On Monuments and Memory

It is only necessary to refer to the recent incidents anent e.g. Confederate monuments and the like in order to introduce my topic: Why we ought to retain them, not only for the time being, but also for the very long run.

There is, I believe, a parallel between the lives of individual persons and the lives of nations; neither grows up in a direct and flawless linear progression. Rather, e.g., my own life, as well as the life of everyone whom I have ever known well, has developed via series of missteps, zig-zags, and, quite plainly, sins. Of course it must be granted that there are those who do not learn, who do not progress in their lives. Without knowledge, discipline, and virtue a good life is impossible. Nevertheless, experience is, as Confucius taught, the bitterest way to learn, but it remains a way by which most of us learn many things. Further, it is impossible to learn from and to grow out of one’s failures without knowing them—without straightforwardly admitting them. In the case of nations, this is accomplished in public record, that is, communal memory. This in turn is expressed in many ways, including in art—as in sculpture. As the mature person, so also the mature nation must also know and admit its mistakes, its sins, and take them as lessons and as a point of departure for improvement. Neither ignorance nor lying can help.

Or again, metaphorically, just as the oldest rings of an ancient tree continue to be part of its present vitality, so even in a way are our own errors part of our present success. Please note that I use the term ‘success’ in the most non-materialistic sense possible. To illustrate this in another way: It has been a privilege in my life to know many former alcohol-addicted persons. In an astonishing number of instances, these people report that, as they evaluate their lives, they now know not only that they were alcoholics and through this know that they continue to be alcoholics, and of course famously state that claim out loud.

To re-write, or to erase, or to pretend the non-existence of the past, or to be ignorant of it is simply to succumb to falsehood.

If I may be permitted to continue this reflection in slightly more philosophical language, hoping the value of this is to provide a larger and deeper context for the previous remarks: It is quasi-essential to man “to experience and act consciously within the whole of the temporal spectrum,” as Patrick Deneen has it. It is of the very nature of prudence to take counsel of (past) experience and only then to act unto the contingent future. Again citing Patrick Deneen, man by his very nature acts in MEMORY and in HOPE. It is because of this continuity of past and future that that Tradition is not a prison, but a lighthouse, rendering social life a “partnership between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born.” (Edmund Burke) On a very large scale, this is why G.K. Chesterton insisted on the “democracy of the dead,” deliberately refusing to deny the franchise by either the accident of birth or by the accident of death. On a smaller scale, it seems to me that we in our current efforts to re-write, ignore, or erase history, fail to understand who we are and how to act, thereby withdraw from our own humanity, and lose our way to a better future.

It is worth notice that the intense dissatisfaction expressed by those who wish to tear down the statuary on Monument Avenue in Richmond, for example, is not purely destructive. At the same time they wish to establish a better social condition—to make a better future; some seem to believe they can “immanentize the eschaton.” At first glance, this appears to be quite noble—sweeping away the cinders leftover from a regime so populated with evil men, and beginning afresh to construct a better way of life. The high-mindedness of this motive seems to motivate even a national purge, a secular iconoclasm. However, it must be noted that this very “new way” and wholesale rejection of the past (“the boyhood of knowledge”) has been tried before, both in politics and in philosophy, and the ensuing future has not gone quite so well as anticipated. One might think, for example, of Thomas Hobbes, “The Monster of Malmsbury,” who haunts American democracy still today, in the form of a lurking legal positivism.

Moreover, leaving aside the end-justifies-the-means presupposition, efforts to create heaven-on-earth simply fail to see facts. Chesterton remarked that while he could understand why anyone could doubt almost any of the doctrines of Christianity, he could not understand doubt over original sin, because it was less a dogma than a fact. Incisively, chillingly, Alexander Solzhenitsyn pointed out “The line between good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through the human heart—and through all human hearts.” There is no immanent eschaton, because there are no utopian citizens. Even were there, it would have no abiding population to enjoy it, for, as Dryden noted poetically, “All human things are subject to decay, and when fate summons, monarchs must obey.”

Finally, utterly absent from any such earthly eschatological reflection is this truth: The insufficiency of any and in fact all things human is a great signal for hope, and for the deepest, most ultimate understanding of the dignity of man: Nothing, not even the purging of America from injustice in all of its declensions, is enough to fill the “infinite abyss in the heart of man”; no program for cleansing, improving, bettering of any kind will answer the ultimate eschatological question: “Why do any of this at all?”

Editor’s note: Pictured above is the Confederate monument at Stone Mountain, Georgia.

Theodore Rebard

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Theodore Rebard has taught philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in Houston for twenty-five years. He earned his PhD. from Boston College.

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