Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — William James Edition

Several years ago I came across Harold Bloom’s Where Shall Wisdom Be Found and was immediately inspired to continue to search for similar examples of wisdom in art, literature, poetry, and other forms of human discourse.  As a result, when I ran across the address of Dr. James at the dedication of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston Common on Memorial Day, May 31, 1897 I knew I had found one such example.  Shaw, of course, was the Commanding Officer of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment–the first black regiment organized in Massachusetts for the Union cause–and the subject of the 1989 movie Glory.

Robert Gould Shaw memorial

Being a career military professional, I was most impressed by James’ insight into human nature and his ability to overcome his own feelings of inadequacy and guilt from his inability to have participated in the war to abolish slavery.  His brother Wilky James was an officer in the 54th Massachusetts and participated in the Quixotic–and poorly planned–direct charge on Fort Wagner in which half the regiment was decimated.  Wilky suffered terrible injuries from the battle, which foreshortened his life.  But William seemed to have taken some lessons from his brother’s experience and shared them on that day.

Here, then, is today’s wisdom from an excerpt of William James’ oration:

“It is hard to end a discourse like this without one word of moralizing; and two things must be distinguished in all events like those we are commemorating–the moral service of them on the one hand, and on the other the physical fortitude which they display.  War has been much praised and celebrated among us of late as a school of manly virtue; but it is easy to exaggerate upon this point.  Ages ago, war was the gory cradle of mankind, the grim-featured nurse that alone could train our savage progenitors into some semblance of social virtue, teach them to be faithful to one another, and force them to sink their selfishness in wider tribal ends.  War still excels in this prerogative; and whether it be paid in years of service, in treasure, or in life-blood, the war tax is still the only tax that men ungrudgingly will pay.  How could it be otherwise when the survivors of one successful massacre after another are the beings from whose loins we and all our contemporary races spring?  Man is once for all a fighting animal; centuries of peaceful history could not breed the battle-instinct out of us; and military virtue least in need of reinforcement by reflection, least in need of orator’s or poet’s help.

What we really need the poet’s and orator’s help to keep alive in us is not, then, the common and gregarious courage which Robert Shaw showed when he marched with you, men of the Seventh Regiment.  It is that more lonely courage which he showed when he dropped his warm commission in the glorious Second to head…the 54th.  That lonely kind of valor (civic courage as we call it in peace times) is the kind of valor to which the monuments of nations should most of all be reared, for the survival of the fittest has not bred it into the bone of human beings as it has bred military valor; and of the five hundred of us who could storm a battery side-by-side with others, perhaps not one would be found ready to risk his worldly fortunes all alone in resisting an enthroned abuse….The nation blest above all nations is she in whom the civic genius of the people does the saving day by day, by acts without external picturesqueness; 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.  Such nations have no need of wars to save them.”

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