Heroism

The definition of hero I have settled on is: “someone who does something great for the tribe.”

I should also mention why I care about this.  It’s because I have an intuition that understanding heroism will help us (“Us” being: anyone who reads this blog, with a particular eye to those who consider themselves reactionaries, or something close to it).  Some posts I’ve come across lately have strengthened this intuition. So I want to treat the words “hero,” and “heroism,” as technical terms.  Thus, it’s no good saying, “The real heroes are…”

Lewis approaches this well:

The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone “a gentleman” you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not “a gentleman” you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said—so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully—”Ah, but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?”

They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man “a gentleman” in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is “a gentleman” becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object. (A “nice” meal only means a meal the speaker likes.)

A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.

Mere Christianity

There are heroes who are bad men, and there are good men who are not heroes.

Note that someone is only a hero in relation to a tribe: that tribe can be as small as one other person, or it can be the entire human race.

Seeing heroes as people who do great deeds for the tribe shows why our skin crawls a bit when someone says, “Did you know <founding father> {was gay|owned fifty slaves|wrote erotic literature}?”  The truth or falsehood of the claims doesn’t matter: it is ungracious.

(The more powerful clip, that requires some context, is the birthday scene from East of Eden .  Some time, when you have time, watch the whole film; I had a hard time watching this again)

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One comment on “Heroism

  1. G. says:

    I think Lewis is wrong. “He’s one of the best people I know, but he’s no gentleman,” is a perfectly cogent sentence. Gentleman isn’t just a term of approval.

    It is still a class marker, only the class it marks have changed over time (the middle class, aspiring to seem upper class, as they do, tried to adopt gentlemanliness and in the process associated the term with middle class virtues)–but more importantly, the marks of the class itself have changed.

    If “gentleman” has little valence in modern America, if its a somewhat old-fashioned term, its not because its ceased to mean anything. It’s because our modern elites do not like acknowledging that they are a sociological elite. And because they want to say that being elite is just an accident of educational merit, with no implications of inherited status or expected norms of good behavior, both of which ‘gentleman’ implies.

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