Saturday, January 29, 2011

One Generation from Barbarism

The following remarks were delivered at the Center for the American Idea's Founders' Breakfast in Houston, on Wednesday, September 19, 2007.

Three Questions

In a former life I taught college writing and rhetoric. I always used to tell students to think about their audience in terms of three questions:

- What do I want 'em to know?

- What do I want 'em to feel?

- What do I want 'em to do?

Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of the three questions. They are a colloquial translation of enduring concepts in the liberal arts, from Aristotle’s era to St. Benedict’s day down to our own time. I told students that what writers and orators want their audience to know is related to Aristotle’s understanding of logos. What they want people to feel is an extension of the Greek philosopher’s notion of pathos. And what they want them to do is wrapped up in the vita activa, championed by St. Benedict. As I reflected on my message to you this morning, I decided to follow the same rhetorical formula I inflicted on a generation of students.

What Do I Want You to Know?

Many things.

First, I want you to know that civilizations are fragile. Maybe it is hard to accept that statement in this place, on this morning, in a mighty metropolis like Houston, with its abundant energy, power, and wealth. But a “Western civ” guy like me is trained to view Houston – and, indeed, American civilization – from the perspective of millennia. According to the British historian Arnold Toynbee, the last 5,500 years have seen the rise of some 30 civilizations. Do you know how many of them have fallen? At least 25. Put another way, five of every six civilizations no longer exist except in stone monuments, papyrus fragments, and historical narratives.

Second, I want you to know that most civilizations decline internally before they succumb to invading armies. As Toynbee put it, “Civilizations are not murdered. They commit suicide.” How do they commit suicide? The number one cause is the loss of purpose. When a civilization’s leaders and their institutions lose their sense of purpose, they lose the energy to grapple with all the challenges to the commonweal. If leaders and institutions have no guiding North Star, no sense of cultural mission, they are reduced to currying favor with power or to satisfying the impulses of the masses. If the choice is to exist merely at the pleasure of power on the one hand, or of people's whims on the other, then leaders and institutions can begin to act awfully nihilistic.

Third, I want you to know that we are only one generation from barbarism. Think about it. If teachers and parents and the clergy fail to transmit the culture, then in just one generation that civilization can lose significant knowledge of its heroes, models, ideals, and principles, and then an enervating nihilism can set in.

But -- and this is fourth -- I want you to know that decline is not inevitable. Human beings are volitional creatures. Decline results ultimately from the countless, cumulative decisions and actions – or indecision and inaction – of leaders, citizens, and teachers who are the guardians of our culture. I define culture after Matthew Arnold’s famous definition – the best that’s been written and done by men and women of virtue and intelligence. Teachers transmit the contents of culture from generation to generation and thus are critical to the survival of civilization. They help hold it all together. So we are ever in need of committed, wise teachers.

How can we know whether our civilization is going to pieces if we do not know how it was put together? Good question. So the fifth thing I want you to know is a book that tells how American civilization was put together: Russell Kirk’s Roots of American Order. In this classic, Kirk shows how four historic cities laid the foundation stones of the United States.

In the beginning, there was ancient Jerusalem, where a moral revolution built on the Ten Commandments took root and was transmitted from generation to generation. The Hebrews’ moral rigor would become part of the patrimony of humankind and permanently challenge the way human beings relate to their Creator and to one another.

Then came the second city, ancient Athens, where a philosophical revolution built on natural reason took root and was transmitted from generation to generation. The Greeks’ intellectual quest would become part of the patrimony of humankind and permanently alter the way human beings think about their existence and the way we choose to live in community with one another.

Then came the third city, secular Rome, where a form of government and code of laws were developed and transmitted from generation to generation. The Romans’ civic virtue would become part of the patrimony of humankind and provide an everlasting model of republican simplicity and order.

After the martyrdom of Sts. Peter and Paul, and after the conversion of Constantine, there was Christian Rome – Roma sacra – where spiritual leaders urged the transformation of justice into mercy, of injury into pardon, and of hate into love. Their teaching spread from generation to generation, and redefined the “family of man,” and life on this earth has never quite been the same.

Later still there arose a fourth city, medieval and early modern London, where the habits of ordered liberty, private property, and the rule of law took root and were transmitted from generation to generation. British advances in political economy would become part of the patrimony of humankind and put a tolerable order within reach of emerging nation-states in the modern age.

And then there was Philadelphia. Between 1775 and 1800 the City of Brotherly Love witnessed one of the most audacious, imaginative acts in human history: the creation of the United States of America. All those civilizational roots – from Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London – were grafted together by our Founders to generate a liberty tree that has given life to millions and is still growing.

This is an amazing progression, and it is something that I want you to know.

Sixth, I want you to know that some civilizations are more important for how they are remembered than for what they did. I want you to know that American civilization is important for what we have done and continue to do. I want you to know that American civilization is nothing short of amazing – a catalogue of miracles. As I point out in the "Afterword" of The American Cause, our nation has gone farther to solve more problems in the human condition than any other civilization – ever.

