Success unsettles the principles even of the wise, and scarcely would those of debauched habits use victory with moderation.
Last Saturday Dr. Ben Carson, Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, received the Ford’s Theatre Lincoln Medal. In his speech marking the occasion, President Bush said that Carson has “a tireless commitment to helping young people find direction and motivation in life. He reminds them that all of us have gifts by the grace of the almighty God. He tells them to think big, to study hard, and to put character first” (emphasis added).
One of Carson’s themes in his speeches and writings is the comparison of America to Rome, in that the latter foundered when its basic morals were corrupted. America, says Carson, is at a crisis point similar to Rome in the centuries before its decline (for a study of the move from “virtue” to “values” and beyond in the modern West, see Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The De-moralization Of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values).
The Roman historian and politician Sallust wrote of the situation in the first century BC in his first published work, The Conspiracy of Catiline,
When wealth was once considered an honor, and glory, authority, and power attended on it, virtue lost her influence, poverty was thought a disgrace, and a life of innocence was regarded as a life of ill-nature. From the influence of riches, accordingly, luxury, avarice, and pride prevailed among the youth; they grew at once rapacious and prodigal; they undervalued what was their own, and coveted what was another’s; they set at naught modesty and continence; they lost all distinction between sacred and profane, and threw off all consideration and self-restraint.
It furnishes much matter for reflection, after viewing our modern mansions and villas extended to the size of cities, to contemplate the temples which our ancestors, a most devout race of men, erected to the Gods. But our forefathers adorned the fanes of the deities with devotion, and their homes with their own glory, and took nothing from those whom they conquered but the power of doing harm; their descendants, on the contrary, the basest of mankind have even wrested from their allies, with the most flagrant injustice, whatever their brave and victorious ancestors had left to their vanquished enemies; as if the only use of power were to inflict injury.
Lord Acton was another historian who felt that part of the discipline’s interpretive craft was to render moral judgments about events in human history.
Following his appointment as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, in a lecture on the study of history in 1895, Lord Acton urged his audience “never to debase the moral currency or to lower the standard of rectitude, but to try others by the final maxim that governs your own lives, and to suffer no man and no cause to escape the undying penalty which history has the power to inflict on wrong.”
Commentator Perez Zagorin judges that Acton’s “claim that moral judgment on past crimes and misdeeds is one of the supreme duties of the historian was at odds with the entire trend of historiography in his time and set him apart by its rigor from all the noted historians and thinkers about history of his own generation and thereafter.”
But how, after all, can we learn not to repeat the mistakes of the past if we are unwilling or unable to make moral judgments?