Anachronistic reflections, in the still of the night by L.E.Taylor
Insomnia has many authors, but mine is often exacerbated by the very remedy I turn to. Lying inert with no inclination to drift off like a normal bloke, I turn for my soporific to reading. Something dry and arcane should work, like history or philosophy; or lyrical and soothing, as poetry.
A week ago, I retrieved from a shelf of fat tomes a wee little chapbook that I thought would do the trick: Rules of Civility and Behaviour in Company and Conversation. It’s a mere essay based upon a 16th century code of conduct which itself had been revised by an Englishman from an earlier screed by a French monk. Oddly, my version was written by a fifteen year old American rock star named George Washington. But, far from tumbling myself into slumber-land, that night began for me a three-night adventure back to colonial America and the earliest days of our Republic.
I’ll spare you excerpts, fascinating and comically anachronistic though they may be – simply trust that I was not lulled to sleep by these one-hundred-ten ground rules. In fact, I was shaken awake to the reality of how our society has coarsened. True, these “rules” were naïve and unattainable even in the 18th century. But today, they are more than just utopian, they are positively Martian!
Here’s the rub. In the course of every day, you and I participate in a cultural swinishness that has virtually degenerated from rudeness to sloth, to indiscriminate contempt and serial disrespect, downward to rank alienation, and now to bloody riots in the streets.
We? you ask. Yes, we. We not only observe the spectacle, we are enablers. Insidiously, we have become infected by anarchy and find ourselves daily involved in behavior undreamed-of by our morally motivated forebears. When we merely curse the barbarians, but do not take defiant action, by arms or by pen, nor in argument with fools, we join impotently in the death-dance of our civilization.
When mute tolerance of the liar and the thug becomes passive avoidance, it is naught but cowardice. (I seem to have lapsed to my inner-eighteenth century man. Egad!) To let hostile, ungodly toxins flow un-confronted in the schools, in the home, in the church, and in the streets only adds to the chaos. Jeer if you will… this demands soul-searching.
Those three nights of vicarious adventure referred to above were not spent only with Washington’s Rules of Civility. As I contrasted the gentle character of The Greatest American with squalid 21st century norms I was prompted to grab once more my well-worn copy of British historian Paul Johnson’s biography, George Washington – The Founding Father.
Dedicated to his American granddaughter, Johnson’s brilliant essay is only 123 pages long. Each time I read it, my conviction is buttressed, that our first president is our finest model of not only leadership, but also of manhood.
G.W. was educated at home in the rudiments of both classical thought and practical living. He attended no college and read no literature published after his young boyhood. But his was a pure soul of powerful scope. Like all genius, his raw talents were nothing less than bottled up energy, in this case, moral. His natural gifts, advanced largely by his own efforts, were mental, spiritual, practical, and physical.
By nineteen, young George was a master land surveyor of the trans-Appalachian wilderness, and a man with clear understanding of the potential of our continent. At six-feet-two, he was a formidable military leader, commissioned at twenty-two by his governor to confront the French diplomatically in his colony’s western lands. His expedition, punctuated by deadly force of arms, resulted in the retreat of France from the Ohio-Mississippi valley, and the sovereignty of England in what would become the United States.
Everyone knows that George Washington was his generation’s all-purpose paragon. A statesman, a general, a self-effacing patriot, and a spectacularly loving family man to his kin as well as to his soldiers, his countrymen, and even to his inherited slaves.
I have no recourse, in my own humble circumstance, but to compare what I’ve accomplished, punily, in my biblically granted three-score-and-ten.
Conscience, thy name is George.
As I humbly close my copy of Paul Johnson’s book, I’m reminded of an old joke. A man is reprimanding his son for bad grades and personal sloth. Exasperated, he finally barks, “Do you know what Abraham Lincoln was doing when he was your age?”
The boy replies, deadpan, “No, father, but I know what he was doing when he was your age.”
So, gentle reader, let’s chill out. We can still dream can’t we? It ain’t over yet.
- Johnson, Paul, George Washington – The Founding Father, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2005.
- The Mount Vernon ladies Association, Geo. Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation, Mount Vernon, VA, 1989.
- Taylor, L.E., Surveyor General, LET’S Blog, 20 February, 2014.