- Many people have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose. [Helen Keller]
- There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing. [Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”, 1849.]
Fidelity to a commitment to the highest good is the pinnacle of human ethical development. When a person’s entire being is devoted to the most worthy ideal to which that person can aspire, the ethical journey has reached its final plateau. We see this not as arrival at a final destination because the point and purpose of reaching this lofty state of Being is to serve the good. We have “miles to go before (we) sleep” and a world of work to do.
In his public life as an activist, Nelson Mandela exemplifies this virtue. Though imprisoned for twenty-seven years, he remained true to his commitment to justice for the black South African people.
- Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 2000).
- Nelson Mandela, Conversations with Myself (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010).
- Nelson Mandela, Mandela: An Illustrated Autobiography (Little, Brown & Company, 1996).
- Tom Lodge, Mandela: A Critical Life (Oxford University Press, 2006).
- Richard Stengel, Mandela's Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage (Crown Archetype, 2010).
- John Carlin, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation (Penguin Press, 2008).
- Gabriel García Márquez, The Scandal of the Century and Other Writings (Knopf, 2019): “A resonant new collection of García Márquez’s journalism, ‘The Scandal of the Century,’ demonstrates how seriously he took reportage and what’s now sometimes called (would Liebling approve?) long-form narrative.”
Commitment fidelity on a larger scale:
- Gary W. Gallagher, The Union War (Harvard University Press, 2011): presenting the Civil War as a commitment by the North to transforming “a government ‘for white men’ into one ‘for mankind.’”
- Janice P. Nimura, The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Woman – and Women to Medicine (W.W. Norton & Company, 2021): “Elizabeth, especially, would rhapsodize about humanity in the abstract, even as actual experiences of clinical intimacy could unnerve her. ‘I feel neither love nor pity for men, for individuals,’ she declared as a young doctor, in a letter to one of her brothers. ‘But I have boundless love & faith in Man, and will work for the race day and night.'”
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
In the times of Beethoven and Mozart, people commonly saw devotion and fidelity to God as the greatest commitment of all. Yet Beethoven was an infrequent churchgoer and Mozart's playful irreverence was legendary. Formally, their compositions and especially their lyrics reflected their churches but their music voices a more universal idea. We can hear the idea of commitment fidelity expressed in their two most reverential works, both for chorus and orchestra. Though Beethoven was careful to compose his Missa solemnis in the style of the Church, most experts believe that his composition of this work reflected a conviction that our deeper obligation was to each other. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Op. 125 and composed in 1824, would celebrate human joy and freedom. We can hear the progression toward a more explicit Humanism by listening carefully to these two works.
- Beethoven, Missa solemnis in D major, Op. 123 (1823): “Beethoven invested much of himself in the Missa Solemnis. As preparation, he immersed himself in an intensive study of religious music of the past, from monastic chants to Handel’s Messiah (he incorporated the melody of ‘And He Shall Reign’ into his Dona nobis pacem) and the Mozart Requiem, portions of which he copied out.” “Because the work had come to mean so much to him during the years that he was working on it, he set great store on its presentation to the public in print and in performance. Beethoven engaged in a vast correspondence with publishers, crowned heads and their representatives, and patrons of various kinds, in order to ensure a worthy destiny for his Grand Mass.” “In a letter written in 1824, Beethoven wrote, 'my chief aim [in writing the Missa Solemnis] was to awaken and permanently instill religious feelings not only into the singers but also into the listeners.'” Great performances are by: Beecham conducting Baillie, Jarred, Nash & Falkner in 1937; Toscanini conducting Milanov, Castagna, Björling & Kipnis in 1940; Klemperer conducting Söderström, Höffgen, Kmentt & Talvela in 1965; Karajan conducting Janowitz, Baltsa, Schreier & van Dam in 1975; Karajan conducting Cuberli, Schmidt & Cole in 1985; Shaw conducting McNair, Aler, Taylor & Krause in 1988; Gardiner conducting Margiono, Robbin, Kendall & Miles in 1989; Marriner conducting Illing, Campbell, Doig & McCann in 1992; Harnoncourt conducting Davies, Lippert, Ziesak & Fink in 1998; Harnoncourt conducting Alkin, Kulman, Chum & Drole in 2015; and Bernius conducting Winkel, Harmsen, Kohlhepp & Kataja in 2018.
- Mozart, Mass in C minor, k. 427 (1783) (performances conducted by Fricsay, Bernstein and Suzuki)
Ernest Bloch’s chamber works exude a seriousness of purpose, evoking this value.
- String Quartet in G Major (1896)
- String Quartet No. 1 (1916)
- String Quartet No. 2 (1945)
- String Quartet No. 3 (1952)
- String Quartet No. 4 (1953)
- String Quartet No. 5 (1956)
- Piano Quintet No. 1 (1923)
- Piano Quintet No. 2 (1957)
- Cello Suite No. 1 (1956)
- Cello Suite No. 2 (1957)
- Cello Suite No. 3 (1957)
- (all three cello suites)
- Suite Hébraique for violin and piano (1951)
- Suite No. 1 for solo violin (1958)
- Suite No. 2 for solo violin (1958)
- Suite for viola and piano (1919)
- Baal Shem (Three Pictures of Chassidic Life) for violin and piano, or violin and orchestra (1932)
- Brahms, 4 Ballades, Op. 10 (1854)
- Flagello, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1950)
- Arnell, Symphony No. 7, Op. 201, “Mandela”
- Bax, Piano Sonata No. 1 in F-sharp Minor (1910)
- Widor, Symphony No. 6 in G Minor, Op. 42/2
- Tchaikovsky, Grande Sonata in G Major, Op. 37
- Oswald, Piano Concerto in G Minor, Op. 10
- Aho, Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra, “Sieidi”
- César Franck, Piano Trio in F-sharp Minor, Op. 1, No. 1, CFF 111 (1842)
Film and Stage
- Brief Encounter, in which two people are tested in their commitment to marriage
- Ratatouille, an animated feature about a rat with extraordinary culinary talents who must decide where he best fits in, the film reminds us that “a great artist can come from anywhere” – well, almost.
- Robert William Service, “The Cremation of Sam McGee”
- Megan Abbott, You Will Know Me: A Novel (Little, Brown & Company, 2016): “At first Katie appears frustrated by the lack of honest communication, but when she finally gets the chance to do something about it, she opts instead to fall in with the evasiveness that’s all around her. The reader is left feeling silly for expecting this manifestly flawed woman to be suddenly heroic. Real life, expertly mimicked by this excellent novel, simply doesn’t work that way.” (walking the talk)
Music: songs and other short pieces
- “We Shall Not Be Moved”: The Freedom Singers at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963; Pete Seeger, The Seekers
- “I Shall Not Be Moved”: Rhiannon Giddens, Mississippi John Hurt