Lee the Philosopher

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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.

As one studies Lee’s opinions of the events of the angry sixties, it becomes evident that he understood the tendency of the mass mentality of war as only the most expert manipulators of modern propaganda have come to understand it, though his knowledge prompted a different kind of action. He knew that the mind of a people at war is psychopathic, that it is subject to hysteria and hallucination, that often it cannot tell right from wrong or even friend from foe, that it is likely to prefer revenge to survival. Recurring time and again in his correspondence of the years 1865-70 is the counsel of patience and silence. The two sides had not waited for the cessation of firing to inaugurate the polemic struggle. Generals published their vindications; politicians hastened into print to prove that their courses had been constitutional; publicists of every kind discussed the Northern and Southern ways of life. Amid this din Lee, although constantly importuned, said nothing. He expressed a desire to write a history of the campaigns in Virginia, but the writing was never done, and Gamaliel Bradford is probably right in saying that he shrank from the task. Attempts to engage him in conversation about his battles were met with the remark, “I do not like to think about those years.”

Apparently Lee realized that the sole hope of reconciliation lay in a returning sense of justice, and that this restoration would only be impeded by protest and controversy. “At present, the public mind is not prepared to receive the truth,” he wrote in 1866 to Jubal Early. This statement represented a settled conviction, which he reiterated on numerous occasions. Like the observation dropped at Fredericksburg, it becomes more troubling the longer one reflects on it. Certainly it denies the principle that the voice of the people is at all times the voice of God. It declares rather that the mind of a people, like that of an individual, may become so deranged with anger that it is simply not receptive to the realities. Because this psychopathic mentality cannot interpret objectively, it does not want to hear reason and may be offended by a proposal in proportion as it is reasonable. People must be in a state of grace to listen to the truth, more especially when it comes as a remonstrance. It is perhaps the finest triumph of Lee and the best evidence of that splendid integration of personality which was his that he could thus stand outside the popular passion and predict its end. The tide of feeling had a course to run, and syllogisms offered by victor or vanquished served only to increase the prevailing rancor. “You cannot argue with unreason; you can only describe it,” Santayana has said, and this thought must have lain at the source of Lee’s policy to say nothing until reason had a chance to resume its sway on both sides.

One can scarcely avoid curiosity about Lee’s opinion of war as an instrument of national policy. Since he was a man of reflection, he must have pondered at times its general efficacy. On this question the world of today seems divided into two schools, one maintaining that a war settles everything, and the other that it settles nothing. Lee appears to have been less dogmatic than either. Certainly he was not a Hotspur, rushing to turn the ultima ratio into the prima ratio. In proof of this, we have the letter written to his sister in April, 1861: “Now we are in a state of war which will yield to nothing. . . . I recognize no necessity for this slate of things and would have lot borne and pleaded to the end lot redress of grievances. …” Toward the close of his life, moreover, he began to face frankly the limitations of soldiering as a profession. Since the days of his cadetship, war had been his study; he had no competing interests; nor had his reading carried him fat afield. Yet he had not developed the insulated mind of the professional. During his presidency of Washington College he remarked to Professor Humphreys that the great mistake of his life had been to take a military education. On another occasion he declared that military training does not prepare men for the pursuits of civilian life, an opinion which should be weighed by proponents of its educational value. “It was not by chance,” Dr. Freeman writes of Lee’s days in Lexington, “that he failed to keep step with the superintendent of V.M.I. when the two walked together at the head of the column of cadets.” One may well inquire how many men laureled as he was have challenged the instrumentality of their fame and sought to turn the young toward other courses.

The tendency to see a thing in its moral relationships, to discipline egoistic impulse, and to subordinate self to a communal ideal of conduct appears in Lee’s often quoted saying that duty is the most sublime word in the language. It is fairly certain that he did not intend here the narrow military sense in which a mission is accepted and executed. His conception seems much nearer the celebrated categorical imperative, that sense of obligation to act as one would have others act, out of a love of order and accomplishment. At any rate, duty is what Lee, on the basis of a rather wide experience of men and things, found to be the redeeming virtue. Today we can point out how much would have been saved to the world had the world made this its precept.

