From his Farewell Address:
I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.
This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.
It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.
There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.
A somewhat cut and dried lecture about the mechanics of the U.S. Constitution–its seven articles, its checks and balances, and its relatively clean lines.
Introduction for Dan Hugger’s LORD ACTON: HISTORICAL AND MORAL ESSAYS (2017).
When scholars discuss the nineteenth century of western civilization, they automatically and reflexively conjure images of the three most profound and original minds of the period: Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud. Sometimes, depending on the scholar, one might list Friedrich Nietzsche as well. This is obvious in the massive and tedious surveys of western civilization as well as in the remaining and lingering canons of Great Books. None of this is false, of course, and the three (or four) men remembered certainly were among the greatest of minds to come into this world of sorrows.
One might, with equal accuracy and a bit more humanity and justice, create a different trinity. What about John Henry Newman, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Lord Acton? After all, as the great Russell Kirk once argued, “In every age, society has been relieved only by the endeavors of a few people moved by the grace of God.” With the possible exception of Darwin, neither the taken-for granted trinity nor their followers were wont to taint the men or their ideas with the airy notion of the “grace of God.”
With the newly-proposed trinity of nineteenth-century thinkers, though, the men and their followers would lovingly accept the grace of [g]od.
Even among these proposed three, however, Lord Acton—the author of the essays you now hold in hands–remains the least known, the least studied, and the least understood. True, every American with any education at all remembers his assertion that “power corrupts.” Other than this, though, he’s largely forgotten or dismissed. It’s as though his entire existence from 1843 through 1902 mattered only for that one sentence. Truly, this is to both our discredit and our loss. Thanks to the Acton Institute and Daniel Hugger, we can begin to rectify this massive error near the beginning of the twenty-first century.
A profound thinker and essayist, Acton argued in his seminal piece of 1862, “Nationality”: “Christianity rejoices at the mixture of races as Paganism, however, identifies itself with their differences, because truth is universal, errors various and particular.” The modern and rising nation-states, though, demand unity of thought, culture, and politics. In essence, Acton believed, the world was re-paganizing, returning to its worship of the state as god. After all, he wrote, “in the ancient world idolatry and nationality went together, and the same term is applied in Scripture to both.”
While this is just one of many profound arguments that Acton advanced during his writing career, it is critical to see him not only as important in his own day and age, but also as the critical link in the arguments about natural rights, liberty, and human dignity between Edmund Burke and Thomas Jefferson, a century earlier, and Friedrich Hayek and Christopher Dawson, a century later.
In his own day and age, though, Acton tapped into something rather deep in the currents and movements of the western tradition. Imagine for a moment the influence the original trinity mentioned above had on the West and on the World. When looking at the depth and intelligence and brilliance of their arguments, one can readily narrow down each to one fundamental element. For Darwin, all things were biological and adaptive. For Marx, they were economic. For Freud, they were psychological. As Acton would well understand, none of these things were untrue. The problem with each was not falsity, but lack of context. Man is biological, economic, and psychological, but not singularly. Rather man is all of these plus a million other things. As with Burke before and Dawson after, Acton knew that man’s greatness and his sin simultaneously resided in the immense complexity of each individual human person, made uniquely in the infinite image of God. With Socrates as well as Hayek, Acton knew that we knew very little and that, through humility, we recognized our limitations of knowledge.
Thus, one can readily picture Acton writing “Christianity rejoices at the mixture of and mysteries of human complexities as Darwinism, however, “identifies itself with their biological adaptation.” Or, as Marxism, however, “identifies itself with their economic base.” Or, as Freudianism, however, “identifies itself with their psychological urges.” To which, each can be answer, “yes, but there’s more.” Again, no matter how significant Darwin, Marx, and Freud were, Acton is more nuanced, broader, and, thus, in the long run, more accurate and insightful. Unlike the three more famous men, Acton never demanded any gnostic sureties in this world or the next. Faith is, after all, not fact.
