The consequences of abandoning a duty-centric culture

2 Oct

I’ve recently been re-watching the HBO mini-series, John Adams.  It’s a marvelous work.  The movie does an excellent job portraying how duty-centric Adams was.  By duty-centric, I mean the settled principle that true liberty, peace, joy, and satisfaction comes only within the context of doing one’s duty to God, family, and country/community.  The pursuit of self-fulfillment, self-expression, was seen as something childish, immature, base, something to be overcome, not indulged, particularly for “gentlemen” (those burdened with means and education; consequently called to sacrificial public service and higher pursuits than self-interest).  Consider Abigail Adams in her letters to her son John Quincy (future president).  She reminded him, “Improve your understanding for acquiring useful knowledge and virtue, such as will render you an ornament to society, an Honour to your Country, and a Blessing to your parents”  Whereas today, denying oneself (not “following your heart” or “being yourself”) is considered blasphemy, Abigail Adams is saying that nothing is more shameful than uselessness to your fellow man, dis-Honouring your country, or bringing shame, embarrassment, to parents.  She reminds him also that he must “adhere to those religious Sentiments and principals which were early instilled into your mind and remember that you are accountable to your Maker for all your words and actions.”  Indeed, she had “much rather you should have found your Grave in the ocean you have crossed, or any untimely death crop you in your Infant years, rather than see you an immoral profligate or a Graceless child.”  She insisted that JQA endeavor to exemplify a virtuous life, and “the only sure and permanent foundation of virtue is Religion,” and “the foundation of Religion is Belief of the one only God.”

Does any of this matter?  You bet.  We see it in education.  Seen once as a privilege to be used in the service of mankind, it is now seen as an entitlement to be used to satisfy personal wants.  Elsewhere, we see that such an attitude necessarily empowers the State, since a duty-culture looks to oneself and ones associations (church, family, community) to educate, mentor, care for, others.  The me-first culture can’t be bothered with personal and social obligations to others — that would seriously interfere with the ceaseless and culturally approved pursuit of personal pleasure — and so the State is authorized (with much pious justifying language) to pick up the slack.  We see it in fulfillment (or lack thereof) of family obligations.  Decreased care for loved ones, especially elderly parents (a rapidly growing proportion of the population), divorce, child abandonment, family disintegration, we could go on.  It was once publicly shameful and truly taboo to accept government assistance or fail to be financially independent, but that’s a relic of the duty-culture.

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