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Lee the Philosopher

This essay was originally published in The Georgia Review, Vol. II, No. 3 (Fall 1948), 297-303.

As the Civil War assumes increasingly the role of an American Iliad, a tendency sets in for its heroes to take on Fixed characterizations. Epithets of praise and blame begin to recur, and a single virtue usurps the right to personify the individual. In the course of these formations, Robert E. Lee has emerged perhaps too exclusively as soldier and pater­familias. These careers were central in his life, but they do not exhaust the man. Lee transcended some extremely difficult situations, which must have mastered him had he not been, in addition to warrior and patrician, an intellect.

One understands readily why he has invited the customary approach. It is natural to see him first as the military genius, or as the soldier, or as the personally attractive leader of a lost cause. Under the influence of these images, however, it has proved tempting to picture him as a somewhat passive embodiment of the culture of his region. He can be made to appear a natural expression of the Virginia patri­archy, and, because natural, neither creative nor thoughtful. Yet if Lee had remained merely the product of the kind of training he received, he would have been unequipped to penetrate the surfaces about him.

It is to be strongly suspected that the unflattering portrait of Lee’s son at Harvard given by Henry Adams in the Education has been allowed to reflect upon the father and to deepen this impression. Adams pictured young “Roony” Lee as little more than a healthy animal. “He was simple beyond analysis,” the critical New Englander reported, and “no one knew enough to know how ignorant he was.” The description went on to conclude that “Strictly, the Southerner had no mind; he had temperament.” Adams was shrewd, and his prejudices were not of the parochial kind. I would give him credit for some true insights in certain parts of this sketch. Yet I would maintain that whatever the case of the son, the father had enough intellectual endowment to attain a wisdom. Dr. Freeman, in his massive biography, insists that the keynote of Lee’s character was simplicity, but this is not at all incompatible with greatness of mind. On the contrary the two united to produce the symmetria prisca, the proud symmetry of personality, which made him illustrious. Lee seems in fact to have been capable of profound thought upon those subjects which engaged his attention, though a reticence, partly professional and partly temperamental, leaves us but little to analyze. He comes to us, as the early Ionians come to the modern historian of philosophy, in “fragments.”

If we examine Lee first upon the art at which he sin passed, we find a curiously dispassionate understanding not just of the technique, but of the place of war in the life of civilized man. Napoleon too was a philosopher of battle, but his utterances are marred by cynicism. Those of Lee have always the saving grace of affirmation. Let us mount with the general the heights above Fredericksburg and hear from him one of the most searching observations ever made. It is contained in a brief remark, so innocent-seeming, yet so disturbing, expressed as he gazed upon the field of slain on that December day. “It is well this is terrible; otherwise we should grow fond of it.”

What is the meaning? It is richer than a Delphic saying.

Here is a poignant confession of mankind’s historic ambiva­lence toward the institution of war, its moral revulsion against the immense destructiveness, accompanied by a fascination with the “greatest of all games.” As long as people relish the idea of domination, there will be those who love this game. It is fatuous to say, as is being said now, that all men want peace. Men want peace part of the time, and part of the time they want war. Or, if we may shift to the single individual, part of him wants peace and another part wants war, and it is upon the resolution of this inner struggle that our prospect of general peace depends, as MacArthur so wisely observed upon the decks of the Missouri. The cliches of modern thought have virtually obscured this commonplace of human psychology, and world peace programs take into account ev­erything but this tragic Haw in the natural man—the tempta­tion to appeal to physical superiority. There is no political structure which knaves cannot defeat, and subtle analyses of the psyche may prove of more avail than schemes for world parliament. In contrast with the empty formulations of pro­pagandists, Lee’s saying suggests the concrete wisdom of a parable.

Sandburg has remarked that Lee, despite his Christian piety, loved a good fight. In this I believe he is correct, but whether Lee loved it more than any other man loves an ex­citing contest at which he knows he can excel may be doubted. To Lee, as to Washington before him, the whistle of bullets made a music, and the natural man responded. But his obser­vation rebukes the natural man and tells him that further considerations are involved. Thus Lee, at the height of his military fortunes, recognizes the attraction of the dread ar­bitrament, but at the same time sees the moral implications. Coming from one who delivered mighty strokes of war, the observation is itself a feat of detachment.

Most important of all, Lee seems to have felt that it is possible for civilization to war, or to go on existing in the presence of war if self-control is not entirely lost. To many persons “civilized warfare” is anomalous, but it is not truly so except for the war of unlimited objectives. The deeper the foundations of a civilization, the more war seems to be formalized or even ritualized, and the failure to hold it within bounds is a sign of some antecedent weakening on the part of that civilization. This explains why Lee always operated with a certain restraint which, some have affirmed, cause him to fall short of maximum success in the field. There is great ethical encouragement in this knowledge. To him as to a number of grave thinkers the touchstone of conduct is how one wields power over others. Whether modern invention has made all restraints of this kind a quaint delusion is something that fearfully remains to be seen.

If it is one kind of blindness to assume that man is made for war, it may be another kind to assume that he can remain indifferent to the drama of conflict. And so, if our world of peace is ever to behold the light of day, it will probably be after we have found something like William James’s moral equivalent of war. Those in quest of the substitute could well begin their reflections with Lee’s text, which seems to have the right proportions of realism and moralism.

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