Overthinking Heroism

An exchange on when heroes run away
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Alan Jacobs and Adam Roberts discuss the latter’s new essay “Who’s Afraid of Cowardice?

Alan Jacobs: A fascinating essay, Adam — so much to argue about and, as you suggest, it’s a topic that gets more complex and uncertain the more you think about it.

I would just say this about Hector: In the pages leading up to that final confrontation Homer goes out of his way to emphasize the inhumanity of Achilles. When he crosses the plain in his new armor he is like Sirius, that star of ill omen. He fights the river itself, on equal terms. When he faces Hector, his armor is said to shine like a blazing fire, or the sun itself. When Hector runs from him, he pursues as a hawk pursues his prey. When Hector wants to make a pact with him, he matter-of-factly says that wolves don’t make pacts with lambs. Hector isn’t surprised because he knew that Achilles has a heart made of iron. There must be a hundred metaphors along these lines.

And no one would call a man a coward for fleeing a lion, or dodging out of a fire. I think Homer wants to suggest that when Hector flees from Achilles it is more like your dog Luna skipping away from the hoover than Luna fleeing from another dog. I find much compelling in your sketch of the Homeric world, but I believe that we are meant to think much worse of Paris than you do, because in Homer’s picture of war courage is the facing of the agon (contest, struggle), and cowardice is the refusal to face the agon. Paris refuses. But the agon is a test of man against man, and at the end Achilles is scarcely a man any more.

As I say, much to reflect on here — I’m so glad you wrote this.

Adam Roberts: Yes, I don’t think we disagree about Achilles, though I might frame it slightly differently, make a more Simone Weil–y point: it’s not just that Achilles is inhuman (though he kind of is), it’s that he is become war, the shatterer of men. He represents, or, more forcefully, he literally embodies the monstrous, pitiless, destructive force of war as such. In that case, Hector’s running-away is, in effect, running away from war itself, which is a rational thing to do! But it’s incompatible with notions of heroism.

This leads me to another thought, which perhaps I should have put in the piece. I wonder if ideas of heroic courage don’t rely upon some sense of cosmic fairness. When I draw my sword and step forward towards my enemy, I might die, but hopefully I won’t, not if I am strong and sure and courageous enough … which is to say, there will be some fairness to the battle, something in the cosmos that rewards my courage. I’m proving something by manifesting martial courage, and that proof needs somebody, or something, to see, and condone. But war as such isn’t this, and modern war is very much not this. There’s no courage in standing waving my sword at a cruise missile hurtling down upon me, after all.

Or perhaps this latter is, actually, the only courage, the only kind of courage that matters, and that’s the version of heroism my essay is missing. I wrote this some years back about Tolkien’s The Children of Húrin, contrasting it with Patrick Rothfuss’s very popular (but not especially good) fantasy sequence The Kingkiller Chronicle, and its hero-protagonist Kvothe:

The irony is that the readers who read Fantasy because they want the uplift of a heroism with which they can identify — and who believe that heroism has no place in the modern world — are actually reading about precisely modern heroes. Kvothe, an individual who overcomes various life obstacles to triumph has plenty in common with Lance Armstrong or that guy in The Pursuit of Happyness. His is a didactic and a feel-good heroism. Túrin, on the other hand, is an individual who fights against a doom greater than he, despite knowing that he cannot win, simply because defiance in the teeth of an inevitable doom is the strength given to humans. His world — where triumph and glory are localised and temporary, and always give way to subsequent defeat — is in the deepest sense our world. That is what it means to be mortal. We are all going to die; it’s demeaning to waste our energy in schemes or fantasies that tell us otherwise. What matters, as with Túrin, is the character with which we face that annihilation. Of the two heroisms presented by these books, his is the greater; and the most relevant.

Jacobs: I wonder, though, if it’s given to all humans or just to some. To continue riding my hobby-horse: In that great meeting between Hector and his wife Andromache in Book VI, when she pleads with him to stay out of the battle, he says, No, I have to go, it’s my duty — but he also says he has learned how to fight in the front ranks of the Trojans, winning glory. I like Alexander Pope’s rendering of this: “My early youth was bred to martial pains.” But this idea of learning, being bred, being trained is somewhat concerning, because what you’ve been trained to do you can forget. Better to be a warrior by nature, as Achilles is. When he’s about to kill Lycaon and the latter is pleading for his life, Achilles says, in effect, “What are you going on about, man? Look at me, I’m the greatest warrior in the world and I will soon die, and you don’t see me making a fuss.” You don’t get the sense that he has been bred to that response — it’s nature, not nurture, and therefore in a way inevitable. But not everyone has the same nature in this regard. This is what General Patton didn’t understand, yes?

