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Defend Civilization Itself

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An excerpt from a worthy commencement address by Mark Helprin, “Defend Civilization Itself,” delivered at Hillsdale College on May 24, 2002:

I ask you to join this brotherhood, and, in your own way, whatever that may be, to defend and champion the sanctity of the individual, free and objective inquiry, government by consent of the governed, freedom of conscience, and the pursuit — rather than the degradation and denial — of truth and of beauty. I ask you to defend a civilization so buoyant with the presence of God that it need never compel others in His name. I ask you to defend a civilization that rather than deliberately obscuring the difference between combatants and non-combatants, struggles to maintain and respect it. I ask you to defend a civilization of immeasurable achievement, brilliance, and freedom. I ask you to defend civilization itself.

HT: Professor Plum’s EducatioNation

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • john

    Too bad Helperin too often defines defending civilization with expanding the warfare state, providing intellectual justification for pre-emtive invasion, and using other people’s children to do the dirty work of his so-called “defensive” empire. This guy is nothing but a propagandist for the military-industrial complex, and a good one at that. His is a recipe for de-civilization, and his speaking at Hillsdale shows how much that school has moved from the classical liberal ideals that sell so well in its promotional advertising.

    Surely Lord Acton would see through this. So would Hayek. And Mises. Why don’t you?

  • Not being well-versed in Mark Helperin’s corpus, I don’t have the insight into his work that you seem to have.

    I understood the speech itself to refer to the war of ideas rather than military war. I don’t find any explicit correlation between “defending civilization and expanding the warfare state” in the speech, but I surely don’t have the interpretive acumen of the luminaries you mention (and how much less the acumen of you yourself).

    Ad hominem attacks too often pass for learned discourse. To label Helperin “nothing but a propagandist for the military-industrial complex” does nothing to answer the positions he takes or the arguments he makesin the address.

  • The key issues are evil and the proper response to it.

    Does evil exist? If not, than “fighting evil” is silly. The peace-appeasment folk, often under the guise of multi-culturalism, act as if evil is a quaint superstition, that modern sophisticates can easily live without.

    If evil does exist, than there is the question of the proper human response to it. The problem with war is that, to support war means to support the inevitable killing of innocents. The problem of anti-war is that it means acceptance of evil regimes killing innocents, usually in much greater numbers.

    How many have to be murdered in Darfur before war is more moral than anti-war? Were Clinton and Kofi Annan (head of UN peacekeeping) correct in anti-war when the Hutus began and continued their attacks? Was FDR wrong to send Americans to their death at Normandy to fight Hitler?

    What is the pro-civilization method for fighting evil?

  • As I read the address itself, Mark says about Ivy League folk who seem like John:
    “to take the position that human sacrifice and cannibalism are wrong is not only to reject relativism but to place oneself decisively in the ranks of Western Civilization, such a position being one of its characteristic distinctions, and this they would not do.”

    Dictarship of Relativism is what Pope Benedict calls it; PC thought police.

  • john

    Liberty Dad, Helperin isn’t simply writing about siding with western civ in opposing human sacrifice and cannibalism. That’s easy. He is talking about conscripting your son to fight what the government defines as human sacrifice and cannibalism. I thought that anyone who was mildly familiar with Helperin’s essays in the WSJ editorial page over the last 15 years would know as much.

  • John, are you talking “Helperin” as you write, or “Helprin” (one e) as in the article cited? (I see this issue as I google Helperin, as I would have written it had I wrote it. Lucky for me I didn’t)

    Maybe Mark H. is wrong about the draft in other areas (cite??? this is a blog, please link, like to his stuff, like
    this very hawk pro-war piece).

    I think Mark’s cited Defend Civilization, is valuable and important. When you, John, add the “draft”, I note that defense is particularly susceptible to the Free Rider problem. The draft, and even taxation by the “gov’t defenders” of the city, was based on making sure everybody paid a “fair share” of the defense cost.

    All of Europe has been getting, and wants to continue to get, a free rid. Europe knows it’s free riding, and wants to deny it, and its denial of its lazy free ridership on defense comes across as anti-Americanism, and anti-War.

    I find the lack of defense for civilization far more de-civilizing than the military-industrial complex, though I admit it’s a problem, too.