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Gratitude and the retribalization of the world

November 26th, 2009 - 7:17 am

Cardinal Newman may have have been right — let me put my cards on the table and say that I believe that he was right — that about many matters “to think correctly is to think like Aristotle.” But even Aristotle, as Horace says of Homer, nods occasionally. Consider the Stagirite’s famous observation that man is the “rational animal.” Is he? Look around at your fellow creatures. Is the rationality of their behavior the first thing that strikes you about them? Take your time.

For my own part, were I asked to produce a list of leading characteristics of the species homo sapiens sapiens, I would think twice before putting “rationality” at the top of the list. (Incidentally, note how gratifying it is to be in the position of naming one’s own club. Would “sapiens” — twice! — have been the distinguishing modifier had someone else been in charge of handing out rubrics?) Near the top of my list of characteristics of the species would have been ingratitude, not rationality. Whatever else he is, man is certainly the ungrateful animal. Be he ever so larded with blessings, still he is likely not only to be dissatisfied but also ungrateful.

Why is this? There are, I think, several reasons. One reason has to do with another leading characteristic of humanity: its curious condition of being always incomplete, of regarding life as a sort of moral pilgrimage. Your dog has desires — for a bone, say — but those desires, once met, are essentially satisfied till the next desire comes along. For people, satisfaction as often feeds as satisfies desire. The more one gets, the more one wants.

This characteristic of humanity is not all bad. It helps explain, for example, why humans contrive to build palaces, airplanes, and rocket ships, while Fido here is as content to live life just as his great-great-great-great grandfather did. Imagine being transported back a few hundred years and attempting to get on in the world. You might think you would have enjoyed chatting with Jane Austen, say, but what if you suffered a toothache or appendicitis, what if you decided to travel to New York from England, what if you were too hot in the summer, or wanted oranges and strawberries in the winter? It is difficult to imagine how different the physical concomitants of life were even so short a time ago.

On the debit side, however, is that habit of ingratitude I mentioned above. This is a subject well worth plumbing. Perhaps I will return to it another time. For now, on this Thanksgiving week, I wish simply to invite readers to pause for a moment to count their blessings. If you happen to have been born and brought up in the United States, you have already been dealt an amazingly lucky hand in the sweepstakes of life. My friend Claudia Rosett has a characteristically smart column about “what’s right with America” over at Forbes.com.

Thanksgiving is a day to step back from all that, and count not only a laundry list of material comforts, but also the gifts of the spirit. For all the sound and fury, there is no place richer in such blessings, or with more to be proud of, than the United States of America. For more than two centuries, this country has endured and prospered as a free nation, outlasting an array of despotisms that once loomed large. America of its own volition ended slavery, survived its Civil War and led the way to victory in World War II and the Cold War. In modern times no nation has been friendlier to invention, creativity and the commerce that makes for betterment of life around the globe. America is where the Wright Brothers took flight, where vacuum tubes of the lugubrious early computers led on to the microchips of the digital age and where medicine has made the greatest strides.

Indeed. Or perhaps I should say “And yet . . .” As Claudia goes on to note, with all that success came a gnawing sense of unease, even guilt, which, I have noticed, is often not so much a matter of condign contrition about one’s failings or misdeeds as a sort of self-indulgent moral canker — ingratitude by proxy.

Yet with all that has come a sense of guilt and unease. Having led the way out of a 20th century afflicted with totalitarian ideologies and two world wars, America over the past decade has been reviled by many of its own elite for being “unilateral,” for overthrowing in Iraq one of the world’s worst tyrants, for leading a scientific and industrial revolution in which it produced more carbon dioxide per capita than Laos.

The big question before us is whether America will now bow, scrape, regulate and spend its way into decline. Columnist Charles Krauthammer, speaking in New York at the Manhattan Institute’s annual dinner in October wisely argued that decline is not an imminent destiny, but a choice.

I think Charles Krauthammer is right. Our place in the world is a matter of choice, not destiny. The question is whether we still posses the healthy, unencumbered, masculine candidness to recognize the stakes and distinguish firmly between good and evil.

At least, that is one question. At the moment, the choice is ours. But the world is quick changing kaleidoscope. It seems to be a human quirk — maybe it is part of the human instinct for survival — to suppose that the world tomorrow will, in most essentials, resemble the world today. No doubt in many cases, the supposition is justified. But a friend sent me this little animated dramatization about the fate of the British (and incidentally, the French and Spanish) Empire over the last couple centuries. It is, as he said, “utterly fascinating (and depressing).” What it depicts is, first, a journey or moral and material progress through the first couple decades of the twentieth century. It then shows the astonishing swift process of political disintegration that marks what we might call the retribalization of the world. And candid observer can see where it is tending. Which is all the more reason to be grateful for present blessings and stalwart about present and future challenges. You can be sure they will be exigent.

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