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Saturday, June 27, 2009

Greatness

Bumped up from Feb 2, 06. Long long ago.

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Truth matters. So when we find our heroes, we cannot be surprised to find that they are human. Our admiration must rest on something other than the beguiling semblance of virtue. And even if they seem to succeed – if we look out on the proud towers of our accomplishment, and proudfully declaim, “Look on my works ye mighty, and despair” – how are we to know but that the bare and boundless, the lone and level sands will soon sweep over every success achieved or hoped for?

Robert E. Lee was a man of sterling character. Higher praise is rare, than what was said of him: he was what he seemed to be. So highly was he admired that at the start of the Civil War Lincoln offered him command of the Union Army. But Lee was a man of powerful loyalty to his native state, and set his allegiance accordingly. The personal turmoil and sacrifice his decision entailed can only have been monumental.

Saladin united the Moslem world to resist the Crusaders. He is counted today as the nonpareil and inspiration of the chivalry that defines for us the highest aspects of Medieval Civilization. Hospitable, merciful, magnanimous.

But when Saladin captured Jerusalem, his original plan was to slaughter all the Christians. Only at the threat of the Christian defender Balian of Ibelin - to retaliate by destroying the city and killing all its Moslems - did Saladin countermand his order. Instead, he merely enslaved those Christians who could not ransom their freedom. When he captured Hattin in 1187, Saladin commanded that every last one of the Christian defenders be beheaded. The scholars and holy men of his retinue each begged to whet his sword on a Christian neck, and Saladin magnanimously assented. His secretary describes how the “unbelievers showed black despair” during the executions, while Saladin reclined on his dais, his face bright with joy.

And Bobby Lee? He does indeed seem to have been what he seemed to be. No fault can easily be found in loyalty to your home – his loyalty doesn’t require a failure of judgment or of values. But how loyalty is expressed is another matter. For all that Virginia was his homeland, it was the Slave Power. Some 640,000 Americans have been killed in all other wars combined, some 620,000 killed in that bloodiest Civil War. Without Lee at the head of the Confederate Army the Civil War would have ended years sooner. What large fraction of those deaths, then, might we lay in his defense of slavery at the feet of Robert E. Lee and his noble, loyal character?

Bolivar, the great liberator of South America, looked back and summed up his life. “I have plowed the sea.” Goethe - perhaps the greatest of German poets, and master of the science, the mysteries, of optics - cried out as he lay in bed, “More light!” – then he died. Accounts vary, and this would be a minority report, but Lincoln’s last words are said by some to have been of his desire to travel to the Holy Land, once his term was over. We shall walk the sacred paths of our Lord, he said. We shall go up to Jeru…

Jesus on the cross cried out, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” Didn’t he know?

We can find futility and despair where ever we look. Human virtues have value in themselves. But we are judged, in some sense, and rightly, not on our intentions but our effect. If we serve evil righteously, what of that? If we yield to a taste for blood, what then? If the great purpose of our lives, or the intimate strivings, fail, where then do we find value? If we stumble so near the finish line, how will we be judged?

Since truth matters, we may find an excuse in sincerity only to a limited degree. After that we find that relativity shatters like waves on the breakers. Because there are, also, absolutes. Slavery is wrong, and although good men have had to make an accommodation with it, in the face of the reality of their powerlessness, still there are times in history when a clear choice is offered. It is at such times that accommodations amount to nothing but cowardice, or worse.

There is a higher virtue than loyalty. I can’t think of the word for it, but it has to do with being right - something about an allegiance to truth. So with slavery, and chivalry, and politics and religion and abortion and sexual conduct and Iraq and Iran. Opinion is a function of faith, and is congruent with fact only by a smiling fortune. This is why in matters of solemn importance, the highest degree of diligence must be employed, by each of us, to discover what is true and bind our allegiance to it. Otherwise we are soldiers fighting for slavery rather than freedom, or preachers of vice instead of virtue, or defenders of what is indefensible.

But if we strive for what is truly right, and fail, still we have undone to some degree the curse laid upon creation in Eden. We cannot rescind the law of entropy, but we can fight for order and intelligence in our own small corner of the world. More than this can no man rightly hope for. Mighty towers will fall, their only trace found as dust and wind. To rule in the world is to fail. A man's only kingdom is his own heart.


J

2 comments:

onceamarine said...

Nicely written piece. But, way off target. Your Yankeeness(sic) is showing through as well as your less than adequate education.

You might say that my Southernness is showing. Yes, it is, but I also know your evaluation of Lee is far short of fair. Go to school somewhere they teach truth and consequences, historical, of course.

Jack H said...

Thanks for the kind words. As for those not so kind, the proper way to correct error is to speak truth. In what point of fact do I err? Educate me in this matter, that I may be complete. Ad hominem responses disgrace the discourse.

If your objection is to my understanding of moral action, and Lee's failure to act rightly, our judgments will just have to differ.

Yankee or Southern doesn't really enter into my thinking. Southern California, born and raised. My people were plowing the fjords of Norway during your great Lost Cause. I'd think my take on the matter is pretty mainstream. There is much to commend the South. I consider it the moral heart of America, nowadays, at its best. There is a residue of stupidity, as there always will be, everywhere. Can't we rise above it, in a way that the South may or may not rise again?

My interest in the Civil War is not in the details of the battles. I read quite a bit on this particular matter -- the Lincoln era. The battles hold very little interest for me. I look to trends and historical flows. In this, I see the War of Rebellion not as states rights, but as racist and oppression. A simplistic statement of a complex issue, but let's be brief. Honor and nobility and love of country are admirable. A would-be country founded on slavery is shameful, and is best repudiated. The flying of the Confederate battle flag, or its remembrance in the flags of various southern states -- I have no dog in that fight. You might see it as honoring the fallen dead. Others will see it as very similar to the Nazi flag -- racist and slaveholding. If we must err, on what side should we err? That of grace, or of pride?

We must never argue, sir, with emotion. In fact, one cannot argue with emotion. You can only fight with emotion. I choose not to.

Best,

J