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Jonathan Sacks on Rediscovering Our Moral Purpose

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, this year’s winner of Great Britain’s distinguished Templeton Prize, delivered an exceptional acceptance speech on “Rediscovering Our Moral Purpose”. He begins with the concept of outsourcing, of all things, tracing its development in history and in the progress of the West in particular. And then contrasts this outsourcing with a necessary spiritual Korrektiv, insourcing.

Here is an excerpt; read the whole thing here.

Our computers and smartphones have developed larger and larger memories, from kilobytes to megabytes to gigabytes, while our memories, and those of our children have got smaller and smaller. In fact, why bother to remember anything these days if you can look it up in a microsecond on Google or Wikipedia?

But here, I think, we made a mistake. We confused history and memory, which are not the same thing at all. History is an answer to the question, “What happened?” Memory is an answer to the question, “Who am I?” History is about facts, memory is about identity. History is his-story. It happened to someone else, not me. Memory is my story, the past that made me who I am, of whose legacy I am the guardian for the sake of generations yet to come. Without memory, there is no identity. And without identity, we are mere dust on the surface of infinity.

Lacking memory we have forgotten one of the most important lessons to have emerged from the wars of religion in the 16th and 17th century and the new birth of freedom that followed. Even to say it sounds antiquarian but it is this: a free society is a moral achievement. Without self-restraint, without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habits of heart and deed that we call virtues, we will eventually lose our freedom.

That is what Locke meant when he contrasted liberty, the freedom to do what we ought, with licence, the freedom to do what we want. It’s what Adam Smith signalled when, before he wrote The Wealth of Nations, he wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It’s what Washington meant when he said, “Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people.” And Benjamin Franklin when he said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” And Jefferson when he said, “A nation as a society forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society.”

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