Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away (February 18, 2006, to be specific), I wrote this on our predecessor site, Enchiridion Militis:
I have long agreed with Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith that lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for. To put it more analytically, it is one of my most deeply held convictions that a man does not have integrity at all unless there is at least one thing, one good thing, for which he would die in a ditch, knowing that his side is lost but fighting to the last. He who will compromise on everything has lost his soul.
So I have collected, over the years, a small but precious stock of literary allusions to the glory of lost causes, and I propose to dole them out over a series of posts in lieu of other, more detailed politico-ethical reflections.
It did occur to me as I was thinking of these various quotations that some of them may seem to be “cheating.” Several of these are Christian in origin and hence contain the idea that we will not really lose in the final, eschatological sense, that Truth and Justice will finally triumph and hence that the appearance of losing here in this life is to some degree illusory. Yet they seem to fit with the theme of the glory of lost causes nonetheless. So my astute readers will have to forgive me for including in this series both quotations that imagine a final, heavenly reward and those that imagine none. And you can tell me what you think–does the point about lost causes get made better if we don’t believe in a heaven than if we do?
The first brief quotation is a stanza of “Am I a Soldier of the Cross.” We sang this at my little Anglican church on Septuagesima Sunday. (And if you don’t know what that is, you should!)
Thy saints in all this glorious war shall conquer though they die.
They view the triumph from afar and seize it with their eye.
The second (one of my very favorites) is an excerpt from the Anglo-Saxon poem, “The Battle of Maldon,” in which the good guys lose to the Vikings. I’d put it here in AS, but that would a) give the impression that I can actually read Anglo-Saxon, which is not true, and b) be impossible, as the requisite characters are not available to me here. This is Kevin Crossley-Holland’s translation.
…Then Wistan advanced,
the son of Thurstan; he fought with the Vikings,
slew three in the struggling throng
before he, Wigelm’s brave son, was himself brought down.
That was a savage fight; the warriors stood firm
in the struggle. Strong men fell,
drained by wounds; the dead dropped to the earth.
Byrhtwold grasped his shield and spoke.
He was an old companion. He brandished his ash-spear
and most boldly urged on the warriors:
“Mind must be the firmer, heart the more fierce,
courage the greater, as our strength diminishes.
Here lies our leader, hewn down,
an heroic man in the dust.
He who now longs to escape will lament for ever.
I am old. I will not go from here,
but I mean to lie by the side of my lord…”
Well, that was then, this is now, and things haven't changed much. Lost causes are still the causes most worth fighting for. But I never did dole out further quotations along those lines, partly because I was lazy and/or preoccupied, and partly because EM ended. So, making no promises or purposes for the future (being now older and more honest with myself about my own laziness), here are a few more, including some new to me since then and some that are old friends.
The Lady Galadriel (HT to Steve Burton back on Enchiridion Militis, who reminded me of this one in the comments on that old post):
For the Lord of the Galadrim is accounted the wisest of the Elves of Middle-earth, and a giver of gifts beyond the power of kings. He has dwelt in the West since the days of dawn, and I have dwelt with him years uncounted; for ere the fall of Nargothrond or Gondolin I passed over the mountains, and together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.
Whittaker Chambers, from Witness, a book I had not read in 2006. (Steve Burton also suggested this quotation in the comments to the original post.)
I wanted my wife to realize clearly one long-term penalty, for herself and for the children, of the step I was taking. I said: “You know, we are leaving the winning world for the losing world.” I meant that, in the revolutionary conflict of the 20th century, I knowingly chose the side of probable defeat. Almost nothing that I have observed, or that has happened to me since, has made me think that I was wrong about that forecast. But nothing has changed my determination to act as if I were wrong–if only because, in the last instance, men must act on what they believe right, not on what they believe probable.
Then in 1938, with the clearest understanding of the consequences, we freely made the choice which history is slowly bringing all men to see is the only possible choice–the decision to die, if necessary, rather than to live under Communism. Nothing has made us regret that decision.
And this, from a poet I have just recently found who deserves to be much, much better known, Lizette Woodworth Reese, from her poem "Growth":
Nor is the last word said;
Nor is the battle done;
Somewhat of glory and of dread
Remains for set of sun.
That stanza deserves to be graven on the heart of all on "our side" in these dark days.
The song of Sam Gamgee in the Tower of Cirith Ungol:
Though here at journey's end I lie
in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
beyond all mountains steep,
above all shadows rides the Sun
and Stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the Stars farewell.
Dear readers, in the end, I believe that this may be one of the most important messages we can understand, though each of us will apply it to his life and to his times in his own way: It is, finally, the message of our Lord Jesus Christ. We must die to live. He that saves his life will lose it. You must be willing to lose. And though it matters, often matters hideously and vitally, whether we win or lose, in an important sense it does not matter whether you yourself choose the losing or the winning side but whether you choose the right side.
Elizabeth Goudge, from The White Witch:
"It has come upon us," he said. "I know," she said impatiently. "Is it only today you realize we are at war?"
"I don't mean the war," he said. "I mean our time of judgment, yours and mine....Men choose one side or the other, making the best choice that they can with the knowledge that they have. Yet they know little and the turns and twists of war are incalculable....And so the one war becomes each man's private war, fought out within his own nature. In the last resort that's what matters to him, Froniga. In the testing of the times did he win or lose his soul? That's his judgment."...
"One life knows many judgments," she said. "They are like the chapters in a book. What if every chapter but the last is one of defeat? The last can redeem it all. And God knows the heart....Patient still, He adds another chapter, and then another, and in the hour of victory closes the book."