Heroism




It would be possible, from a psychoanalytic point of view, to describe the singularity of a person's life in terms of the risks courted and the risks evaded (in this sense, a symptom turns up when an opportunity has been missed, a risk not taken).

As Lenin insisted, it is always never the right time for a revolution.

[Adam Phillips]
Side Effects ('Learning to Live'), p.159




The development of one's essential traits depends indeed on circumstances that allow for practice and risk taking.

[James Hillman]
We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy - And the World's Getting Worse, p.70




I think I don’t regret a single ‘excess’ of my responsive youth, I only regret in my chilled age certain occasions and possibilities I didn’t embrace.

[Henry James]




Virtue is heedless of personal safety and comport. Its antithesis, as Emerson makes clear in “Heroism” (1841), his most extended elaboration of this stoical conception of virtue, is not selfishness, a lack of altruism, or an unwillingness to subordinate self-interest to the common good but caution, timidity, “false prudence,” “sensual prosperity” - an inordinate concern for “health and wealth.”

“Tart cathartic virtue” is the antidote to the “despondency and cowardice of our religious and political theorists.” It is the “plenitude of energy and power” that announces itself in “contempt for safety and ease,” in “contradiction to the voice of mankind,” and in “good humour and hilarity.”

It is the “military attitude of the soul,” in short, to which “we give the name of Heroism.”

“Work and live,” Emerson exhorts his reader; but honest work is hard to come by. The more we need it, the more it eludes us. An honourable calling, which Emerson regards, in effect, as the everyday form of heroism, helps to reconcile us not merely to everyday disappointments but to the metaphysical terror and pain of existence.

We are oppressed by the disparity between our oceanic desires and our satisfactions, which are measured out in “drops”; between our longing for immortality and the certainty of death; between our need to know what will happen to us after death and the impossibility of finding out. In a faithless age, Emerson seems to suggest, the religious spirit lingers on chiefly in the “low curiosity” that makes us demand definitive answers to everything, or again in the nagging speculation about the “origin of evil” that he compares to mumps, measles, and whooping cough - adolescent diseases to which the “simple mind” is immune.

“The only mode of obtaining an answer to these questions of the senses,” Emerson says, “is to forego all low curiosity, and accepting the tide of being which floats us into the secret of nature, work and live, work and live.”

England is the “best of actual nations,” but an excessive concern with comfort, a “headlong bias to utility,” and a “self-conceited modish life made up of trifles” have coarsened the English character and led to a loss of “commanding views in literature, philosophy and science.”

Their respect for workmanship notwithstanding, the English have nevertheless created a civilisation in which a “manly” life becomes more and more difficult to achieve. Their very success, which strengthens “base wealth” and “vulgar aims,” dampens youthful ardor or else forces it into the wrong channels.

Englishmen enjoy all the requirements of a good life except appropriate outlets for their energy and ambition, which therefore aim only to become well educated, clever, and comfortable […] A society that finds so little for young people to do cannot welcome new members with much enthusiasm - another sign, as Emerson puts it in another context, that England now “lives on its capital.”

In 1856, it was still possible to hope that things would turn out otherwise in the New World. “There, in that great sloven continent, in high Alleghany pastures, in the sea-wide, sky skirted prairie, still sleeps and murmurs and hides the great mother, long since driven away from the trim hedge-rows and over-cultivated garden of England. And, in England, I am quite too sensible of this. Every one is on his good behavior, and must be dressed for dinner at six.”

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p. 274-5, 277-80




National “opulence” led to “national effeminacy and effeteness”: “corruption exists in direct ratio to the wealth of a nation.” Lea blamed “excessive national wealth” for the spread of "luxury, feminism, theorism, [and] the decay of martial inclination and military capacity."

The fear of decadence haunted all the "over-civilized" industrial nations at this time, especially the patrician classes, who embraced imperialism not so much as a higher stage of capitalism but as the cure for capitalism - for the "purposeless gluttony," as Lea put it, that sapped the fighting spirit.

In the imaginative writing prompted by the British rule in India, according to Allen J. Greenberger, "the value of empire-building seems to have less to do with the Empire itself than with the development of certain qualities in the empire-builders." Colonization would revitalize the home country, overcoming the "almost oriental luxury," in the words of a minor novelist, that had "gone far to weaken the fibre" of the British middle class.

Henry Stanley, the explorer of darkest Africa, drew the usual lesson in his autobiography: "England is losing her great characteristics, she is becoming too effeminate and soft from long inactivity, long enfeeblement of purpose, brought about by indolence and ease, distrust of her own powers and shaken nerves."

Africa, in particular, appealed to European imperialists at the turn of the century for the same reason that images of the Wild West appealed to Americans. "A man's man here," says the hero of one of the many English novels celebrating the Boer War. "He means something. He can stretch himself […]”

The object of war was glory, not plunder or personal gain, and it appealed to heroism, not to envy and hatred.

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.298-9, 311




Hard work and even danger ceased to be "repulsive" when they served the "innate pugnacity and all the love of glory" that modern man inherited from his ancestors.

Peaceloving people overlooked the importance and legitimacy of those needs, treating them as atavistic impulses destined to wither in the wake of modern rationalism and moral enlightenment. On the contrary, James argued, the need to participate in shared communities of risk and high purpose was inextinguishable.

"Martial virtues,” accordingly, were "absolute and permanent human goods.” If they could not be realized in some other way, they would continue to be realized in war itself. James urged pacifists “to enter more deeply into the esthetical and ethical point of view of their opponents.” They needed to understand why their humanitarian utopia "tastes mawkish and dishwatery to people who still keep a sense for life's more bitter flavors.”

Instead of dismissing out of hand the residual opposition to moral uplift and social improvement, they would do better to see it as the expression of an "unwillingness to see the supreme theatre of human strenuousness closed."

Simon Patten foresaw a shift from a "pain economy" to a "pleasure economy," but even Patten, James noted, acknowledged the morally "disintegrative influences" of superabundance."Where is the sharpness and precipitousness," James wanted to know, "the contempt for life, whether one's own, or another? Where is the savage 'yes' and 'no,' the unconditional duty?”

Men and women achieved dignity only when asked to submit to an arduous discipline imposed by some "collectivity"; and "no collectivity is like an army for nourishing such pride.” The undemanding life of "pacific cosmopolitan industrialism," on the other hand, could only nourish a sense of "shame" in "worthy breasts."

[Christopher Lasch]
The True and Only Heaven, p.301



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