Perhaps the best cure for the fear of death is to reflect that life has a beginning as well as an end. There was a time when we were not: this gives us no concern – why then should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be? I have no wish to have been alive a hundred years ago, or in the reign of Queen Anne: why should I regret and lay it so much to heart that I shall not be alive a hundred years hence, in the reign of I cannot tell whom?
I was first introduced to Hazlitt as a graduate student in philosophy while studying theories of diachronic personal identity. Hazlitt’s more philosophical essays are not read much these days and this has a lot to due with the fact that he published between David Hume and Immanuel Kant. As a result, he is better known for his social commentary than his philosophical works. What I find exciting in Hazlitt’s work is the combination of an analytical approach within an experientially-based narrative.
Hazlitt asks us to think about our attitudes towards both the past and the future. He sees an inconsistency between the anticipation of a point in the future when we cease to be as opposed to the point in the past when we ceased to be. How should we explain this inconsistency? Both attitudes are acts of the imagination. We have to imagine ourselves at some point in the future and we also must imagine ourselves in the past. Hazlitt suggests that the inconsistency is at its root irrational. I find this to be very comforting. Could it be that our fear of death is in part socially constructed; in other words, that it is the result of living in a society which emphasizes the future? I wonder if it is possible to condition an individual to worry as much about the past as we do about the future. Again, both are functions of the imagination. Perhaps this inconsistency connects to the psychological pull of a universe that we believe is here for each of us. We find it difficult to imagine a future without us in it. Interesting again that we don’t seem to have this concern about the point in the past where we do not yet exist. Imagine for a moment that we cold anticipate the future filled-in and see the point where we no longer existed. Would this change our attitude towards the future significantly? Perhaps it would make us more fearful knowing when our time was up, but again, we have access to the same information in reference to the past. Back to Hazlitt:
People walk along the streets the day after our deaths just as they did before, and the crowd is not diminished. While we were living, the world seemed in a manner to exist only for us, for our delight and amusement, because it contributed to them. But our hearts cease to beat, and it goes on as usual, and thinks no more about us than it did in our lifetime. The million are devoid of sentiment, and care as little for you or me as if we belonged to the moon. We live the week over in the Sunday’s newspaper, or are decently interred in some obituary at the month’s end. It is not surprising that we are forgotten so soon after we quit this mortal stage: we are scarcely noticed, while we are on it. It is not merely that our names are not known in China – they have hardly been heard of in the next street. We are hand and glove with the universe, and think the obligation is mutual. This is an evident fallacy.
I can’t help but think about my recent post regarding our strong desire to identify with and find meaning in the lives of our Civil War ancestors. Their experiences seem larger than life and the issues involved, we believe, were significant. Along the way we make personal and ideological connections, some based on evidence, but many spun by a strong desire for a heroic story that not only validates the historic figure’s life, but our own as well. Perhaps in identifying so strongly with individuals from the past – regardless of whether they are related to us or not – we are looking to find meaning in our own lives. In other words, if their lives mattered than perhaps ours do as well..
Today was one of those days I live for as a teacher. Over the course of this past year I’ve been working on an independent study that focuses on how the Civil War has been remembered and commemorated here in Charlottesville, Virginia with Joseph Wolf, who is one of my students. We met on a weekly basis to discuss various secondary sources that included books by David Blight, Kirk Savage, Thomas Brown, David Goldfield, John Neff, and Gary Gallagher, to name just a few. In addition, Joseph and I explored the roles of the local chapters of the SCV and UDC and read through a number of their publications. Joseph’s main focus was to analyze the equestrian statues at Lee and Jackson parks along with our two soldier monuments, located at the courthouse and Confederate cemetery at the University of Virginia.
As part of his project Joseph presented his research today during lunchtime to a packed classroom of teachers and students. He did a fabulous job of explaining the role of Charlottesville during the Civil War, the evolution of the Lost Cause, and the conditions that led to the four monuments. Best of all, Joseph did an outstanding job of analyzing the monuments for the audience as well as fielding their questions. It’s been an absolute pleasure working with this student. As a sophomore Joseph took my elective on Lincoln and as a junior he took my survey course in American history along with my elective courses on the Civil War and Civil War memory.
