“To educate individuals to think and act as ethical leaders and responsible citizens in the global community.”
Pointing to TCU’s new mission statement, Faculty Senate Chair Nowell Donovan shows how the words of one generation have a way of inspiring generations to come.
by Nowell Donovan
More from Winter 2000
More in Recollections
Topics: Purple Heart
by Nowell Donovan
Just to the south of Blair Atholl, in the Highlands of Scotland, the River Garry turns and surges into the Gorge of Killiekrankie, hemmed in by a ridge of tough quartzite unwilling to yield its soul to the river.
A muscular place, home to ancient trees whose trunks twist to the sunlight.
Many years ago, on a blustery April morning, I stood with two friends on the edge of the torrent; a flash of silver against the dark peat-stained waters and a salmon, spooked by its genes, landed gasping at my feet. Dinner that night, camped far away on the shores of Loch Slapin in the Isle of Skye, was truly memorable.
However, I doubt that any of us remembered that, to the old folk, the eating of a salmon imparted great wisdom. . .
The year 1688 saw the British discontented with their monarch. A recently converted Catholic ruling a Protestant nation would always require infinite tact and finesse. Unfortunately for his supporters, James VII of Scotland, who doubled as James II of England, was too inept, too stubborn and too passionate in his convictions.
Still he might have been survived and been succeeded by his Protestant daughters, but, in 1688, enamored with a new and very Catholic Queen, he sired a brand new prince, who automatically became heir to the throne. The prospect of a Catholic dynasty was far too much for the English who accordingly offered their throne to James’ elder daughter Mary and her ultra-Protestant husband William of Orange. James fled to the continent. In 1689 a parliamentary convention of Scots met in Edinburgh, followed the English lead, and offered their throne to William and Mary.
And so a revolution — often referred to as the Glorious Revolution — was formally ratified. The inevitable reaction involved both Catholics, fated to be defined as second-class citizens for two centuries, those Protestants who believed that the pedigree of monarchy was an inviolable, if not divine, trust and those individuals who believed that their personal oath of allegiance to James was an unbreakable bond. In Scotland, the reaction centered around one charismatic leader — John Graham of Claverhouse,
Viscount Dundee. He is placed in a fiery saturnine hell by Protestant extremists, to whom he was “Bloody Clavers.” On the other hand, a man of startling good looks, he was cast as “Bonnie Dundee” by Sir Walter Scott. To the Celtic world of the Scottish clans, many of whom would fight and die for him, he was a warrior of epic stature: “Dark John of the Battles,” an able man whose pleas for moderation and accommodation of faith would paradoxically and yet predictably lead to violence and death.
All day long on the 27th of July a government army of 4,000 redcoats scrambled through the pass of Killiekrankie. Awaiting them was a much smaller army of Highlanders: Camerons, MacDonalds, MacGregors, MacLeods, MacLeans, Robertsons and others, stitched together by the leadership of Dundee.
Although the clans shared a common culture — heroic, martial and mythic — they were always uneasy allies, too easily splintered by pride and jealousy. The most thoughtful chiefs realized the critical unifying importance of Dundee and asked him to direct the battle from afar, not risking his life and their cause. His reply was eloquent and fatal: “I beg leave of you to allow me to give one Shear-darg (one harvest day’s work) to the King, that I may have an opportunity to convince the brave clans that I can hazard my life in that service as freely as the meanest of them.”
Readying for battle, the clans removed their kilts and tied their linen shirt tails between their legs. Tactics were simple; about seven in the evening Dundee gave the order and the entire Highland line charged. The redcoats fired a single lethal volley before the highlanders hacked into them. Ironically, many of the government troops lost their lives while trying to fix a new weapon, the bayonet, into their flintlocks.
The slaughter was immense; in a formal sense the battle lasted about three minutes, but the pursuit went on into the night. A moment for the clans to savor no doubt, but in the end a futile memory, for in the instant of his triumph Bonnie Dundee was wounded mortally by a musket ball in the chest. He died later in the evening.
And, sadly, the chiefs had been correct, for without his leadership the rebellion collapsed.
The true line of the old kings would never again sit on the throne. The myths began almost immediately; far away in Edinburgh in the early morning of the 28th of July, his friend, Lord Balcarres, awoke to find a sad-faced Dundee gazing down at him. In the same spectral mode, his enemies put about a story that he had been killed by a silver bullet.
His last words became an epitome of nobility and faithfulness: “How goes the day?”
“Well for King James, but I am sorry for your Lordship.”
“If all is well for him, it matters the less for me.”
Stories are told of his humanity, of how he would give his own food to ill clansmen, of how he would carry the load of soldiers who were tired, of how he marched beside each clan in turn. And so history was subsumed by mythology; as Wordsworth would declaim: “Oh for a single hour of that Dundee Who on that day the word of onset gave” For Wordsworth and his romantic Victorian contemporaries, Dundee had come to represent the values of an antique world — nobility, honor, loyalty, truthfulness.
In 1853, John Ruskin visited the battlefield; “I went and knelt beside the stone which marks the spot of Claverhouse’s death-wound, and prayed for more such spirits — we need them now.” Lying in the heart of the Lake District, Brantwood is one of the most beautifully sited homes in England. The view from the house is highlighted by Coniston Lake, beyond which the hills form an austere backdrop.
A moody place, where the convolutions of mist and cloud can roll into open sunshine within a few minutes and return, mysterious and uncertain, just as rapidly. From 1872 until his death in 1900 it was Ruskin’s home. John Ruskin is a somewhat neglected figure today, which is sad, for his thoughts have influenced all manner of folk in all manner of ways and still have powerful context.
