Excelsior, Brothers and Sisters

This Saturday was the fiftieth anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death – that providential man who, more than any other figure, kept Hitler’s Third Reich from an even longer and more murderous run. He also, in a famous speech in Fulton, Missouri, first named the Iron Curtain and the Cold War. We’ve long lacked leaders of such courage and clarity.

But there are deeper reasons for remembering Churchill. Witness this lecture last Thursday by my friend Leon Kass. A physician and ethicist (former head of the President’s Commission on Bioethics), as well as a long-time professor at the University of Chicago, Kass gives a fascinating reading of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, making the case that, if we seek a candidate for Aristotle’s “great-souled man,” we might well look to Churchill.

The whole notion of being “great-souled” encounters considerable headwinds, of course, in our culture, since we believe little in the soul and perhaps even less in greatness. One of Kass’s central points is that democracies, valuable as they sometimes are, tend to denigrate the idea that anyone is better than anyone else, and this democratic envy, to give the thing its right name, is crippling to our souls.

Aristotle’s Ethics and the virtue tradition it helped develop have long shaped moral discourse both in the Church and the West (and via Maimonides and al-Farabi, among Jews and Muslims). Aquinas’ commentary on the Ethics brings the pagan and Christian traditions into a brilliant harmony. But few today are familiar with it. And it’s no wonder that we, Christians and not, therefore rarely embrace Aristotle’s – and Churchill’s – aspirations to greatness.

Indeed, Christians often look askance as such aspirations. Some, out of false humility (which the pagan Aristotle already understood as a vice), think doing great things should not be a goal for followers of Jesus (who did many great things). So we get an almost automatic dismissal of those who aspire to great things, whether in politics, business, or art.

This dismissal stems from a subtle confusion: that Christianity is above such things, even as Christians should remain humbly below them, as if the world had no place in Christian life. It’s true that no Christian should merely pursue fame and approval. Jesus denounces that kind of honor-seeking.

But every Christian ought to seek to do great things, because we are called to follow a great Way. It was St. John Paul II – also a great-souled man – who often urged young people not to settle for mediocrity. Put positively: A Christian must seek, not a low passivity, but even greater things than others do, even in this world.

We often hear today, unfortunately even from the pulpit, that “God loves us just as we are.” This is a central Christian truth, properly understood, meaning that even when we were (are) in our sins, Christ came to save us.

Churchill and a pet photographed by Mark Kauffman, 1950 [Time-Life/Getty Images]
Churchill and a pet photographed by Mark Kauffman, 1950 [Time-Life/Getty Images]
            But it obviously does not mean that God loves the way we are. Anyone with a smidgen of self-knowledge and capacity for thought knows that. By some diabolical school of sophistry, however, we have a teaching new to the entire history of the world: that everyone is fine (maybe businessmen and neo-conservatives excepted) just the way they are.

This is where figures like Churchill – let alone saints and sages – are helpful to us. Almost all were men and women of great practical action as well as contemplation.As Chesterton says of St. Francis of Assisi:

If we mean by what is practical what is most immediately practicable, we merely mean what is easiest. In that sense St. Francis was very impractical, and his ultimate aims were very unworldly. But if we mean by practicality a preference for prompt effort and energy over doubt or delay, he was very practical indeed.

For all our more superficial activity, that larger-souled sense of practical urgency seems all but absent from us today.

Churchill was a great man of action. He held several high government posts in Britain before becoming Prime Minister. In almost every instance, by hard work and careful attention to detail, he tackled sluggish bureaucracies and made them serve large purposes. His wartime leadership was without equal in modern times, partly because he believed so passionately in what he was doing and knew it took human effort and courage to make it a reality.

That spilled over into those now-familiar phrases from his great speeches. Who would not have been moved by this after France has fallen: ““Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’” There’s been nothing so heroic in English since St. Crispin’s Day in Shakespeare’s Henry V.

Yet Churchill was also a prodigious thinker and writer: his magnificent history of World War II is nearly twice as long as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And in addition to thousands of articles, and 500 speeches in Parliament, he wrote more than forty books. Good books. (His novel Savrola will soon be republished with annotations by our colleague Patrick Powers). A considerable output for anyone, let alone someone who spent so much time and energy in military and public service.

In whatever he touched, Churchill was a tireless worker despite bouts of depression – an odd combination he seems to have shared with Mother Theresa. He possessed a preternatural capacity to accept his own errors, failures, and downturns without dwelling on them. Instead, he moved quickly onto the next challenge, with good cheer and a great sense of humor. According to accounts, he passed away about as peacefully as a human being can. As he once said, “never flinch, never weary, never despair.”

There are other, even higher virtues, to be sure. Greatness of soul extends far beyond this mortal coil. But most of us would do well if we could awaken ourselves to aspire to even a portion of so much.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.