Of course, this book you now are reading is much deeper than what I’ve just given. Hugger has ably and, indeed, lovingly crafted a book of some of the best arguments Acton made in his life. From a philosophy of history to the history of liberty, from specific personalities to the grand movement of ideas, Acton looked at all with a Catholic and classical wisdom so often lacking in his day. We would do well to remember Acton. In so doing, we remember not just the man, but the insight of one man into a much larger and unfathomably complicated world. True, in choosing Acton over Darwin, Marx, and Freud, we choose an ignorance and humility that the world hates. But, then, the world has generally hated what’s good for it. Have your ideologies if you must, but I’ll take truth, beauty, and goodness anytime.
Oh, and, by the way, power does corrupt.
To put it simply (and perhaps a bit “simplistically”—but I prefer to think of it as putting it “with fervor”), Christopher Dawson was one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century, certainly one of its greatest men of letters, and perhaps one of the most respected Catholic scholars in the English speaking world. I’ve have had the opportunity and privilege to argue this elsewhere, including here at the majestic The Imaginative Conservative. I would even go so far as to claim that Dawson was THE historian of the past 100 years.
Without going deeply into Dawson’s thought—or any aspect of it—in this post, it is worthwhile cataloguing how many of his contemporaries claimed him important and his scholarship and ideas for their own. This means, consequently, that while most Americans—Catholic or otherwise—no longer remember Christopher Dawson, they do often remember affectionately those he profoundly (one might even state indelibly) influenced. The list includes well known personalities such as T.S. Eliot, Thomas Merton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.
In the world of humane learning and scholarship in the twentieth century, Dawson was a sort of John Coltrane. Just as few non musicians listen to Coltrane, but EVERY serious musician does, the same was essentially true of Dawson. And, yet, as with Coltrane, Dawson did enjoy long periods of widespread popularity and support in his own lifetime.
“For Dawson is more like a movement than a man,” his publisher and friend, Frank Sheed, wrote of him in 1938. “His influence with the non-Catholic world is of a kind that no modern Catholic has yet had, both for the great number of fields in which it is felt and for the intellectual quality of those who feel it.” As evidence, Sheed could cite much. By the early 1930s, while Dawson was still in his early 40s, American Catholic colleges began teaching courses on his thought, tying him to the larger Catholic literary movement of the day. In 1933, the American Catholic journal Commonweal stated that “the writings of Christopher Dawson demand the thoughtful attention of all educated men.” Six years later, the Jesuit journal, The Month, claimed that to “commend Mr. Dawson’s work is unnecessary; nothing that he writes could be unimportant.” In 1949, Waldemar Gurian, a refugee from the Nazis and a professor at the University of Notre Dame, wrote, Dawson’s “very ability to make brilliant understatements and to display without pride, as something self-evident, his extraordinary broad knowledge make his synthesis particularly impressive.” In 1950, the English Dominican journal, Blackfriars, claimed “that Mr. Dawson is an educator; perhaps the greatest that Heaven has sent us English Catholics since Newman.”
Maisie Ward, the famous biographer and co-founder of the Sheed and Ward publishing house, admitted to Dawson in 1961, “You were, as I said on Sunday, truly the spear-head of our publishing venture.” Ward put it into greater context in her autobiography, Unfinished Business. “Looking back at the beginnings of such intellectual life as I have had, I feel indebted to three men of genius: Browning, Newman, and Chesterton,” she admitted. “But in my middle age, while we owed much as publishers to many men and women, foreign and English, the most powerful influence on the thinking of both myself and my husband was certainly Christopher Dawson.” Even among the clergy, none held the reputation that Dawson did by the 1950s. Again, as Ward noted rather bluntly in a letter to Dawson, “There is no question in my mind that no priest exists at the moment whose name carries anything like the weight in or outside the church that yours does.” This is an impressive claim, especially when one recalls the intellect and influence of a Martin D’Arcy, a John Courtney Murray, or a J. Fulton Sheen, all eminent priests.
Neo-Thomist historian and philosopher Etienne Gilson also acknowledged his profound admiration for Dawson in a 1950 letter to Frank Sheed. Gilson especially appreciated Dawson’s Making of Europe (1932) and Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950). The latter “provided me with what I had needed during forty years without being able to find it anywhere: an intelligent and reliable background for a history of mediaeval philosophy,” Gilson admitted. “Had I been fortunate in having such a book before writing my [Spirit of the Middle Ages,] my own work would have been other and better than it is.” High praise, indeed.
