Memory and Gratitude

Editors note: This article was submitted for publication in our canceled June 1 issue, just after Memorial Day. We bring it to you now with our apologies.


This past Monday was Memorial Day. This holiday has its roots in American history following the Civil War; it was generally celebrated as “Decoration Day,” a day to place flowers and flags on the graves of fallen soldiers. Consequently, The Department of Veterans Affairs states that Memorial Day “commemorates the men and women who died while in the military service.” 36 USC § 116, the legislation establishing Memorial Day as a national holiday, states that on that day, the President is to issue a proclamation:

(1) calling on the people of the United States to observe Memorial Day by praying, according to their individual religious faith, for permanent peace;

(2) designating a period of time on Memorial Day during which the people may unite in prayer for a permanent peace;

(3) calling on the people of the United States to unite in prayer at that time; and

(4) calling on the media to join in observing Memorial Day and the period of prayer.

The assumed proper response to the commemoration of our honored war dead, according to this legislation, is to unite in prayer for peace. The true celebration of Memorial Day goes far beyond being “rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war” or just another “awareness” campaign. Memorial Day depends on memory.

Josef Pieper discusses the similarity of memory and tradition in his book Tradition: Concept and Claim. “The concept of memory is close to the concept of tradition and associated with it. They both have in common that something that has happened, or been experienced, or spoken once upon a time will be held present in the consciousness, will be “re-present-ed.” But Pieper recognizes that this “represencing” of the past is not an end in itself; memory is not concerned merely with awareness of the past. “Tradition has been called ‘society’s memory,’ ‘a culture’s ontological memory’ and mnemosyne, preservation through memory has been described as that which does not allow ‘present and future to lose the fullness of being.’” A nation or society is not merely what it is today, its present and future are shaped by its past. Attempting to ignore this truth results in inauthenticity.

This inauthenticity plagues modern “awareness” movements because such movements have completely lost the fullness of being. They exist as abstractions: posting your bra’s color on Facebook for breast cancer awareness;rolling up your pants’ leg for landmine awarenessmaking a national “Human Trafficking Awareness Day.” The failure of these endeavors to actually accomplish anything can be seen clearly with the Kony 2012 campaign. When it asked its virtual supporters to engage in real world activity – something as simple as putting up posters – nothing happened. T. S. Eliot writes in “Choruses from the Rock,” “Where is the Life we have lost in living?/Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?/Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” When awareness is all that one is concerned with, action becomes as simple as “liking” a page on facebook, wearing the appropriate wristband or t-shirt, or camping near Wall St.

Memory is something else entirely. Connected with tradition, it realizes that the past is intricately connected to both the present and the future, that ignoring or being separated from the past leads to inauthentic existence. Memory involves a state of being before action; one must consciously exist in light of the past aware of how it has shaped the present and will shape the future. This state of being leads to authentic action – action connected to the subject of the memory. Thus on Memorial Day when the nation remembers its brave soldiers who have died to protect it, it ought to pray for peace that no more soldiers need die.

Memory as a state of being assists one in maintaining a proper relation to the world. Gratitude is key to this state. Mark Mitchell writes, “Gratitude is a way of inhabiting the world. In the first instance, gratitude is a disposition toward the world that reminds us that we are not alone. We are not solitary creatures owing nothing to no one. Rather, gratitude points to our dependence.” This state of gratitude is followed by action. “When our thoughts are characterized by gratitude, they are outward looking. Gratitude breaks us out of the cocoon of self-satisfaction and self-concern that is a constant temptation and impels us to think of the ways our lives are related to others.”

For the true hipster conservative, memory and gratitude find unity in the cultivation of tradition. Tradition, like gratitude, points man outside himself and to his dependency. G. K. Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy, “I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record.” Ignoring history is undemocratic; “The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad.”

Authentic existence means requires living with the memory of the past. To do so, man must not reject ideas, traditions, or obligations merely because they came from the past; rather the past is owed deference because it is out of the past that the present arises. Eliot writes, “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future,/And time future contained in time past./… Time past and time future/What might have been and what has been/Point to one end, which is always present.” As Ecclesiastes reminds, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Ignoring the past, refusing to engage memory, is truly foolish because the past informs on how to deal with the present and what to expect for the future. Chesterton writes,

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.

This consideration is something owed to ancestors and is a debt of love. Speaking of gratitude, St. Thomas Aquinas writes, “The debt of gratitude flows from the debt of love, and from the latter no man should wish to be free. Hence that anyone should owe this debt unwillingly seems to arise from lack of love for his benefactor.” A lack of love, the foundation of a lack of gratitude, is necessarily vicious. Romans 1:28 states that the refusal to remember God leads to a reprobate mind; surely the refusal to remember the past leads to a similar lack of understanding.

True memory and gratitude are marked by action and responsibility. Mark Mitchell writes, “Gratitude is born of humility, for it acknowledges the giftedness of the creation and the benevolence of the Creator. This recognition gives birth to acts marked by attention and responsibility. Ingratitude, on the other hand, is marked by hubris, which denies the gift, and this always leads to inattention, irresponsibility, and abuse.” As Memorial Day has just occurred, looking at the difference between gratitude (properly functioning memory) and ingratitude in the context of the military seems appropriate. There seems to be two types of ingratitude as a response to the military’s service and to those who gave their lives. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, is to deny their sacrifice and heroism; this has most frequently been expressed by voices from the left; these people, because of their dislike of war are “uncomfortable” terming those who sacrifice their lives in war “heroes.” Such people have abandoned memory and refused to learn from the past; instead they look to the future expecting to find something new under the sun. They are doomed either to delusion or disappointment.

This form of ingratitude is base, but almost laughable in its simplicity. The other is more devious under its disguise of patriotism and American exceptionalism. An interventionist foreign policy, in addition to ignoring the advice of the “father of the country,” George Washington, demonstrates ingratitude to the sacrifice of soldiers by not working for peace. This ingratitude coincides with a failure of memory: history teaches that such policies do not result in peace. It would be odd if, in order to display gratitude for the payment of a debt, the debtor engaged in further wastefulness; similarly, to use the nation’s armed forces as a tool of foreign policy when the nation is not being threatened fails to correctly respond to the sacrifices of the past. The intent of Memorial Day – a day set aside to pray for peace – recognizes the proper and grateful response to the sacrifices of the armed forces.

But voices from the right are always commending, “Never forget! Never forget!” And so they persist in remembering the factual information of what happened, how their ancestors were wronged, and how revenge was enacted. But they never engage in memory; they never live in light of what they “never forget.” They continue creating situations or supporting policies where American soldiers will have to give their lives.

Both these forms of ingratitude stem from the abandonment of memory and the worship of the future, something hipster conservatives note with chagrin. Such abandonment, as Pieper notes, leads immediately to inauthenticity, a falling from being; it leads eventually to foolishness.

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