Years ago, I asked my sons if they understood why we celebrate the Fourth of July. The nine-year old had a pretty good idea. The five-year old hadn’t a clue. Which didn’t prevent either from soaking the day for all its worth.
We were 240 years removed from the nation’s founding. This great, big, free, independent, stubborn, tough and energetic land.
There was a time in which we celebrated rugged individualism. Feted those capable of waking early. Striking out to take a calibrated risk. Success. Failure. Either way, of their own accord.
This nation was founded by such men. Jefferson. Washington. Franklin. Hamilton. Adams. Hancock. Thinkers. Achievers. Men of action. Willing to put their worldviews to the test. Exposing them to success or failure. To the marketplace.
I tell my sons that life, like nature, is not always fair. One hopes that the best rise to the top. Regardless the pursuit. And that the worst should fade away. Such is the means by which systems improve. Become more efficient. Stronger. Lasting.
Last place merits a ribbon only where first place is devalued. Having received one, you’ve still won nothing. Last place ribbons are like party favors. When everyone gets one, no value remains.
When the founders declared this nation’s independence, they embarked upon a course from which there was no retreat. They would have to be excellent, ambitious, courageous and inspiring. Lest they be killed by falling short of their objectives.
The founders, and the nation, were rewarded with liberty. Independence. The right to strive for prosperity. The right to take risks. Pursue happiness. Create. Build. Fail. Succeed. And every day, to try again.
Had the colonies been forced to wait on someone to take charge, to step forward, to inspire a young nation to emerge from England’s shadow, the effort would have been doomed from inception. But, great men stepped forward, and did great things.
Americans may be born free. But we are not born equal. Birthrights? Some. But everything has a price. Privileges are earned. Ordinary men do ordinary things. Quantum advances are born of the sweat, blood and tears of extraordinary individuals willing to risk everything.
Those who call for abject equality are not desirous of a level playing field. But of the referee’s calls to be made in their favor. So they won’t have to learn the game, train, nor even lace up their shoes.
William James Durant was an American historian and philosopher who wrote an 11-volume historical compendium entitled, The Story of Civilization. Durant was a brilliant polymath with a broad conception of history and philosophy. He believed that history was just the physical portrayal of philosophy at work.
For those lacking the 10-year commitment required to read Durant’s Story of Civilization, allow me to recommend his beautiful 115-page essay entitled, The Lessons of History. The book provides an overview of the pivotal themes and lessons observed over 5,000 years of world history. Durant examines them from unique, geometrically different, though not opposing, human perspectives. Geography. Biology. Race. Character. Morals. Religion. Economics. Politics. Growth. Decay. And progress.
Durant was neither Republican nor Democrat. To my observation, he resisted labels. He fought for equal wages, women’s suffrage and fair working conditions. He attempted to bring philosophy to the common man. Improve understanding of human vantage points; explain the human dynamic laid bare over so many centuries. And win forgiveness for our many faults and foibles.
In the chapter entitled, Biology and History, Durant blends unique historical and philosophical perspectives into a razor-sharp discourse on our biology, and the lessons gleaned from studying five millennia of progress, failure and development.
Durant writes of three biological lessons proven by history:
“So, the first biological lesson of history is competition. The second biological lesson of history is that life is selection. We are all born unfree and unequal. Nature loves difference. Inequality is not only natural and inborn, it grows with the complexity of civilization.
Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies. Leave man free, and their natural inequalities will multiply almost geometrically, as in England and America in the nineteenth-century under laissez-faire.
Utopias of equality are biologically doomed.
The third biological lesson of history is that life must breed. Nature has no use of organisms, variations, or groups that cannot reproduce abundantly. She has a passion for quantity as prerequisite to the selection of quality. She does not care that a high birth rate has usually accompanied a culturally low civilization, and a low birth rate a civilization that is culturally high; and she sees that nations with low birth rates shall be periodically chastened by some more virile and fertile group.
It is amusing to find Julius Caesar (59 B.C.) rewarding the Romans who had many children, and forbidding childless women to ride litters or wear jewelry. In the United States, the lower birth rate of the Anglo-Saxon has lessened their economic and political power. So, the birth rate, like war, may determine the fate of theologies; just as the defeat of the Moslems at Tours (732) kept France and Spain from replacing the Bible with the Koran.
There is no humorist like history.”
Durant was equal opportunity observer. Pro-minority. Pro-gay. Pro-women. Pro-men. Essentially, he only wanted to remind his readers that life is not easy. Everyone must be willing to step up. Play a role. Add some value. Contribute. And, in so doing, establish one’s position in society by making it better, for everyone, day after day.
Durant died in 1981. Prior to the resolution of the cold war. 9/11. HIV. And the continuing periods of draught and famine that kill millions around the world. Even as we land spacecraft on Mars.
His unique perspective, devoid of politics, replete with the philosophical underpinnings of 5,000 years of evidence, continue to strike a chord.
Today, we are as political as we’ve ever been. And not as tough as we once were. Bureaucrats curry favor by asking us to define the camps we fall into. The labels we wear. For many, labels define who we are, and with whom we interact. A sad indictment, indeed.
We all suffer when those who seek truth, and aspire towards the furthest reaches of exploration, are dragged down by the snares of bureaucrats seeking to please the larger, less ambitious swaths of a whiny, fearful electorate.
We are not equal. Effective systems trump the less effective. As do effective organizations, groups and people. Regardless of sex. Religion. Skin color. Geography. Or socioeconomic background. On an equal playing field, evolution dictates that the cream rises to the top. As most, rational observers would hope.
History rewards the bold. Favors protagonists willing to test their mettle under the meritocratic scrutiny of history’s long and watchful eye. Rewards those who help us all to become a little better. To reach a little higher. Achieve a little more.
All of which explains why for so long so many have come to America’s shores. Aware that America was a land where one could escape persecution. Practice faith. Speak one’s mind. Congregate. Create. Destroy. Succeed or fail. Regardless of religion, ethnicity or socioeconomic trajectory. Anyone with grit could step from the bench onto the court. Play to win in America’s meritocratic game of life. A game in which nobody is both free and equal. But everyone with the will to win has the chance to do so.
At what price comes equality? That depends on how you value freedom. For one exists only at the expense of the other. And those travelling upon history’s long and winding road will eventually, and inevitably, get what they deserve.