Humanities Commentaries on VPR

Peter A. Gilbert's Look at Life through the Humanities

Civic Courage (10-30-2015)

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Listen to this audio commentary on the Vermont Public Radio website.

Transcript

At the dedication in 1897 of the Civil War monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry that stands on the Boston Common, the keynote speaker was William James, philosopher and psychologist, brother of the great novelist Henry James, and considered by some the most brilliant American of the nineteenth century. His speech was surprising.

James told his audience that Shaw was a valiant soldier, but that wasn’t why he deserved a monument. After all, he asserted, natural selection had made physical courage so dominant in humans that centuries of peaceful history could not breed the battle-instinct out of us; and our pugnacity, he continued, is the virtue least in need of reinforcement.”

What does need to be reinforced, he argued, is something he called “civic courage . . . a lonely kind of courage” that the survival of the fittest has not bred into humankind.

Civic courage—civic genius—is demonstrated, he said, by citizens everyday “. . . [by] speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties; by the people knowing true men when they see them, and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans or empty quacks.”

The Civil War had tested our nation, and it had survived, but, James concluded, democracy is still on trial. Civic genius is a nation’s only defense against its deadliest enemies, which are always within its borders.

And so, surprisingly, at a ceremony honoring military valor, James celebrated not physical courage but civic courage and its “two common habits . . . the habit of trained and disciplined good temper towards the opposite party. . . [and] fierce and merciless resentment toward [those] who break the public peace.”

Democracy is still on trial today. If James came back today, I think I know what his reaction would be to our politics and contemporary civic courage. If we wanted to help young people (or ourselves) nurture civic habits, we might point to examples of good and bad leaders through history. And we might point to examples of how some nations have prospered and others have failed.

But we know that history, like literature, ethics, and other subjects these days, is often squeezed out of schools and universities by science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and squeezed out of society in general by more seductive influences. Yet we’re surprised at our nation’s dysfunctional lack of civic courage.

This article first aired as a commentary on Vermont Public Radio.