In his own time he was a giant. Tolstoy, for example, wrote that: “Ruskin was one of the most remarkable men, not only of England and our time, but of all countries and all times. He was one of those rare men who think with their hearts, and so he thought and said not only what he himself had seen and felt, but what everyone will think and say in the future.”
Ruskin was an artist in the broadest and greatest sense of the word, most famously when he wrote: “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts; the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last.”
Ruskin’s political message was a gigantic reaction to the dehumanizing excesses of Victorian capitalism and the environmental destructiveness of the industrial revolution.
In 1860 he wrote Unto This Last, a statement of his belief in the integrity of each individual in a world increasingly controlled by the elites of both capitalism and, later in the century, socialism: “THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.”
In 1904, in South Africa, a idealistic young lawyer was given a copy of Unto this Last to read on the long train journey from Johannesburg down to the coast at Durban.
“I determined to change my life in the light of this book,” he said. “My belief is that I discovered some of my deepest convictions reflected in this great book of Ruskin’s, and this is why the book so captured me and made me transform my life.”
His name was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. He took Ruskin’s belief that man is a moral being as a call to action; his argument, both in South Africa and, from 1915, in India, was with English civilization, not with individual Englishmen. His mission was the creation of an independent India from the patchwork of states and principalities that constituted the “Jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire.
His technique was non-violent civil disobedience, daringly based on a belief that the better angels of the collective British conscience would prevail. He was lucky, and they did. The less flamboyant part of Gandhi’s message was his rejection of the mechanistic industrial aspects of the modern world; he saw India as a society of small self-sufficient communities, in which individuals assumed responsibilities to help each other as appropriate.
As Ruskin valued the work of the individual stone mason, so Gandhi valued the work of the silversmith, the baker and the weaver. In 1947, the Indian subcontinent achieved self-government, not as a united country, as Gandhi wished, but as two feuding entities, India and Pakistan, divided ever since on the basis of religious belief. An unknown, but extremely large number of people died in the process of partition.
One of them was Gandhi himself, murdered by a Hindu assassin in 1948. Just as he was saddened by the political division of British India, so, I like to imagine, he would have been saddened by the industrial squalor and pollution of modern India, a far cry from the idealized village communities of his dreams. If the reality of the modern nuclear powers of India and Pakistan is a distortion of Gandhi’s legacy, there is no doubting the broader impact of his ideas.
As the “Mahatma,” literally “Great Soul,” he inspired millions who wished for political freedom in Asia, Africa and around the world. Not all would follow his tactic of satyagrahas — nonviolence — in fact most liberation struggles were, and continue to be violent, often stunningly so.
But many would embrace, or claim to embrace, his view that man is a moral being who will eventually respond politically to truth and love.
Anti-Colonial movements have a very simple controlling dynamic — the ethical paramountcy of the principle of majority rule. It is resolved when the “colonial masters” leave and the liberated are left with a clean slate. In common with thousands of his countrymen, a young clergyman in the United States faced a mirror image of this principle: the question of fairness to a minority.
It is difficult to remember the enormity of the racial divide that Martin Luther King faced. One anecdote may help. In 1944 southern England became an enormous armed camp as preparations for D Day advanced. Tens of thousands of young Americans and Canadians trained for the day when they would lay it all on the line against the Nazis.
For the young women of England they were a godsend — nylons, cigarettes and other little things that had been long gone from the stores. To the young men of England, that is, those who were still in the country, they were “overpaid, oversexed and over here.” However, one group of Americans were treated differently. The Church of England, as the official guardian of propriety, approached the American High Command with a delicate question: “What should a young (white) woman do when she sees a black American soldier coming toward her on the street?”
Back came the official response: She must refrain from eye contact and demurely cross to the other side of the street. In no circumstances should she talk to the soldiers. The disconnect in both question and answer is astounding; presumably all concerned knew these young black men were going to risk death on behalf of these women, but as far as cultural ties were concerned, they could have been on a different planet!
The Civil Rights struggle in the States thus far has taken over a hundred years and involved thousands of dedicated souls, but of all the personalities and folk heroes who decorate the story, it is Martin Luther King who carries the reverence of history. King used the Mahatma’s play book — nonviolent civil disobedience, to which he added the spellbinding power of his oratory. Yet again the tactic was successful and yet again, on April 4, 1968, a sacrifice was required. I wonder how he would view us, 32 years later. One part of what is probably his most famous sentence is gradually coming true; we are less and less likely to judge a man by the color of his skin. But what would he make of the content of our character? On the day after the battle, they carried Dundee’s body from the field and hurriedly buried him in the church of Old Blair. He is recorded by a small plaque in an old wall.
This summer, during a lunchtime break in a summer program, I wandered up the hill from the resplendent Blair Castle to the ruin of the old church. It is a beautiful place surrounded by majestic trees, grown from seeds brought from around the world by the Dukes of Atholl. A fine place to see a thread of history. The weave is complex; it shifts from continent to continent and is the property of no race, philosophy or religion; it belongs to no discipline, not art, not history, not literature, not the law, and certainly not geology. It is quixotic; I doubt that Bonnie Dundee and MLK would comprehend each other’s world views.
It is demanding; three of the participants in this thread were killed, murdered or assassinated (take your pick) as a result of their beliefs, while Ruskin’s last years in his beautiful home were clouded by insanity. It is tantalizing; we think we glimpse a reality but lose it to the current. So what do we have to hold? Perhaps a vision, or maybe it’s just a promise, of the truth. And what holds it together? A recognition of integrity, that force which makes individuals match their actions to their conscience. And the natural home of integrity, the place where it can be nurtured, is the Academy.
But as for truth … maybe only the salmon knows.
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