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Cultural Values/Transcending Generations

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Fear, Love, Power and Culture

Perspective: Cultural Values February 17, 2004


Printable Version

Machiavelli felt it was better to be feared than loved, and I have the greatest of respect for Niccolo Machiavelli as an observer of the nature of man. He saw man as inherently evil and thereby you had to focus on his nature which was dominated by convenience over conscience, and perhaps the greatest force to affect that personal convenience was personal fear. However, to be fair to Machiavelli, his observations were set in a time period with a surrounding culture. Machiavelli would in all likelihood have preferred things to be different, but even Hobbs looked at man as being inherently evil because of the culture of Hobbs’ times. If you look to other periods, such as the inception of America and those that bound together in sacrifice for its Declaration of Independence, or the efforts of what many see as the greatest generation after World War II, when they not only brought freedom, but moved to create a better world with the Marshall Plan. You see a different culture, and you see the most powerful component was not fear, but was instead conscience, and the greatest driver of conscience is love. Fear drives convenience to dominate, love drives conscience to dominate. Which is dominant in any period depends on the culture, what it values, and what it teaches its children. Conscience must be sensitized to reach the level that love overcomes fear. Good character where conscience overcomes convenience is much easier on an individual level because there is a better appreciation of the Golden Rule and the common good. Convenience dominates in the levels of power because convenience finds many allies in ambition, greed, hubris and their cousins. Conscience reaches power when the culture of the society appreciates conscience as a value and the powers of it being convenient are thus pulled to its side. History shows us that there have been periods that man’s evil dominated and had atrocities, other periods showed great charity. They occur in different societies simultaneously because each of us has the forces fighting within us. God gave us free choice to choose our nature, but the nature of the culture influences.

Growing up in Texas part of your education was a lot of witticism and simple stories. Some were a bit dated such at the advice “not to squat while you are wearing spurs”, others are longer lasting such as the fact “you should not complain about having no boots when you realize that other people have no feet”, and a few get a bit more complicated. One is the old story of the little boy who went into a café and sat at one of the few tables. The waitress came up and asked what he wanted, and he asked her how much an Ice Cream Sundae cost. Seeing that tied up one of her few tables she said fifty-cents rather abruptly. He slowly got his money out and counted it in one hand and then asked her how much for just a bowl of ice cream. Becoming increasingly frustrated as more people waited she answered, thirty-five cents. He said he would take the ice cream, she served it, he finished it, paid for it and went on his way. When she returned to clean the table she saw two nickels and five pennies stacked neatly beside the bowl as her tip. Obviously, he could have had what he wanted, but he cared more about seeing that he was fair with her.

That simple story can help each of us define ourselves. Was the boy naďve in not getting what he wished and should he have conveniently just gotten the Sundae? Was his concern for her such that it embarrassed her for having taken him so lightly when his concern was more about her than himself, or should she have just “realistically” realized that the fifteen-cents was a rather minor benefit for tying up a table? Even more important, what was the attitude of the surrounding people who watched and understood? They were the ones that would form the culture of the times. Or, did they admire the boy and the values that he showed? Did they themselves feel imposed upon because he was a small customer and they were going to buy more and they were delayed? Did they become irritated with the waitress for treating him poorly, and in keeping with the times, feel that he should have sued her for discrimination? Or, did they simply not care? Did they wonder what their child would have done in a similar situation?

It is the latter that has to become a concern if we are going to have a society that moves forward. Even before we can decide what we want to teach we have to recognize the need that it be taught, and we have to make it our personal responsibility to do so.

Machiavelli was totally right in his observation that half of life is fate, the other half you can control. Our family has always felt that if you took actions in God’s favor on those you could control, you could ask God’s favor on those that you did not. You normally receive in life as a result of what you give. The issue is the culture of the times and the power over whether the child that succeeds is one that is convenience or has conscience. It is not an issue of just what we teach our children, it is instead an issue of how actively we shape our society. Fear and love drive power which drives culture. It all depends on which is strongest.

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