Presentism in the Case of George Washington
Several articles at The Abbeville Institute have rightly criticized a certain approach to history they call ‘presentism’, judging people and events of the past by the circumstances of the present. It strikes us, though, that a recent article on George Washington posted by the Institute has fallen prey to this attitude. In it there is this extraordinary line written by Rufus Griswold:
In moral qualities, the character of Washington is the most truly dignified that was ever presented to the respect and admiration of mankind.
A better example of presentism would be difficult to find, for it ignores all the grand sweeping history of the Orthodox Church, with her holy saints, and judges morality by the standards of Washington’s day, when holiness was very weak. We are not saying Gen Washington was a mediocre man; he was remarkable in a number of ways. However, given the low ebb of religion and morality in the last years of the 18th century, he appears more remarkable than he would have in other ages. Hence, we think, the overly-generous statement of Mr Griswold, and the overlooking of certain indiscretions which would seem to suggest that his statement is not quite accurate, such as his active membership throughout his manhood years in the Freemasons:
There is nothing wrong with honoring the virtues of Gen Washington, but it is quite another thing to deify him the way Yankee-minded folks deify John Brown or Abraham Lincoln. But this is exactly what has been done, in the article linked above, in the Washington City Capitol dome, and elsewhere:
The South, if she wants to be a faithful handmaid of Christ, needs to reconsider this position.
Withal, for those seeking the nourishment of a truly outstanding life of morality and holiness, free of the taint of presentism, we would offer to them the life of the Holy Martyr Gordius (+320, commemorated 3 Jan.) of Caesarea in Cappadocia as told by St Basil the Great (+379, commemorated 1 Jan.), archbishop of that same city, in one of his homilies (for all saints, being united to God and therefore holy, are thus universally relevant for all times and places and peoples). Both of these holy men will be of interest to Southerners. St Gordius, like Gen Washington, was a soldier of high rank, a centurion in the Roman army. St Basil, like many Southerners, was trained in the classical arts, including rhetoric, which he puts to good use in his homily about Martyr Gordius. His homily itself is woven around themes that are deeply ingrained in the Southern character. That is how we will present it here: not the entire thing, but parts of it, each corresponding to one or more of those Southern traits.
A discourse on the appropriate use of rhetoric in the service of memory of and piety towards our forefathers:
Me also, forgetting mine infirmities, the admiration of the martyr hath awakened, and led forth. Let me also raise my voice, according to the measure of mine ability, and murmur around his glorious achievements, as bees around the flowers; at once discharging a debt of piety, and rendering a grateful service to the hearer.* For as we lately read in the sapient discourse of Solomon, "when a righteous man is made the subject of encomium, the people are gladdened." And truly I was doubting in myself, what could be the meaning of these enigmatical expressions. Do they mean, that when an orator or an historian, hath framed a discourse to excite the astonishment of the hearer, led captive by sounds melodious; the people are gladdened, admiring the invention and arrangement of ideas, and the grandeur of a diction that resounds with harmony? Would he have intended this; he who never indulged in such a species of composition? Would he have exhorted us to display the pomp of oratory in the encomiums of the saints; he who every where preferred simplicity of expression, and an unlabored style? What then saith he? That the people are exhilarated with a spiritual joy, at the bare commemoration of the achievements of the righteous; and are stimulated by the recital, to imitate their virtues. For the history of those who have wisely regulated their conduct, shine forth as a beacon to mankind, illuminating the path of their salvation. Wherefore, in the very instant that we hear the Spirit narrating the life, and the deeds of Moses, we are fired with emulation of his virtues; and the meekness of his disposition appears most enviable, and most blessed. The encomiums of worldly men are built up from the accumulated stores of human eloquence; but when we would panegyrize the saints, the mere recital of their achievements suffice to demonstrate the preeminence of their virtue. Thus, when we peruse the lives of those who have beamed resplendent in the hemisphere of virtue; we first glorify the Lord by means of his servants; and then, we applaud the righteous by attesting the truths we know, and we make glad the people, by the narration of their deeds. The life of Joseph allures us to a life of continence, and the exploits of Sampson impel us to acts of heroism. The divine school acknowledges not the law of earthly panegyric; but considered a simple commemoration the substitute for an encomium; at once sufficing to acclaim the righteous, and incite the hearer to virtuous deeds. It is the established mode of panegyric, to trace the country, to enquire the family, and to narrate the education of the person who is magnified; but the sacred encomiast, passing by all adventitious circumstances, filling up his portraiture with the immediate actions of the individual. Am I the more illustrious, because my country formerly sustained a laborious, a mighty war; and raised resplendent trophies of her victory? or because she is so favorably situate, as to be adapted both for a winter, and summer habitation? or because she is prolific in men, and cattle? What benefit accrues thence to me? But in her race of horses, she surpasses every country beneath the heavens!—And will this exalt me in the scale of human excellence? Should we celebrate the loftiness of an adjacent mountain; should we say that it soars above the clouds and invades the skies; we should deceive ourselves, if we imagined that by our praise of the mountain, we were perfecting our encomium of the man. If all the natural world be despised by the saints of God; it is surely most preposterous to consummate their praise, by a small portion of the very things which they contemn. A mere commemoration therefore, suffices as a benefit to the people. No extraneous appendages are requisite that the departed may be honored; but the history of their lives is necessary for imitation, unto us who are alive. As naturally as fire enlightens, and ointments diffuse their fragrance, a benefit resulting from the actions of the good.