American Trappist Monk and author Thomas Merton claimed to have found his purpose in life while reading Dawson’s 1952 book, Understanding Europe. “Whether or not [Dawson] came too late, who can say?” Merton worried. “In any case I have a clear obligation to participate, as long as I can, and to the extent of my abilities, in every effort to help a spiritual and cultural renewal of our time. This is the task that has been given me, and hitherto I have not been clear about it, in all its aspects and dimensions.”
As Eliot’s best biographer, Russell Kirk, wrote, “Of social thinkers in his own time, none influenced Eliot more than Dawson.” For three decades, Eliot was quite taken with Dawson’s views, and it would be difficult if not impossible to find a scholar who influenced Eliot more. In the early 1930s, Eliot told an American audience that Dawson was the foremost thinker of his generation in England. He explicitly acknowledged his debt to Dawson in the introductions to his two most politically- and culturally-oriented books, The Idea of a Christian Society and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. One can also find Dawson’s influence in two of Eliot’s most important writings of the moral imagination, “Murder in the Cathedral” and “The Four Quartets.” Eliot continued to acknowledge a debt to Dawson after World War II. In a speech to the London Conservative Union in 1955, Eliot told his fellow conservatives that they should understand conservatism as Dawson does, not as political, but as ante-political and anti-ideological. Only then, Eliot argued, could English conservatives truly and effectively shape society.
One cannot imagine C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man without Dawson’s scholarship in his 1929 book, Progress and Religion. The same is true of J.R.R. Tolkien’s best academic essay, “On Fairie-Stories,” delivered at the University of St. Andrews in 1939. While the essay in its thought is purely Tolkienian, the English philologist and fantasist relies on the scholarship of Dawson very openly. All three knew each other well, and Tolkien and Dawson even attended the same parish in Oxford.
There are so many lessons to be learned from all of this. First, we should never take the influence of Christopher Dawson for granted. Second, it should also give each person hope. We should, of course, do our best in whatever we do. What others do with it is beyond our will, but we put it out there, nonetheless, and we hope. Dawson’s story—at least this aspect of it—makes us realize that we can play a vital role in the times, even if our own individual ego has not been soothed.
 F.J. Sheed, “Christopher Dawson,” The Sign (June 1938), 661.
 Arnold Sparr, To Promote, Defend, and Redeem: The Catholic Literary Revival and the Cultural Transformation of American Catholicism, 1920-1960 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990), 24, 103
 T. Lawrason Riggs, “A Voice of Power,” Commonweal (August 4, 1933), 330.
 Thomas Corbishly, “Our Present Discontents,” The Month 173 (1939): 440.
 Waldemar Gurian, “Dawson’s Leitmotif,” Commonweal (June 3, 1949).
 Kenelm Foster, O.P., “Mr Dawson and Chistendom,” Blackfriars 31 (1950): 423.
 Maisie Ward, New York, to Dawson, Harvard, 1961, in the Christopher H. Dawson Collection, Box 11, Folder 25, “Frank Sheed 1960,” Department of Special Collections, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota (hereafter UST/CDC)
 Maisie Ward, Unfinished Business (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1964), 117.
 Maisie Sheed, London, to Dawson, October 1953, Box 11, Folder 18, “Frank Sheed 1953” in UST/CDC.
 Sheed to Dawson, 1936, in Box 11 (Sheed and Ward Papers), Folder 2, “Frank Sheed, 1936”, in UST/CDC.
 Etienne Gilson to Frank Sheed, 22 August 1950, in Box 11, Folder 16 “Frank Sheed 1950”, in UST/CDC.
 Thomas Merton, journal entry for August 22, 1961, Turning Toward the World: The Pivotal Year, ed. by Victor A. Kramer (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 155. See also Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image Books, 1966), 55, 194-94; and Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo, eds., The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals (San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), 190.
 Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (Peru, Ill.: Sherwood Sugden, 1988), 300. On Dawson’s influence on Eliot, see also Bernard Wall, “Giant Individualists and Orthodoxy,” Twentieth Century (January 1954): 59.
 Christina Scott, A Historian and His World, 210.
 The two have been republished together as T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture (San Diego, Calif.: Harvest, 1967).
 Kirk, Eliot and His Age, 231-2, 299-300; and Joseph Schwartz, “The Theology of History in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets,” Logos 2 (Winter 1999): 34.
