Stoicism in the South

Epictetus or the Psalms?
Archbishop Joseph F. Rummel of New Orleans, who led the archdiocese from 1935-1964 (CNS photo from Clarion Herald)

 

[This article was originally published in the July 6, 1956 issue of Commonweal.]

It is always hard to generalize about the South, harder perhaps for the Southerner, for whom the subject is living men, himself among them, than for the Northerner who, in proportion to his detachment, can the more easily deal with ideas. Yet I think it is possible to record at first hand a momentous change which has taken place in a single generation—and I do not mean the obvious changes, the New South of the magazines, the Negro emigration or the Supreme Court decision. The change is this: until a few years ago the champion of Negro rights in the South, and of fairmindedness and toleration in general, was the upper-class white Southerner. He is their champion no longer. He has, by and large, unshouldered his burden for someone else to pick up. What has happened to him? With a few courageous exceptions, he is either silent or he is leading the Citizens’ Councils.

He will not deny the charge but will reply that it is not he who has changed but the Supreme Court, that he is still fighting to preserve the same way of life he defended when he opposed the Klan thirty years ago. Has not pressure from the North rendered the moderate position untenable? Is he not now fighting the same good fight as his fathers, who kicked out the scalawags and carpetbaggers and rescued the South from one of the most shameful occupations in history?

But it is not the same fight and he has changed. (Again let me say I only feel free to say this because no white Southerner can write a j’accuse without making a mea culpa; no more is the average Northerner, either by the accident of his historical position or by his present performance, entitled to a feeling of moral superiority.)
The fact is that neither the ethos nor the traditional world-view of the upper-class white Southerner is any longer adequate to the situation. No longer able to maintain a steadfast and temperate position, he finds himself caught up in violent and even contradictory cross-movements. There is nothing atypical about Faulkner’s crying the South’s guilt to the high heavens one moment and the next condoning street fighting to perpetuate it. The old alliance of Negro and white gentry has broken up. During the last gubernatorial primary in Louisiana an extraordinary thing happened, the significance of which has been largely missed. The considerable Negro vote went en bloc to its traditional enemy, the poor-white candidate.

What is the reason for this dissolution of the old alliance? Is it simply a result of the Decision, or does the cause lie much deeper? Does it not, in fact, reflect a profound cultural change which, as it has turned out, cannot be accommodated within the ethos of the upper-class white?

 

The South’s virtues were the broadsword virtues of the clan, as were her vices too—the hubris of noblesse gone arrogant.

The greatness of the South, like the greatness of the English squirearchy, had always a stronger Greek flavor than it ever had a Christian. Its nobility and graciousness was the nobility and graciousness of the old Stoa. How immediately we recognize the best of the South in the words of the Emperor: “Every moment think steadily, as a Roman and a man, to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and a feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice.” And how curiously foreign to the South sound the Decalogue, the Beatitudes, the doctrine of the Mystical Body. The South’s virtues were the broadsword virtues of the clan, as were her vices too—the hubris of noblesse gone arrogant. The Southern gentleman did live in a Christian edifice, but he lived there in the strange fashion Chesterton spoke of, that of a man who will neither go inside nor put it entirely behind him but stands forever grumbling on the porch. From this vantage point he caught sight of Pericles and Hector and the Emperor, and recognized them as his heart’s elect. Where was to be found their like? in Abraham? in Paul? He thought not. When he named a city Corinth, he did not mean Paul’s community. How like him to go into Chancellorsville or the Argonne with Epictetus in his pocket; how unlike him to have had the Psalms.

It is true that he was raised on the Christian chivalry of Walter Scott, but it was a Christianity which was estheticized by medieval trappings and a chivalry which was abstracted from its sacramental setting. If Ivanhoe and The Talisman were his favorite novels, Richard Coeur de Lion and Saladin were his favorite characters, just because in them great-heartedness and soldierly generosity transcended everything, even religious differences.

If the Stoic way was remarkably suited to the Empire of the first century, it was quite as remarkably suited to the agrarian South of the last century. The Colonel Sartoris who made himself responsible for his helpless “freedmen,” and the Lucas Beauchamps who accepted his leadership, formed between them a bond such as can only exist between one man in his dignity and another. It was a far nobler relationship than what usually passes under the name of paternalism. The nobility of Sartoris—and there were a great many Sartorises—was the nobility of the natural perfection of the Stoics, the stern inner summons to man’s full estate, to duty, to honor, to generosity toward his fellowmen and above all to his inferiors—not because they were made in the image of God and were therefore lovable in themselves, but because to do them an injustice would be to defile the inner fortress which was oneself. Whatever its abuses, whatever its final sentimental decay, there was such a thing as noblesse oblige on the one side and an extraordinary native courtesy and dignity on the other, by which there occurred, under almost impossible conditions, a flowering of human individuality such as this hemisphere has rarely seen.

