Haven Bradford Gow
Haven Bradford Gow is a T.V. and radio commentator and writer, who teaches religion to children at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Greenville, Mississippi.
For us to love our country, said Edmund Burke, our country must be lovely.
If Burke meant that only a country which is lovely is loved by its people, then he was mistaken. For many Germans loved Nazi Germany, a nation that couldn't at all be considered lovely. But if we understand Burke's remark to mean that for a country to be worthy of admiration, it must be lovely, then Burke certainly made a valid observation.
But what causes a country to be lovely? The eminent 18th-century British statesman and political philosopher had a ready and trenchant reply. The country that is lovely, declared Burke, is permeated with the spirit of religion and the spirit of the gentleman, qualities without which no civilized society can endure.
The "spirit of religion" is a complicated phrase. What Burke meant is a reverence for God and a corresponding acknowledgment of an authority higher than the state. For Burke it also meant the recognition and protection of God-given rights and the performance of corresponding duties. And for Burke, the "spirit of religion" meant a commitment to shared values and the religious foundation for those values such as tradition, liberty under law, courage, love, integrity, honor, civility, decency, the dignity of the individual because he is made in the image of God, personal freedom and responsibility.
When Burke spoke about the "spirit of the gentleman," he was referring to something more than mere social poise and the ability to win friends and influence people. Cardinal John Henry Newman once described the gentleman as one who is:
. . . tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd. . . . He never speaks of himself unless compelled, never defends himself by mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip . . .
The gentle man, continued Newman, is "patient and forbearing"; he resigns himself to suffering because "it is inevitable, to bereavement because it is irreparable, and to death because it is his destiny." And if the gentleman engages in controversy of any kind, said Newman:
. . . his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, perhaps, but less educated minds, who, like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they find it.
Burke would have agreed with Newman's sentiments; he, like Newman, meant much more than external gentility. Burke also was talking about the ethical and intellectual discrimination needed to distinguish between truth and error, right and wrong, the noble and the base: The nobility of mind and character which elevates one above the social, intellectual, and moral fads and foibles of one's group and of one's times.
As the social critic and philosopher Russell Kirk observed, Burke believed that the spirit of the gentleman meant "that elevation of mind and temper, that generosity and courage of mind, [and that] habit of acting upon principles which rise superior to immediate advantage and private interest . . ."
Were Burke alive today, he would find little of the spirit of religion and the spirit of the gentleman in our country. He would discover little respect for the canons of civilized and rational discourse; and he would find little observance of the norms and traditions of civility.
Rather, Burke would find the spirit of religion and the spirit of the gentleman considered "effeminate" by those most doubtful of their own sexual identity; he would encounter widespread indifference, if not hostility, toward religion in both private and public life.
He would find increasing numbers who think in slogans, who shout down speakers, who refuse to listen to or consider views contrary to their own; he would see a denigration of the concepts of personal freedom and responsibility; he would witness in our society a virulent assault by those without a sense of community upon the delicate balance between freedom and order, between liberty and license, between tradition and change. And Burke, to his dismay, would discover a violent and tragic rupture of the bond of human affections, the ties that promote unity and communion rather than division; the ties, that is to say, which bind a person to his neighbor, to his family, to his church, to his community, to his country.
To fight today for the resuscitation of the spirit of religion and the spirit of the gentleman would seem to be in a lost cause.
But no great cause is ever truly lost. Consequently, for so worthy a cause we must continue to struggle until these qualities prevail: Qualities that cause a country, as well as an individual, to be lovely. *
"He is a man of sense who does not grieve for what he has not, but rejoices in what he has." --Epictetus