I have incredibly deep roots in the northeast. Most of my family, on both maternal and paternal sides, came down from Canada into New York, Vermont and Massachusetts in the early to mid 1800’s. And as far as I can figure they were in Canada for a good 150-200 years before that.
Recently, I visited upstate New York where I did a bit of research into my father’s side of the family tree. After walking through that rural landscape with it’s mountain passes and fields of swaying corn, as well as reading countless historical documents from census records to newspapers to farm schedules, I have come to a startling conclusion.
I am fairly certain my ancestors could kick my ass, and had more character than I ever will.
The hard lives they lived as farmers and laborers left little time for comfort and softness. Pumping water for up to four hours a day simply to supply the livestock, struggling through winters that dipped to 30 below, all while raising families of 9, 10, 11 children all built character. They lived the four classical virtues in an authentic way because if they didn’t, they likely wouldn’t survive.
Prudence came more naturally because the world was a much less forgiving place. Mistakes in judgement could mean ruined crops, dead animals or children without enough to eat. If I make a bad decision I can usually make up for it – at least materially- pretty quickly.
Fortitude was something they had in spades. Simply existing then took courage. When I think about my ancestors leaving all they knew to travel to what they hoped would be better land to start all over, usually with huge families in tow, I am left speechless. I doubt I would have that courage. I know that for good or ill, I have grown too comfortable.
When there are less distractions Moderation tends to be man’s natural default. The siren song of TV, radio and Internet were not things they had to contend with in the 1800’s. Nor was the danger of over eating. With no ready-made convenience food most of the time they were doing their best simply to have enough. They worked when it was light, rested when it was dark and spent Sundays with family.
Finally, the concept of Justice was much more immediate. Reading one newspaper article I saw how what we would call a mugging was thwarted by a couple courageous townsman. When they is less of an official deterrence in the form of regular police, lawyers and courts, neighbors needed to take care of each other.
Trying to live a virtuous life in the 21st century has a number of obstacles that life in the rural 19th century simply didn’t have. I love living where I do and when I do, and I know that it is easy to idealize the past. I am sure there were obstacles to virtue that I am glossing over. Still, a part of me wonders if all our so-called progressed has simply made it harder to live life the ways it is supposed to be lived.