Alexander Pope wrote “Monuments, like men, submit to fate.”
Two days ago I began a series regarding the Confederate Monument Controversy. I was going to begin today’s article by going directly into what I think should be done with these monuments but think that a little bit more background and context is necessary. That context is best put in the difference between history and memory. History, is made by people because it has real world effects cannot be erased because for good or bad its effects always are with us. Memory on the other hand is often selective and tends toward sentimentally. Because of that, memory often leads to the preservation of things that provide us with a certain sense of comfort, things that buttress our innate sense of superiority.
Statues and monuments themselves have to be taken in their historical context: especially what they meant to the people that erected them and the era in which they were constructed. From time immemorial people and nations have erected statues and monuments to dieties, empowers, kings, generals, and yes, even philosophers and historians. They have also sought to commemorate the lives of soldiers who died in various wars, in part to honor their dead as did the ancient Athenians at Kerameikos, but more often to build upon a sense of national myth and purpose, to link the sacrifices of yesterday’s leaders, or soldiers to their current generation’s political, social, and even spiritual urges.
Some religions like Judaism and Islam have traditionally frowned upon the erection of statues and images that represented their dieties, their saints, or their leaders, fearing that such images could lead to idolatry. There was even a constroversy in the Christian Church, the Iconoclast Controversy, which dealt with this matter which took more than a hundred years to resolve.
In Western society, especially since the Romans there has been a conscious attempt by nations to built statues and monuments to their leaders and other men, as women seldom rated such honor, whether they actually deserved honor or not. As such there are monuments in prominent places to men with political, social, hereditary, or economic connections who when compared to their contemporaries, or others, before or after them, have done little to be heirs to such honor. This does not mean that they were necessarily bad people, or even unworthy of the honor of their time, but rather that they are undeserving of perpetual honor in the most public of locations, or in places unconnected with where they made their name.
Cemeteries and museums are the best places for statues which have past their effective life in the public square. Removing them does nothing to harm history, nor does it write them out of history. I like how the Old Testament writers of the books of the Kings and Chronicles end their discussions of the kings of Israel and Judah. They note that these men’s lives and deeds, good and evil, are written about and where they were buried to be with their ancestors. An example of the is Jesus, one of the kings of Israel in the book of Second Kings: “Now the rest of the acts of Jehu, all that he did, and all his power, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel?”
Since the Jews of the Old Testament did not build statues to their leaders for fear of idolatry the ensured through the oral, and later the written tradition that these leaders, the good and the bad, were remembered for their work and contributions. The Islamic tradition is quite similar.
The ancient Greeks, particularly those of Athens chose to use the cemetery as a place to remember their dead. In dedicating the Mount Auburn Cemetery during the Greek revival, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story noted:
“The Greeks exhausted the resources of their exquisite art in adorning the habitations of the dead. They discouraged internments within the limits of their cities; and consigned their relics to shady groves, in the neighborhood of murmuring streams and merry fountains, close by the favorite resorts of those who were engaged in the study of philosophy and nature, and called them, with the elegant expressiveness of their own beautiful language, cemeteries or “places of repose.”
Cemeteries are always places where the dead can be honored or remembered, where their descendants can find comfort and even sense the presence of their departed ancestors.
But the public square is another matter. Times change, governments and governmental types change. The statues that the early colonists of the British American colonies erected to King George III had no place in the new republic and were removed. Monuments to Josef Stalin and Vladimir Lenin where removed from their places of prominence in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Romania once those countries escaped Soviet domination.
Statues in public places dedicated to specific individuals or events tend to have a shelf life which means that they regardless of who they are dedicated to need to be periodically re-examined to see if they should remain in their current place of honor or be moved to a different location. But the United States is a comparatively young country, our oldest monuments are likewise comparatively new, and many pale in comparison to those of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. In those areas multiple civilizations and empire have risen and fallen, massive monuments have been erected, toppled, or faded away. Many surviving monuments now are in museums, collections of antiquity representing fallen civilizations, or have been moved from places of honor and replaced by ones that more appropriately represent the national culture and experience.
As we approach the first quarter millenium of our experiment as a republic it is a good time to look at what we have commemorated with monuments and make considered decisions about each of them, and not just Confederate monuments. Obviously many, especially those that deal with our founding as a nation and our founders need to stay, but others should be replaced, or removed to more appropriate venues, or in cases of monuments that memorialize the more shameful parts of our history, maybe leave them and place other monuments and markers to explain the historical context and promote history versus myth. Likewise if we decide to remove them, what replaces them should be well thought out. This actually goes beyond the monuments themselves but has all to do with history, historical preservation, and the narrative that a community wants to communicate about its history, its values, and yes, even its future, for those monuments for good or bad are part of what bind generations together.
As no point do I think they should be destroyed, even those to men who were evil, or represented evil causes. It think in the cases of truly evil men that their statues should be placed in parks, at eye level with other statues like them. The process then allows people to view them not as exalted figures, but people with feet of clay. A number of Eastern European countries have done this with statues of Stalin, Lenin, and others from the Soviet era.
The placement or monuments is of more importance than their existence, and their contexts matter. Honore De Balzac noted: “With monuments as with men, position means everything.
So anyway, tomorrow I will wrap this up by dealing with the Confederate Monument Controversy.