A Seasonal Meditation, with Thanks to William Faulkner

Published December 1, 1987


AMERICAN PURPOSE is not your basic holiday greeting card. But if it were, we would want to use William Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Prize address as our text at this season: now, when the great religious traditions speak of a divine promise of “peace on earth” and the gap between that promise and the headlines looms as large as … well, as large as it did in December 1986. Faulkner’s lecture is an appropriately seasonal, clarion call to hope, made all the more powerful because its author was a man who, in his own writing, had plumbed various of the darker recesses of the human mind and spirit and had come away whole.

Said William Faulkner in Stockholm in 1950, and to us in 1987:

“I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny, inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this.

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting up his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.”

Sir Michael Howard, formerly the Chichele Professor of the History of War at All Souls and now the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, once wrote that “Kant was right when he said that a state of peace had to be ‘established.’ What perhaps even he did not discern was that this is a task which must be tackled afresh every day of our lives.” Whence the energy to do that tackling? One premise of AMERICAN PURPOSE is that the energy to work for peace and freedom, in and out of season, comes from what Faulkner called our “soul.” However we conceive that elusive reality, it is either the source of that which impels us to try and close the chasm between things as they are and things as they ought to be, or all our works are, as St. Paul said in a related context, “sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.”

Thank you to all who have been part of AMERICAN PURPOSE as we close our first year and look forward with anticipation to Volume Two. Season’s greetings.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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