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    Heroism

    by Ralph Waldo Emerson
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    ESSAY VIII Heroism

    In the elder English dramaetcher, there is a constant
    recognition of gentility, as if a noble behaviour were as easily
    marked in the society of their age, as color is in our American
    population. When any Rodrigo, Pedro, or Valerio enters, though he be
    a stranger, the duke or governor exclaims, This is a gentleman, —
    and proffers civilities without end; but all the rest are slag and
    refuse. In harmony with this delight in personal advantages, there
    is in their plays a certain heroic cast of character and dialogue, —
    as in Bonduca, Sophocles, the Mad Lover, the Double Marriage, —
    wherein the speaker is so earnest and cordial, and on such deep
    grounds of character, that the dialogue, on the slightest additional
    incident in the plot, rises naturally into poetry. Among many texts,
    take the following. The Roman Martius has conquered Athens, — all
    but the invincible spirits of Sophocles, the duke of Athens, and
    Dorigen, his wife. The beauty of the latter inflames Martius, and he
    seeks to save her husband; but Sophocles will not ask his life,
    although assured that a word will save him, and the execution of both
    proceeds.

    "_Valerius_. Bid thy wife farewell.

    _Soph_. No, I will take no leave. My Dorigen,
    Yonder, above, 'bout Ariadne's crown,
    My spirit shall hover for thee. Prithee, haste.

    _Dor_. Stay, Sophocles, — with this tie up my sight;
    Let not soft nature so transformed be,
    And lose her gentler sexed humanity,
    To make me see my lord bleed. So, 't is well;
    Never one object underneath the sun
    Will I behold before my Sophocles:
    Farewell; now teach the Romans how to die.

    _Mar_. Dost know what 't is to die?

    _Soph_. Thou dost not, Martius,
    And, therefore, not what 't is to live; to die
    Is to begin to live. It is to end |P372|p1
    An old, stale, weary work, and to commence
    A newer and a better. 'T is to leave
    Deceitful knaves for the society
    Of gods and goodness. Thou thyself must part
    At last from all thy garlands, pleasures, triumphs,
    And prove thy fortitude what then 't will do.

    _Val_. But art not grieved nor vexed to leave thy life thus?

    _Soph_. Why should I grieve or vex for being sent
    To them I ever loved best? Now I'll kneel,
    But with my back toward thee; 't is the last duty
    This trunk can do the gods.

    _Mar_. Strike, strike, Valerius,
    Or Martius' heart will leap out at his mouth:
    This is a man, a woman! Kiss thy lord,
    And live with all the freedom you were wont.
    O love! thou doubly hast afflicted me
    With virtue and with beauty. Treacherous heart,
    My hand shall cast thee quick into my urn,
    Ere thou transgress this knot of piety.

    _Val_. What ails my brother?

    _Soph_. Martius, O Martius,
    Thou now hast found a way to conquer me.

    _Dor_. O star of Rome! what gratitude can speak
    Fit words to follow such a deed as this?

    _Mar_. This admirable duke, Valerius,
    With his disdain of fortune and of death,
    Captived himself, has captivated me,
    And though my arm hath ta'en his body here,
    His soul hath subjugated Martius' soul.
    By Romulus, he is all soul, I think;
    He hath no flesh, and spirit cannot be gyved;
    Then we have vanquished nothing; he is free,
    And Martius walks now in captivity."

    I do not readily remember any poem, play, sermon, novel, or
    oration, that our press vents in the last few years, which goes to
    the same tune. We have a great many flutes and flageolets, but not
    often the sound of any fife. Yet, Wordsworth's Laodamia, and the ode
    of "Dion," and some sonnets, have a certain noble music; and Scott
    will sometimes draw a stroke like the protrait of Lord Evandale,
    given by Balfour of Burley. Thomas Carlyle, with his natural taste
    for what is manly and daring in character, has suffered no heroic
    trait in his favorites to drop from his biographical and historical
    pictures. Earlier, Robert Burns has given us a song or two. In the
    Harleian Miscellanies, there is an account of the battle of Lutzen,
    which deserves to be read. And Simon Ockley's History of the
    Saracens recounts the prodigies of individual valor with admiration,
    all the more evident on the part of the narrator, that he seems to
    think that his place in Christian Oxford requires of him some proper
    protestations of abhorrence. But, if we explore the literature of
    Heroism, we shall quickly come to Plutarch, who is its Doctor and
    historian. To him we owe the Brasidas, the Dion, the Epaminondas,
    the Scipio of old, and I must think we are more deeply indebted to
    him than to all the ancient writers. Each of his "Lives" is a
    refutation to the despondency and cowardice of our religious and
    political theorists. A wild courage, a Stoicism not of the schools,
    but of the blood, shines in every anecdote, and has given that book
    its immense fame.

