The Better Angels Of Our Nature

You probably recognize the title of this post. It’s from the last line of Abraham Lincoln’s 1st inaugural address, given on March 4, 1861.

Lincoln began the final paragraph of that speech with: “I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends.” 

The more things change, the more they remain the same. 

Is there such a thing as the better angels of our nature? 

This past weekend the American political commentator David French wrote: 

“The American experiment depends upon both the government upholding its obligation to preserve liberty and the American people upholding theirs to exercise that liberty towards virtuous purposes….When public virtue fails, our constitutional government does not possess the power to preserve itself.”

I like this because it doesn’t let us off the hook for our individual behaviors. 

But what exactly is meant by public virtue?

In researching the term, I found many cultural nuances. However, the persistent theme was moral excellence and high principles of conduct. 

In effect, one could substitute “good” for virtue. Good may not be any easier to define, but we know it when we see it.

French suggests that our challenge and obligation is to exercise liberty for good purpose. The following Quora discussion thread provides guidance in that regard: 

“A virtuous (good) person is less motivated by their animal nature (fear, lust, envy) and is more motivated by their spiritual nature (humanity, service, sacrifice).”

French suggested that to action “goodness,” we need to think small, for instance, to bring “goodness” to our interactions with family members, friends, and the organizations we belong to. 

I was lucky to have a father who was widely recognized to be a “good” man. My buddies nicknamed him “The Pillar” in recognition of the high standards he held himself to.

Today we usually refer to a person by their status, accomplishments, or wealth. Dad never approved of that. His lifelong objective was to be a Christian gentleman. 

Something isn’t quite right today. People are angrier. A guy driving a car full of grade school kids recently flipped me off at an intersection because he thought I was inching forward out of turn.

Really?

“When our crisis is one of hatred, anxiety, and despair, don’t look to politics to heal our hearts,” French comments. 

This brings me back to angels. 

James Madison observed in Federalist 51, “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

Nice thought, but it’s not going to happen.

I guess if it is to be, it’s up to me!

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6 Replies to “The Better Angels Of Our Nature”

  1. You nailed this, Tim! Read this aloud to my Father-in-law and Claudia…. We all enjoyed it. Fabulous blog this week.

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  2. Nice post, Tim. Fired up a lot of thoughts in me, especially thinking about “public virtue or public good”. I feel we live in unprecedented times, and society is less focused on the public and ever more on “me” (and “MeToo”). All the disenfranchised want their voices heard (and they are getting louder) while beliefs are getting more extreme. A global leader decides to decimate a neighboring country. A billionaire spends 44 Billion to buy a social media platform so he can control the voices. A former President continues to blast out his disinformation. 18 households (representing 0.000001% of all households) hold 1.2% of total wealth, a 10X increase in the last 40 years. Sure makes me feel powerless. But I have Faith, I pray regularly and I give to charity. 3 out of 5 ain’t bad!

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    1. I hear you Al. My optimism stems from our children’s children. If history provides any guidance, they’ll set things strait. Too many vested elders in office. We need new blood, new ideas, and renewed enthusiasm.

      Tim Sent from my iPhone

      >

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