Earthly Purposes

The New York Times’ obituary for Michael Foot, who led the Labour Party in the general election that brought Margaret Thatcher to power in 1983 and who died in March at the age of 96, quotes the following passage from a campaign speech Mr. Foot delivered that year:

We are not here in this world to find elegant solutions, pregnant with initiative, or to serve the ways and modes of profitable progress.  No, we are here to provide for all those who are weaker and hungrier, more battered and crippled than ourselves.  That is our only certain good and great purpose on earth . . .

It is not clear, absent the lack of immediate context, whether by “we” the socialist politician meant humanity born onto this earth or, more exclusively, his saintly comrades in Labour.  Since his exhortation was part of a political stump speech, the presumption is in favor of the latter, and yet it is more than possible that the speaker really had in mind the former.  Certainly, in an age in which politics has become religion, and religion, to a substantial degree, politics, the second understanding would not have struck Foot’s audience as being in any way exceptional, or exceptionable.

Aristotle observed that, although all men claim the status of Man, only the man who devotes himself to the pursuit of knowledge actually deserves it.  Under the Christian dispensation, one might...

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