Love for one’s native place and people:
It is a matter of no small importance, to acquire an exact knowledge of things which have happened formerly. A certain obscure narration hath been delivered to me, recording the martyr's heroism in the hour of his contestation. And in some measure, our art appears to resemble that of painters. For when they execute a copy of a picture, it falls far short, as we might expect, of the original production; and there is reason to apprehend that we also may obscure the truth, not painting in colors sufficiently glowing, the spectacle of his triumph. But since the day hath arrived, which brings the commemoration of a martyr, of one who nobly combated in the cause of Christ; let me relate what things I know. He was a native of our city; and hence we are the more attached to him, inasmuch as he is our peculiar ornament. For as a tree which bears delicious fruit, to its own country commends the delightful produce; so he, having grown up in our native soil, and attained the very height of glory, bestows on her who bore and nurtured him, the fruits of his own piety. Excellent do we account the fruits even of a foreign country, provided they are both sweet and fitted for our food. But far sweeter is the fruit which grows in our own, our native land; for in addition to the enjoyment, we can boast that it is our own.
The renunciation of a powerful position for a quiet life; seeking God with all of his being:
He was raised to a considerable rank, for he was entrusted with the command of a hundred soldiers; and he was conspicuous among the warriors, both for corporeal strength, and undaunted hardiment. But when the reigning monarch gave such unbounded license to his fell, inhuman spirit, as even to war against the church; when he raised against religion, his God-defying arm; when the mandate was everywhere promulgated and in every forum and every conspicuous place, the imperial edicts were unrolled, commanding that Jesus should not be adored, or that death should be the penalty of such an adoration; . . . for men were ignorant of each other, with so dire a charm did Satan enchant their souls: when houses of prayer were cast down; when altars were overturned, and there was no oblation, and no incense, and the Christian votary was unable to make his offering; for dejection and despair, louring as a cloud, enveloped all: when the worshipers of God were driven from their ruined sanctuary; when every assembly of the pious, was thrilled with dread; and daemons spreading around the defilement of their sacrifices, in hellish chorus rioted through the city—then, this noble combatant, anticipating the judgment of the tribunal, cast off his zone, and became an exile. Despising the pomp of power, despising glory, accumulated wealth, consanguinity, friends, domestics, the enjoyments of life; despising whatever men most earnestly desire, he fled into the bosom of the deepest, and most sequestered solitudes.
For he deemed that to commune with the beasts of the desert, was less barbarous and savage, than communion with the worshipers of idols. He felt, as felt Elijah, who fled to the mountains of Horeb, when he perceived that idolatry was triumphant through Sidonia; and tarried in a cave seeking God; seeking until he found Him whom his soul desired, and as far as a mortal could, beheld Him. Such was Gordius. Fleeing the tumult of the city, the distraction of the town, the pride of power, the tribunals, the informers, the buyers, and the sellers; those who were forsworn, and those who were deceived; the base extortions, the shiftings of character, and those multifarious corruptions,, which like skiffs towed by a mighty vessel, populous cities draw in their train; making pure his ears, rendering pure his eyes, but above all, purified in his heart, that he might see his God, and become blessed; he beheld Him in revelations, he was instructed in the mysteries, "not from man nor by man," but having the Spirit for his mighty teacher. Entering from hence on the contemplation of human life; considering how vain it is, how unproductive, how much emptier than a shadow and a dream; he was more vehemently inflamed with the desire of the heavenly calling.
The beginning of his chivalrous contest with the persecutors of the Christians:
Now, the whole people were collected above the hippodrome, and not a Gentile or a Jew was absent. No small portion of the Christians was mingled with them, who guarded not their lives from sin, but sat in the assemblies of vanity, shunning not the communion of evil doers, but flocking there, to witness the swiftness of the horses, and the skill of the charioteers. Even slaves were permitted to be present; children released from school ran to behold the spectacle; and women of the lower order, thronged the place. The stadium at length was crowded, and everyone was intent on witnessing the contention of the horses.
