Bennett's 'Virtues' transcends politics

December 13, 1993|By Barbara Hall | Barbara Hall,Contributing Writer

". . . We should not wait until the customs and heritages we love are gone before we begin to feel devoted to them," cautions William J. Bennett in "The Book of Virtues."

Mr. Bennett has addressed this concern at least since he served as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities during the Reagan years (1982-85). The NEH says it still gets requests for "To Reclaim a Legacy," his 1984 treatise on this subject.

In this book he does it again, with substance and panache. "The Book of Virtues" is a sweeping anthology of writings, edited by Mr. Bennett, that concerns the building of character. Each chapter explores a different facet: self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty, and faith.

Chapters begin with the simplest selections, become more and more challenging, and culminate with "heavies." Mr. Bennett has written brief introductions to most of his selected works, and they range from light-hearted to fascinating to personal.

For instance, he mentions that Hans Christian Andersen's beloved tale "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" is a "favorite story of the Bennett family."

"The Donner Party" is Eliza P. Donner Houghton's account of a team's 1846 journey from Illinois to the West Coast. The ordeal brought out the best and worst of human nature. Mr. Bennett writes: "The story of the Donner Party is a taproot for me. I go back to it often to puzzle over what it is in people's characters that makes some great and others grotesque."

Before the Bible story "Judas and Peter," he contrasts the two figures' betrayals of Christ: "Judas Iscariot's treachery seems beyond comprehension, while Peter's denial is on a scale of which we are all capable."

While Mr. Bennett was working for Ronald Reagan and George Bush, critics contended that the NEH under his aegis awarded grants to favorite conservatives, and particularly those with a Western cultural bias. A scan of the grants list, though, indicated that government funding went to a broad spectrum of recipients, and not just conservative camps.

In this book, we find Mr. Bennett's selections take the same pattern of surprises.

Works included in the chapter on "Loyalty," for instance, include "The Cap That Mother Made," a Swedish folk tale; a piece by Oscar Wilde; a work from the wonderful Indian epic poem "The Mahabharata"; "Judas and Peter;" a selection from the "Odyssey" on Penelope's enduring loyalty to the state.

Elsewhere, there are works by Aesop and the Grimm Brothers, lyrics to the "Hanukkah Hymn," Native American stories, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" and writings by early women's rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft.

In his introduction to "The Path of Virtue" from the "Dhammapada," thought to be written by the Buddha, the editor suggests that "faiths of different names and histories often share common precepts."

It sounds downright inclusive.

Then, too, Mr. Bennett plays a bit. Here and there, he gives us some artful juxtapositions. In the chapter on "Honesty," he presents "A Laconic Answer." This is a short piece about Philip of Macedon's wartime warnings to the Spartans of Laconia. It closes with the Spartans' response to Philip's threats -- the one word, "IF." Following this is Kipling's poem: "If you can walk with crowds and still keep your virtue,/ or walk with kings -- nor lose the common touch . . ."

There are so many terrific discoveries and re-discoveries here that it's difficult to pick favorites. My family, too, has loved Andersen's "The Steadfast Tin Soldier." It was good to become reacquainted with F. Scott Fitzgerald's letters to his daughter. There's an emotional integrity to them that eluded him in much of his better-known fiction. "Quality," by John Galsworthy, is a sad, sweet, wise story that was new to me.

Some readers may be familiar with Bill Bennett as U.S. secretary of education (1985-1988), director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (1989-1990) or more recently as a conservative spokesman on the talk-show circuit. In addition, he is director of Empower America, a Washington-based conservative research group. He's also senior editor of the National Review.

In other words, he knows Washington well. I am among the many who have differed with him on his politics from time to time.

But this book transcends politics. It is a formidable work by an editor who will be reckoned with now and for generations to come.

(Ms. Hall is a writer who lives in New York.)

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Book of Virtues"

Author: William J. Bennett

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length, price: 818 pages, $27.50

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