Wisdom of Harper Lee

Teddy Locsin Jr.

Posted at Mar 05 2016 02:31 PM

Atticus Finch is the hero of the great American novel and the greater American movie—starring Gregory Peck in his greatest role in To Kill a Mockingbird.

It is about a white lawyer with the sympathies and antipathies of his race but also with the unfailing courtesy of his Southern background. Atticus defends a black man accused of a crime—rape—that he could not have committed. He has only one arm.

Atticus fails in his defense and the black man is convicted but Atticus had given it his all. So when he makes to the empty courtroom, the black people in the gallery tell his daughter "Stand up, Scout." She asks, Why? "Your father is passing." It is the most beautiful scene in the book and the movie.

Here are some things he says. If we make them our own, these words will make us like Atticus, good without changing much about how we feel. That's hard and many feelings come with upbringing. Because a man is not what he feels or the prejudices he has; he is the good or the bad that he does.

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." John Rawls fleshed this out in his monumental philosophy, A Theory of Justice, which argues that you should put yourself in the other man's shoes before judging him. Simple as that.

Southerner though he is, Atticus muses, "I think there's just one kind of folk. Folk." White folks, black folks, take a likin' to some blacks, a dislike to other whites—it's all the same; no need to apologize because different people strike us different ways but it has nothing to do with the color of the skin.

On truth telling, and it is good advice to journalists, a character recalls that "Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I'd have the facts."

On keeping your dignity without stooping to fight, he said these words to his daughter Scout after she'd protested why he'd let a piece of white trash spit on him when she had seen her dad earlier take cool aim at a raging mad dog and shoot it dead and yet all he did was wipe the spit way with a handkerchief and throw it: "You just hold your head high, and keep those fists down. No matter what anyone says to you, don't let 'em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change... it's a good one," he tells his tom-boy daughter, "even if it does resist learning."

"Prejudice, a dirty word and faith a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends." And in words that'd be wasted on Pacquaio, he says, "Sometimes the Bible, in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of another... There are just some kinda men who're so busy worryin' about the next world, they never learned to live in this one."

And for those who cannot be without a book nearby, I think it is Scout who says, "until I feared I would lose it I never loved to read. One does not love breathing." Indeed, reading is living a richer life than the one we have without it.

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