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Monday, September 18, 2023

The Demise Of Moral Grace - How Our Loss Of Nobility Cheapens Us All


To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

Image result for image olivier hamlet to be or not to be

Invoking nobility Shakespeare elevated the question of morality – to accept one’s fate with dignity no matter how great or outrageous the insult; or to rise up against this outrage, this ‘sea of troubles’ – to its highest human expression.  Nobility requires more than choosing between philosophical alternatives and taking right action.  The decision to remain stoic in the face of the worst that the world has to offer is less a conclusion than a moral conviction.  

To assess the world as a meaningless, purposeless, and amoral place and to accept it with equanimity and grace requires intelligence, principle, logic, and profound understanding.  To fight the worst that this random, insulting, demeaning world has to offer requires more than political or personal conviction.  To take up arms against venality, greed, hostility, and indifference knowing that these expressions of human nature will  recur infinitely in perpetual cycles requires moral stature

 Although these slings and arrows are predictable and familiar and nothing of one’s own doing in a necessarily narrow universe, there is still moral cause.  Standing by, regardless of cosmology, is immoral.

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Nobility – the state or quality of being morally or spiritually good; having dignity – was a commonly accepted quality in ancient Rome.  It was rare, endowed, and admired as the best of humanity.  The moral philosopher Cato the Elder instilled principles of nobility in the future leaders of the Empire.  Not only were they instructed in the practical affairs of governance, international relations, and warfare but in the essential components of proper leadership – courage, duty, respect, honor, and compassion.  While Cato knew that only a few of his students would ever attain such nobility, they would be among the very select.

Nobility, Cato knew, was hard to achieve even among those who were born with a certain moral sensibility.  Fortune was indeed outrageous and the temptation to succumb to the worst instincts of the human soul was irresistible.  Many a leader found ways to circumvent the principles and values he knew to be permanently valid, justifying his actions by layer upon layer of expediency and limited objectives.  Only the most enlightened, the most noble, would find the courage to act morally within an amoral world.

Two plays about Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and friend and foe of Henry II illustrate this nobility.  In the Jean Anouilh version, Becket has left behind his whoring student days and macho camaraderie with the King and become a man of principle and rectitude. No bond of friendship, no patriotic duty to King and country, no sense of duty or responsibility of office could sway him from his moral principles.

The Church, as the true representative of Christ on earth, would always have primacy despite the divine right of kings, and it would never buckle under to the secular demands of the monarch.   There was a certain nobility in Becket’s objection to the King , one based on moral principle, expressed with courage in the face of assassination, and stated with God’s very authority.

Image result for images thomas becket

At the same time, Anouilh suggests that arrogance if not megalomania was behind his militancy.  There certainly were many avenues of compromise that Becket could have taken and still remain faithful to the principle of separation of Church and State; and yet he obstinately refused.  Perhaps he was not so noble after all suggests Anouilh.

In T.S. Eliot’s play four Tempters appear, one after the other, to tempt Becket. The First Tempter says that Becket should return to the secular life of pleasure that he led as a young man. The Second Tempter tells Becket that he should become Chancellor of England again, saying that he can do more to help the poor in a political position than in a purely religious one. 

The Third Tempter suggests that Becket form a new government composed of the nation’s barons, allowing him to effectively rule England. Becket finds these temptations easy to resist because they are things which he has already experienced.

The Fourth Tempter’s proposition is quite different. He suggests that Becket should seek to become a martyr. In death, his cause would be recognized as just and his enemies would be condemned. His name would long outlast those of the men that killed him. Becket recognizes this as the worst temptation of all, that of “doing the right thing for the wrong reason”. He says that he will not try to become a martyr but will accept his fate, whatever it is (N. Mabrol, Literary Theory and Criticism).

Eliot is much more explicit about the conditions of nobility.  Whereas Anouilh only suggested Becket’s ambitions, Eliot lets Becket speak for himself.  Yet the moral issue cannot be ignored.  Can Becket be believed in his demurral and acceptance of fate? Doubtful, for as Cato the Elder knew, most men will fall prey either to temptation or to the weakness of their character.  In any case Eliot’s Becket not only expresses no doubt about the rightness of his action, but couches it in the most powerful spiritual terms.

Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means. Just as we rejoice and mourn at one, in the Birth and in the Passion of Our Lord; so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs. We mourn, for the sins of the world that has martyred them; we rejoice, that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven, for the glory of God and for the salvation of men.

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Today nobility is thought of only as a function of past kings, courtiers and empire.  European nobility included only a select group of families whose titles were a function of ancestry, heredity, and patrimony; and because of that patently anti-democratic, anti-progressive origin and justification, should be discredited and ignored.  The growth of Western civilization and the encouragement of art, culture, science, language, and thought is irrelevant.  Only the aggression, oppression, and hegemonic violence of this malevolently entitled class should be remembered if at all.  

The aggression and expansionism of modern societies may have changed little from that of Medieval and Renaissance empire, but they are without any overarching purpose.  Ambition remains personal, venal, and narrowly political.  

There was something grand, enviable, and noble about the ambitions of Louis XIV, the Sun King, Queen Elizabeth I,  Emperor Caesar Augustus, or Han Guangwudi. While the first ruler of the Eastern Han Dynasty cannot be credited as his predecessors were for uniting China or doubling its territory, 

Han Guangwudi was renowned for being consultative and merciful, qualities rare among Chinese emperors. Guangwudi revitalized the dying Han Dynasty and assured its rule for another two centuries. His subsequent reforms and military successes enabled another golden age in China.  Without Guangwudi’s accomplishments, China could have reverted to being a collection of warring states.

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The idea of personal nobility -  grace of spirit, essential morality and rectitude, courage, and higher purpose – is all but gone today.   FDR is considered by many to be the savior of Depression-era America and the architect of progressive, liberal democracy, but others see his establishment of a government megalith as the force destroying the American values of individualism, enterprise, and freedom.  

Winston Churchill, the British leader who was the heart and soul of the nation during WWII and the Battle of Britain, the brilliant political philosopher and historian, military strategist and warrior, is as close as the modern era has come to nobility.  Churchill was a man of breeding, principle, patriotism, and higher values, and never accused of venality or personal ambition.  Yet he too is vilified by today’s Left for his persistent defense of Empire.

Both men’s rectitude, moral grace, and nobility if even recognized, are dismissed by political partisans.  Moral worth and probity – the essence of leadership – have seemingly no place in the fearsome democratic politics of today.  Alexander Hamilton warned Jefferson about trusting the mob – majority rule – and insisted on some form of aristocratic oversight, men of the aforesaid moral principle and rectitude able to see beyond petty disputes and venal interests.  

Hamilton would be appalled at the state of American democracy today, mob rule at its worst under the guise of ‘diversity. Identity politics has assured the interment of any higher value.  Identification with a racial, ethnic, or sexual grouping is all that is needed in terms of moral verification; and given that generalization, there are no moral brakes.

Image result for images alex hamilton

The literature of the day reflects this moral dissimilitude.  The Golden Age of American Theatre – Williams, Miller, and O’Neill – an age where moral principle was tested and retested is gone.  The greatest work of Faulkner – Absalom, Absalom – a complex story of the Sutpen family, its racial divisions, family jealousies, ambitions, and deceptions could never be written today in a literature dominated by temporal, social issues of race, gender, and ethnicity and political issues of inequality, injustice, or oppression.  

More than anything today's works are confessional, stories of growing up poor, disadvantaged, or abused.  There is no nobility in these stories, only a melodramatic dime-store peep into ordinary lives.

Of course there are exceptions – men of personal dignity, integrity, compassion, and excellence.  Spiritual devotion without evangelism; professionalism without award or accolade; duty and responsibility with no public acknowledgement.  Men of dignity, moral grace, and sincerity.  They are often lost in mergers, acquisitions, joint practices, and the commercialization of most enterprise.  

The species is endangered.  If we are lucky, we know one.  We never read about them in alumni notes or in press releases.  Their obituaries sum up the visible pieces of their lives without mention of their real worth; and family lore keeps their memories alive with anecdotes and ‘remember when’ stories of years past.

Yet, although the species is endangered, it is not yet extinct, and thank God for that.

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