Quick, who said “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country”?
Nathan Hale, right. Well sorta. But the 21 year-old patriot hung by the British probably was familiar with Joseph Addison’s 1713 play Cato which included these lines: “What pity is it / That we can die but once to serve our country.”
So was Patrick Henry, who said “Give me liberty or give me death,” echoing, at least, these lines from Act II: “It is not now a time to talk of aught / But chains or conquest, liberty or death.”
In an essay in the Wall Street Journal, John Miller says that the founding fathers were all familiar with Addison (1672-1719) and his play. Washington even had the play performed for the troops at Valley Forge. In his autobiography Benjamin Franklin talks about how he wished to imitate Addison as a writer.
But play, about Cato the Younger, a first century Roman senator who opposed Caesar, had an important influence on the early American conception of freedom, and of the sacrifice it takes to earn it.
In England Addison and his boyhood friend Richard Steele put out a magazine of fairly influential essays, but he seldom wrote about the American colonies and never visited them.
His play, however, had a remarkable influence, and is even credited for helping to make theater itself acceptable to the more puritanical colonials. It was the first play performed by the first professional acting company in Philadelphia in 1749.
But my purpose here is not to continue to summarize Miller’s excellent essay, which you should read for yourself. But to point out that the pen is in fact mightier than the sword. And that we are all more influenced by the arts than we realize.
It is of course a great tragedy that we no longer seem to be much touched by great art, a theme I will return to this week. It is a greater tragedy still that we don’t seem able to create it. Or at least not that art which enables our noblest sentiments and sacrifices.
Instead most likely virtue is mocked, truth is denied and self is promoted. There is no freedom to anticipate in this. Or to celebrate. There is only the bondage of human desire.
There is nothing more shallow than Entertainment Tonight or a raft of reality TV shows designed to spare the networks the cost of actual writers. But where would they find them?
And if they could find them, do they have the courage to confront the tyranny that enslaves us? Or the evil that tempts us? Or point us to the grace we require?
Seriously, I mean, what if no one “likes” it on Facebook?
Certainly the most influential ideas in our time, or in any time, flow out of the arts and into our hearts.
We must guard them both.