    We need books of this tart cathartic virtue, more than books of
    political science, or of private economy. Life is a festival only to
    the wise. Seen from the nook and chimney-side of prudence, it wears
    a ragged and dangerous front. The violations of the laws of nature
    by our predecessors and our contemporaries are punished in us also.
    The disease and deformity around us certify the infraction of
    natural, intellectual, and moral laws, and often violation on
    violation to breed such compound misery. A lock-jaw that bends a
    man's head back to his heels, hydrophobia, that makes him bark at his
    wife and babes, insanity, that makes him eat grass; war, plague,
    cholera, famine, indicate a certain ferocity in nature, which, as it
    had its inlet by human crime, must have its outlet by human
    suffering. Unhappily, no man exists who has not in his own person
    become, to some amount, a stockholder in the sin, and so made himself
    liable to a share in the expiation.

    Our culture, therefore, must not omit the arming of the man.
    Let him hear in season, that he is born into the state of war, and
    that the commonwealth and his own well-being require that he should
    not go dancing in the weeds of peace, but warned, self-collected, and
    neither defying nor dreading the thunder, let him take both
    reputation and life in his hand, and, with perfect urbanity, dare the
    gibbet and the mob by the absolute truth of his speech, and the
    rectitude of his behaviour.

    Towards all this external evil, the man within the breast
    assumes a warlike attitude, and affirms his ability to cope
    single-handed with the infinite army of enemies. To this military
    attitude of the soul we give the name of Heroism. Its rudest form is
    the contempt for safety and ease, which makes the attractiveness of
    war. It is a self-trust which slights the restraints of prudence, in
    the plenitude of its energy and power to repair the harms it may
    suffer. The hero is a mind of such balance that no disturbances can
    shake his will, but pleasantly, and, as it were, merrily, he advances
    to his own music, alike in frightful alarms and in the tipsy mirth of
    universal dissoluteness. There is somewhat not philosophical in
    heroism; there is somewhat not holy in it; it seems not to know that
    other souls are of one texture with it; it has pride; it is the
    extreme of individual nature. Nevertheless, we must profoundly
    revere it. There is somewhat in great actions, which does not allow
    us to go behind them. Heroism feels and never reasons, and therefore
    is always right; and although a different breeding, different
    religion, and greater intellectual activity would have modified or
    even reversed the particular action, yet for the hero that thing he
    does is the highest deed, and is not open to the censure of
    philosophers or divines. It is the avowal of the unschooled man,
    that he finds a quality in him that is negligent of expense, of
    health, of life, of danger, of hatred, of reproach, and knows that
    his will is higher and more excellent than all actual and all
    possible antagonists.

    Heroism works in contradiction to the voice of mankind, and in
    contradiction, for a time, to the voice of the great and good.
    Heroism is an obedience to a secret impulse of an individual's
    character. Now to no other man can its wisdom appear as it does to
    him, for every man must be supposed to see a little farther on his
    own proper path than any one else. Therefore, just and wise men take
    umbrage at his act, until after some little time be past: then they
    see it to be in unison with their acts. All prudent men see that the
    action is clean contrary to a sensual prosperity; for every heroic
    act measures itself by its contempt of some external good. But it
    finds its own success at last, and then the prudent also extol.

