Feb. 16 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of The Heritage Foundation. For its 25th anniversary in 1998, Heritage published in book form a collection of essays, “Leadership for America: The Principles of Conservatism,” edited by Heritage founder Edwin J. Feulner. One of those essays is the transcript of a speech delivered 25 years ago this month in Palm Beach, Florida, by Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas. The following is that speech in its entirety.
We live in an age of unprecedented prosperity, freedom, and opportunity.
The Iron Curtain of communism has been raised in most of the world, permitting those who have too long languished in the dark shadow it cast to taste some measure of freedom.
In our country, record levels of economic growth have sparked creation of many new jobs and businesses. Scientific and technological developments that were incomprehensible just 15 or 20 years ago have provided so many of us with healthier and easier lives.
There is, in short, much for which we should all be thankful.
As with any other time in human history, all is not well with our society. Even as the stock market has soared to unimaginable heights and interest rates have dropped to equally unimaginable depths, we hear much alarming talk about the state of morals and virtue, as well as the state of our culture.
There seems to be an unprecedented amount of commentary about what drives human nature and much discussion about various virtues, such as responsibility, hard work, humility, honesty, discipline, and occasionally, self-control.
Echoing this concern, a number of influential books and articles also have been published recently that detail the radical changes that have taken place in our nation’s popular culture since the 1960s.
Finger-Pointing in Mirror?
Many of these books maintain that the cultural elites in government, the courts, universities, the media, and the entertainment industry are responsible for a decline in traditional values. Often, these critics of modern culture point to the considerable degeneration of morals and virtues among the least fortunate in our society.
They are certainly right in pointing out that our culture is facing any number of serious problems. And while I share their deep concern, I wonder if we are not allowing ourselves to point fingers at others, rather than looking to ourselves for solutions.
I often ask myself whether I am content to see the problem in my neighbor, rather than in myself.
So much of today’s cultural criticism blames institutions beyond our control for the decline in virtue. As a result, we may understandably be tempted to say that the problem is over there with the media and the universities.
The cultural elites are destroying our younger generation’s appreciation for self-discipline and self-sacrifice. These cultural institutions need to “clean up their act.” For those who seem unable to function in this society, we may be tempted to wash our hands and conclude that they should return to work and adopt the work ethic and a life of virtue.
In other words, be like us.
‘Bleak House’ Through a Telescope
In a sense, we become much like Mrs. Jellyby in Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House.” She was content to throw herself wholeheartedly and enthusiastically into her distant philanthropic projects involving fan-makers and flower girls, but was unconcerned about her unkempt children, her filthy house, neglected husband, or the starving beggar at the door.
Her telescopic philanthropy is perhaps our telescopic criticism.
Our view of the task to be undertaken and the goal to be attained is magnified and ambitious, far beyond just the beggar at the door and more modest or personal challenges.
Somehow, we find it more comfortable and safer to tackle someone else’s problem, rather than our own. And we are more at ease discussing the larger cultural problems that we are less capable of solving directly than we are at finding what we can do on a daily basis to make a difference.
It is much easier to get worked up about others and the seemingly intractable universal problems than it is to get worked up about ourselves, or to paraphrase Thomas Carlyle, the duties which lie nearest us.
It is no wonder that we seem so despondent about the prospects for a revival in traditional virtue. We fret and complain about the extent of the problem and, feeling helpless, suggest that there is nothing we can personally do to restore the culture.
We are reduced to longing for the good old days, when responsibility, self-sacrifice, and politeness were hallmarks taken for granted, or at least not questioned. We retire to the insular compounds of our private lives, mumbling to ourselves and preaching to the choir.
This is not to suggest that there are not times when it is imperative to be concerned about larger, more complicated matters. Nor is this to deny that there are times when we must issue the clarion call to action or point an accusatory finger at some wrongdoer and demand that he mend his ways. But there can be too many calls to action and too much finger-pointing.
Somehow, we all know that there are only so many times that we can claim that the sky is falling and expect to have anyone but fellow travelers believe us. In the end, no matter how momentarily relieved we are to sound the alarm, we have the discomforting sense that it will ultimately be by our example, not our criticism, that we will change hearts and minds.
My Grandfather’s Promise
That brings me to our subject: character. In a sense, we all know exactly what we are thinking about when we talk about a person’s character. Throughout most of our lives, character, like family or marriage, needed no definition. We knew exactly what we meant.
It is quite telling today that what was taken for granted or understood by all must now be directly discussed. In short, we now find it necessary to define what, in the not-so-distant past, needed neither a clear definition, nor discussion at all.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “character” as “moral qualities strongly developed or strikingly displayed; distinct or distinguished character; character worth speaking of.” Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary similarly defines character as “an individual’s pattern of behavior or personality; moral constitution … moral strength; self-discipline, fortitude.”
Most of us are more contextual when we think about or speak of character. For example, a person of character is a pillar of his family and community and, I might add, leads by example.
As hard as I try, I cannot discuss the issue of character, or much that is of lasting importance to me, without referring to two great heroes of my life: my grandparents. They were honest, hardworking people who lived a simple, honest life with clear rules.
