The Roman orator Cicero said this near the end of the Roman Republic. Writing Boots correspondent Glynn Young read it in American Digest the other day. I've been mediating on it ever since.
Long before our own time, the customs of our ancestors molded admirable men, and in turn these eminent men upheld the ways and institutions of their forebears. Our age, however, inherited the Republic like some beautiful painting of bygone days, its colors already fading through great age; and not only has our time neglected to freshen the colors of the picture, but we have failed to preserve its form and outlines.
For what remains to us, nowadays, of the ancient ways on which the commonwealth, we are told, was founded? We see them so lost in oblivion that they are not merely neglected, but quite forgot. And what am I to say of the men? For our customs have perished for want of men to stand by them, and we are now called to an account, so that we stand impeached like men accused of capital crimes, compelled to plead our own cause. Through our vices, rather than from happenstance, we retain the word “republic” long after we have lost the reality.
My dad was part of the Greatest Generation (a term that made him uncomfortable, because he dreaded being introduced that way in heaven, and having to mince sheepishly past Jefferson and Lincoln). In his last years, he would say to me, "We've become a real half-assed country. You know that, don't you, Buddy?"
I try not to know it, actually. I force myself to stare long and hard and frequently at noble and upstanding and competent and honest and generous people and institutions in this country. At good doctors and warm teachers and learned lawyers doing good work for poor and powerless people. At divorcing parents who are somehow not badmouthing each other to the kids even though they are each terribly lonely and the kids are their only friends. At sold-out New York and Boston and Chicago marathons! At the Mayo Clinic, at The Julliard School, at the Marines. At guys who give their entire lives over to clearing rubble after disasters. At middle-aged sons who call their mothers every day. At gorgeous and funny people in my life and new ones I meet all the time who I want in my life but can't fit.
And then I turn on the TV.