    Self-trust is the essence of heroism. 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. It speaks the truth, and it is just, generous,
    hospitable, temperate, scornful of petty calculations, and scornful
    of being scorned. It persists; it is of an undaunted boldness, and
    of a fortitude not to be wearied out. Its jest is the littleness of
    common life. That false prudence which dotes on health and wealth is
    the butt and merriment of heroism. Heroism, like Plotinus, is almost
    ashamed of its body. What shall it say, then, to the sugar-plums and
    cats'-cradles, to the toilet, compliments, quarrels, cards, and
    custard, which rack the wit of all society. What joys has kind
    nature provided for us dear creatures! There seems to be no interval
    between greatness and meanness. When the spirit is not master of the
    world, then it is its dupe. Yet the little man takes the great hoax
    so innocently, works in it so headlong and believing, is born red,
    and dies gray, arranging his toilet, attending on his own health,
    laying traps for sweet food and strong wine, setting his heart on a
    horse or a rifle, made happy with a little gossip or a little praise,
    that the great soul cannot choose but laugh at such earnest nonsense.
    "Indeed, these humble considerations make me out of love with
    greatness. What a disgrace is it to me to take note how many pairs
    of silk stockings thou hast, namely, these and those that were the
    peach-colored ones; or to bear the inventory of thy shirts, as one
    for superfluity, and one other for use!"

    Citizens, thinking after the laws of arithmetic, consider the
    inconvenience of receiving strangers at their fireside, reckon
    narrowly the loss of time and the unusual display: the soul of a
    better quality thrusts back the unseasonable economy into the vaults
    of life, and says, I will obey the God, and the sacrifice and the
    fire he will provide. Ibn Haukal, the Arabian geographer, describes
    a heroic extreme in the hospitality of Sogd, in Bukharia. "When I
    was in Sogd, I saw a great building, like a palace, the gates of
    which were open and fixed back to the wall with large nails. I asked
    the reason, and was told that the house had not been shut, night or
    day, for a hundred years. Strangers may present themselves at any
    hour, and in whatever number; the master has amply provided for the
    reception of the men and their animals, and is never happier than
    when they tarry for some time. Nothing of the kind have I seen in
    any other country." The magnanimous know very well that they who give
    time, or money, or shelter, to the stranger — so it be done for
    love, and not for ostentation — do, as it were, put God under
    obligation to them, so perfect are the compensations of the universe.
    In some way the time they seem to lose is redeemed, and the pains
    they seem to take remunerate themselves. These men fan the flame of
    human love, and raise the standard of civil virtue among mankind.
    But hospitality must be for service, and not for show, or it pulls
    down the host. The brave soul rates itself too high to value itself
    by the splendor of its table and draperies. It gives what it hath,
    and all it hath, but its own majesty can lend a better grace to
    bannocks and fair water than belong to city feasts.

    The temperance of the hero proceeds from the same wish to do no
    dishonor to the worthiness he has. But he loves it for its elegancy,
    not for its austerity. It seems not worth his while to be solemn,
    and denounce with bitterness flesh-eating or wine-drinking, the use
    of tobacco, or opium, or tea, or silk, or gold. A great man scarcely
    knows how he dines, how he dresses; but without railing or precision,
    his living is natural and poetic. John Eliot, the Indian Apostle,
    drank water, and said of wine, — "It is a noble, generous liquor,
    and we should be humbly thankful for it, but, as I remember, water
    was made before it." Better still is the temperance of King David,
    who poured out on the ground unto the Lord the water which three of
    his warriors had brought him to drink, at the peril of their lives.

    It is told of Brutus, that when he fell on his sword, after the
    battle of Philippi, he quoted a line of Euripides, — "O virtue! I
    have followed thee through life, and I find thee at last but a
    shade." I doubt not the hero is slandered by this report. The heroic
    soul does not sell its justice and its nobleness. It does not ask to
    dine nicely, and to sleep warm. The essence of greatness is the
    perception that virtue is enough. Poverty is its ornament. It does
    not need plenty, and can very well abide its loss.

    But that which takes my fancy most, in the heroic class, is the
    good-humor and hilarity they exhibit. It is a height to which common
    duty can very well attain, to suffer and to dare with solemnity. But
    these rare souls set opinion, success, and life, at so cheap a rate,
    that they will not soothe their enemies by petitions, or the show of
    sorrow, but wear their own habitual greatness. Scipio, charged with
    peculation, refuses to do himself so great a disgrace as to wait for
    justification, though he had the scroll of his accounts in his hands,
    but tears it to pieces before the tribunes. Socrates's condemnation
    of himself to be maintained in all honor in the Prytaneum, during his
    life, and Sir Thomas More's playfulness at the scaffold, are of the
    same strain. In Beaumont and Fletcher's "Sea Voyage," Juletta tells
    the stout captain and his company, —

    _Jul_. Why, slaves, 't is in our power to hang ye.
    _Master_. Very likely,
    'T is in our powers, then, to be hanged, and scorn ye."

