Saturday, May 24, 2008

Heroism: A Memorial Day Comment

In his tribute to Ferdinand Magellan, William Manchester, in A World Lit Only by Fire, wrote, in the concluding chapter, “One Man Alone”:

“He was not the wisest man of his time. Erasmus was. Neither was he the most gifted. That, surely, was Leonardo. But Magellan became what, as a child, he had yearned to be – the era’s greatest hero. The reason is intricate, but important to understand. Heroism is often confused with physical courage. In fact the two are very different. There was nothing heroic about Magellan’s death. He went into that last darkness a seasoned campaigner, accompanied by his own men, and he was completely fearless because as he drew his last breath he believed – indeed knew – that paradise was imminent. Similarly, the soldier who throws himself on a live grenade, surrendering his life to save his comrades, may be awarded the medal of honor. Nevertheless his deed, being impulsive, is actually unheroic. Such acts, no more reflective than the swift withdrawal of a blistered hand from a red-hot stove, are involuntary. Heroism is the exact opposite – always deliberate, never mindless.

“Neither, if it is valor of the first water, may it be part of a group endeavor. All movements, including armies, provide their participants with such tremendous support that pursuit of common goals, despite great risk, is little more than ardent conformity. Indeed, the truly brave member is the man who repudiates the communal objective, challenging the rest of the group outright. Since no such discordant note was ever heard around the Round Table, young Magellan, in his enchantment with the tales of Arthur, Lancelot du Lac, and Gawain, was being gulled. It follows that generals, presidents – all leaders backed by blind masses – are seldom valiant, though interesting exceptions occasionally emerge. Politicians, who defy their constituents over matters of principle, knowing they will be driven from office, qualify as heroic. So, to cite a rare military instance, did General MacArthur when, protesting endless casualty lists with no prospect of an armistice, he sacrificed his career and courted disgrace.

“The hero acts alone, without encouragement, relying solely on conviction and his own inner resources. Shame does not discourage him; neither does obloquy. Indifferent to approval, reputation, wealth, or love, he cherishes only his personal sense of honor, which he permits no one else to judge. La Rochefoucauld, not always a cynic, wrote of him that he does ‘without witnesses what we would be capable of doing before everyone.’ Guided by an inner gyroscope, he pursues his vision single-mindedly, undiscouraged by rejections, defeat, or even the prospect of imminent death. Few men can even comprehend such fortitude. Virtually all crave some external incentive: the appreciation of peers, the possibility of exculpation, the promise of retroactive affection, the hope of rewards, applause, decorations – of emotional reparations in some form. Because these longings are completely normal, only a man with towering strength of character can suppress them.”


While I think this is an eloquent statement on heroism, I have several reservations with it. Coupled with what is his key sentence: Heroism is the exact opposite – always deliberate, never mindless – physical courage may be a necessary partner, without which, one’s intention would be futile. I do not think, however, that Manchester is derogating the role of physical courage, but simply noting a distinction between it and heroism as a character attribute he so aptly describes in the third paragraph.

Another statement, that the soldier who throws himself on a live grenade to save his comrades performs an unheroic act, also omits the motivation behind such an action: The admiring altruist would call it an act of self-sacrifice; for some, it may well be that. But if his comrades represent a value to him, then faced with a single choice requiring a split-second decision, he has instead acted to preserve that value.

This hardly would be an emotionally driven impulse. That is heroism, and it is preeminently a selfish motivation. I once corrected a young fan to whom I recommended the movie Gunga Din. After he had watched it, in his letter to me he remarked that he thought Din was a brave man who sacrificed his life to save his friends. No, I answered him; knowing the risk, Din exposed himself to enemy fire to signal a warning in order to preserve a value. Such an action is not the hallmark of selflessness, but of just the opposite. A man cannot place his physical existence in peril who did not first have a self; a selfless man who did would be little more than a robot, which is what altruists and collectivists and tyrants of all stripes today wish men to be.

Manchester's key sentence contradicts Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalist notion that heroism “feels and never reasons and therefore is always right.” That is the hallmark of jihadists, of suicide bombers, and similar killers for a “cause.” It also contradicts the idea of heroism expressed by Arthur Ashe, noted tennis player and later a “social activist”: “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”

The last statement of Manchester’s which I take issue with is his conception of “normalcy” in respect to “external incentives” to heroism: the appreciation of peers, the possibility of exculpation, the promise of retroactive affection, the hope of rewards, applause, decorations – of emotional reparations in some form. These motivations have been the stuff of great and not-so-great literature, and can be cited in real life, as well. Because these longings are completely normal, only a man with towering strength of character can suppress them.

