Letter from the Rectory - October 2022
I’m writing this the day after the late Queen’s funeral – in many ways the first day of the new post-Elizabethan era.
During the past fortnight many commentators have mentioned her determination to uphold traditional values. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger praised her reserve, self-containment, duty, responsibility, modesty of demeanour, graciousness, civility, prudence and fortitude. This, he notes, comes amid a contemporary culture that elevates a value system of self-regard, self-promotion, changeability, acting out and anything-goes behaviour that is the polar opposite of Queen Elizabeth’s.
The Queen, he continues, was taught traditional values from an early age – personal virtues held in high regard for centuries in the West and arguably longer in the East. In our time, however, he writes that personal virtue has been demoted by social virtue. In the new ethos, a well-ordered life is measured by one’s commitment to notions such as social justice, equity, inclusion and – undeniably the most dominant modern virtue – saving the planet.
The achievement of a good life depends on making a public commitment to large, sometimes amorphous groups – minorities, the transgendered, the indigenous, the disadvantaged. The past fortnight’s recollections of what made the Queen’s life exceptional are an opportunity to compare the merits of virtue earned individually with virtue, or approved behaviour, constructed by society.
One effect of giving social responsibility more weight than personal responsibility is that it gives people a pass on their personal behaviour, Henninger believes. So long as one’s life is ‘centred’ on some larger social good, the conduct of one’s personal life is irrelevant; responsibility for one’s own acts is diminished almost to nothing.
The Queen’s habits were a source of personal stability; modern values are a source of instability. The habits of behaviour associated with her are not about mere goodness but about creating a structure of life inside which one can perform successfully as a person, hopefully for the good.
The Queen’s example may fade, but our writer from across the Atlantic concludes that we’d be better off with a longer reconsideration of what made Queen Elizabeth’s life exemplary.