shrink as wealth and power pools around the few at the top…hmmm, kind of like it is now. No ideal is perfect and certainly western civilization has not been all good in practice or implication, but it’s an ideal or set of beliefs (moral and political) that have made the West the most advanced, most prosperous, freest collection of societies the world has ever known. This is worth remembering as we witness the growing attacks, and disillusionment with, its foundations from those on the far left and far right politically.

For Whitehead and the ancients, greatness, in the moral sphere, was mostly a product of social osmosis. If we are exposed to a “habitual vision of greatness,” via our readings (education) and life examples, there’s a good chance that vision will take hold and become a part of us. Regardless of whether anyone cares to read ancient texts or biographies in general, it’s a model with strong merit and, in my view, the best way to shape and lead a truly great society.

Our nation could really use some visions of greatness in both the realms of political and business leadership right now. It’s sorely lacking. We need leaders, especially in government, willing to sacrifice—like, say, an FDR—their own personal or class interests for the sake of others and the greater good of our society. But we’re seeing so much of the opposite right now. On the private sector side corporate statesmanship seems mostly gone and the tide of big business executive “greed,” the Gordon Gekkos of business (who now also run our government), have seized the moment, like an oligarchic plague over democratic Athens.

We don’t have the help of classical education as a shaper of our society anymore, and, of course, even if we had there’s no guarantee things would be any different. But we can still hope there’s a return to the ideal that modeling greatness matters at all levels of leadership in our society. We can still hope some people actually have and believe in a noble and dignified vision of society and are determined to live by it. We can still hope—and demand via our civic duty to vote!—that we have government leaders who model nobility in actions and words. We need leaders, in both business and government, with a noble vision that’s inclusive and dignified and not just one that’s all about their personal wealth, influence, or tribal loyalties. There are so many reasons Americans need a vision of greatness in Washington D.C. right now. But instead of a Cicero or a Marcus Aurelius we have a Nero…that tweets while the nation yearns.

The change starts with each of us. We need true visions of greatness. Let’s expect and demand a selfless and dignified vision of greatness from our government and business leaders. Our future, and that of our children, is at stake.

Brands’s Laws of History

The study of history is an edifying thing but it’s also a time consuming thing. We all…Okay, well most of us I should say, like to be edified, but most of us don’t have the time…or the attention span. And so it’s always nice when some great scribe lays down the lessons he or she has learned from a lifetime of personal study.

Such is the case with professor H.W. Brands. He has written a number of history books, but he’s mostly known for his superb biographies. Biography, in my view, is the highest of art forms under the category of History. As I’ve said before, I think you get more wisdom and inspiration from the study of people’s lives than almost any other literature.

I pulled Brand’s bio of FDR from my bookshelf the other day (I haven’t read it yet), and that led me to his internet homepage where I found these aphoristic observations from his life of studying “humanity’s crooked path.”

Brands’s Laws of History

Idiosyncratic observations on humanity’s crooked path

1. There are no laws of history.

(History is not physics; people are not atoms. But there are patterns.)

2. Beliefs die when the believers do.

(People don’t change their minds, but neither do they live forever.)

3. The Sabbath comes once a week; people eat every day.

(Material desires are the locomotive of history; ideals are the whistle.)

4. Every country gets the foreign policy it can afford.

(Poor countries bend to fate; rich countries try to change it.)

5. Happy stays home.

(Immigrant nations like the U.S. are inherently restless.)

6. Sex makes babies; war makes heroes.

(Which is why humans are so attached to both.)

7. Even monsters sleep well.

(The capacity for self-justification is boundless.)

8. Great leaders have limited vision.

(People who look too far ahead trip over the present.)

9. History is complicated.

(For simple, see myth.)

The Calvert Cliffs at Brownie’s Beach

After paying a modest fee we headed up the path, loaded up with beach bags, cooler, towels, chairs, and water float. Brownie’s Beach is a small beach (part of Bay Front Park) on the southern end of the town of Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. We live down the road from the town.

The walk from the small parking lot is not over sand or through dunes but along a blacktop path through a thick of woods. All along the path are educational plaques naming particular flora. The only other sign which attracts notice (I paused briefly) is a warning sign nailed to a tree. There are cliffs near by so “by order of the town council” you’re told not to enter the “cliff area.” Directly under the warning sign is a well worn path leading toward the cliff area revealing just what people think about the town council’s order.

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Warning Sign

As we approached the beach area we could hear the faint sound of boat motors off in the distance and the muted voices of fellow beach goers. The thick canopy of trees had dimmed the sun light, and along with the surrounding thick woods, marsh and brush, it had made the path feel almost like an entry point between two worlds. Walking behind my youngest son and his friend, I snapped the following picture of them about to emerge from the entry path.

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The beach area is a slim strip of sea sand and the various accretions from the eroding cliffs—shale, sandstone, clay, and fallen trees. Dropping our bags and looking south we see parts of the rock face of Calvert Cliffs. The Cliffs start at Brownie’s Beach and extend about 25 miles south, ending in the Drum Point area of Calvert County. The cliffs at Brownie’s Beach are at the lower end in height. They get much higher (130 feet in some places) as you head south. (See this search stack of photos.)

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The mind is definitely a mysterious thing…it’s also an associative thing. So, to be candid, my immediate thoughts weren’t of the beauties of nature (those were a close second) but were actually, oddly enough, of Julius Caesar and his Roman invasion fleet as it approached the Dover Cliffs off the coast of southern England in 55 BC. Though the White Cliffs of Dover are far more imposing, I couldn’t help but wonder what the sight of the Calvert bluffs might have meant to the various minds observing them from sea for the first time over the centuries.

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The nature lover sees bleached rock, a sandy beach, green trees and the natural beauty of it all. The scientist sees geological formations, tectonics, and flora. The historical mind sees the beauty and the science but with the added dimension of how geography has played a big part in the course of human history. I’m not a scientist or historian, but having read a small library of history, especially classical history, has obviously stamped my associative mind. So my imagination tends to randomly dart across time, historical events, and the scenes of famous characters.

The boys and I started walking down the beach toward the cliffs. This beach, and all up and down the Calvert Cliffs, is well known for its fossils. It’s a paleontological heaven. One of the first people I talked to was a young lady, who appeared to be a college student, hunting for fossils in the surf. In particular, there are a lot of fossilized shark teeth along these beaches that in some cases belong to sharks from hundreds. My wife and I have friends who’s home fireplace was inlaid with hundreds of shark teeth collected from the Calvert Cliff’s beaches. My friend’s house was located (they’ve since sold it) in a community along these cliffs, called, appropriately enough, Scientist Cliffs. It’s a beautiful community where all the homes have a log cabin exterior.

The water along Brownie’s Beach is surprisingly clear for Chesapeake Bay water. You can see the rippled sandy bottom and schools of fish swimming by. The water is not deep in this area either, making it good for younger kids and for those just wanting to enjoy wading in the water. I can also report that Brownie’s Beach is rarely ever crowded. A big plus.

Typically, here in the east, the summer ritual of beach going involves trips to the large beaches along the Atlantic coast line, with large expansive beach areas, dunes, and the touristy beach town near by. Well you won’t get that here. Here you get a slim beach, calm shallow waters, the soothing sounds of a sea shore, no crowds, and the beautiful view of the Calvert Cliffs.

This trip to the Brownie’s Beach took place on Sunday, July 2, 2017.

Early Morning at the Lincoln Memorial

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:

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Image Credit: Jeff Wills

The Crisis of Western Civ?

The Course of Western Civilization
The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole

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.