Where are the great?

(Denver Post, Dec. 2) Midgets everywhere. Rappers, starlets, shrinks, scolds, facilitators, litigators, hustlers, hucksters, victims, vegans. Ours is the age of the shallow, the small, the squalid. Where are the great? “There were giants in the earth in those days,” says Genesis. Granted, every era magnifies the memory of bygone times. But what now passes for excellence in manhood and womanhood, thought and expression, moral and civic life, would make our grandparents shake their heads. For a third of a century we’ve lived in a house I call Marcus Bend, after my mother’s father, who helped buy it. I’m here surrounded with books and mementoes as the old year wanes, sobered by Christmas clamor, candidate noise and war news, wondering and worrying: Where are the great?

Stacked on the desk are “From Dawn to Decadence” by Jacques Barzun, “America: The Last Best Hope” by William Bennett, “The Abolition of Man” by C.S. Lewis, Winston Churchill’s memoir “My Early Life,” an FDR biography by Conrad Black, books on Chesterton and John Paul II, “The Western Canon” by Harold Bloom, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “Ivan Denisovich” and his Harvard address. Collectively they look upon 2007 and frown.

The scholarly Barzun, who turned 100 last week, is a great man of our time and a worthy judge of greatness. His book, a history of civilization from 1500 to the present, warns of today’s “urge to build a wall against the past…a revulsion from things in the present that seem a curse from our forebears.”

He writes of the 20th century as a time when elements that “made the nation-state the carrier of civilization… a common language, a core of historical memories with heroes and villains, compulsory public schooling and military service… were decaying and could not be restored.” He hopes for a 22nd century when boredom may stir new “radicals” to study afresh the old texts, “the record of a fuller life,” from which the West then rediscovers “what a joy it is to be alive.” Of the present century Jacques Barzun is less hopeful.

By what sickness of the soul could America and other nations blessed with the heritage of Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London, and Philadelphia come to see all of this as “a curse from our forebears?” Solzhenitsyn, another contemporary great, gives the diagnosis:

“The West has finally achieved the rights of man, and even excess, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society has grown dimmer and dimmer…. All the celebrated technological achievements of progress do not redeem the 20th century’s moral poverty.” It is not true, insists the Russian giant, that “man is above everything.” Nor is it right that “man’s life and society’s activities should be ruled by material expansion above all.”

Courage, faith, integrity, and honor, ordinary virtues harnessed to extraordinary gifts, constitute human greatness or the potential for it. Guy McBride, retired president of the Colorado School of Mines, and Vernon Grounds, retired president of Denver Seminary, have that heroic stature with me. Some of those books I’ve found so inspiring, by or about the great, reached me through them.

Great souls ennoble our world in big and little ways. Think of the late Bill Hosokawa of the Denver Post, or former Sen. Bill Armstrong. Is there a touch of that in Peter Groff, recently chosen as Colorado Senate President? We’ll see.

Over the centuries, nations flourish and fade in a cycle, the Scots philosopher Alexander Tytler is supposed to have said. Out of bondage come faith and courage, then liberty and abundance. But when these breed complacency and apathy, dependence ensues and bondage returns. If this sounds like an American self-portrait, we need to value greatness more.