Then, the illustrious champion, mighty in soul, sublime in resolution, descended from the mountains upon the theatre. He trembled not at the collected multitudes: he reckoned not into how many hostile hands he was about to consign his life; but with undaunted courage, passing those who were seated round the stadium, as if they had been closely-wedged rocks, or interwoven trees, he placed himself in the midst: confirming those words of Solomon, "The just man is confident as a lion." So intrepid, so unappalled his spirit, that standing where all might view him, with voice grandisonous he pronounced that spiritual saying, which was heard by some who are still alive. "I am found by those who do not seek me. I am made manifest unto those who do not enquire for me." Thus it was apparent, that he was not forced into the midst of dangers, but voluntarily exposed himself to the conflict; imitating his Lord, who being unrecognized through the darkness of the night, revealed himself to the Jews. The eyes of the whole theatre were instantaneously fixed on the unwonted prodigy. They beheld a man of aspect wild, and savage, through his long abiding in the mountains: his hair was matted, his beard bushy, his garments squalid, his whole body parched and shriveled: he bore in his hand a staff; a wallet was suspended by his side; and beaming around him from an unknown source, a certain grace ineffable threw a charm upon the whole. As soon as he was recognized, a loud and commingled shout was raised by all; those who were allied to him in faith, crying out for joy; and those who were enemies to the truth, exciting the judge to murder him, and before his trial, condemning him to death. . . .
[Picking up with some of the martyr’s last words] Have you not read that fearful threat? "Whosoever shall deny me before men; him will I deny, before my Father who is in the heavens." And for what, do you advise me thus to counterfeit? Is it that I may acquire aught unto myself by such an artifice? That I may gain a few days respite? But I shall thereby suffer an eternal loss. That I may escape corporeal pain? But then, I shall not behold the retribution of the just. It would be utter madness to die in the practice of deceit; by fraud and stratagem, to labor for an eternal punishment. And now let me counsel you. If your thoughts be evil, repent and seek the paths of holiness. But if ye have accommodated to the occasion; casting off the deceit, proclaim the truth. Declare, that "Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father! This declaration shall every tongue repeat, when "in the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, of the inhabitants celestial, terrestrial, and subterranean." All men are mortals, but few are martyrs. Let us not await the death of nature; but from life, let us ascend to life. Can ye be satisfied with that death which comes spontaneous? It is unfruitful: it yields no profit: it is common to man, and to the brute. Him, who by natural generation enters upon life; either time brings to an end, or disease bows to the grave, or some dire accident destroys. Since then it is appointed to us to die; let it be our studious endeavor to gain life by death. Let that which is an unavoidable event, be the object of your choice. Be not tenacious of that existence, to whose bereavement ye must submit. If terrestrial objects had e'en an eternal duration; we should be eager to exchange them for things celestial. If they endure for a season only; if they be devoid of all that is great, and dignified; awful indeed our infatuation, should we for their sake be severed from that beatitude, which is enshrined in hope.
St Gordius’s final act of chivalry and St Basil’s final evocation of memory:
He spake: he signed himself with the symbol of the cross, and went forward to receive the blow. No fear blanched the hue of his complexion, or dimmed the glory of his countenance. He seemed, not as if he were delivering himself unto the Lictors, but as if consigning himself to the hands of angels; those angels, who in the moment of his liberation, wafted him to the blessed life, as once they wafted Lazarus. But oh! who can describe the terrific shout, which arose from the assembled multitude? What thunder, pealing from the clouds, ever transmitted such a sound to earth, as then thundered from earth to heaven? This is the very stadium in which he was enwreathed. This very day beheld that wondrous spectacle; whose impression, no time can obliterate; no familiarity can weaken; no future achievements can surpass. For as we ever behold the sun, and ever admire his brightness; even so, will the memory of the Martyr be ever blooming and efflorescent. "The just man is for an everlasting memorial;" a memorial with the inhabitants of earth, as long as the earth endures; a memorial with the Saints in Heaven; a memorial with the all-righteous Judge; unto whom be ascribed glory, and dominion, through eternity. Amen.
We have left out a great amount from St Basil’s homily and encourage everyone to read the whole thing, which is not overly long:
Holy Martyr Gordius and Holy Basil, pray for us sinners here at the South!
Holy Ælfred the Great, King of England, South Patron, pray for us sinners at the Souð, unworthy though we are!
Anathema to the Union!