Sunday, August 6, 2023

Stonewall Jackson and Moral Virtue


Stonewall Jackson and Moral Virtue

Peter Schultz


            I am currently reading a book The Destructive War, by Charles Royster, about the American Civil War. In it, he as a chapter assessing T.J. “Stonewall” Jackson, where he writes, “Thus Jackson’s demeanor [duty-bound doing God’s will] promoted his fame by a paradox aptly summarized in the Savannah News as ‘the magnificent plainness of ‘Stonewall.’” [71] And quotes a letter Jackson wrote to one of his many correspondents, saying “I have been but the unworthy instrument whom it pleased God to use in accomplishing His purpose.” [70]


            As Royster realizes, Jackson’s claim to be God’s instrument has the paradoxical consequence of magnifying Jackson, of making him seem magnificent or characterized by magnanimity. Jackson seemed to resemble what Aristotle labeled “the magnanimous man” in his Ethics; that is, the pinnacle of moral virtue.


            This phenomenon has some interesting consequences. For example, according to Royster “If [Jackson] deserved his reputation, he must ever more fully demonstrate the power of will to dominate men and events.” [71-2] Paradoxically, Jackson’s “Virtuosity let to disaster. Wielding power ended in being destroyed. The history of the Confederacy … could later sustain belief in Stonewall’s destiny only by resorting to the imaginary and the hypothetical. Confederate narrative of a larger-than-life figure dominating actual events became narrative of mythical figure … shaping fictional events.” [75-76] This led me to think of the George Bushes, I and II, and their wars in Iraq, assertions of will in the service of a completely fictional event, the New World Order they so righteously proclaimed to be creating.


            As Royster notes so compellingly: “The Confederate fantasy of Jackson the war-winner, like Jackson’s ambition, put faith in an ever more violent effort at self-creation. Jackson convinced many people, including soldiers whose lives he risked and lost, that God favored his every move.” [77] “The Confederate fantasy of Jackson” is a version of the fantasy of moral virtue and its alleged power and goodness. It’s a fantasy that leads to “ever more violent efforts at self-creation,” not only for persons but also for nations and even world orders and empires. And as a result, the morally virtuous go looking for or even creating situations where ever more violence is called for and even seems endorsed by God. As the life of Stonewall Jackson illustrates, the morally virtuous easily embrace violence in order to prove their virtuosity.

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