To Seek A Newer World – written in 1967 by Robert Kennedy.
by David Alton on Sunday, June 6, 2010 at 11:38pm
In 1967, a year before he was assassinated, Senator Robert Kennedy published “To Seek A Newer World.” It grew out of his speeches, out of his travel experiences and time spent as Attorney General in his brother John F.Kennedy’s administration. More than forty years later his words still has the power to inspire: Kennedy’s instinctive idealism, compassion and intelligence shine through.
It was a book given to me when I was a student – along with Martin Luther King’s “Why We Can’t Wait” – not long after the two men had been killed. Taken together, those books provided me with a road map and compass which, even now, can restore my faith in a political process too often cheapened, impaired by cynicism and self interest.
Kennedy’s “To Seek A Newer World” remains his personal testament. It provides an insight into the President he might have become – perhaps in many ways a greater one than his older brother, John. It is a call to arms against injustice, poverty, and violence:
“What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr’s cause has ever been stilled by an assassin’s bullet.”
Kennedy’s own passionate analysis was not silenced by his assassin . The civil rights he advocated are now commonplace; his antagonism, both towards Marxism and the social negligence which succoured it, holds good.
Robert Kennedy’s Catholic faith, his belief in human dignity and the common good animate the text. It is tempting to wonder whether, had he lived, if in another ten year he would have been forced to compromise that faith (as his younger brother Ted would do) by accepting the liberal Democratic insistence on support for abortion. But, mercifully, in 1968 he was not required to make that tryst.
The book takes its title from some stirringly beautiful lines penned by the Victorian poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson in his poem “Ulysses”,
Come, my friends.
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world….
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are—
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
By invoking Ulysses Kennedy perfectly catches the thought that every generation has to seek a newer world and that whatever calamities may befall us individually, or collectively, we should not allow them to incapacitate us; that we should be ready to take on impossible odds.
The dedication of the book is to “to my children and yours” and Kennedy uses the words of Albert Camus to remind us that although we may not be able to solve every injustice it is a poor excuse for failing to solve any of them:
“Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you don’t help us, who else in the world can help us do this?”
During the 1968 campaign for the Presidency this sense of refusing to accept the inevitability of how things are was challenged by Kennedy again and again. In what became a defining remark he said:
“Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why’? I dream of things that never were and say, ‘Why not’?”
This idea of the active citizen taking on a rotten and decaying system of politics and seeking its renewal was based on a view of citizenship which was rooted in Kennedy’s love of the ancient world and the purity of public service. He insisted that every claimed right had to be matched by a duty. In a speech to the University of San Francisco Law School he said:
“Since the days of Greece and Rome when the word ‘citizen’ was a title of honour, we have often seen more emphasis put on the rights of citizenship than on its responsibilities. And today, as never before in the free world, responsibility is the greatest right of citizenship and service is the greatest of freedom’s privileges.”
He insisted that those privileges and the wealth we enjoy should be put at the service of all: In Georgia he said:
“I believe that, as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil…” while in South Africa he attacked apartheid:
“We must recognize the full human equality of all our people – before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this not because it is economically advantageous – although it is; not because the laws of God and man command it – although they do command it; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do.”
Although Kennedy was himself a young man taking on the status quo – and in “To Seek A Newer Land” he makes much of the young men who sparked great movements, and quotes Archimedes, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the world,” never-the-less this is not a peon of praise to youth but a call to see the world in a different way:
“This world demands the qualities of youth: not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease.”
Seeing the world in a different way means judging the success of politics not so much by the value of sterling against the dollar or the value of the Gross Domestic Product; it should instead be judged, he argued at Kansas University, by more human criteria:
“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”
Kennedy’s finest and most moving speech was delivered in Indiana where he learned of the death of Martin Luther King. Referring to his own grief after the assassination of his brother he turned to the Greek playwright, and father of tragedy, Aeschylus:
“My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black… Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
A newer world would certainly be a less savage and more gentle one: still a worthy ideal to catch the imagination of another generation.