“There are many sorts of letters. But there is one unmistakable sort, which actually caused letter-writing to be invented in the first place, namely the sort intended to give people in other places any information which for our or their sake they ought to know.” (emphasis mine)
– Cicero writing letter to Gaius Scribonius, 59 B.C.
Ours is a day and age of incredible technological achievement. We are witnesses to daily strides in medicines, a revolution in genetics, computerized advances in manufacturing and transportation, and even ominous progress in military capabilities. It seems, however, that the growth in communication technology has been the most life-changing phenomena. With unparalleled speed and ease, we can reconnect with our most dislocated family members or achieve instant community with like-minded enthusiasts of whatever interest. Whether by email or twitter, Skype or facetime, texting or Facebook, our lives and our relationships will never be the same. And this is… for the best, right? Well, perhaps. At risk of sounding disconsolate, something has been lost in the process of easing our lives. That something is the art of letter-writing.
Our era has little patience anymore. We have become spoiled – overindulged by the variety of instantaneous communication available to us, pampered by billions of resources accessible within seconds on our smart phones, coddled by the ability to selfishly choose to isolate ourselves among the like-minded and the like-minded alone. Is it surprising that there is little wistfulness by most people to return to the letter-writing art – an art that is slower, more painstaking, and more self-sufficient than the modern alternatives? And yet, a simple look at the legacy of letter-writing (and its writers) can make us more appreciative of the enduring value it has played in our culture.
Without letter-writing, we wouldn’t have the immortal exchange of St. Thomas More and Erasmus (54 surviving letters) in which, near the eve of his execution, More famously states, “I do not care very much what men say of me, provided that God approves of me.”. Winston Churchill would successfully court an isolationist American President with a respectful, nuanced, and steady stream of correspondence (nearly 2000 letters) such as this from an exceedingly vulnerable moment in World War II, “We expect to be attacked here ourselves, both from the air and by parachute and air borne troops in the near future, and are getting ready for them. If necessary, we shall continue the war alone and we are not afraid of that. But I trust you realize, Mr. President, that the voice and force of the United States may count for nothing if they are withheld too long.” Edmund Burke writing to French aristocrat Charles-Jean-Francois Depont ignited a firestorm of debate upon writing, “But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.” in letters that would become the immortalized Reflections on the Revolution in France.
Without letter-writing, we would not have Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters from a Nazi prison which realized, “It is much easier to see a thing through from the point of view of abstract principle than from that of concrete responsibility.”. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s letter from Birmingham jail which warned that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”. Abraham Lincoln’s “Bixby letter” to the mother of 5 fallen Civil War soldiers that palpably ached, “I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.” George Kennan’s “Long Telegram”, Ronald Reagan’s letter, Napoleon and Josephine’s love letters, and the Adams-Jefferson correspondence. And perhaps the greatest of letter-writers, the Apostles Peter and Paul.
Letter-writing requires deliberation because it is putting ink to paper in a way that seems more personal and yet more permanent. It require empathy as one more thoughtfully anticipates the response of the recipient . Finally, it requires patience as an answer may not be forthcoming for days to weeks. Deliberation, empathy, and patience are not the watchwords associated with emails, texts, and tweets. How sad.
Thank God so many people throughout history lacked our technology and had the passion and fortitude to complete these nearly immortalized works. To paraphrase Cicero, how wonderful that they felt there was something “we ought to know”.