In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, William Faulkner addressed important elements surrounding the “poet’s, the writer’s duty:”
“I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will someday stand here where I am standing.
I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.
I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.
It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
–excerpts from William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech at Stockholm’s City Hall on December 10, 1950.
Reviewing the world events of the past few weeks, one might be forgiven, at least at first glance, for being gravely concerned about the future of humanity. The tragic inhumanity perpetrated by rage and radical ideology we’ve witnessed recently, strikes at the very core values of every variety of human society, and we genuinely seem to have only a limited number of choices, when it comes time to choose, of how to respond.
No rational or humanistic society wants to see an escalation of hostilities in any region of the world, but neither can we shrink from the awful duty required to prevent the successful imposition by the forces of rage and radical ideology from their goals of destruction and their murderous intent. It seems that nothing less than a commensurately violent response to the violence being inflicted can hope to deter or eliminate the dangers posed by these forces.
Faulkner’s words were uttered shortly after the conclusion of World War II, but they could easily apply to our current circumstances. If we are to overcome these obstacles and forge a viable alternative to these destructive forces ultimately, we must seek to raise the level of the conversation to include a more universal spiritual perspective.
Russell Kirk, in his book, “The Conservative Mind,” argued that conservatism as a philosophy is based on six canons, condensed here:
1. A divine intent as well as personal conscience rules society, “forging an eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead.”
2. Traditional life, as distinguished from “the narrowing uniformity and equalitarianism … of most radical systems,” is filled with variety and mystery.
3. Civilized society requires orders and hierarchy—“if a people destroy natural distinctions among men, presently Bonaparte fills the vacuum.”
4. “Property and freedom are inseparably connected.”
5. “Man must put a control upon his will and his appetite,” knowing that he is governed more by emotion than reason.
6. “Society must alter … but Providence is the proper instrument for change.”
–condensed from Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1953), p. 61.
While I personally do not agree completely with each of these points, number five struck me as prescient as an indication of how the consideration of our very human nature constitutes a necessary component to include when reflecting on today’s circumstances. Considering that Kirk was writing these words in 1953, at a time when many thinkers of the day possessed a much less secular worldview, if we translate them without imposing a specific religious connotation, we can see a spiritual component that can inform our “personal conscience,” when attempting to determine how to respond to the “eternal chain of right and duty.”
When we witness the tragic results of recent world events–when we see and share the subsequent emotional and spiritual turmoil–it points to an important confluence of our spiritual nature with our physiological and emotional responses. The American philosopher, William James, (1842-1910) wrote about how our consciousness can directly affect our physiology:
“Even Darwin did not exhaustively enumerate all the bodily affections characteristic of any one of the standard emotions. More and more, as physiology advances, we begin to discern how almost infinitely numerous and subtle they must be. Research…has shown that not only the heart, but the entire circulatory system, forms a sort of sounding-board, which every change of our consciousness, however slight, may make reverberate. Hardly a sensation comes to us without sending waves of alternate constriction and dilatation down the arteries of our arms. The blood-vessels of the abdomen act reciprocally with those of the more outward parts.”
–excerpt from “What is an Emotion?, by William James (1884) First published in Mind, 9, 188-205
While he was considered to be a pragmatist who was more concerned about the practical application of his theories than the abstract concepts which he addressed in his writing, here James hits upon the powerful link between our possession of the penetrating subjective awareness provided by our very human form of consciousness, and the visceral experience of our emotional states and their effect on even the most subtle human physiological responses. We cannot separate ourselves easily from our evolutionary inheritance as a member of the genus Homo, who eventually became a cognitive creature, since we are still very much a product of that evolution. Many of our psychological inclinations and biological imperatives conflict with our more rational and cognitive capacities, and in ways that can pose the kinds of challenges we face in the 21st century.
Our current state of affairs as an American society, and indeed the state of affairs in the many diverse societies and nations of the world who share these challenges, present us not only with an opportunity to demonstrate our values, but also to bring together the many nations of the world in a common goal to answer the challenges posed by those who would perpetrate violence in the pursuit of a radical fundamentalist ideology.
The spirit of our American way of life, characterized by the ideals upon which our nation was originally founded, is not always evident in our actions in the world at large, nor in the rhetoric of our political and religious leaders, but in his book, Russell Kirk detailed the ideals which we have continually strived to attain, and which, if realized, could make all the difference in facing the challenges of our day:
“Kirk argued that Americans possessed those things that made a conservative counterrevolution possible: “the best written constitution in the world, the safest division of powers, the widest diffusion of property, the strongest sense of common interest, the most prosperous economy, an elevated intellectual and moral tradition, and a spirit of self-reliance unequalled in modern times.”
–excerpts from his article on the Heritage Foundation website entitled, “The Conservative Mind of Russell Kirk,” by Lee Edwards, Ph.D.
We need to find a way to answer the difficult questions posed by our circumstances that embraces the spirit of these values, and recognizes that the goal of achieving world peace can only be accomplished if we look within ourselves and reconnect to the human spirit, which Faulkner described as being “…capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”