Sometimes all it takes is a single snippet in the news to open a world of insights. Consider this small item the other day: It seems two golfers in North Union Township, Pennsylvania have been charged with assaulting each other while arguing about the rules at a golf course there. North Union Township is clearly not on this side of Mason-Dixon's line, just as these two alleged golfers are just as clearly not gentlemen. For in the course of their disagreement over the rules of the game, one of them was said to have struck the other in the head with a 3-wood.
Shocking. Everybody knows that kind of shot calls for a No. 2 iron. Though a 9-iron might do in a pinch. Wasn't that Mrs. Woods' club of choice when she'd finally had enough of Tiger? I have no idea whether she'd remembered to keep her head down and follow through.
Golf has come a long way (down) since what became the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers issued the first 13 rules of the game in 1744. The present sub-rules include this: "Any dispute as to the proper action which is not covered by the Rules should be resolved by doing what is most equitable."
These sub-rules appear in an appendix to the first numbered rules and dictate the etiquette to be observed on the course. Like avoiding "actions made with intent to damage the course, facilities or other players' equipment" or "to injure other players or disturb/distract them while making their play...." In the age of the mulligan, such rules sound like relics of an earlier grace.
Naturally that brings me to mention Robert E. Lee, as almost anything will, but especially evidence that his code of gentlemanly behavior has become a thing of the past. The general would surely have approved of the Honourable Company of Golfers and their simple rules, though he knew that what is understood between gentlemen needn't be spelled out. Or as he told the members of an incoming class at what was then Washington College who inquired if the school had a rule book: "We have but one rule here, that every student be a gentleman." Enough said.
It was an English gentleman, Lord Moulton, who early in the last century theorized that there are three domains that govern the life of man: "First comes the domain of Positive Law, where our actions are prescribed by laws binding upon us which must be obeyed. Next comes the domain of Free Choice, which includes all those actions as to which we claim and enjoy complete freedom." But absolute law, dictating every action and maybe thought, too, becomes absolutely impossible to live with. It comes to be absolute tyranny. And absolute freedom becomes absolute anarchy. For what is freedom without law to ensure, interpret and guide it?
So, between those two domains, said Lord Moulton, must come a third, which has "one and the same characteristic throughout -- It is the domain of Obedience to the Unenforceable. The obedience is the obedience of a man to that which he cannot be forced to obey. He is the enforcer of the law upon himself." Call it custom or morality or manners. Lord Moulton, being an Englishman, called it Good Form.
It was an American general and gentleman, Robert E. Lee, who transformed a modest little Latin academy named in honor of another general and gentleman, George Washington, into a great school when he took on the task of leading it after The War -- rather than accept far more lucrative offers that would have traded on his good name. "That is exactly what is not for sale," he is said to have told one corporation that sought to buy it. Instead he would become a humble schoolmaster whose personal nobility was reflected in his every decision on campus, as it was throughout his life.
Among those decisions, Lee established what may have been the first course in journalism on an American college campus. Imagine that -- believing journalists could be gentlemen. Lee added both business and law schools to the college's curriculum, believing both those trades should be linked to the liberal arts -- even though the more traditional scholars of his time looked askance at the very idea. For journalism and law had long been considered only technical crafts.
That wasn't all. Lee not only instituted the Honor System that still governs what has now become Washington and Lee University, but he was serious when he declared that The War be left behind and all unite in these reunited states of America. ("Abandon your animosities and make your sons Americans!") He himself made a conscious effort to recruit students from the North.
In these politically correct times, the university that bears his name seems all too determined to erase any sign of its connection with Lee's famed Army of Northern Virginia, perhaps the last chivalrous force to take the field in this all too modern age.
But the memory of Lee still calls us back to unspoken duty, to the domain of obedience to the unenforceable. In these latitudes, all it may take is a single word -- Lee -- to still our quarrelsome natures, and return us to respectful silence in the presence of his memory. The very mention of his name still bids us rise to the realm of Duty, which he once called the most sublime word in the language.