Most of these “normal” incentives are other-oriented, with the possible exception of “emotional reparations,” which is a completely selfish means and end, and “exculpation,” which implies a pursuit of justice and acquittal. But a man of “towering strength of character” would not root his “longings” on the approval of others. He would be utterly devoid of any consciousness of the value others might place on his actions, and so would not crave other-oriented rewards; those longings would not be present in him to be “suppressed.”

Compare Manchester’s description of a hero to Aristotle’s:

“The beauty of the soul shines out when a man bears with composure one heavy mischance after another, not because he does not feel them, but because he is a man of high and heroic temper.”


That is a finer, more precise description of heroism. It describes Ayn Rand’s fictional Howard Roark, John Galt, and Francisco d’Anconia. It describes Cyrano de Bergerac and many lesser heroes, lesser because the obstacles their creators put in the path of their heroes were not as daunting and insurmountable as Cyrano’s. It describes the real life heroes who have advanced virtually every realm of human knowledge and happiness in science, medicine, technology, industry and, too infrequently, and much to our detriment, in philosophy and politics. It also describes those few men faced with the terrible task of war.

Their heroism was always deliberate, and never mindless.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Since "heroism" is the act of living by and for one's values, is there really a "cost" of doing so?
I don't think so, assuming of course that those values are rational and an integral part of one's daily living. It is the issue of one's hierarchy of values, of protecting and sustaining one's values by their importance in helping in achieving your goals, according to their weight in doing so.

In war, the same still applies, though the choices are more immediate and imminently life threatening. "Daily living" in this context is not one of "flourishing" or self-fulfillment in a "normal" circumstance. It is nothing less than "kill or be killed", right then and there on the battlefield.

It is not generally understood, but it is the case nonetheless that in battle there are no "normal" decisions, that the choice of putting ones self deliberately in harms way does NOT impose on your comrades the obligation of saving one's life, NO MATTER THE COST TO THEM. It is the nature of war that death is the goal, the choice is who dies, and lives. Victory is the death of one's enemies, the defeat of their purposes and the achievement of yours. If I choose to throw myself on an enemy grenade, I won't do it JUST to protect my comrades. I do it thinking that it will save more of our lives which can then be used to kill more of my (and my values) enemy.

Such is the meaning of "Victory or Death"!

Joe said...

Dear Ed,

I think you are correct about those who go to war, especially when they do so voluntarily for the sake of rational ideals like the ones in the U.S. Constitution. I say this (as you know, Ed) as a member of the armed forces and I do think my service is heroic. I often tell my men that regardless of whether they ever face the enemy or are in a supporting role on a base somewhere far from the battle, they are heroic for knowingly putting themselves at risk – for standing up when others won’t, for living this difficult life and being willing to endure things like family separations, long deployments, tough training, etc. And, for raising their right hand and swearing to defend the Constitution; a document that I believe makes possible freedom for ourselves and our country.

I do think there are degrees of heroism… some face much more imminent danger than others. There are moments when I feel the bravest thing I do is leave my family… letting go of my wife’s hand or kissing my 2-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter goodbye for months on end. The deployments into Iraq seem easy in comparison. I think of Cyrano as Roxanne cares for his wound after his battle with “a hundred men” who consequently learns Roxanne has not come to express love for him but for another. She comments how brave he was to face a hundred men and Cyrano replies, “I’ve done better since.”

Heroism requires not that one sacrifice, but rather that one willingly “pays full price” meaning, accepts the consequences, of pursuing that which one values.

Cheers,

Anonymous said...

The passage sounds too Kantian to me, especially the last couple of sentences: "Virtually all crave some external incentive: the appreciation of peers, the possibility of exculpation, the promise of retroactive affection, the hope of rewards, applause, decorations – of emotional reparations in some form. Because these longings are completely normal, only a man with towering strength of character can suppress them.”

Heroism is the opposite of self-denial and the suppression of desire: it is all about the rewards. A man who acts without the hope of reward, or at least the knowledge that gain from the outcome of defeat, is, in my opinion, a coward.

Bosch Fawstin said...

Mr. Cline,

I have not been able to find any contact info for you and I wanted to invite you to check out my site. I'm a cartoonist who's taking on Islam and its Jihad in a graphic novel titled The Infidel, which has as a story within the story, Pigman, a counter-jihad superhero who exploits the enemy's pigotry by wearing pigskin leather as part of his uniform. There's more to it than that, but that's the hook, and I'd love to hear any thoughts you may have on it.

Best,
Bosch

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the horribly garbled end above. I meant to say: "A man who acts without the hope of reward, or at least the knowledge that there is nothing to be gained from the outcome of defeat, is, in my opinion, a coward."