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.