Nations in the Balance
The Lord of History Will Have the Final Word by Patrick Henry Reardon
It is reasonable, we suppose, that those engaged in making history on a large scale should also be concerned how history itself will judge them. The ancient Greeks (at least in the Homeric epics) were preoccupied with what they called kleos, that form of fame that refers to the things that men will say of one, both in the present and in the future, and some historians (Douglass Adair, for example) have argued that the Founders of the American nation had a similar preoccupation.
Unless we are mistaken, nonetheless, this concern with the judgment of history seems to have become more widespread, deliberate, and explicit in recent days (as witnessed, for instance, in the media’s coverage of presidential libraries). With a view to addressing this preoccupation with the judgment of history, we believe there are three points that call for consideration.
First, unless the question of historical judgment is raised to a higher, more transcendent plain, such a preoccupation may lead only to various “public relations” efforts, distinguished simply by their extension into the future. We confess a measure of uncertainty that leaders who spend much of their time analyzing the daily polls and making their decisions on the basis of them, are in a good position to think rationally about the judgment of generations still to come.
It is bad enough, though understandable, that some men arrive at their decisions largely by analyzing an applause meter. We hardly know what to think about those who consult the applause of children not yet conceived.
For this reason, we are heartened by the response of President George W. Bush, who was recently asked how history would judge the merits of his presidency. He answered that he did not know, remarking further that historical judgments themselves tend to waver through the course of time, and suggesting that a preoccupation with matters so uncertain might prove to be nothing more than a distraction from history’s call to duty.
This is a sane assessment of the question. The judgment of history lies beyond our ken. Who among us can say how those who come after us will assess our lives and judge our choices? Our descendents may be wise men, but perhaps no wiser than ourselves, and for all we know, they may prove to be fools. Anyway, it is reckless and irresponsible to base important decisions on the uncertain judgment of generations not yet born.
The resolute, prudent pursuit of the moral law itself, not educated guesses about the judgment of history, provides the safest, most reliable guide for all men, including those charged with making those momentous decisions that most affect the destinies of peoples and nations. Consequently, we are leery of any leader governed mainly by anxiety for what history may have to say of him. Indeed, we sincerely worry for such a man, fearing not so much, perhaps, that he will lose his soul, but rather that he may simply lose track of it.
Contrariwise, we feel greater confidence in leaders who seek to be governed by the eternal, unchanging moral law than in those who endeavor to carve a favorable niche for themselves in the memories of men who never knew them.
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor emeritus of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois, and the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Out of Step with God: Orthodox Christian Reflections on the Book of Numbers (Ancient Faith Publishing, 2019).
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