I have to say, however, that as much as I enjoyed sharing my passion for the Civil War with this student the subject matter is secondary compared with the interpretive skills that were learned and the seriousness that comes with an appreciation of the complexity of the past. It was a pleasure to be able to sit their with everyone else and watch Joseph as he educated the audience. He was in command.
Joseph has decided to continue his education at the University of South Carolina where he will major in history. Luckily for Joseph, Thomas Brown teaches in the History Department. It’s safe to say that Joseph will graduate high school with an understanding of the Civil War that rivals, if not surpasses, students who are about to graduate from college. I wish Joseph all the best in his future endeavors. Keep an eye out for this kid.
[Image: Unveiling of Jackson Statue at Jackson Park in Charlottesville, Virginia]
I have admitted more than once that I don’t have any direct ties to the Civil War generation and no doubt it shapes, to a certain extent, the way I approach this particular period in American history. In contrast I am struck by the level of intimacy that so many claim when talking or writing about an ancestor that fought in the Civil War. Of course, living and teaching here in Virginia and blogging mainly about the history and memory of the American South influences the kinds of stories that I come across. At times I don the hat of a historian and ask follow-up questions about evidence, but more often than not I listen to the story as an expression of how the individual in question chooses to engage and remember the past. Often times I find that the stories reflect a set of cultural values or work to comfort the individual storyteller and family members.
Recently, I viewed two episodes of the NBC Show, “Who Do You Think You Are,” which follows celebrities as they research their pasts. It’s essentially a rip-off of Henry Louis Gates’s successful PBS series. The two episodes followed Matthew Broderick and Spike Lee and both related directly to the Civil War and slavery. I will leave it to you to watch if interested, but what struck me in both shows was that when push comes to shove we know very little about our ancestors. Most of us do not have family records on hand such as letters or other legal documents. Websites like Ancestry.com have clearly grown in popularity, but I suspect that the number of users is relatively small.
But if that doesn’t make the point I’ll go even further and suggest that most of us don’t even really know our own family members that are currently living. How many of us really know the histories of our parents and grandparents? I am talking about something that gets us beyond the basic narrative outline. Barring a family member’s early death we could get at some of these questions if we were truly interested. A couple of years ago my grandmother gave me a collection of letters written between her and my grandfather from the 1940s that you can see in the above photograph. My grandfather’s auxiliary hats are included along with some wonderful vintage birthday and Mother’s Day cards. It’s an incredible collection, but I do feel just a little uncomfortable about prying into my grandmother’s personal life. Many of these letters were written while the two of them were separated by the war and a few of them date to their courtship. I’ve talked with my grandmother on occasion about the Great Depression and other events, but I still admit to knowing relatively little about her life.
This is a roundabout way of getting to my main point, which is that most of you with ancestors who fought in the Civil War don’t know a damn thing about them. You don’t know what they thought about slavery, secession, Lee, Jackson, Lincoln, Sherman, emancipation, defeat, victory or anything else for that matter. Without an opportunity to talk directly with them or the benefit of some written document your claim to know why they fought is about as valid as your claim to know why any random individual fought. You just happened to be lucky enough to fall within the same family tree. Your tendency to be offended by a claim about Civil War soldiers or anyone else from that time tells us everything about how you remember the past and nothing about how your ancestor might respond.
The other thing that stood out in the two programs was the difficulty that both men experienced when confronted with a past that they had not anticipated or even understood as possible. How many of our own claims about our ancestors would go up in flames when confronted with some solid historical evidence? Would we be surprised? Is it possible that we might have no idea of how to assess or make sense of their lives? Perhaps the lesson here is that if we are going to “bear witness” to the lives of our ancestors we should first be willing to take a few steps in their direction.
This is one of my all-time favorite Western fight scenes. You just gotta love Jack Palance as “Jack Wilson” in the movie, Shane (1953). I know this is no way to mark the day that Stonewall Jackson died on May 10, 1863, but you can just attribute it to the fact that I am a “low down lying Yankee.”