A hero-coward: Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)
RGR Collection / Alamy

Thus the old line that courage isn’t being unafraid but rather conquering one’s fear. Fighting and endangering his life is so natural to Achilles that you can scarcely call it courage at all, it seems to me. It’s more like fatalism. Maybe the fatalism is what makes him seem like a natural object, a thing, because things have no hopes or fears. Presumably you know the story in Montaigne’s essays of the soldier who served under the Macedonian general Antigonus I, who fought fearlessly — until Antigonus, in gratitude, had him treated for a chronic disease. Then, when his life became more enjoyable to him, it also became more precious, and he shied away from the fighting. When Hector finally stops running and faces Achilles, knowing that he’s about to be killed and that, as he says back in Book VI, his death will mean the end not only for him but for his city, and will lead to his beloved wife being taken away in chains — now that, I think, is courage.

Goodness, you’ve got me going on this subject. How about one more thing, a non-military question: Is the fear of death cowardly? It’s much of what the Harry Potter books are about, after all. Voldemort is terrified of death, while Dumbledore accepts his death quietly, believing as he does that “to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” Nearly Headless Nick can’t tell Harry what happens to people after they die because he was afraid to find out — that’s why he’s a ghost. (You got me thinking about this by your Shakespearean reflection on cowardice as a kind of death.) Harry in the end is a true Gryffindor — Gryffindors are not the smartest or the hardest-working but the bravest — because he goes to (what he believes will be) his death, overcoming his fear. Though only with the assistance and encouragement of those who love him.

Roberts: The Lycaon episode is one of my favourite moments in the whole poem. I particularly like Robert Fagles’s version of it:

So the illustrious son of Priam begged for life
but only heard a merciless voice in answer: “Fool,
don’t talk to me of ransom. No more speeches.
Before Patroclus met his day of destiny, true,
it warmed my heart a bit to spare some Trojans:
droves I took alive and auctioned off as slaves.
But now not a single Trojan flees his death,
not one the gods hand over to me before your gates,
none of all the Trojans, sons of Priam least of all!
Come, friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so?
Even Patroclus died, a far, far better man than you.
And look, you see how handsome and powerful I am?
The son of a great man, the mother who gave me life
a deathless goddess. But even for me, I tell you,
death and the strong force of fate are waiting.
There will come a dawn or sunset or high noon
when a man will take my life in battle too —
flinging a spear perhaps
or whipping a deadly arrow off his bow.”

What’s really powerful here is the way Achilles goes from his trademark wrath (“fool!” and so on) to that macabre but genuine touch of commonality: “Come friend … ” (ἀλλὰ φίλος). At that moment they are friends, I think: comrades, fellows, because they are sharing a common mortality, which is, of course, all our fate, such that the address, φίλος, draws us all into the ambit of the poem.

Fagles doesn’t often play anachronistic intertextual games with his translation, but that “high noon” there is one such. And it brings me to your second point — a very good one. Really, I have far too much to be getting on with already, so it’s a little irksome that I find myself actually sketching out how a book-length History of Cowardice might go. You’re right, such a book needs separate sections for military cowardice and everyday cowardice. I find Harry’s walking to his certain death moving, I’ll confess it, and it is brave; but I also find Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” very moving, and it’s a poem that works because it’s such a naked expression of cowardice in the face of mortality:

 … Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Or consider Westerns. High Noon is a film about courage, and it works because Gary Cooper looks so old and worn-out. But I’d point, rather, to that extraordinary scene in The Magnificent Seven (I love Kurosawa’s, but Sturges’s is, we can be honest, a much better movie), where the village kids come to Charles Bronson and confess they are ashamed of their fathers, because they are cowards, and Bronson snaps and rages at them that being a gunslinger isn’t bravery — raising kids is bravery: backbreaking work every day, a lifelong responsibility. I mean, I guess it flatters a person like me, who has never served in the military but who has raised kids. But it’s also, well … true, isn’t it? When I was young I sometimes used a kind of formula, to get me through moments when I was afraid. It was: what’s the worst that can happen? Well, the worst, by a process of logical extrapolation, was: I could die. And as a twentysomething thinking like that was oddly liberating, because the prospect of dying didn’t bother me too much (once I’m dead, I’d tell myself, I’ll be past caring). So whatever else was happening in my life, it wasn’t the worst, and therefore wasn’t so bad. But then we had kids and suddenly that trick didn’t work anymore, because now there was something much, much worse than me dying: something happening to my kids. It is of course the worst thing imaginable. And because of that, my trick didn’t work for me anymore: for if I die — at least whilst my kids are still young — then I won’t be around to protect and care for them, and they need that. Becoming a parent makes you so profoundly vulnerable, for good and ill.