 T.S. Eliot, “The Literature of Politics,” Time and Tide (23 April 1955), 524.
That most overrated academic fop of the twentieth-century, Peter Gay, spent a considerable amount of time and vitriol in the 1950s taking swipes at Russell Kirk, believing the duke of Mecosta a superficial romantic, stuck in the past, fighting for the most worthless and transient of causes. In 1961, he finally wrote something of substance (if poorly argued) against Kirk, replacing the one liners of the previous decade. Taking the efforts of Kirk and his allies into account, Gay lamented. “But the prevailing mood in the historical profession, always timidly sensitive to the drift of the times, is conservative,” he wrote in the prestigious Yale Review, a journal for which a number of prominent conservatives wrote as well.
“The decline of Whiggism and Marxism has been accompanied by the rise of Toryism and Cosmic Complaining. Consider the adulation and exploitation of Tocqueville, a conservative too important to be left in the hands of conservatives; consider the absurdly inflated reputation of Burke, whose shrewd guesses and useful insights are placed like a fig leaf before his malicious incomprehension, confused politics and unashamed ignorance.” So much for all of the work of Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, and Robert Nisbet.
“Hogwash” Gay might as well have cried in his obvious frustration.
“Consider the brave new words on the lips of philosophical historians: ‘complexity,’ ‘the human condition,’ ‘the crisis of our time.’ A bill of these things suggest that the assault of Whig clichés has laid us open to an assault by counter-clichés.” It should be noted here that both Friedrich Hayek and Kirk understood well the word, “Whig,” and they employed it properly, in ways that Gay simply failed to understand. Others, such as Caroline Robbins Douglass Adair, though not allied with the Kirks and Hayeks of the world, would have understood it as had Kirk and Hayek. “In discarding the liberal view of history, we have not replaced falsehood with truth, but one inadequate scheme of explanation by another. Conservative ideologues have been much helped, of course, by the effects of the recent researches which have torn so many holes in the fabric of liberalism. But superior information, while never in itself a Bad Thing, does not insure superior wisdom.”
There are probably many proper critics that could be leveled at Kirk, but superficiality and lack of wisdom would not spring to the mind of any sane critic. Perhaps not too surprisingly, Kirk’s close friend, Peter Stanlis, wrote a letter of unadulterated glee and mischief after reading Gay’s piece in the Yale Review. They had successfully gotten under the Columbia’s historian’s skin.
Yet, it is well worth considering Gay’s critique, no matter how false it was. Though Gay failed to articulate his position well, he clearly “felt” some kind of upheaval in the history profession. Not being a part of the cause of that upheaval, the priggish Gay chose to lash out at Kirk and his fellow conservatives in an anti-quasi conspiratorial way.
Had Gay lost his mind, or, in his muddled confusion, was he on to something vital in the conservative movement?
Kirk, Hayek, Nisbet, and Strauss—along with Eric Voegelin and Peter Stanlis and others—had changed the debate. They had each—though to varying degrees—understood how important Burke and Tocqueville were as symbols in a way to bolster the West’s understanding of itself as it had defeated German fascism and Japanese imperialism, but now confronted Soviet and Chinese communism. With much effort, the great non-leftist academics had spent the decade and a half after the conclusion of World War II doing everything possible to promote the newly discovered figures of Burke and Tocqueville as the quintessential thinkers of the modern era to combat modernity. Not only had they networked with one another in person, they had professionally and quietly encouraged this or that scholar to debate this or that opponent of Burke and Tocqueville, whether in mass media, or in journals or periodicals, or at conferences. Often the defenses and attacks were open and direct, but, just as often, the conservatives and libertarians promoting Burke and Tocqueville came from the side or even the rear.
In one telling example, Kirk attacked the well-recognized and most important 20-century scholar of Samuel Johnson, Donald Greene, using his review of the man’s book to promote the excellence of brilliance of Leo Strauss. If only Greene would read Strauss, Kirk suggested, he might be able to overcome his “logical positivism” and “latter-day liberalism.” Indeed, Kirk suggested that readers should merely pity Greene for being so uneducated. Once he read Strauss, Kirk continued, Greene would not only see the errors of his ways, but he would become a member of the “Great Tradition” of the western great books, thus seeing Johnson and Burke properly.
