In The National Review, David French takes aim at the Washington, D.C. Metro passengers who looked on, mute and passive, while Kevin Sutherland was stabbed to death. “Knowing what’s right,” he writes, “is the first step to doing what’s right, and when it comes to a crisis, a real man’s definition of success is not ‘I lived’ but rather ‘I fought’… And if we keep raising boys to be sheep, no one will fight for the next victim, either.”
French is an evangelical Christian, but he’s not borrowing the image of sheep from the Gospel. Instead, he’s referring to the famous “Sheep and Sheepdog” speech that divides the world into predatory wolves, protective sheepdogs, and helpless masses of sheep doomed to be preyed upon unless protected. Appearing in the film American Sniper, the speech is a favorite of military and law-enforcement personnel, who see themselves as the sheepdogs.
I don’t like that schema. For one thing, it encourages law-abiding civilians to think of themselves as defenseless, dim-bulb herd animals – exactly what French objects to. More importantly, it does an injustice to the complexities of our two-legged species and the various ends to which it employs violence. During wartime, the line separating partisan from brigand has a way of shrinking almost to invisibility. Even regular troops turn feral – it doesn’t happen often, but it happens. Conversely, for almost 200 years, the French Foreign Legion has proven that the tamer species of wolf can be repurposed for herding duties.
Besides, many acts of violence, like lynchings, lootings, and gang-beatings, are carried out by mobs following a leader or a general impulse. What’s a mob, anyway, but a herd of very angry sheep?
If we want to talk seriously about the use of force by private citizens, we should instead start with the idea of self-love. In the Christian view, self-love is a good thing – provided it’s rightly ordered. Thomas Aquinas defined rightly-ordered self-love is the charitable love that causes people to seek their own good – their own true good. Though this includes physical well-being, its ultimate end is sanctification, the process of becoming holier. A necessary part of self-love is the charitable love of neighbor and the neighbor’s true good. By valuing their own necks to the complete exclusion of Kevin Sutherland’s, the inert subway passengers proved their sense of self-love was badly distorted.
But self-love can be distorted in more than one direction. Over 220 years ago, another conservative pundit complained that chivalry was dead:
…little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her, in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards, to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult.
The author of this admittedly florid passage was Edmund Burke. “Her” is Marie-Antoinette. The “gallant men” and “cavaliers” belonged to the French aristocracy. Burke was right to describe them as “men of honor.” But “honor,” like “self-love,” has meant various things at various times. In aristocratic societies, honor did not refer specifically to honesty or reliability; instead, it meant public repute. When it turned obsessive, which it often did, concern for honor became another distorted form of self-love – one that almost precluded love of neighbor, as it emerged from the fear that society might perceive the neighbor as worthier or more important.As Burke correctly implied, displays of physical courage did enhance honor. But aristos didn’t confine their fighting to the field at Fontenoy or Yorktown. As Christopher Duffy writes in The Military Experience in the Age of Reason, “Gentlemen-officers…lived in a perpetual state of war with mankind. They pursued interminable lawsuits. They kicked waiters, beat night-watchmen and apprentices, and…broke the windows of their landlords.” For the sake of disordered self-love, the flower of chivalry became a public menace.
Even with their social equals, aristocrats could be plenty crusty. In a spirit of my-name’s-as-good-as-yours, they fought duels over idiotic things. Mikhail Lermontov, Russia’s first novelist, was shot to death for mocking a friend’s outfit. This is not what Thomas Aquinas had in mind.
What remained of the aristocratic notion of honor was killed off – literally – a century ago at Flanders, Alsace, and Gallipoli. Hemingway noted: “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.” When you consider the casualty figures – almost 60,000 killed and wounded on the first day at the Somme – it’s easy to understand why the Armstice marked the moment when the general notion of self-love began distorting itself into self-preservation.
Keeping self-love on an even keel – vice-proofing it against wrath and pride on one extreme and servility and pusillanimity on the other – is a tough task for any individual human being. (I say this as someone whose sense of self-love has fouled it off to all fields and only rarely hit it down the middle.) For any entity so amorphous and self-contradicting as American society to deliver a consistent message on the subject would be a miracle. Local governments deal in laws and lawsuits. We shouldn’t be surprised when their functionaries tell people they’re doing their jobs as citizens by sitting tight and calling police when danger strikes.
That’s why I’m glad parents like David French taking the iniative to teach their kids the right kind of self-love — the kind that won’t allow them to tolerate a threat to their neighbor, but which, presumably, won’t drive them to beat their neighbor silly, ancien regime-style, should the neighbor cut them off in traffic. But that training won’t make French’s son into any kind of dog. It will make him into a mensch.