    These replies are sound and whole. Sport is the bloom and glow
    of a perfect health. The great will not condescend to take any thing
    seriously; all must be as gay as the song of a canary, though it were
    the building of cities, or the eradication of old and foolish
    churches and nations, which have cumbered the earth long thousands of
    years. Simple hearts put all the history and customs of this world
    behind them, and play their own game in innocent defiance of the
    Blue-Laws of the world; and such would appear, could we see the human
    race assembled in vision, like little children frolicking together;
    though, to the eyes of mankind at large, they wear a stately and
    solemn garb of works and influences.

    The interest these fine stories have for us, the power of a
    romance over the boy who grasps the forbidden book under his bench at
    school, our delight in the hero, is the main fact to our purpose.
    All these great and transcendent properties are ours. If we dilate
    in beholding the Greek energy, the Roman pride, it is that we are
    already domesticating the same sentiment. Let us find room for this
    great guest in our small houses. The first step of worthiness will
    be to disabuse us of our superstitious associations with places and
    times, with number and size. Why should these words, Athenian,
    Roman, Asia, and England, so tingle in the ear? Where the heart is,
    there the muses, there the gods sojourn, and not in any geography of
    fame. Massachusetts, Connecticut River, and Boston Bay, you think
    paltry places, and the ear loves names of foreign and classic
    topography. But here we are; and, if we will tarry a little, we may
    come to learn that here is best. See to it, only, that thyself is
    here; — and art and nature, hope and fate, friends, angels, and the
    Supreme Being, shall not be absent from the chamber where thou
    sittest. Epaminondas, brave and affectionate, does not seem to us to
    need Olympus to die upon, nor the Syrian sunshine. He lies very well
    where he is. The Jerseys were handsome ground enough for Washington
    to tread, and London streets for the feet of Milton. A great man
    makes his climate genial in the imagination of men, and its air the
    beloved element of all delicate spirits. That country is the
    fairest, which is inhabited by the noblest minds. 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.

    We have seen or heard of many extraordinary young men, who
    never ripened, or whose performance in actual life was not
    extraordinary. When we see their air and mien, when we hear them
    speak of society, of books, of religion, we admire their superiority,
    they seem to throw contempt on our entire polity and social state;
    theirs is the tone of a youthful giant, who is sent to work
    revolutions. But they enter an active profession, and the forming
    Colossus shrinks to the common size of man. The magic they used was
    the ideal tendencies, which always make the Actual ridiculous; but
    the tough world had its revenge the moment they put their horses of
    the sun to plough in its furrow. They found no example and no
    companion, and their heart fainted. What then? The lesson they gave
    in their first aspirations is yet true; and a better valor and a
    purer truth shall one day organize their belief. Or why should a
    woman liken herself to any historical woman, and think, because
    Sappho, or Sevigne, or De Stael, or the cloistered souls who have had
    genius and cultivation, do not satisfy the imagination and the serene
    Themis, none can, — certainly not she. Why not? She has a new and
    unattempted problem to solve, perchance that of the happiest nature
    that ever bloomed. Let the maiden, with erect soul, walk serenely on
    her way, accept the hint of each new experience, search in turn all
    the objects that solicit her eye, that she may learn the power and
    the charm of her new-born being, which is the kindling of a new dawn
    in the recesses of space. The fair girl, who repels interference by
    a decided and proud choice of influences, so careless of pleasing, so
    wilful and lofty, inspires every beholder with somewhat of her own
    nobleness. The silent heart encourages her; O friend, never strike
    sail to a fear! Come into port greatly, or sail with God the seas.
    Not in vain you live, for every passing eye is cheered and refined by
    the vision.