This leads me to another thought, to go under the rubric of the “everyday cowardice” chapter of my notional book. Cowardice is the index of fear, just (as you say) courage is not berserker blindness but rather feeling the fear but doing it anyway. And, in that regard, I wonder if childhood involves profounder heroisms than adulthood ever can. It’s one of the things that Stephen King often says: that the things that scare adults — How am I going to cover the mortgage this month? Does my wife still love me? I’m growing old and wrinkled, and so on — are watery and weak compared to the fear children experience, scared of the creature lurking in their closet or hiding under their bed. It’s why the monster in King’s 1986 novel It “feeds” on children rather than adults: because a child’s fear is simply more intense, and therefore to It more delicious, than adult fears. I think about this often. It is, really, a Wordsworthian point, the heart of his great poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”: children are closer to life itself (for Wordsworth, closer to the divine, “God, who is our home”) than are adults. They feel more intensely, joy as well as terror. Many an adult has reflected how extremely excited and thrilled they used to get as children, at birthdays or Christmas for instance, and how jaded and toned-down we become as grown-ups. We might condescend to the child buttoning up their coat and stepping out of the house to go to a new school, anxious at the thought of a strange place where they don’t know anybody; but perhaps this anxiety is a fear deeper and more appalling than adults’ experience, and the child’s resolution in going a greater heroism.

There’s another aspect to this, actually: The creature in King’s novel, the one that adopts (amongst other forms) the shape of Pennywise the Clown, says that he preys on children rather than adults not just because their fear is stronger, but because it is purer. Adult fear, It says, is contaminated by despair. And I wonder what role that has in relation to cowardice. Anxiety and depression are mental health matters: They can be very grievous, life-interrupting, but we would hardly accuse a sufferer of cowardice, would we.

Jacobs: I have a slightly different take on “Aubade” — that magnificent poem — than you do: When Larkin says “Courage is no good,” what he means (I think) is that courage offers us no escape from what a line or two earlier he calls the “furnace-fear” of suddenly being swamped by the terror of death, of “no sight, no sound, / No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, / Nothing to love or link with.” But it is good in that you’re not allowing your own furnace-fear to spread like a contagion, you’re keeping it within where it can harm only you. And — to return to an earlier point — that’s the kind of courage I think Hector has, though he admits its nature only to Andromache.

Maybe that’s why the terrors of childhood, as It says, are so pure and delicious: Adults can erect certain boundaries (“not scaring others”) that a child can’t erect. But … then again, maybe not. I spent much of my childhood in fear — being two years younger than others in my class, and small for my age anyway, I was relentlessly bullied, and was often kept awake at night by an inescapable terror of eternity. But I never would have told my mother any of this. In the essay “Such, Such Were the Joys,” Orwell says that children “think that misfortune is disgraceful and must be concealed to all cost,” but that wasn’t my feeling; I was simply certain that confessing my terror would do no good, no good at all. Perhaps in other circumstances silence on such matters would have been courage, but in my case it was plain old despair — the kind of despair that some people think is confined to adults. We may have the idea that bearing suffering silently is a kind of courage, but in my case it wasn’t. That said, I am not sure that it would have been brave, exactly, to talk to someone about what I was going through. It would have been a bet on affection that I had reason to think I would not receive. The whole experience reminds me of the most terrible moment in John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, when he’s describing the depression that overwhelmed him when he was a young man: “I sought no comfort by speaking to others of what I felt. If I had loved any one sufficiently to make confiding my griefs a necessity, I should not have been in the condition I was.”

