Thursday, December 02, 2010

History Has the Answers!

In the study of famous events and people, we often come across obvious and well-known truths. It doesn't surprise us to learn that Josef Stalin was evil (remember the forty million people he killed?), or that Mother Theresa was noble (anybody want to leave a life of middle-class ease to offer care to sick people in one of the world's poorest slums - all for no pay?). No, none of that is new information.

But only the careful and detailed study of history can give us the deeper understanding of these thumbnail icons: what are the details of Stalin's villainy, in its historical context, which can give us a clearer understanding of Stalin, of ourselves as humans, and of the philosophical definition of "evil"? Like, what exactly did Mother Theresa do, under which circumstances, and how do those details inform us about her, about what it means to be honorable, and about how humans beings can treat each other ethically?

Only thoughtful engagement with history - the analysis of facts, texts, and people - can yield these types of insight. And here we stand on the borderline between history and philosophy: the philosopher can give us the abstract definition of virtue or vice; the historian can give us detailed examples. Both are necessary if we are to broaden our minds.

Harvard's Aram Bakshian gives us an excellent example in his comments about George Washington. Our first president was, Bakshian writes, one of those

dignified, self-disciplined figures whose very virtues makes us uncomfortable about our own inadequate selves.

Here then we have three concepts worth investigating: dignified, self-disciplined, and virtues. These generalizations need specific examples: for this purpose we study biographies of Washington and learn the details of his life. Yale's Ron Chernow gives us further raw material. He writes that Washington was a man of

unerring judgment, sterling character, rectitude, steadfast patriotism, unflagging sense of duty, and civic-mindedness.

Again a list of categorical qualities which need concrete facts to help us envision them. In addition, we begin to see why this task is important: in the early twenty-first century in which we live, exploring the characteristics of George Washington will point us toward those things which we need to survive. We need "steadfast patriotism" instead of militant nationalism. We need "civic-mindedness" instead of a list of imagined grievances from self-proclaimed victims.

As we explore Washington's writings and biography, we can escape from the prison of viewing events from the narrow perspective of the moment of time in which we happen to live, and begin to explore the richer possibilities of viewing events from a timeless perspective, as we see

an eighteenth-century gentleman living by a clear code of honor that emphasized quiet courage, dedication to duty and stern self-control rather than getting in touch with one's inner child,

as Bakshian phrases it. Only from a narrow perspective would we refer

to Washington's "repressing" or "suppressing" his feelings, as if

this behavior on Washington's part was

a pathology rather than a triumph of character over impulse.

The historical perspective approaches the eternal perspective asymptotically - from which can gain amazing insights into human nature and character. We can find models who are, while not quite perfect, worth emulating - and among their admirable traits is the manner in which they considered their own imperfections:

No one judged himself more constantly or more severely than George Washington. From an early age, he strove to make himself a better person. He was a man of powerful passions and raging ambition, but he conquered his passion and he channeled his ambition honorably. Having mastered himself, he mastered the art of command; a man with no formal military training, leading what began as an armed rabble, he created and held together the first regular America army.

Washington's stellar ability to lead emerged from his ability to first lead himself - to be good at commanding others, one must first be good at commanding one's self.

As presiding officer at the constitutional convention and then as first president, he provided gravitas and a clear, uncluttered vision.

So, then, this is our task: let's go get several biographies of George Washington, study them, and find out why he is an excellent model. Then let's imitate him.