Not long after Kirk’s death in 1994, Peter Stanlis revealed just how detailed and intimate their concerted plan of attack had been. Because of the rise of Strauss and Nisbet, the two men believed that the western world had come to a “Burkean moment.” As much as each man loved and respect Edmund Burke, they clearly loved him for real and actual self as much as they loved him as a symbol. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, St. John, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Petrarch, and Thomas More could each be found in the thought of Burke, thus allowing the Anglo-Irish statesman to become a stand-in for all of the greats of western civilization. “The philosophical roots of modern political conservatism extend back over many generations through Burke and the natural law to the Middle Ages and classical antiquity,” Stanlis revealed in his 1994 talk about his secret alliance with Kirk. With Burke, Kirk and Stanlis could promote not only a just and humane conservatism but, perhaps more importantly, a vibrant, living Christian Humanism. That is, they could not only critique what was liberal and progressive and wrong in the modern world, they could also, perhaps more importantly, defend something positive from the past, a conserving of the true, the good, and the beautiful. And, they could do so in a gay and willing pride.
During times of national crisis, turmoil, and dissatisfaction, we should always return to first principles and right reason.
Some of my favorite quotes from the Federalists and Anti-Federalists:
“We may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people; and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behaviour. It is essential to such a government, that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favoured class of it; otherwise a handful of tyrannical nobles, exercising their oppressions by a delegation of their powers, might aspire to the rank of republicans, and claim for their government the honourable title of republic.” (Fed 39)
“A handful of tyrannical nobles” controlled the states, and the federal government could intervene to protect the rights of the citizens of those states. And yet, Madison continued in Federalist 39, “federal” did not mean the same thing as “national,” for the ratification demanded the “assent and ratification of the several states, derived from the supreme authority in each state,” the citizens of the respective state. In deciding whether or not to ratify the Constitution, each state “is considered as a sovereign body, independent of all others, and only to be bound by its own voluntary act.” (Fed 39)
“Justice is the end of government,” Madison stated bluntly in Federalist 51, following Plato and Aristotle. “It is the end of civil society.”
In discussing the need for a strong executive branch in Federalist 70, Hamilton explained: “A feeble executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution: and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.” Arguments for energy applied to more than just the executive branch.
“Energy in government is essential to that security against external and internal danger, and to that prompt and salutary execution of the laws, which enter into the very definition of good government. Stability in government is essential to national character, and to the advantages annexed to it, as well as to that repose and confidence in the minds of the people, which are among the chief blessings of civil society.” (Fed 37)
Though never the cohesive force the Federalists proved to be, the Anti-Federalists feared what they considered to be the objective of the Constitution: a consolidated, national government. Such a desire, the Federal Farmer, a leading Anti-Federalist, argued, mostly likely came from “those who expect employments under the new constitution; as to those weak and ardent men who always expected to be gainers by revolutions, and whose lot it generally is to get out of one difficulty into another.” Federalists merely played on the fears of the people, promoting the notion that the current government is fully in a crisis. The result, the Federal Farmer claimed, is predictable. “Instead of being thirteen republics under a federal head, it is clearly designed to make us one consolidated government,” he wrote. “This consolidation of the states has been the object of several men in this country for some time past.”
Another Anti-Federalist, Brutus, claimed the constitution would render the states obsolete through the “necessary and proper clause” of Article I, Section 8. Though the Federalists might write in placating tones regarding the status of states prior to the ratification of the Constitution, the tone would necessarily change once the Constitution was implemented. “It will be found that the power retained by individual states, small as it is, will be a clog upon the wheels of the government of the United States,” Brutus wrote. This will follow the law of nature, as “every body of men, invested with power, are ever disposed to increase it, and to acquire a superiority over every thing that stands in their way.”
Old Whig: “Before all this labyrinth can be traced to a conclusion, ages will revolve, and perhaps the great principles upon which our late glorious revolution was founded, will be totally forgotten. If the principles of liberty are not firmly fixed and established in the present constitution, in vain may we hope for retrieving them hereafter. People once possessed of power are always loth to part with it. . . . The legislatures of the states will be but forms and shadows, and it will be the height of arrogance and presumption in them, to turn their thoughts to such high subjects. . . . The great, and the wise, and the mighty will be in possession of places and offices; they will oppose all changes in favor of liberty, they will steadily pursue the acquisition of more and more power to themselves and their adherents. The cause of liberty, if it be now forgotten, will be forgotten forever.”
