Thursday, September 11, 2008

Heroes and the End of History

This year as people vote in a few months on the future of our nation, many who will vote for the first time in their lives will have been eleven years old on 9/11. Today-- not then-- is what what is of importance. For many an 18 year old, today is the End of History. All that has gone before them is thought wrong and stupid, for the new person as adult can see today and see it is right. For many, 9/11 was long ago, in a time of childhood, of helplessness and ignorance. Today, they know. And they, like so many older adults, know the greatness of now.

It is 200 years ago that an old school teacher wrote of Napoleon, a truly great, if evil, man. And he wrote too of the people of the time:

True greatness, resting on itself, finds no pleasure in monuments erected by contemporaries, or in being called "The Great." or in the shrieking applause and praises of the mob; rather, it rejects those things with fitting contempt, and awaits first the verdict on itself from its own indwelling judge, and then the public verdict from the judgment of posterity.

[T]hose who hymn its praises contradict themselves, and by using words they make their words a lie. If they believed that the object of their pretended veneration was really great, they would humbly admit that he was exalted above their acclamations and laudations, and they would honor him my reverent silence. By making it their business to praise him they show that in fact they take him to be pretty and base, and so vain that their hymns of praise to him can give him pleasure, and that they hope thereby to divert some evil from themselves, or to procure themselves some benefit.

That cry of enthusiasm: "What a sublime genius! What profound wisdom! What a comprehensive plan!" -- what after all does it mean when we look at it properly? It means that the genius is so great that we too can fully understand it, the the wisdom so profound that we too can see through it, the plan so comprehensive that we, too, are able to imitate it completely. Hence it means that he who is praised has about the same measure of greatness as he who praises; and yet not quite, for the latter , of course, understands the former fully and is superior to him; hence, he stands above him and, if he only exerted himself thoroughly, could no doubt achieve something even greater. He must have a very good opinion of himself who believes that he can pay court acceptably in this way; and the one who is praised must have a very low opinion of himself if he finds pleasure in such tributes.

J.G. Fichte, Addresses to the German People. 1808; Rpt. London: Open Court Publishing; 1922; Trans. F.R. Jones. pp. 246-47.

True greatness is in true humility, I sometimes think. Heroism isn't celebrity, though the one is often despised while the other is promoted in its stead, an utter confusion of the mind. The office worker and the public figure.

"The cult of celebrity is important here. Most celebrities are pretty mediocre, perhaps with one talent. What is important is the combination of glamour and banality. In the cult of celebrity, ordinary people worship themselves. Unfortunately, the glamorous nature of life conferred by celebrity renders ordinary but perfectly honorable and indeed essential occupations a wound to the ego." Theodor Dalrymple, "Symposium: The Closing of the American Psyche." Frontpage Magazine. 01 Sept. 2008.

Heroism is often for the mediocre. It's for the quiet and the plain.

"[The sailor] took out his razor and laid it edge upward on the deck. The razor was not long on the deck when out came a rat, rubbed its mouth along the edge of the razor and kissed it, Then it ran back to where it had come from. Other rats followed, one by one; each of them rubbed its mouth along the edge along the edge of the razor, kissing it, and then ran away again. After a few score of them had done that, there finally came out a rat, screaming loudly. She went up to the razor and rubbed her neck along its edge, until she fell dead beside it.
The captain of the ship had been watching what was going on from the first rat to the last, which had cut its throat on the razor. He... called the sailor to him... and ordered him to leave the ship.
'You could have done that trick to any man on board,' said he, 'as easily as you did it to the rat.' "

Sean O'Sullivan, Folktales of Ireland, 223. Quoted from Barbara Hodgson, The Rat. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre; 1997, p. 44.

Those who are celebrated and extolled make me nervous. I've been around a while. I've seen the rise and I've seen the fall of many. I prefer the company of the ones rather than The One.

"A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious.

But it cannot survive treason from within.

An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and he carries his banners openly.

But the traitor moves among those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself.

For the traitor appears not traitor, he speaks in the accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their garments, and he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation, he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of a city, he seeks to infect the foundation so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to be feared."

Marcus Tullius Cicero,

This year, this 9/11, I will walk in the sunlight, alive and free. That is thanks to ordinary men and women who live and fight and work and die for the collective freedom of individuals everywhere. Those people, mostly unknown to me, make my life possible. And yours.