In 1790, when Edmund Burke wrote his classic essay, Reflections on the Revolution in France, the reactions were not positive. He was not popular among the London elites, to say the least. As L.G. Mitchell recounts, “Burke was rejected right across the political spectrum.” Not only did radicals such as Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft “dislike the book,” but the members of his own Whig party disowned it: Charles James Fox considered the Reflections “to be in very bad taste” and the future Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger found only “rhapsodies in which there is much to admire and nothing to agree with.”Share
Yet Burke, the reform-minded statesman, decided to stand against the proclamations of the French Revolution. Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity—who would want to be against that? Burke, apparently. And he prophesied the coming Terror and the rise of Napoleon, because he refused to give in to the tyrannical dictates of eighteenth-century deified Reason.
Of course, the French Revolution and the current deconstruction of marriage are morally distinct. Yet the point remains: standing against self-anointed makers of progress is not the same as standing against the way of genuine social progress. In fact, it is sometimes just the opposite.
Moral Courage to Oppose the Spirit of the Age
Many movements will come and go, but the real moral crisis stands: as a result of the sexual revolution, the Western moral imagination has broken down to such an extent that it is considered inappropriate to articulate what marriage is. As Michael Hanby writes: “we live in revolutionary times, even if this revolution is the full flower of seeds planted long ago.” The quasi-Nietzschean transvaluation of values has led to the fact that what was once the collective wisdom of the ages concerning the human family, Hanby continues,
is now regarded by many as obsolete and even hopelessly bigoted, as court after court, demonstrating that this revolution has profoundly transformed even the meaning of reason itself, has declared that this bygone wisdom now fails even to pass the minimum legal threshold of rational cogency.Those are strong words, but they capture the “spirit of the times.” I imagine Burke must have felt the same way: the collective wisdom of the past concerning our duties to the dead and the unborn was laid waste by the Jacobins in their haste to worship Reason deified and redefined. Our current situation is similar, though this revolution is more subtle and potent. The collapse of our marriage culture has been slow and its recession pernicious.
It took just one Anglo-Irish statesman to speak out and wake up Great Britain to the dangers of a revolution that, through its changes in the law, would erode the institutions of civil society. Likewise, it may only take a few from my generation to spark a moral revival. The current redefinitions of the very words we use, as Alice von Hildebrand says, is “a severe moral crisis in which the eternal truths have been exchanged for temporary fads.” The real choice for those feeling demoralized is this: Which will you stand for?
The restoration of eternal truths of human nature requires more than speaking. This opportunity to witness to the human family for the good of all individuals requires virtue. Courage, Aristotle noted, makes all the other virtues possible. But physical courage is not enough. As von Hildebrand explains,
Physical courage—something you find on athletic fields, for example—is very common, but moral courage is not. It is not easy to stand up for what is right when that might mean losing one’s job, one’s family or even one’s life. It is far easier to keep quiet and let things slide.Moral courage means placing more value upon the integrity of conscience over the stability of external events: being denied tenure, a plum internship, some job, friends who cannot tolerate “bigoted” opinions . . . prudence is necessary, yet those of my generation who stand for what the family is, what marriage is, and what the foundational institutions of civil society rooted in our rational and social natures are, make possible a new counter-revolution. (Read more.)