They embody for me all that character could or should mean. They were “bound and determined, in their words, to raise us right. Their rules were in plain English: “Always say good morning”; “Speak when spoken to”; “Tell the truth”; “Never let the sun catch you in bed.”
I had the opportunity to ask my brother if he could remember the sun catching us in bed, and he could not.
Another counsel: “Put a handle on grownups’ names—Miss Mariah, Cousin Bea, Cousin Hattie, or Miss Gertrude.”
One of my grandfather’s favorite admonitions, always spoken in a deep baritone voice with the seriousness of the Last Judgment, was “If you lie, you’ll steal. If you steal, you’ll cheat. If you cheat, you’ll kill.” This slippery slope was clear, and the final resting place of one who ventured to its precipice was so clear that the first step demanded disproportionate punishment–which I received.
Above all, even while we were in the early years of grammar school, my grandfather made one solemn promise that underscored our life with him and my grandmother: “I will never tell you to do as I say, not as I do. I will only tell you to do as I do.”
Even as, unlike today, there were very clear lines between what a child could do and what an adult did do, both my grandparents lived up to that promise. Though I cannot say that he did not talk constantly about what was expected of his two boys, he insisted that we “follow” him in the fullness of that term.
Because of some recent changes in our household that parallel those days, it is only now that I have come to understand fully the very conscious decision he made. He disallowed activities that kept us away from him and required that we be in his presence and under his tutelage virtually the entire time we were not in school.
He said he would teach us to work, with all that that means and entails: discipline, conscientiousness, high standards, punctuality. He said we must learn how to be men, so he showed us by being one. The physical man made babies; the real man raised them.
‘Walking the Walk, Talking the Talk’
It is often said that little people have big eyes and big ears. But with the biggest ears and eyes for hypocrisy even during our questioning teenage years, we found no hypocrisy. They were temperate in their drinking, modest in their dress, frugal in their spending.
As someone from my generation might have said some years ago, “They talked the talk and walked the walk.” They focused on what they could do—the seemingly small things that in the short term maintained order, but in the long term built character.
Perhaps they understood implicitly what Aristotle concluded. We acquire virtues in much the same way that we acquire other skills—by practicing the craft: “So also, then, we become just by doing just actions; temperate by doing temperate actions; brave by doing brave actions.”
As James Q. Wilson observes, “A good character arises from the repetition of many small acts and begins early in youth. That habituation operates on a human nature innately prepared to respond to training.”
In leading by example, they both showed us how to live our lives, and at the same time further perfected their own character by doing so.
We all have played similar roles in the lives of those close to us. We lead by deeds as well as by words. Our respective families and communities are better off for our efforts.
Also, we participate in the affairs of the institutions closest to us, such as our churches, our places of employment or business, schools, charitable organizations, and civic associations. Surely, we know we have helped someone. It is through these attachments that we can lead by example and give others—especially the poor and less fortunate—the wisdom, strength, and opportunity they need to live a life of morals and manners.
There are also the efforts that give each of us the opportunity to enhance and develop our own character. But the effort starts with those of us who should and do know our obligations. It requires our best efforts and our example of good character to help ensure that others—and each of us—follow the path of virtue.
Just as it is frustrating and difficult to observe the decline of virtuous conduct, how much more frustrating must it be for those who live with the awful consequences of the lack of virtue.
For them, it must be overwhelming to accept this accumulated responsibility or to persevere in the face of adversity. But useful models—namely, people of character—can help to inculcate virtue by exhibiting the moral strength to do what is right despite frustration, despite fear, despite temptation or inconvenience.
‘Let Our Light Shine Before Men’
This calls to mind a wonderful little prayer asking for the strength to set a good Christian example for others:
“Lord, you have reminded us that we, who bear your name as Christians and are followers of you, are like a city set upon a mountain and like a light that cannot be hid.
“You have told us to so let our light shine before men that, seeing our works, they may honor our Father in heaven for what they behold in us.”
Those supposedly without virtue do need to know that it makes a difference to be virtuous. They will only learn that from those who already live virtuous lives, a part of which is to help lead others. One of the advantages of living in a free, democratic society is that each day we have many opportunities to be leaders simply by living virtuous lives.
Voluntary associations, such as families, churches, and small communities, expand the reach of those who lead and who show others how to do so. The relationships we foster through these voluntary associations reaffirm for us that we are doing what is right, not only by leading and helping others, but by being virtuous as we do so.
That is the way it was growing up in Georgia. When someone down the road fell upon hard times, or when sickness beset a family, or when a hurricane or fire destroyed or damaged someone’s house, people instinctively helped in whatever way they could.
Not helping was unthinkable. Good people practiced good deeds, which helped provide for the community’s temporal needs and, in the long run, created an atmosphere that encouraged hard work, integrity, and charity among the young.
Now let us imagine a world where most of us looked to someone else, such as government, to do what we as neighbors, family, friends, and citizens ought to do. Who, may I ask, becomes more virtuous?
Such a dependency on the state severs those ties that bind us together and that make each of us more virtuous. That would be a world where, unfortunately, the opportunities to lead by example and thereby inculcate virtues would seem less important.
