New Year, Déjà Vu

It was New Year’s Eve, with this new thing, a television set, and I was allowed to stay up, waiting for midnight, with a sip of champagne, as Ed Sullivan in New York did the countdown. And here it was: 1950! Mid-century, and hope was abounding.

What we would ever after call “the war” had ended five years earlier. A Republican Congress had started rolling back rationing and price controls, and so goods began appearing again on shelves, along with new household appliances, and with consumers having the money now to buy them.

Walter Winchell, in a time of rationing, had a wartime poem:  “Roses are red/Violets are blue/sugar is sweet – Remember?” Bob Hope had pointed out that President Roosevelt had four secret servicemen hanging on his car – one to guard each tire. Now there was a sense of plenty again, with new possibilities in the air.

But 1950 would see the beginning of a new war in Korea, with other wars to come as the century staggered to its end. We would see the breakthrough in the courts for civil rights, and anyone alive in that earlier time would recognize the notably different ways in which blacks and whites are together now in public.  

But then we had the convulsion and corruption of the campuses; and the courts, swollen with a sense of mission, brought us the revival of “child sacrifice.” We would have a new license now for people to destroy their own offspring if their advent would impede their careers or unsettle their lives.

And so we’ve had striking material progress, attended by a culture becoming all the more vulgar and, at critical points, debased.

In one of his plays, Tom Stoppard has a character remark, in the spirit of Scarlett O’Hara, that, “Tomorrow, after all, is another day!” To which another character responds, “No, I find that tomorrow is usually the same day.”  

There has been for a long while a run of utopian films in which earthlings find refuge on another planet after “mankind” succeeded in blowing up the one we had. The curious assumption was that those forked, fallen creatures, somewhere between angels and animals, displaced to another planet, would somehow avoid the conflicts over right and wrong, the passions for good and ill, that led to the cataclysmic war on earth.

           Churchill: Material progress cannot bring comfort to the soul

Winston Churchill once had an essay called “Fifty Years Hence,” in which he imagined a people who had “mastered nature.” They lived as long as they chose, they “navigated interplanetary spaces,” and “enjoyed pleasures and sympathies incomparably wider than our own.” And yet, as Churchill asked, “what was the good of all that to them? What did they know more than we know about the answer to the simple questions which man has asked since the earliest dawn of reason – ‘Why are we here?  What is the purpose of life? Whither are we going?’”

As Churchill understood, those questions traced back to those ancient cities of Jerusalem and Athens. In the vein of Churchill, Benedict XVI reminded us in his address for the new year that the finiteness of life sharpens that question to us of why we are here:  What animating purpose has been disclosed in the unfolding of our lives?

Picking up again on Churchill, Professor Harry Jaffa observed that the most remarkable thing we could discover in exploring other planets . . . is the presence of people like ourselves.  Not people “capable of interplanetary travel, but other beings capable of asking the ‘simple questions.’”

In that case, why wait for travel to another galaxy – why not ask them ourselves now? And as Jaffa himself asked, “Where can we look with better hope, for a light wherewith to lighten this mystery, than that which came forth, in olden times, from Athens and Jerusalem?”

The late Dr. Joseph Stanton in Boston used to tell us in the pro-life movement that if all of our exertions have managed to save even one life, or a handful of lives, none of this work would have been in vain. As the old line from the Mishnah had it, he who “saves one life saves the world.”

We don’t know how all of this will play out, but as sages have pointed out, if we could predict the future – if we could know that we are on the winning side – there would never be a need for courage.

But even without knowing how things will play out, we do know the wrongness here and now of taking innocent lives – and the sure rightness of what we can justly do now in protecting those lives. In a world getting morally coarser in every corner, we can still affirm the redeeming goodness of life.

In a remarkable reflection, Churchill took the enduring presence of those moral questions as the evidence of a reality to our lives that runs beyond the sparkle of material progress, whether in autos or the Internet. For what the questions reveal is that this material “progress” cannot deliver us from the old questions; it cannot, as Churchill said, “bring comfort to [the] soul.”

“It is this fact,” he wrote, “more wonderful than any Science can reveal, which gives the best hope that all will be well.”


Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.