Saturday, July 22, 2006

A Hero Is Not a Sandwich

Bending my mind around Emerson's ideas of the heroic in his essay Heroism was a bit of a challenge since I have been reading Proust and Joyce whose characters seem antithetical to Emerson's way of thinking. On the surface Emerson is very old-school in his ideas of the heroic but there is that Emersonian twist that makes them quite a bit different and not so antithetical after all. For Emerson the heroic is all about action and courage. A heroic action has no thought and is intuitive, comes from feeling, not reason and because of this "is always right." The essence of heroism is self-trust, "it is the state of the soul at war, and its ultimate objects are the last defiance of falsehood and wrong, and the power to bear all that can be inflicted by evil agents." Heroism is also about persistence, choosing your part in the world and sticking to it, refusing to compromise yourself. Emerson admires Plutarch and the heroes he wrote about in his Lives. While he is gung-ho about heroic battle, Emerson's twist on heroism privileges a sort of intellectual hero over that of the warrior hero. Nonetheless, Emerson's hero should be prepared to stand before a mob who believes other than he and take the bullet if need be. And because, in Emerson's view, there are so few people willing to do this, so few heroes, humankind has brought the punishments of diseases and deformities upon itself. Our inability to stand up against the mob of society and declaim that we are breaking natural, intellectual, and moral laws and our unwillingness to follow those laws in spite of society is what has brought the sufferings of lockjaw, rabies, insanity, war, plague, cholera, and famine into existence. His ideas are such a bizarre mix he sounds like Pat Robertson, an ACLU attorney, and a Spartan combined into one person. If he stopped there I would be completely disgusted, but he redeems himself. "The heroic cannot be the common, nor the common the heroic," writes Emerson. What he means by this baffled me for a little while. I thought at first he was saying that everyday heroism, standing up to a bully, saying no to drugs, or confronting a friend you think is about to do wrong, cannot be heroic. But I realize what he means is that heroism lifts an act above the common to something more, something greater. The common that cannot be heroic is false heroism, heroism for appearances, heroism that means nothing because it costs nothing. Offering shelter and a lavish meal to a poor stranger means nothing if you have two houses and millions in the bank. Offering shelter and a meal of what you have when tomorrow you may have nothing is heroic. In spite of some of Emerson's weirdness, I think he rightly insists that we can all be heroic. Heroism is not relegated to long ago and far away. The "great and transcendent properties" which we ascribe to heroism belong to all of us if we so choose:

The pictures which fill the imagination in reading the actions of Pericles, Xenophon, Columbus, Bayard, Sidney, Hampden, teach us how needlessly mean our life is; that we by the depth of our living, should deck it with more than regal or national splendor, and act on principles that should interest man and nature in the length of our days.
Next week's Emerson: The Over-Soul