By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty
With Armistice Day but a few weeks past, and the commemoration of President Kennedy’s life and short tenure as president only several days away, I nevertheless can’t help noticing how completely the immediate concerns of the present grab our attention whether it’s keeping us absorbed in preparations for a big Thanksgiving Day meal, or watching the drama of a malicious tornado swooping down on an innocent small Illinois town, or shaken by yet another story about a suicide bomber in Iraq killing fourteen people while walking on their way home. This absorption in the present is certainly understandable, yet it also entails a drawback for it inexorably leads us to forget our debts to past generations whose heroics made possible our comings and goings of the day.
Perhaps William Faulkner’s famous statement about the past–the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past– helps a little in nudging us from the pressures of the present so we can better appreciate important past events. When Faulkner thought about the past, he was probably thinking mostly about the tortured events which played such a destructive role in the history of the south both before and after the civil war. Maybe Faulkner hung on to this past longer than he should have if he wanted to lead a happy life.
I believe our problem today is the exact opposite of Faulkner’s; it’s not that we hold on to the past too long, but that we don’t hold on to it long enough with the result that we lose the benefits that a tie to tradition brings anyone who wishes to cultivate it. What are some of these benefits? A sense of security from being part of a larger world rooted in a worthwhile past and a sense of hope that connects us to a future which will preserve the things we do today that we find so important.
One of my favorite ways of keeping alive a connection to the past is by recalling the remarkable life of Mr. Winston Churchill, one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century and a man who represents the unique tradition that comprises what he called the history of the English speaking peoples. At first blush, trying to establish a connection to Winston Churchill seems absurd for he was born and lived in circumstances very different from my own, and led a life which couldn’t be more different than the one I lead, or think I lead.
Churchill was born into an aristocratic family which enjoyed an extraordinary reputation for patriotism and public service. Moreover, Churchill was a renaissance man interested in adventure, military exploits and innovations, and spending lots of time painting his beloved landscapes. He also cultivated a distinguished career writing for English newspapers while also becoming an extraordinarily successful political figure. Already in his early 20s, he fought for England in the Boer War at the same time he negotiated a contract to write newspaper columns back home as a war correspondent.
Finally connecting with Churchill seems like a formidable undertaking given that he’s such a complex difficult man who, while invariably successful at most tasks he undertook, also managed to attract lots of critics who enjoyed attacking him for a variety of shortcomings which most charitably could be lumped under a heading called impulsiveness.
Churchill enjoyed upsetting the apple cart. Of one distinguished member of parliament he remarked that the gentleman had no idea what he was going to say before giving a speech, no idea what he was saying while he gave the speech, and no idea what he had said after he ended his speech.
Still despite his shortcomings and some major disappointments which resulted from them, he also possessed remarkable abilities including a terrific sense of humor and a magisterial writing style inspired in part by Edward Gibbon, author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. More importantly he was a courageous and extraordinary leader who spoke his mind, wasn’t afraid to voice unpopular positions, and to the toughest jobs, assuming full responsibility for their outcomes without blaming others for his own mistakes.
Churchill’s greatest legacy probably stems from the leadership he provided Great Britain and the United States especially during the darkest days of WWII following Hitler’s lightening fast military victories in 1940 conquering both Western and Eastern Europe in less than two years time. Immediately following these victories, Hitler wanted to launch a full scale invasion of England and England’s defeat seemed only a few weeks away. Hitler’s invasion plan was to start with a devastating series of attacks by the German Air Force whose planes outnumbered those of the Royal Air Force 3-1. Miraculously, the RAF successfully withstood the German air attack; as a result, Hitler decided to scuttle his invasion plan and instead turn his attention again to the East where he would soon begin an attack on Russia.
After Hitler ended his efforts to conquer Britain, Churchill broadcast his famous praise of the RAF and its pilots. “Never in the course of history have so many owed so much to so few.” If one person were to be singled out for their role in saving England and defeating Hitler in 1940, surely Churchill would be that individual. And to give Churchill’s line a little extra “mo” possibly we could include ourselves in Churchill’s reference to “the many” owing so much to the brave RAF pilots whose sacrifices helped create a society which in the history of the world has never been more prosperous, more egalitarian, or more free.