Cracking The Dignity Code

George Washington as a young surveyor

The young surveyor, George Washington

George Washington lived his life with a refined dignity and an adherence to virtue that makes our leadership today pale in comparison. Power seems to be acquired more by media manipulation and legal wrangling than from reputation and character. With the role of politician in disrepute, if our leaders are going to demand respect they must earn it to be worthy of it. There are no shortcuts and it takes constant vigilance. So, how is this virtuous character acquired and then maintained?

David Brooks wrote an article entitled “In Search of Dignity” that was published recently in the New York Times. Here’s an excerpt from his insightful article:

When George Washington was a young man, he copied out a list of 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” Some of the rules in his list dealt with the niceties of going to a dinner party or meeting somebody on the street.

“Lean not upon anyone,” was one of the rules. “Read no letter, books or papers in company,” was another. “If any one come to speak to you while you are sitting, stand up,” was a third.

But, as the biographer Richard Brookhiser has noted, these rules, which Washington derived from a 16th-century guidebook, were not just etiquette tips. They were designed to improve inner morals by shaping the outward man. Washington took them very seriously. He worked hard to follow them. Throughout his life, he remained acutely conscious of his own rectitude.

In so doing, he turned himself into a new kind of hero. He wasn’t primarily a military hero or a political hero. As the historian Gordon Wood has written, “Washington became a great man and was acclaimed as a classical hero because of the way he conducted himself during times of temptation. It was his moral character that set him off from other men.”

Washington absorbed, and later came to personify what you might call the dignity code. The code was based on the same premise as the nation’s Constitution — that human beings are flawed creatures who live in constant peril of falling into disasters caused by their own passions. Artificial systems have to be created to balance and restrain their desires.

The dignity code commanded its followers to be disinterested — to endeavor to put national interests above personal interests. It commanded its followers to be reticent — to never degrade intimate emotions by parading them in public. It also commanded its followers to be dispassionate — to distrust rashness, zealotry, fury and political enthusiasm.

Remnants of the dignity code lasted for decades. For most of American history, politicians did not publicly campaign for president. It was thought that the act of publicly promoting oneself was ruinously corrupting. For most of American history, memoirists passed over the intimacies of private life. Even in the 19th century, people were appalled that journalists might pollute a wedding by covering it in the press.

A sense of dignity can be faked for a while by a certain degree of self-discipline. However without a moral compass there can be no real dignity, as virtue demands a “true north”. A virtuous character and real dignity can only be acquired by a person who has a proper view of himself before his Creator and has the faith and confidence that comes with knowing that he is living right and seeking to fulfill that role. George Washington sought to instill this virtue in his young nephew when he wrote, “A good moral character is the first essential in a man, and that the habits contracted at your age are generally indelible, and your conduct here may stamp your character through life. It is therefore highly important that you should endeavor not only to be learned but virtuous.” The perfect example of virtue and dignity can be found in Jesus Christ who “increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.” –Luke 2:52. Look at the heroes we acclaim today and you will see a dearth of morality in our land. We need more Washingtons and fewer hypocrites.

Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: For so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. –2 Peter 1: 4-11.

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3 thoughts on “Cracking The Dignity Code

  1. One June in 1993 our family of seven drove from Austin Texas to South Padre Island to vacation. Our five year old grandson had visited with his extended family the weekend prior as he lived in England and only visited once each year. My family made these visits an event for our grandson’s. I was intent on entertaining Marlon by suggesting he write the names of each person by associating them with a animal or foul in order for him to gain some writing and spelling practice. He begged my attention to identify my brother-in-law the oldest male in the group by describing him as “the man who stands when another enters the room.”

    It is Always to early to quit. Zita Wright

  2. Thank you for your article on dignity. Did George Washington use the word “dignity” in his writings?

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