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The Public Life

December 21, 2011

In the quote below, Dr. Louise proclaims an aspect of the dedicated life which our modern sensibility often induces us to misunderstand or suspect in others, or to forget and recoil from ourselves: publicity.

The modern order has been critiqued as an attack on marriage and the family, invading the domestic sphere, the table and the bedroom, the home. It has obliterated–still somewhere in the common memory–the great lordly house that promised a reconciliation of private and public goods, of generosity and inwardness, sharing the joys of its hidden life with neighbors and dependents, and lifting them above themselves. A promise perhaps ultimately symbolic rather than literal, but nevertheless it was without a doubt literally real.

But I’m already ahead of myself, because I was going to say that the modern order is equally an attack on the inner life of those collective symbols and institutions which form the sphere of public life: the polity, the school, the university, the church, (should I add, the battlefield?).

Little enclaves of culture and devotion cannot survive, let alone flower, without clergy, teachers, administrators, and statesmen who dedicate themselves to a truly public ministry and, in doing so, create and cultivate a sphere for common works and projects, for noble alliances and friendships, for shared understanding, feeling, and devotion.

“The unmistakable sign of greatness in a city is the presence in it of people who are courageous and hardy enough to play public roles, to be public figures.

For when one is a public person, one sacrifices time and leisure, comfort and pleasure, but, even more, one relinquishes that secret dream in which we all share, the dream of being irreproachable and flawless, superior without being tested. The public person is visible. He stands in the light; and, more, he stands for something. He receives blame and ridicule; and whatever praise and admiration come his way are given long after such tributes have ceased to matter.

The public man is a leader and a worker. He does not work merely to keep busy, but to accomplish. True work transforms a portion of the world: it is not mere routine or mechanical drudgery. Work is the encounter between the human and the nonhuman; between man and things. Work is man’s great joy. The public man knows this secret; he works on projects, with others; he is a team worker. His entire life is given over to his work: if he entertains, it is to foster the spirit of community and perhaps induce others to work for the general welfare; if he retreats to his vacation home, it is to store up energy for another task.”

Imagining Dallas, Louise Cowan

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