I started this brief introspection more than a decade ago, when I’d left home and family in the United States returning to my roots in Latin America, determined to give back to a People I’d never really gotten to know, but who seemed determined to make their beautiful country an example to the world after decades of civil strife. A place I might perhaps make a difference. I finished it today, adding this introduction and a closing following my eulogy to Lt. Colonel Thomas Nugent Courvoisie. Perhaps it’s timely. Perhaps it’s an introspection in which we all need to engage.
Ethics to me are those personal standards by which we seek to guide and bind our actions; they are the blueprints that we acknowledge for ourselves although we cannot always abide by them.
My personal ethics are derived from two critical sources. First, my family traditions as communicated to me by my mother and as researched or fantasized by me. They are based on a spirituality of kindness, understanding and acceptance on the one hand, and the performance of historical characters on the other. My family was matriarchal, in the absence of father figures a good deal of the time, and the presence of strong women. Theosophy played a very strong role, with its beliefs in Karma and reincarnation, and acceptance of almost all religious beliefs as based on aspects of truth. It inspired a quest for truth untroubled by fear that an insecure god would punish my questions and that exposed me to a great many religions and philosophies. The history of the Calvi (my paternal family line) on the other hand, was based on Roman values and virtues which I researched in the absence of a father at home, and goes back to well before the birth of Christ. Calvisius Sabinus was co-consul with Octavian in 4 b.c., the date generally given for the birth of Yeshua Ben Josef (called the Christ today), and a Calvisius Sabinus was also one of the first to turn on the Roman Emperor Gaius (Caligula) and was arrested and condemned to death by him (although I believe Caligula was assassinated before the sentence was carried out). Those examples, as mentalized by me, set standards for courage and gravitas which I have sought to emulate, not always successfully.
Secondly and perhaps even more importantly, my ethics were strongly influenced by my military education, initially at Eastern Military Academy where I was first a student and then a faculty member, and then at the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. In both of those institutions, we were guided by an honor code that required that we not cheat, lie or steal, or tolerate those who did. It is a great standard, not always easy to follow, especially the last part. Those institutions also provided meaningful components in my personal ethics through the examples of the people I came to know there; real heroes, albeit personally humble; classmates, professors and administrators willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for what they believed to be right, willing to take the harder path if it was the right path. They are the people I love most. Of the many, one stands out in my mind as I write this, Lt. Colonel Thomas Nugent Courvoisie, assistant commandant at the Citadel when I was a cadet. I wrote the following introduction for him when he addressed the inaugural meeting of the Central Florida Citadel Club, a testament to ethics and integrity:
Thirty years ago, in one of his first commercial literary endeavors, Pat Conroy wrote a book that epitomized his ambivalence for the Citadel but presaged his life-long love for its soul. The book was about the man who, to many of us, best embodies the qualities that made Citadel men not only successful, but special in their humanity, humility and humor.
1970 was a difficult year. The country was in the midst of a war fought both abroad, and more successfully at home. And the Citadel had experienced its own coup de état two years earlier.
To me and many other cadets during the turbulent sixties, Lt. Colonel Thomas Nugent Courvoisie, appeared to possess some of the attributes of the all-mighty, especially omnipresence. Many of us swore he was triplets with an uncanny ability to be in many places at once. Unfortunately for many of us, always the wrong place. More importantly in the long run, however, he had compassion, understanding and courage.
The Boo worked for the Citadel’s administration, and did a fine job. But his place in heaven will be earned by the service he provided to those members of the Corps of Cadets who had no powerful parents or friends to protect them, to guide them or to teach them to become whole men. He was as much our representative in the Citadel’s halls of power as he was the chief operating officer of the institution’s disciplinary system.
Today, as I try to teach my three sons to be the best people they can be, I try hard to emulate Colonel Courvoisie. When his punishment decisions were issued, I knew they were fair and although I didn’t serve confinements joyfully, I didn’t resent them either. More importantly, I learned to accept my mistakes and pay for them, not deny them, forget them, blame everyone else for them and fail to learn from them as so many of our leaders do today. When we had problems that were too large for us, we had someone to go to, someone we could confide in, someone whom we could trust.
As his position as assistant commandant was being undermined in my senior year, his example taught us how to deal with adversity when we were right, when the power was with those who were wrong, and when justice seemed to be too abstract to capture in our day-to-day lives.
Today, almost forty years since he first became the Citadel’s lord of discipline, more than thirty years after he was exiled to the Citadel’s transportation and baggage warehouse, he is back with us.
Like Pat Conroy thirty years ago, my feelings about the Boo today are still almost too sentimental to analyze objectively. I really don’t mind. I am pleased that like Lazarus, he has risen again and is now an intermediary between a new administration at the Citadel, and the graduates who like him, love it and who believe that it is the best place in the world for a young man, and now a young woman, to learn honor, duty and truth and to become a leader, a teacher, a parent, a citizen. A whole person.
Today, reading the news, one to whom ethics matter is likely to become depressed and demoralized. Journalists, for the most part, have abandoned the quest for truth so essential for functional democracy, instead spewing pay-to-order propaganda; most politicians are even less ethical than usual, the thirst for power paramount, the common welfare not even an afterthought. Identity politics polarize and divide us without resolving any of the serious problems they purport to address. The poor are becoming steadily poorer and the wealthiest, ever more wealthy and powerful. But if one delves a bit deeper and closer to our roots, the common man and woman continue to serve as examples and role models, working as hard as they have to in order to provide for their progeny, and in their interactions with their peers, outside the realm of politics, decent, pleasant and helpful. Too bad they are so easy to deceive and to manipulate as they seek to exercise their civic duties.
So, … almost as an afterthought, personal ethics, at least mine, also requires constancy in the face of despair, constancy when the light at the end of the tunnel seems too dim to recognize and all our efforts to make this a better world seem futile and doomed to failure, constancy where Leo Durocher’s soliloquy “nice guys finish last” seems an obvious reality, constancy when our quest for heroes requires, not a study of politics or current events, but a look around at our neighbors, from whom that which we need to sustain us is most likely to be found.
Personal ethics, an ongoing process honed by experience and trial and error, and in the end, in faith in something we cannot yet understand.
© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2019; all rights reserved. Please feel free to share with appropriate attribution.
Guillermo Calvo Mahé (a sometime poet) is a writer, political commentator and academic currently residing in the Republic of Colombia although he has primarily lived in the United States of America (of which he is a citizen). Until recently he chaired the political science, government and international relations programs at the Universidad Autónoma de Manizales. He has academic degrees in political science (the Citadel), law (St. John’s University), international legal studies (New York University) and translation and linguistic studies (the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies). He can be contacted at email@example.com and much of his writing is available through his blog at www.guillermocalvo.com.