SAMUEL Johnson, the great eighteenth-century critic, moralist, and wit, once said of the American revolutionaries: “How is it that the loudest yelps for liberty come from the holders of slaves?” I don’t know what Johnson’s friend, Edmund Burke—a proponent of American independence—said in response to this, but I rather hope it was: “Touché.”
While I can’t match Johnson’s epigrammatic waggery, I often find myself with similar sentiments these days about those who seek to defend “the West” from its perceived enemies. Whether implicitly or explicitly, these champions of western civilization believe that in a time of war, terrorism, and uncertainty the only adequate response is that of singular, unswerving affirmation. To be of two minds about the moral condition of western culture or the political decisions of those who act in its name is perceived as weakness, or a species of self-hatred.
In fairness, it has to be said that there are plenty of intellectuals out there who seem to regard the tradition rooted in Jerusalem and Athens as the equivalent of original sin, the root of all evil. There is no energy shortage impeding the ideological merry-go-round.
What’s wrong with this picture? The classical and Judeo-Christian visions, as I understand them, are undergirded by two inseparable insights: through reason and revelation universal moral truths can be discerned, but the application of those truths in human affairs is a complex process, fraught with dangers and temptations. In other words, the singularity of truth is always shadowed by the ambiguity of the fallen creatures who strive to incarnate it. And so the cardinal sin in each of these cultures was the same, whether it was called hubris or pride—an overconfident singularity. In the real world the paradox is that truths can come into conflict with one another. Because we are not gods but limited beings, the sorting out of these conflicts is an unending task, one that can end in tragedy or modest, provisional victory.
Two of the central poets of the West, Virgil and Shakespeare, explored this paradox in epic stories about political foundings. The Aeneid is concerned with the founding of Rome. Aeneas is a man with a mission, an inexorable sense of duty that drives him forward to a heroic undertaking. When he encounters Dido, queen of Carthage (Rome’s future enemy), on his journey, their love affair threatens to derail his mission, and so he leaves her. Distraught, she gives in to chaotic emotion, furor, and ends her life.
Now it is possible to read this section of The Aeneid as the rejection of a private good in favor of a larger public good, and as the triumph of Apollonian reason over Dionysian emotion. But it requires a great deal of insensitivity to miss the tragic dimension of this encounter, and the danger of political imperatives running roughshod over the human goods of the private sphere. Aeneas does not, in fact, escape unscathed. In a brilliant ironic twist at the end of this unfinished epic, Aeneas defeats his final antagonist, Turnus, in single combat on the battlefield. Instead of practicing magnanimity toward the vanquished, which Aeneas is told will be the prime Roman virtue, he notices that Turnus is wearing the buckler of a fallen Roman, and Aeneas, in a fit of furor, savagely kills Turnus. The very act that makes way for the founding of Rome is itself a contradiction of all that Rome is to stand for.
Shakespeare’s Henriad traces the establishment of a British dynasty. The decadent, late-medieval ruler, Richard III, is succeeded by the scheming Machiavellian Bolingbroke, a ruthless modern man who seizes power but who remains haunted by the thought that the ancient cosmology is correct, and that he is guilty of a horrific impiety. Meanwhile, Bolingbroke’s son, Prince Hal, is off roistering around the kingdom with old Jack Falstaff, embracing the life of the common man. But after he defeats Hotspur in battle and becomes Henry V, Hal rejects Falstaff, who dies pathetically and offstage.
There has been endless debate over Shakespeare’s tetralogy, of course, but few who could make much of a case for the final play, Henry V, as anything other than a letdown, if not an outright failure. Both as a play and film, it has been used to bolster patriotism, as Olivier’s version did during World War II. But the Henry depicted in this play is anything but the singular savior of England: alternately chummy and brutal, he is an awkward lover and an implacable conqueror. The expansive joie de vivre of Prince Hal is replaced by a figure who claims ancient religious sanction but acts like his Machiavellian dad. The monolithic nature of political power leaves little space for the messiness of the private realm.
Virgil and Shakespeare demonstrate that ambiguity, properly understood, preserves truth from turning into falsehood. What has made the West strong is its admission of weakness. Ambiguity and self-questioning have become the engines of reform.
This is why I so love the Renaissance humanist, Thomas More, a true son of the West. Though he is often held up as a saint of singularity, he was in fact far more devoted to what his biographer Peter Ackroyd has called “doubleness.” Robert Bolt in A Man for All Seasons captures this quality of More’s, particularly in the scene where he tells his hot-headed future son in law, William Roper, that he would give the devil—and by extension any heretic or malefactor—the benefit of law. To Roper’s protest that this is to put man’s law above God’s, More replies:
…[L]et me draw your attention to a fact—I’m not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can’t navigate. I’m no voyager. But in the thickets of the law, oh, there I’m a forester.
More eventually stepped out of the woods and placed his neck on the block. But his greatest gift to us may have been his skills as a forester.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.