I would not represent Lee as a prophet, but as a man who stood close enough to the eternal verities to utter prophecy sometimes when he spoke. He was brought up in the old school, which places responsibility upon the individual, and not upon some abstract social agency. Sentimental humanitarianism manifestly does not speak to language of duty, but of indulgence. The notion that obligations are tyrannies, and that wants, not deserts, should be the measure of what one-gets has by now shown its destructive power. We have tended to ignore the inexorable truth that rights must be earned. Fully interpreted, Lee’s “duty” is the means whereby freedom preserves itself by acknowledging responsibility. Man, then, perfects himself by discipline, and at the heart of discipline lies self-denial. When the young mother brought an infant for Lee to bless, and was told, “teach him he must deny himself,” she was receiving perhaps the deepest insight of his life.

The ideal of duty is related to the quality which above all else gives Lee an antique greatness, his humility. He believed that there is an order of things. That order is providential in the sense that mortal wisdom is not to be compared to infinite wisdom. This truth, however, conveys nothing of fatalism or determinism; the individual is not exempt from exerting his will in the world and seeking to influence the course of things according to his light. Man cannot withdraw; he must weigh and wager, and abide the consequences. To assume that his light is always sufficient is pride. Education is discipline and education is lifelong; indeed, we have Lee’s own statement that no man’s education is completed until his death. If one has respect for the order of things, it is then possible for him to accept failure as instruction rather than as total repudiation. I do not see how Lee’s serenity in the face of crisis and his self-possession in the days of distress can be explained save through this conviction, which is in essence the answer of Christianity to the paradoxes of existence.

As we approach that time at which his education was complete, we are eager to know whether, on the broad issues of this life, he stood with the pessimists or the optimists. This is putting the matter in simple terms, of course; but humanity has a clear mind on this issue; it will not have for its great teachers those who despair of the condition of man. It will read them for excitement; it will utilize them as a corrective, but it will not cherish them as its final oracles. It prefers Aristotle to Diogenes and Augustine to Schopenhauer. It does not wish to hear said, however brilliantly, that life is a tale told by an idiot; it wants an unmistakable, if chastened, recommendation of life.

From this point of view too we may say Lee is philosophically sound. Despite failure in the great effort of his career, and despite a twilight of five years during which, it seemed to Stephen Vincent Benet, “He must have lived with bitterness itself,” he gave no sign of despondency. His expression, we are told, took on a look of settled sadness, but he never allowed feeling to assume control. Whatever of doctrine Lee knew was derived from Christianity, and there we read that God sometimes appoints to men the task of contending and falling in a righteous cause. A few days before Appomattox Lee remarked to General Pendleton that he had never had much hope for Southern independence without some measure of foreign assistance. “But such considerations really made no difference with me. We had, I was satisfied, sacred principles to maintain and rights to defend, for which we were in duty bound to do our best, even if we perished in the endeavor.” All idealism can be represented as quixotic. But Lee has survived in the national mind as a hero in defeat; and it is inconceivable that he could have done so had not his own philosophy accommodated the idea of temporal failure.

Looking upon the fearful wreck of his country and the bewilderment of his compatriots who could see no future, he could say, in words which seem to plumb the depths of man’s destiny: “Human virtue must be equal to human calamity.” Lift up your hearts! A recent historian has declared that Lincoln alone among Americans of the nineteenth century rose to the tragic view of life. Those familiar with the Second Inaugural Address, that strangely troubled document, now remote, again near and intense, now resolute, again hesitantly confronting the problem of evil, will know the grounds. “The prayers of both could not be answered—that of neither has been answered fully.” God in his own mysterious way “gives to both North and South this terrible war. . . .” Lincoln too abjured the right of final judgment. For him the practical human solution was to invoke the healing spirit of charity. In the Second Inaugural, as in the Gettysburg Address, the underlying thought is redemption. The splendid affirmation by Lee should cause us to ask whether he did not share the vision. In both men partisanship seems accident rather than essence. And here perhaps is an explanation why these two, so little resembling in background and walk of life, have been accepted as the worthiest representatives of the contending sections.

When we come to Lee’s final testament, we discover a profession of faith which for courage and spiritual hope deserves to rank with the noblest utterances. For what he composed it we do not know; it was found among his papers and made public first in 1887 by Colonel Charles Marshall at a ceremony of dedication:

My experience of men has neither disposed me to think worse of them, nor indisposed me to serve them; nor, in spite of failures, which I lament, of errors, which 1 now see and acknowledge, or of the present stale of affairs, do I despair of the future. The march of Providence is so slow, and our desires so impatient, the work of progress is so immense, and our means of aiding it so feeble, the life of humanity is so long, and that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave, and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.

It is a rare distillation. If Lee had been a member of that archetypal republic which a great philosopher imagined, with its orders of valor and wisdom, is it not likely that he would have been promoted a grade? I think that he would have risen from warrior to philosopher king.

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