An essential element of the human spirit would be lost.
Unfortunately, that is perhaps closer to where we are today.
Having the character that will lead others to a path of virtue does not require extraordinary intelligence, a privileged upbringing, or great wealth. Nor, for that matter, is character a matter of accomplishing extraordinary feats or undertaking magnanimous acts.
Looking back on the lives of my grandparents—who were barely able to read and were saddled with the burdens of segregation—I have come to realize that people of every station in life can influence the world in which we live.
But for them, where would my brother and I be? It is the small things we do each day, the often mundane and routine tasks, that form our habits and seem to have the most lasting impression on our fellow man.
‘Trying to Lead by Example’
Saint Therèse of Lisieux and Mother Teresa both spoke of the power of this simple path: the practice of small acts of kindness, forbearance, and charity.
This kind of leadership, of course, is not always easy or gratifying. We know it is often difficult to work hard, exhibit politeness, remain honest, and so forth. We are bound to lose our patience with others or show some selfishness on occasion, but vigilance with respect to the small matters of life often demands self-sacrifice.
Honesty, charity, and responsibility can, in other words, come at a price. We will, at times, simply lack the determination to bear the cost.
Trying to lead by example is a humbling experience because we see firsthand how easily we succumb to our own weaknesses. But this humility, in turn, helps us to understand the plight of others and makes us a little more willing to come to the aid of the less fortunate, whose challenges are far greater than ours.
It may well be that it is more difficult today than years ago to lead by example when there is no discernible, immediate benefit or gratification.
This may be especially true at this time in our history when it appears customary to expect some personal gain or some personal gratification from our actions.
So it is entirely conceivable that, in a culture that now places such an emphasis on instant gratification, it is easier to fall prey to the tendency only to practice virtue that results in some immediate benefit to us.
But what happens, for example, when forgiveness is encouraged primarily, or only, because it makes us feel better or feel good? Or when we think of charity principally in terms of how good it makes us feel about ourselves? Or when we place less of a premium on simple manners and basic morals because there are more important things at hand to worry about?
Practicing virtue only when it makes us feel good or when it is convenient somehow does not quite sound virtuous—unless, of course, one can say that self-interest or some psychic rewards are themselves virtues.
Somehow, we know almost intuitively that neither of these is a virtue and that the real road to virtue, especially in today’s climate, can be lined with seemingly pointless and thankless drudgery. Doing good deeds and hard work, day in and day out, for the good of others, as well as for our own good, is habit-forming and ultimately builds character for them and for us.
The Temptation of Victimhood
I know that there has been much important debate lately about the broader cultural war—the preoccupation with self-indulgence and other vices.
Many recently published books, a number of them written by friends and people whom I greatly admire, paint a grim and sober picture of our culture. Having a serious discussion about the global problems besetting our leading institutions in popular culture is no doubt very, very valuable.
Nevertheless, we must not lose sight of the fact that each individual has his own battle to wage for control of his own soul and to attain character.
Each time we are unwilling to pay the price of assuming responsibility or demonstrating charity because of our own self-interest, our own self-indulgence, or our lack of virtue, we mortgage—for some tiny amount of gratification—our souls, our culture.
Perhaps we lose our own moral compass and fall prey to broader cultural vices. At the very least, we no longer are the kind of beacon to help our fellow man discover the path to virtue.
Samuel Smiles, the British author of an enormously influential book from the Victorian era [titled] “Self-Help with Illustrations of Conduct,” made this point quite powerfully when he said: “National progress is the sum of individual industry, energy, and uprightness as national decay is of individual idleness, selfishness, and vice. What we are accustomed to decry as great social evils will, for the most part, be found to be but the outgrowth of man’s own perverted life.”
Don’t Let Circumstances Control You
As I conclude, I note that there is an important lesson here.
We all have a tendency to attack the powerful institutions of our society as the source of the moral decay in our culture. Sometimes, the rhetoric sounds as though we believe our communities are under assault by the popular press, the universities, and the entertainment industry.
Though that may be true, we must be careful not to succumb to the temptation to be victims while simultaneously requiring virtuous conduct on the part of the less fortunate—including, I might add, that they not be victims and that they take responsibility for themselves.
We have it within us to influence the many lives we do and should touch every day, including our own lives.
As Thomas à Kempis wrote more than 500 years ago, “Control circumstances, and do not allow them to control you. Only so can you be a master and ruler of your own actions, not their servant or slave, a free man.”
Though a free society permits character to flourish, the society itself will not survive without people of character who can foster virtue through example.
As Edmund Burke rightly observed, “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites.”
Burke understood, in other words, that a free society depends upon ordinary citizens demonstrating honesty, integrity, sobriety, and forbearance.
That, in the words of Hippolyte Taine, “[E]very man [be] his own constable.” So long as there are people of character who have the will to lead and have faith in our fellow man, there is hope that we will remain a free, prosperous nation.
So, in answer to the cynically asked and perhaps rhetorical question of recent vintage—”Does character matter?”—the answer is emphatically: “Yes. Character is all that matters. Our character.”
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