Old Whig: “But yet we find that men in all ages have abused power, and that it has been the study of patriots and virtuous legislators at all times to restrain power, so as to prevent the abuse of it.”
Brutus: “The nations around us, sir, are already enslaved, and have been enslaved by those very means; by means of their standing armies they have every one lost their liberties; it is indeed impossible that the liberties of the people in any country can be preserved where a numerous standing army is kept up.”
[This originally appeared at The Imaginative Conservative]
It’s hard not to laugh when my students think they’re imitating or comprehending the zeitgeist of—whether to honor or mock—the 1980s.
Though, in almost every way, it’s impossible to fault them for this.
The individual members of the incoming freshman class will have entered this world sometime in 1996 or 1997, a full seven to eight years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. To their active and eager minds, the 1980s meant lots of repetitive electronic pop music, an MTV that actually played music videos, leg warmers, bright colors, big checks and plaids, baggy pants and oversize shirts, top siders, goofy hair styles, televangelists, “duck and cover” safety from nuclear weapons, general happiness and prosperity, and John Hughes movies. It was a time before time, an era without wardrobe malfunctions, wacky chief executives, or reality TV.
Not all of these memories are wrong, of course, just selective.
From what I can tell, most current students idealize the decade in much the same way my generation—coming of age in the 1980s—viewed the 1950s. That nearly perfect decade represented peace, prosperity, primitive rock music, American assertion of power without lots of consequent deaths, innocence and naiveté, white t-shirts with packs of cigarettes rolled up in one’s sleeve, poodle skirts, leather jackets, James Dean shades, motorcycles, Marlan Brando cool, and tail fins on huge cars.
Everything, of course, was in black and white as well in the 1950s.
Well, so we thought.
But, two things must be remembered by those of us who lived in the 1980s and who want to teach our students the truth.
[Scroll down a bit to go to Page 2 of this article]
From The Crito:
Soc. Are we to say that we are never intentionally to do wrong, or that in one way we ought and in another way we ought not to do wrong, or is doing wrong always evil and dishonorable, as I was just now saying, and as has been already acknowledged by us? Are all our former admissions which were made within a few days to be thrown away? And have we, at our age, been earnestly discoursing with one another all our life long only to discover that we are no better than children? Or are we to rest assured, in spite of the opinion of the many, and in spite of consequences whether better or worse, of the truth of what was then said, that injustice is always an evil and dishonor to him who acts unjustly? Shall we affirm that?
Soc. Then we must do no wrong?
Cr. Certainly not.
Soc. Nor when injured injure in return, as the many imagine; for we must injure no one at all?
Cr. Clearly not.
Soc. Again, Crito, may we do evil?
Cr. Surely not, Socrates.
Soc. And what of doing evil in return for evil, which is the morality of the many-is that just or not?
Cr. Not just.
Soc. For doing evil to another is the same as injuring him?
Cr. Very true.
[Originally published at The Imaginative Conservative]
Should one generation ever consider itself greater than any other generation, past or future, Edmund Burke warned in his magisterial Reflections on the Revolution in France, the entire fabric of a civilization might very well unravel and, ultimately, disintegrate. Our modern ears have no right to discount Burke’s argument as simple hyperbole. What takes centuries to build and hone, however, can take moments to undo. We have witnessed numerous generations since Burke wrote this, and we have seen the arrogance of several, but most especially the Vatican II generation and the so-called “counter-culture” generation of the 1960s. To this day, we suffer from the arrogance of each. They each, in the name of toleration, progress, liberalism, and humanitarianism to submit to their teachings blindly. As one great Canadian and Stoic man of letters argued in the early 1980s, “They shout about love, but when push comes to shove, they fight for things they’re afraid of.”
Once a generation succeeds in separating itself from past and future, it harms not just civilization but the very dignity of man. The individual man, unanchored, becomes, Burke noted darkly, “would become little better than the flies of summer.”
[Please scroll down a bit to go to page 2]