There is talk in some contemporary literature of the importance of ‘social capital’, by which is usually meant the immaterial common goods that healthy communities build up and enjoy, and which should not be squandered.
Social trust is a primary form of social capital. It is what permits people to trust that their governing authorities do intend to serve the people, that their doctors know what they are talking about, that teachers have the best interest of students in mind, that economic structures are relatively just, and so on. As social trust is squandered and undermined, the community falls apart because they can no longer put faith in the institutions responsible for the preservation of order, health, education, and industry. We are seeing this right now as new generations develop in a context where they cannot put their faith in anything because nothing seems trustworthy.
We bring up this example because it is obvious that this ‘capital’ takes much longer to accumulate than to squander. It was built up over many generations, perhaps even several centuries, and is the result of hard work carried out by men of good character.
To return to our subject, we would insist that the spiritual and moral capital of a community, which is to say, the soundness of its social conscience and its awareness of moral law, works in a similar way. It is built up only slowly, over centuries, but can be depleted very quickly when ignored.
The United States, at least insofar as it is a modern nation state, was founded by Europeans who brought with them a very specific type of social consciousness. The conscience they possessed was not pulled from thin air but came with a definite pedigree. This conscience was Christian, both in its immediate content and in its historical lineage. This conscience (and, for that matter, this particular flavor of consciousness) took many centuries to develop, and its development was pursued with intention and discipline until it became part of the very spiritual temperament of Western civilization.
When the American Founders wrote with enlightened optimism about the moral uprightness of men, they took it for granted that their listeners possessed a degree of spiritual education. They were correct in this assumption, but what they did not acknowledge, and what people today know nothing about, is that it had come at a cost and was not part of the nature of man so much as it was part of the inheritance of Christendom—that civilization which had recently been demolished. Thus, they did not understand that without constant maintenance this moral edifice begins to decay and disintegrate and will eventually revert to barbarism. It may revert immediately, or it might be a prolonged crisis of faith, but into disrepair it will fall.
It has been the struggle of mankind throughout the ages to fight evil and establish a foothold for good, and a civilization is worthy of the name insofar as it successfully educates its people about the good such that they can recognize it when they see it. We stand on the shoulders of giants in ways that we could not possibly perceive. We have no idea how much our very perception of reality, not to mention our discernment of beautiful and ugly, the true and the false, are influenced by the hard work of our ancestors.
We sit in a spiritual fortress that we did not build, and unable to see this, we put no work into maintaining its defenses. We do not even think that it needs defense. Now it is in shambles, overrun by an enemy we cannot even recognize as such, so far has our blindness proceeded.
The very idea that we could deal with evil by ‘peaceful non-resistance’ could only arise in ignorance of the historical work that was involved in establishing the moral knowledge we take from granted. It was an ancient project wherein the best people gathered together to curb evil and then established a moral discipline to keep evil at bay once defeated.
The pacifist of today enjoys the fruits of a violent struggle won be predecessors he does not acknowledge and does not think he needs. He basks in an inherited peace that he is in the process of slowly destroying.
We could say that civilization develops when men of strong will and character come forward and not only defeat evil through force but also civilize their fellow men through the establishment of order and by carving out a social space wherein a collective and on-going spiritual education can take place.
It is true that paradise is not built by compulsion, but hell only retreats when it is fought, and physical force is that last resort which, when necessary, makes space for the more subtle and cooperative project of spiritual and moral development that is not physically compelled.
To build a paradise, sometimes a hell must be cleared away; and once cleared away, it’s influence must be perpetually fended off. Evil is always encroaching. It is too easy for doctrinaire pacifists to ignore these observations and to take for granted the peace which they presently enjoy.