Never have I been asked to either speak or write on the subject of duty but, in the presence of Cynthia Sciberras, I can only agree.
Duty is a notion that has floated up and down with the tidal movements of history. It is a view that carries a very different meaning from one generation to the next. George Bernard Shaw wrote in Caesar and Cleopatra “When a stupid man is doing something he is ashamed of, he always declares that it is his duty.” On the other hand, the last words of Lord Nelson were “Thank God, I have done my duty.”
I’m inclined to think that the idea of duty is connected to the ideal of human rights, although ancient cultures that had no concept of human rights nevertheless believed in an obligation to their gods and city-state. Socrates was urged by his friends not to drink the hemlock that would kill him, but he insisted that he had lived under the protection and privileges of the city of Athens and so he had an obligation to abide by its system of justice.
Perhaps the closest Plato got to duty was in his idea of justice. For Plato the virtues were about correct behaviour and justice was about correct behaviour in relation to others. In his Republic the concept of justice is developed to a realization that we are created as social beings and that the well-being of all depends on the well-being of each one. Aristotle had a more individualistic notion of the ‘eudaimonia’ or individual flourishing that was the basis of duty. Plato was the more idealistic of the two and argued that if one knew the good, one would naturally do the good. The more pragmatic Aristotle recognized that people could often know what was the good but do otherwise and so he developed a notion of practical wisdom.
Through the writings of Cicero we learn that the idea of duty suited the Roman outlook and circumstance. In the dramatic days of Rome’s fall, when Christianity began to dominate the Western world, St Augustine combined the languages of Cicero and Plato. For Augustine the primary duty of every human being was toward God and all other obligations flowed from this. Augustine thinking dominated the West for a thousand years. After the Crusades, when the West was reinvigorated by the discovery of the scholarship of the Muslim world, St Thomas articulated a shift from Augustine with the concept of Natural Law. In discovering the Natural Law we participate in God’s Own reason.
The seventeenth century changed everything. At the beginning of that century Shakespeare was able to write that if anyone were to kill a king (the crime of regicide) horses would by instinct eat each other and ghosts would rise from their graves. Yet in 1649 Charles I was beheaded in England and the horses didn’t eat each other. The philosophers Hobbes and Locke were both significant in this century, which began when duties clearly flowed from king and bishop, but their thinking widened the location of authority and therefore increased the basis of one’s duty.
Duty probably loomed largest and formed popular culture in the nineteenth century. Lord Nelson wrote “England expects that every man will do his duty.” He added a romantic notion to the intellectual concept, so that duty became something that gave meaning to life and was worth its sacrifice. Philosophically it was the work of Kant that held duty to be the supreme guide for human behavior. For Kant the categorical imperative to act for the universal good trumped questions of self-interest and even consequences.
The work of Friedrich Nietzsche became part of the discussion of duty with the effect of a time bomb not due to explode until after the First World War. He directly criticized Christianity, Plato and Kant, calling for individuals to show heroic strength and take responsibility for their own lives with courage. However it wasn’t Nietzsche who changed the world, but WWI. It was after 1918 that duty died. In the Roaring Twenties men and women started bathing on the same beaches, necklines went down and hem lines rose; nitrous oxide parties flourished in Australian cities as people threw away the old duties required of them by the government and Church that had advocated war.
Something of white Australia’s insecurity since settlement responded enthusiastically in 1914 to the call to ‘do your duty’. Men enlisted, afraid the war would be over so quickly that they might miss the action. All Australian soldiers were volunteers and the country has never been more divided than over the various referendums aimed at introducing conscription. Those who chose not to volunteer were often handed a white feather as a sign of their cowardice and failure to do their duty. For five gruelling years Australia endured a horror whose dimensions were not and could not be talked about. Two out of every three soldiers died or was seriously wounded and it was perhaps they who were lucky rather than those who returned. The survivors were mostly dumb in the presence of their families, medicating themselves with alcohol for what we now call post-traumatic shock. The soldiers returned saying “No more wars.” They returned with an abhorrence of war and were forever after unimpressed by its glorification and any call of duty to war. For a time it was the end of duty, just as it was the end of glory.
The Second World War redeemed the idea of war in some ways. Those soldiers returned saying, “No more Hitlers” rather than “No more wars.” Yet duty would never again call upon people as it did in 1914. The war in Vietnam created a sensation of rebellion in the vast numbers of young people who did not respond to their country’s call to duty.