Consider the number one existential problem humans face: famine and disease. Ever since Homo sapiens appeared on this good green earth, our species has been beleaguered by physical threats – hunger, malnutrition, famine, plagues, epidemics, and all manner of diseases that would leave swaths of destruction in their wake. The Spanish Influenza epidemic that swept the earth following World War I is something my grandparents’ generation had to contend with. Yet during the last century, we have virtually eradicated such threats from American soil. We do not have epidemics of smallpox, typhoid, and cholera sweep through our cities anymore, as was frequently the case in the past. Forrest McDonald, for one, writes about the epidemics our Founding generation faced. We forget that a high percentage of Patriot soldiers during the American Revolution died of some dread disease. The statistics are hard to pin down, but during the War for Independence probably seven times more soldiers died of disease than of battlefield wounds. It was a real problem of the human condition, and in American civilization it was largely overcome.

Next consider the number one economic problem: poverty. For most of history – indeed, in many countries today – the majority of human beings have lived and died in squalor. Most immigrants have come to this country poor. If they had been so well off in their homeland, they would not have emigrated. Our free market system is far from perfect, but we should never lose sight of the fact that tens of millions of immigrants and American citizens have been able to lift themselves out of poverty. Humanity has not solved the problem of human want, yet surely more people in America have been able to overcome poverty than at any other time or in any other place.

Finally, consider the number one political problem: tyranny. Ever since civilizations began, the mass of people have lived under oppressive governments. To the extent there were constitutions, these tended to devolve into despotisms. Ancient writers like Polybius wrote about those constitutional cycles in which despots always reappeared. The American founders read their Aristotle and Polybius and Montesquieu, and they conceived a constitution that overcame these endless cycles. Through a federated system with checks and balances and a bill of rights, power was decentralized and we solved a persistent problem in humankind’s political condition.

There are many, many other problems in the human condition. My point is this: As a historian trained to take the long view, I have concluded that, as nations go, the American experience is nothing short of amazing, and I want you to embrace that sense of amazement. Believe in the American idea because, when you do, you are believing in yourselves.

What Do I Want You to Feel?

Let me begin to answer this question by telling you what I do not want you to feel. I do not want you to feel apathy or complacency. Our challenges are real. As Toynbee warned, we are only one generation from barbarism. Nor do I want you to feel immobilizing fear or despair. Our challenges are not insurmountable. Therefore the appropriate emotion is "en-courage-ment," from the Latin meaning “to be in a state of courage.” The ancient virtue of fortitude requires us to do the right thing when our first instinct is to ignore danger or run from it.

If history teachers are well grounded in the roots of American civilization, then young people will have a better grasp of our nation's mettle. And if we remember that we stand on the shoulders of giants, then we realize we don’t face our threats alone. What company we keep when we consult those who preceded us – from Socrates to Maimonides. (Or – Bob McNair will appreciate this – from John Milton to Milton Friedman.) What a well of wisdom to water our roots! The encouragement of the Sages of the Ages leads not just to a sense of optimism, which is as superficial as the optic nerve, but to a deeper virtue, that of hope.

In his first annual message to Congress in 1790, George Washington captured the feeling of encouragement perfectly. He had been president for less than a year and faced seemingly insuperable challenges, yet he derived encouragement from “the concord, peace, and plenty with which we are blessed” because, combined with “the blessings which a gracious Providence has placed within our reach,” Americans would surely be able to increase their “national prosperity.” Prosperity in this context meant material abundance, to be sure, as well as intellectual, moral, and spiritual abundance.

Washington was saying we are Americans. Our fate is not set in stone. We are not as burdened as other nations that have been dragged into the briar patch of ancient rivalries, geographic limits, and spiritual malaise. We are a can-do people who have solved many problems and can effectively address the challenges we face today if -- if -- we know where we came from, understand our purpose, and feel the courage to carry it out.

So, following George Washington, I want you to feel encouragement.

What Do I Want You to Do?

Simply: to help educate the educators. If the roots of American order are to be watered, if our liberty tree is to continue to grow, then each generation of Americans has to tend to the cultivating. I am punning: The Latin cultus referred originally to the gods of sowing and reaping and thus alludes to the religious roots of order.

What does cultivating in the twenty-first century entail? Rewarding the call to teach. Keeping alive the historic reality of Western civilization and this audacious experiment with ordered liberty. Never severing rights from responsibilities, never severing freedom from virtue, or property from the rule of law, or free markets from compassion. So long as we teach these things, then we possess the capacity to renew our civilization. We do not have to go the way of 25 previous civilizations that, in essence, died from within.

So let's roll up our sleeves and get to work. We are, after all, Americans.


  1. Ignoring or burying the unseemly has never been a route toward inspiration or pride in civilization but exhibits unusual capacity for cowardice, and a foundation for the tolerance of disgrace.

  2. Thank you, Pat, for your excellent observation. As I write in other blog posts -- most recently, American Founding (2) -- it is important to tell the whole story, even when it offends!