    The characteristic of heroism is its persistency. All men have
    wandering impulses, fits, and starts of generosity. But when you
    have chosen your part, abide by it, and do not weakly try to
    reconcile yourself with the world. The heroic cannot be the common,
    nor the common the heroic. Yet we have the weakness to expect the
    sympathy of people in those actions whose excellence is that they
    outrun sympathy, and appeal to a tardy justice. If you would serve
    your brother, because it is fit for you to serve him, do not take
    back your words when you find that prudent people do not commend you.
    Adhere to your own act, and congratulate yourself if you have done
    something strange and extravagant, and broken the monotony of a
    decorous age. It was a high counsel that I once heard given to a
    young person, — "Always do what you are afraid to do." A simple,
    manly character need never make an apology, but should regard its
    past action with the calmness of Phocion, when he admitted that the
    event of the battle was happy, yet did not regret his dissuasion from
    the battle.

    There is no weakness or exposure for which we cannot find
    consolation in the thought, — this is a part of my constitution,
    part of my relation and office to my fellow-creature. Has nature
    covenanted with me that I should never appear to disadvantage, never
    make a ridiculous figure? Let us be generous of our dignity, as well
    as of our money. Greatness once and for ever has done with opinion.
    We tell our charities, not because we wish to be praised for them,
    not because we think they have great merit, but for our
    justification. It is a capital blunder; as you discover, when
    another man recites his charities.

    To speak the truth, even with some austerity, to live with some
    rigor of temperance, or some extremes of generosity, seems to be an
    asceticism which common good-nature would appoint to those who are at
    ease and in plenty, in sign that they feel a brotherhood with the
    great multitude of suffering men. And not only need we breathe and
    exercise the soul by assuming the penalties of abstinence, of debt,
    of solitude, of unpopularity, but it behooves the wise man to look
    with a bold eye into those rarer dangers which sometimes invade men,
    and to familiarize himself with disgusting forms of disease, with
    sounds of execration, and the vision of violent death.

    Times of heroism are generally times of terror, but the day
    never shines in which this element may not work. The circumstances
    of man, we say, are historically somewhat better in this country, and
    at this hour, than perhaps ever before. More freedom exists for
    culture. It will not now run against an axe at the first step out of
    the beaten track of opinion. But whoso is heroic will always find
    crises to try his edge. Human virtue demands her champions and
    martyrs, and the trial of persecution always proceeds. It is but the
    other day that the brave Lovejoy gave his breast to the bullets of a
    mob, for the rights of free speech and opinion, and died when it was
    better not to live.

    I see not any road of perfect peace which a man can walk, but
    after the counsel of his own bosom. Let him quit too much
    association, let him go home much, and stablish himself in those
    courses he approves. The unremitting retention of simple and high
    sentiments in obscure duties is hardening the character to that
    temper which will work with honor, if need be, in the tumult, or on
    the scaffold. Whatever outrages have happened to men may befall a
    man again; and very easily in a republic, if there appear any signs
    of a decay of religion. Coarse slander, fire, tar and feathers, and
    the gibbet, the youth may freely bring home to his mind, and with
    what sweetness of temper he can, and inquire how fast he can fix his
    sense of duty, braving such penalties, whenever it may please the
    next newspaper and a sufficient number of his neighbours to pronounce
    his opinions incendiary.

    It may calm the apprehension of calamity in the most
    susceptible heart to see how quick a bound nature has set to the
    utmost infliction of malice. We rapidly approach a brink over which
    no enemy can follow us.

    "Let them rave:
    Thou art quiet in thy grave."

    In the gloom of our ignorance of what shall be, in the hour
    when we are deaf to the higher voices, who does not envy those who
    have seen safely to an end their manful endeavour? Who that sees the
    meanness of our politics, but inly congratulates Washington that he
    is long already wrapped in his shroud, and for ever safe; that he was
    laid sweet in his grave, the hope of humanity not yet subjugated in
    him? Who does not sometimes envy the good and brave, who are no more
    to suffer from the tumults of the natural world, and await with
    curious complacency the speedy term of his own conversation with
    finite nature? And yet the love that will be annihilated sooner than
    treacherous has already made death impossible, and affirms itself no
    mortal, but a native of the deeps of absolute and inextinguishable
    being.
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