In grade school I remember being taught how to distinguish between the words principle and principal as a spelling lesson. Your school principal, presumably, was your ‘pal’. The other word was never clearly defined. Like so many things that one comes to learn, the use of the word Principle and its practical applications, depended on my gathering experience.
I remember being advised early on that to be ‘a man of principle’ was something to work towards. My mother would note when I was being ‘too wishy washy’ and suggest that I select a priority and ‘stick to it’. My father would provide examples of principled behaviour by focussing on completing a task before starting another. Coaches would intone that, ‘winning wasn’t everything’ and you must show good sportsmanship above all else. Teachers would insist on adherence to the principles of hard work, determination and following your dream.
My formal education regularly consisted of studying examples of individuals who never gave up no matter how hard the challenge. I was taught to show admiration for these achievers from history: The explorers who set forth to map our globe. The generals who vanquished the enemy. The politicians who created great nations. The scientists who unlocked the mysteries of our physical world. The artists who challenged our perceptions. The philosophers who provided the keys to help us understand ourselves.
It was only as I matured that I realized many of these men and women of principle had personal flaws. It was a jolt to my psyche to find out they were drinkers, womanizers, gamblers, racists, or just people with terrible party manners. Norman Bethune, as one example, has been revered as a man who followed his principles of justice, peace & unity for humanity. His personal life however was a shambles of sexual affairs, rude social scenes and arrogant social discourse. The authors of the biography ‘Phoenix’ suggest that Dr. Bethune’s ‘black sheep’ persona was politically manipulated on his death to create a ‘white knight’ iconography.
“It’s the Principle of the thing” is something I’ve often said or thought as I have waded into an argument. I’ve found that sticking exclusively to a principle can restrict my ability to listen effectively and yet I still feel the need to ‘stick to my guns’; which is a violently dramatic and threatening representation of what being rigid with principles might lead one to.
One of my favourite principled individuals of modern times is Noam Chomsky. He’s one of few people who dare to venture into the land of principles/morals/values these days. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-OEEC5FpJ0
When I listen to the wisdom of his words I feel anchored by the truth. I saw this request from his wife Valeria on my Twitter feed and will pass it on:
@johannhari101 -It’s Noam Chomsky’s 90th birthday soon (Dec 7). I’m helping his wife, Valeria, gather tributes to him for a birthday book. If Chomsky’s work has affected you, pls write a message addressed to him explaining how & send to firstname.lastname@example.org