Saints and Sinners in a History-Haunted Age

We were struggling to decide on a middle name for our fourth child, a son due in the depths of the pandemic in July. "How about Flannery?," I asked my wife. I had been reading O’Connor’s work closely over the previous months and while Flannery is an uncommon name for a boy we liked its Irish ring.

Shortly after we chose the name, Flannery O’Connor was wrapped up in a controversy related to her attitudes on race. Sparked by a New Yorker article by Paul Elie reacting to a new book on the subject (Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell), an intense discussion ran its course through the community of literary commentators generating ample heat and perhaps a little light.

This debate was just one example of the heightened attention to racial justice following the killing of George Floyd in May, which set off global protests and brought race front and center to a variety of issues. Debates raged over the merits of historical figures on the question of race and which ones should continue to be honored with statues and monuments. As we live in the Minneapolis suburbs, the events in the news were inescapable and called for a deeper reckoning with our own understanding of race. In the midst of it all, we were left to ask: could we still use the name “Flannery”?

As a philosopher by training, I wanted to step back from the details of controversial cases—Christopher Columbus and George Washington to name just two—and instead grapple with the more general question: how should we morally judge historical figures? How do we respect the valid reasons for honoring them while confronting head-on the very real, objective wrongs they committed? This question is adjacent to the merits of “cancel culture,” but focusing on historical rather than living figures simplifies the discussion: emotions are less heated and there is no risk that a wrongdoer will commit a repeat offense by being let off the hook in some way.

A dangerous trap lies in wait of anyone evaluating historic figures from a moral perspective: the tendency to cast everyone in the role of an angel or demon, unimpeachable saint or irredeemable sinner. History has a growing array of characters who might truly fit one of these roles, but recent controversies have often involved figures with real virtues as well as vices—the American Founding Fathers, for instance, who did much to advance the cause of liberty for some but fell short of securing it for all, and in many cases were directly involved in the serious sin of enslavement.

Why do we fall into the trap of reading history this way? For one thing, we often study history as partisans, bearers of ideologies, and distort the historical record to better fit our view of the world. “America is a just nation by and large,” some think, “so its founders must be just as well.” While we need not be so naïve as to see history as a bare set of facts and events—a who, what, where and when that can be written from a view from nowhere—we must still bracket our background beliefs as much as possible and open ourselves to the true challenges that history poses.

Another reason for the false binary is that our moral thinking can be excessively relativist or absolutist. In a strange role reversal, conservatives are apt to excuse the wrongs of Columbus or Washington by saying “They were men of their times.” But this is just moral relativism, which conservatives claim to abhor. Liberals, on the other hand, lean toward making uncharacteristically absolute judgments and moving such figures to the dustbin of history. While the wrongs committed by some historical actors are indeed profound, to see that as the entirety of the historic record is at the very least an incomplete perspective.

The absolutist view is a kind of unearned historical privilege: as I write this essay I have all of humanity’s intellectual achievements at my fingertips, an unimaginable luxury for anyone living before the Information Age. Yet this wealth of moral knowledge does not guarantee that I will be virtuous. The science of moral psychology shows that virtue can turn to vice given the right social pressures or mental cues. The Stanford Prison Experiment is a famous case where ordinary students were led to behave abhorrently in laboratory conditions.

Outside of the lab, consider the cruel abuses at Abu Ghraib, perpetrated by quite ordinary soldiers. Many of us are tempted to think that “We would never do that,” or, “We’re not like those people,” but these comforting thoughts are all too often false and dangerous. The challenge of remaining virtuous under extreme pressure is beautifully rendered in Terence Malick’s film A Hidden Life, centering on the struggle of Bl. Franz Jagerstatter to resist conscription into the Nazi military.

Our virtues are fragile and their formation is tragically subject to the culture and historical period we were born into, putting us at the whim of what Bernard Williams calls moral luck. By losing sight of how sensitive our virtues are to historical accident and present circumstances, our thinking falls into historical privilege. This may be why some liberal scholars adopt an absolutist view toward history that condemns wholesale without any possibility of excuse or understanding, as much an overreaction as the conservative tendency to excuse beyond reason.

There is a final reason for our increasingly binary attitude toward the past. Alan Jacobs’s new book, Breaking Bread with the Dead, argues that moral triage drives black-and-white historical judgments. In our connected world we are constantly barraged with new issues demanding outrage or admiration. With finite mental resources, we simply cannot put aside all our background beliefs and consider each issue afresh. We rely instead on those prior beliefs to engage in moral triage, prioritizing what deserves our attention and failing to address most issues with any deep thought at all.

How can we escape the trap of binary thinking with all these forces set against us? Jacobs sheds light on the case of the Founding Fathers by bringing Frederick Douglass into the conversation. In his 1852 oration, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” Douglass honored the figures of America’s founding as “great men” for “the good they did, the principles they contended for,” yet he cannot “pass lightly over their wrongs” without being “a reproach before God and the world.”

While elevating Douglass as an archetype of historical judgment displaying both charity and honesty, Jacobs emphasizes that it would be “utterly unjust” for anyone to demand that Douglass extend such a charitable response to the Founding Fathers. That demand is unjust because of the genuine, human cost that Douglass’s words surely bore for him as a former slave. As much as we advocate for a balanced view of history, our charity should extend beyond those we evaluate to include as well those impacted by historical actors in complex and even traumatic ways.

Jacobs emphasizes that historical judgments are best seen as a process, not a single decision. Charity and honesty are challenging to reconcile into a neat, holistic evaluation. Even the most charitable assessment may need to be harsh if it is to be at all honest. We must guard ourselves against “cheap grace,” to use Bonhoeffer’s term, a forgiveness without sign of repentance. As Flannery O’Connor herself cautions in “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” this view “excuses all human weakness because human weakness is human.” All too often we read history like a comforting redemptive story: the reader “demands the redemptive act . . . that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.” We want to be “transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.”

In demanding easy redemption, we have “forgotten the cost of it,” a cost that we should hesitate to ask others to bear. This argument clarifies the substance of the debate around statues and monuments: some displays have a legitimate role in the public square, while others may ask too steep a price of our fellow citizens. The line is not easily drawn. For me, it zigzags between the protagonists of history and right through our own hearts. Whether monuments remain standing or move off-stage, the process of grappling honestly yet charitably with the past remains our solemn duty. For Jacobs, we can help resolve and heal the tragedy and trauma of history in part by faithfully discharging this obligation.

At the end of this philosophical excursion, we decided to keep our chosen name. Just as Flannery O’Connor said the South is Christ-haunted, so too is our current age history-haunted. The flip side of historical privilege is that we have today an acute sense of historical tragedy, as we are so painfully aware of how our comfortable existence was enabled by deeds that we now rightfully condemn. The ghosts of history haunting our time call out for redemption. In baptism, we become “living stones built into a spiritual house,” in the words of the Catechism borrowing from 1 Peter. So too must we construct a more just world from the ruins of the past, redeeming history’s ghosts in small and humble ways through our charity and honesty. As we baptize our child with the name “Flannery” we aim to confront O’Connor’s failings and shortcomings as well as the virtues that make her a writer and person worth reckoning with today.

Featured Image: Rogier van der Weyden, Deposition, 1483; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100


Matt Hoberg

Matt Hoberg earned a BA in Philosophy from Princeton University in 2009 and currently resides in Minnesota. He also writes at Kinder Conservative.

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