Yet, like the Stoa of the Empire, the Stoa of the South was based on a particular hierarchical structure and could not survive the change. Nor did it wish to survive. Its most characteristic mood was a poetic pessimism which took a grim satisfaction in the dissolution of its values—because social decay confirmed one in his original choice of the wintry kingdom of self. He is never more himself than when in a twilight victory of evil, of Modred over Arthur. And of course he is in good company in his assessment of the modern world. It is not just Faulkner who bears witness to the coming of the mass man, to the alienation and vulgarization of the urban consumer. Ortega and Marcel are neither Southern nor Stoic.

The Stoic has no use for the clamoring minority; the Christian must have every use for it.

The difference is that for the Southern Stoic the day has been lost and lost for good. It seems to him that the Snopes have won, not only the white Snopes but the black Snopes as well: the white man has lost his oblige, the black man has lost his manners, and insolence prevails. For Southern society was above all a society of manners, an incredible triumph of manners, and a twilight of manners seems a twilight of the world. For the Stoic there is no real hope. His finest hour is to sit tight-lipped and ironic while the world comes crashing down around him.

It must be otherwise with the Christian. The urban plebs is not the mass which is to be abandoned to its own barbaric devices, but the lump to be leavened. The Christian is optimistic precisely where the Stoic is pessimistic. What the Stoic sees as the insolence of his former charge—and this is what he can’t tolerate, the Negro’s demanding his rights instead of being thankful for the squire’s generosity—is in the Christian scheme the sacred right which must be accorded the individual, whether deemed insolent or not. For it was not the individual, after all, who was intrinsically precious in the Stoic view—rather it was one’s own attitude toward him, and this could not fail to be specified by the other’s good manners or lack of them. If he became insolent, very well: let him taste the bitter fruits of his insolence. The Stoic has no use for the clamoring minority; the Christian must have every use for it.

 

We in the South can no longer afford the luxury of maintaining the Stoa beside the Christian edifice. In the past we managed the remarkable feat of keeping both, one for living in, the other for dying in. But the Church is no longer content to perform rites of passage; she has entered the arena of the living and must be reckoned with. The white Southerner, Catholic and Protestant, has been invited either to go inside the edifice he has built or to consider what he is doing on the porch at all.

Unfortunately, the Catholic laity of the South have not yet realized this. Rather it is, to some extent, the other way round—Catholics have absorbed the local prejudices of the community. Two days before last Good Friday, a membership blank appeared in the New Orleans Times-Picayune inviting “Roman Catholics of the Caucasian Race” to join an “Association of Catholic Laymen” for the purpose of “investigating and studying the problems of compulsory integration; to seek out, make known and denounce Communist infiltration, if there be any, in the integration movement,” etc. “Roman Catholics of the Caucasian Race”—what a tragic distortion to connect the word Catholic with the miserable euphemism of the Sugar Bowl ticket: “for members of the Caucasian race only.” Archbishop Rummel’s pastoral letter of February 19 is a hard saying for Louisiana Catholics. No one yet knows what their final reaction will be; there is evidence both of loyalty to and disaffection from this luminous message of Christian charity. Here again the upper-class white Catholic has not distinguished himself. The truth is that the Catholic Church and the twentieth century have caught up with the white Catholics of the South. They can no longer afford the luxury of Creole Catholicism à la Lafcadio Hearn, of Tante Marie going to daily Mass at the Cathedral on a segregated streetcar and seeing God’s will in it.

The Stoic-Christian Southerner is offended when the Archbishop of New Orleans calls segregation sinful (or discusses the rights of labor). He cannot help feeling that religion is overstepping its allotted area of morality. In the comfortable modus vivendi of the past, he had been willing enough to allow Christianity a certain say-so on the subject of sin—by which he understood misbehavior in sexual matters, or in drinking and gambling. He is therefore confused and obscurely outraged when Christian teaching is applied to social questions. It is as if a gentleman’s agreement had been broken. He does not want the argument on these grounds, but prefers to talk about a “way of life,” “state’s rights,” and legal precedents, or to murmur about Communism, left-wing elements and infiltration.

Yet eventually he must come to terms with his own Christian heritage. So far Archbishop Rummel has been answered only by having his name booed by the Citizens’ Council and by having a cross burned in his front yard. The secular press is silent; the Sartorises are silent if they are not booing; many of his Protestant colleagues are silent; more sadly, his own flock wavers. But sooner or later the Archbishop must be answered. And the good pagan’s answer is no longer good enough for the South.

Dr. Percy, who practices medicine in Louisiana, contributes to America, the Partisan Review and other journals, as well as to this magazine.
 

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