Well. This is not where I thought I would end up, but I blame your evocation of the distinctive terrors of childhood. If there’s a lesson to be drawn from this, it’s that neither courage nor cowardice is directly readable from behavior or speech. Except in cases of self-conscious self-presentation — like Falstaff’s, or Larkin’s in “Aubade” — we are often fundamentally unreadable to others and perhaps to ourselves also.

One final thing: At the end of the stanza of “Aubade” I was quoting earlier, Larkin describes death as “the anaesthetic from which none come round,” which is an echo of Hamlet’s description of death as “The undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns” — after which he declares, “Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all.” “Conscience” here is not moral scrupulosity, but rather self-awareness, self-reflection. Maybe the key to courage is thoughtlessness, and introspection a recipe for cowardice.

Roberts: Yes, that sounds right to me. And I relate to your experience of childhood terror, because I felt it too. As I relate in an old blog post, I memorized and used to recite to myself the Bene Gesserit “Litany Against Fear” from Frank Herbert’s Dune to help myself through periods of particularly acute fear.

In my essay on cowardice I quote Paul Fussell’s book The Great War and Modern Memory book, a great and hugely influential study of the war poets, written by a man who was himself both a sensitive critic of poetry and a warrior (he served in the American infantry in World War II and was wounded in France). His version of what war is, and therefore what courage and cowardice are, filters his readings of World War I writers through his own disillusioning wartime experience to create a kind of hybrid. But there’s a problem, I think, in the way Fussell’s book has been taken as an insight into war as such; because the belligerents through whose eyes we see war were all unusually sensitive, imaginative individuals: poets, in a word. By definition, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and the others saw things in ways that regular folk tend not to, because they were more (to use your terms) aware and self-aware, introspective, thoughtful than regular folk. Another warrior and poet, using the word in its wider sense (say: prose-poet, perhaps), Tolstoy, was able to take a step beyond that in his masterpiece of war (and peace) called, er, War and Peace. Pierre, in some ways an autobiographical creation by Tolstoy, is sensitive and anxious, introspective and imaginative (as well as often foolish, self-indulgent, rather liable to get carried away). Towards the end of the novel, Tolstoy brilliantly takes us through Pierre’s mad theorising that Napoleon is the Antichrist predicted in St John’s Revelation, Pierre’s plot to assassinate him, and then Pierre’s capture by the French and his getting locked up with other prisoners of war. Here he meets Platón Karatáev, a fifty-year-old Russian peasant drafted into the army, who is not a poet, and not very imaginative or intelligent (or at least, not at all educated: illiterate, uninterested in learning, simple-headed). Pierre watches this man go about his life, in captivity, just as he would if he were free: working, eating, saying his prayers, sleeping. Pierre is particularly struck that he prays for animals just as he does for men, in a natural, unconsidered way:

“What prayer was that you were saying?” asked Pierre.

“Eh?” murmured Platón, who had almost fallen asleep. “What was I saying? I was praying. Don’t you pray?”

“Yes, I do,” said Pierre. “But what was that you said: Frola and Lavra?”

“Well, of course,” replied Platón quickly, “the horses’ saints. One must pity the animals too. Eh, the rascal! Now you’ve curled up and got warm, you daughter of a bitch!” said Karatáev, touching the dog that lay at his feet, and again turning over he fell asleep immediately.

Meeting Karatáev is a revelation to Pierre, and through his encounter he is able to move beyond his previous self-obsessions, introspections, over-complications: “To all the other prisoners Platón Karatáev seemed a most ordinary soldier,” Tolstoy says. “They … chaffed him good-naturedly, and sent him on errands. But to Pierre he always remained what he had seemed that first night: an unfathomable, rounded, eternal personification of the spirit of simplicity and truth.” After Pierre escapes from the French, after the war is over, after he reunites with Natasha and begins his own family life, he is still asking himself (and discussing with his wife), in effect: what would Platón Karatáev do? His name is one of Tolstoy’s jokes, I suppose: a modern Plato inverting the old Greek’s apothegm, and letting Pierre know that actually the unexamined life is the only one really worth living, and the only one that can give you true courage. He only appears briefly, right at the end of this immense novel, but there’s an argument that Karatáev is the hero of War and Peace, because he grasps the beautiful, holy simplicity of life. And perhaps that simplicity is the true iteration of courage, and vice versa.

Alan Jacobs and Adam Roberts, “Overthinking Heroism,” The New Atlantis, Number 71, Winter 2023, pp. 96–104.
Header image: Courtesy EMI Films

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