Robert E. Lee on honesty: a companion text to Machiavelli

When my rhetoric and composition class held a Socratic dialogue on an excerpt from Machiavelli’s The Prince [Machiavellei: The Morals of the Prince], a consensus formed quite quickly that one had to do what one had to do–that is, lie.

I injected a counter argument into the conversation, suggesting that it is possible to approach public life in the spirit of Socrates, using language only to discover and communicate truth–having goals that one is willing to advocate for explicitly and honesty so that one can also adopt truth telling as one’s method.

A stronger approach would have been to be sure that students had read counter arguments by other writers before the dialogue, so that the discussion could focus on understanding and analyzing various points of view, rather than agreeing or disagreeing with what they guess is the teacher’s opinion.

So I’ve been looking for a text that could serve as one of the companion texts for Machiavelli. A letter by Robert E. Lee to his oldest son might serve. Here he argues for being frank in every situation:

You must study to be frank with the world; frankness is the child of honesty and courage. Say just what you mean to do on every occasion, and take it for granted you mean to do right. If a friend ask a favor, you should grant it, if it is reasonable; if not, tell him plainly why you cannot. You will wrong him and wrong yourself by equivocation of any kind. Never do wrong to make a friend or keep one; the man who requires you to do so is dearly purchased at a sacrifice. Deal kindly but firmly with all your classmates; you will find it the policy which wears best. Above all, do not appear to others what you are not. If you have any fault to find with any one, tell him, not others, of what you complain; there is no more dangerous experiment than that of undertaking to be one thing before a man’s face and another behind his back. We should live, act, and say nothing to the injury of any one. It is not only best as a matter of principle, but it is the path to peace and honor.

In regard to duty, let me, in conclusion of this hasty letter, inform you that nearly a hundred years ago there was a day of remarkable gloom and darkness—still known as ‘the dark day,’—a day when the light of the sun was slowly extinguished as if by an eclipse. The Legislature of Connecticut was in session, and its members saw the unexpected and unaccountable darkness coming on. They shared in the general awe and terror. It was supposed by many that the last day had come. Some one, in the consternation of the hour, moved an adjournment. Then there arose an old Puritan legislator, Davenport, of Stamford, and said that if the last day had come, he desired to be found at his place doing his duty, and therefore moved that candles be brought in, so that the House could proceed with its duty. There was quietness in that man’s mind, the quietness of heavenly wisdom and inflexible willingness to obey present duty. Duty, then, is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things, like the old Puritan, You cannot do more; you should never do less. Never let me and your mother wear one gray hair for any lack of duty on your part.

“Human virtue should be equal to human calamity.” That’s rhetoric worth pondering.

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