Saturday, September 13, 2008

Favorite Passages: Richard M. Weaver on Robert E. Lee

The tendency to see a thing in its moral relationships, to discipline egoistic impulse, and to subordinate self to a communal idea of conduct appears in Lee’s often quoted saying that duty is the most sublime word in the language. It is fairly certain that he did not intend here the narrow military sense in which mission is accepted and executed. His conception seems much nearer the celebrated categorical imperative, that sense of obligation to act as one would have others act, out of a love of order and accomplishment.

…The ideal of duty is related to the quality which above all else gives Lee an antique greatness, his humility. He believed that there is an order to things. That order is providential in the sense that mortal wisdom is not to be compared to infinite wisdom. This truth, however, conveys nothing of fatalism or determinism; the individual is not exempt from exerting his will in the world and seeking to influence the course of things according to his light. Man cannot withdraw; he must weigh and wager, and abide the consequences. To assume that his light is always sufficient is pride. Education is discipline and education is lifelong; indeed, we have Lee’s own statement that no man’s education is completed until his death. If one has respect for the order of things, it is then possible for him to accept failure as instruction rather than as total repudiation. I do not see how Lee’s serenity in the face of crisis and self-possession in the days of distress can be explained save through this conviction, which is in essence the answer of Christianity to the paradoxes of existence.

As we approach that time at which his education was complete, we are eager to know whether, on the broad issues of this life, he stood with the pessimists or the optimists. This is putting the matter in simple terms, of course; but humanity has a clear mind on this issue; it will not have for its great teachers those who despair of the condition of man. It will read them for excitement; it will utilize them as corrective, but it will not cherish them as the final oracles. It prefers Aristotle to Diogenes and Augustine to Schopenhauer. It does not wish to hear said, however brilliantly, that life is a tale told by an idiot; it wants an unmistakable, if chastened, recommendation of life.

From this point of view too we may say Lee is philosophically sound. Despite failure in the great effort of his career, and despite a twilight of five years during which, it seemed to Stephen Vincent Benet, “He must have lived with bitterness itself,” he gave no sign of despondency. His expression, we are told, took on a look of settled
sadness, but he never allowed feeling to assume control. Whatever of doctrine Lee knew was derived from Christianity, and there we read that God sometimes appoints to men the task of contending and falling in a righteous cause. …Lee has survived in the national mind as a hero in defeat; and it is inconceivable that he could have done so had not his own philosophy accommodated the idea of temporal failure.
Richard M. Weaver, “Lee the Philosopher” (1948), from The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, (Liberty Fund, 1987; George. M. Curtis & James J. Thompson, ed.), pp. 176-178.

2 comments:

Matthew Nelson said...

Excellent!

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