Heroism in an Age of Despair

I dreamt I was alone, wandering the wastes of modern life. Before me stood a dead tree whose branches twisted like bleached bones under an unforgiving sun. From a branch hung a noose; the noose of pessimism. Often, I feel consternation to consider the thousands of my countrymen that have surrendered their lives to that noose. This wasteland, with a voice like dry thunder calls many men to dusty death. Its voice shudders through the great cities of London, Birmingham, and Liverpool, calling those poor wretches to their desolation. How ironical, and how much a condemnation on us all that those whom feel most alone live among multitudes. That men, young and old alike, surrounded by millions of people murder themselves because they’re lonely. They do not feel as one among friends and countrymen, but as a speck of dust in the infinitude of the universe; desolate, alone. I heard many voices in the wasteland; some were cries of pain, and others solemn voices of resignation. We can all feel as though our voices are solitary, but know this: you are never alone. We can huddle together in this wilderness, warmed by our shared ideals, warmed by compassion and hope.

We live in a spiritual and cultural desert, it’s true; however, among the howling dunes and cracked earth the wanderer can stumble across an oasis. And these can only be found in the desert. The oasis is both internal and external. In the oasis a wanderer can wash the dust from his hands and his heart. Externally, we can reach out to others and form personal relationships; internally, we can reach into ourselves. We refresh ourselves with heroism. Heroic acts are not limited to the grand gesture because even a simple act of kindness is heroic. To be born, and to live, and to struggle is itself heroic. All of us are heroes in our own saga even if it may pass unremembered. It is better to have a few principles than a multitude of opinions, and the true man of our times reveals his principles though action.

Heroism is sacrifice. All acts of heroism require a personal sacrifice of some kind or another. When we remember the fallen soldier of those great wars of the 20th century we remember not the cause of his sacrifice but the sacrifice itself. When the now terrorist organisation gone underground, National Action, says that he perished in vain they deny the heroism of his death. His willingness to die and the willing sacrifice he made is the act of heroism we remember each year. Liberal pacifists also deny the soldier his heroism by saying that he died for democracy, or that he died for peace, or that he ultimately died for nothing. Tories say that he died for his country or its institutions. In all these cases his death is valued for the outcomes of his sacrifice but all these will pass into dust. The sacrifice in death is a perpetual moment, a timeless eternity.  His German and Japanese counterparts in that war did not die in vain simply because their countries lost the war. The fallen soldiers of that war are celebrated for no other reason than the sacrifice itself. The act of sacrifice is the object of our adoration as an end in itself. War for the sake of war, heroism for the sake of heroism, sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice.

The long war of the 20th century is uncontroversial. Turning our gaze to more recent events the morality of conflict becomes more ambiguous. Is the conflict in the Middle East justified, was the Vietnam War justified, and does this affect our celebration of the fallen soldier? It doesn’t matter if wars are unjust, the object of our respect is the sacrifice, and so heroism, of the fallen soldier. The high politics and abstract morality above him don’t matter when the sand is in his eyes. The cause of wars are complex and ambiguous to even those who start them, the soldier’s heroism abides in all wars, in all times, and in all places. When pacifists wear the white poppy they deny the unknown soldier his heroism in death and sacrifice. The morality of the soldier is plain in the writings of Hilaire Belloc: “Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight,/ But Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right”

Of course death is not the only sacrifice we can undertake. The suffering of the mother in childbirth is also an act of heroism, and the mother’s life dedicated to her child is heroic.

Compassion is an act of heroism. In “A Cornish Reverie” I write:

Sacrifice is a heroic act and the wars of Gods are hollow. When compared to Achilles, Agamemnon, and Menelaus, the Gods are shallow and capricious. What is Apollo’s sacrifice compared to Achilles’? “Celestial spirits may bleed,” writes Milton — however, the blood of Archangels is shed without mortality. Michael wounds Satan, and the rebels are cast into chaos. All of this drama, including the fall of man, is simply a means “permitted” by God for the sacrifice of Christ and the redemption of man to be realised. Christ’s sacrifice is heroic.

When we intimately feel the needs of another as our own, and when we feel a deep compassion for his suffering, we are making a sacrifice. We smother our ego. Class, rank, elitism, hierarchy are all scattered to the air like a dream. In that moment we forgo all material superiority, and in true compassion, all moral superiority. We refrain from judgement, condemnation, or rationalisation and merge with him as one. In a sense we sacrifice our lives in that moment! Then the feeling passes and we return to our petty lives. Only a few men have been able to sustain this state indefinitely, the most notable being Christ. Yes, it is a noble to gently release the privileges our lives afford us and it is heroic to feel compassion.

Charity is a sacrifice and so heroic, giving away the things we own is often a struggle. In many cases the things we own have a deeper value poured into it, so that we imagine we are giving away a part of ourselves. In this decade we have seen the rise of the smartphone. On this phone, and on our computers we write our thoughts, store pictures of our loved ones, and so on. This explains the anxiety we have when another person uses one of our devices. We are not anxious about what they might find, but the very act of looking is somehow an invasion of ourselves.

Is true charity possible, or is it simply a fulfilment of our own self interest? The Marxian view is that the bourgeois use the working class as a means to refresh themselves. They use charity as a means to achieve some personal virtue, they do not give because it is the right thing to do, that is they do not give out of duty, but they view charity as an economic transaction. The bourgeois man gives £5 to a homeless man in exchange for £5 worth of utility in the form of refreshment and moral self satisfaction.

Is charity possible in communism? All things are held in common, private property is eradicated, and the question emerges: “How can we give away something we don’t own?” How is individual charity possible without individual ownership? The one thing we will always own is ourself. True charity is still possible in communism, or in a system without private property because we can give the immaterial. We can humble ourselves, show kindness to others, and give them our love. We can give much richer gifts than the money in our wallets. Many of the early followers of Christianity did hold all things in common, in what many materialists have described as a proto-communism; however, communism denies the spiritual and immaterial charity at the heart of these followers. They were brothers because they all shared the same Father, the vertical precedes the horizontal.

The dispute over political organisation is rooted in the assumptions of human nature. One of these is whether true charity is possible. Is man marked by benevolence, is he rational, does he operate as a machine? We are still, in the morning of the 21st century, undecided. There are many who regard modern man as a child of the Enlightenment, marked by the smile of reason. “If only men were allowed to peruse their own desires,” they cry, “if only we could be left alone.”

The assumptions of democracy and free market economics are that individuals are rational and informed. But governments are fully aware of the irrationality and ignorance of people, facts they often exploit cynically. The belief than man is a rational animal lends itself to socialist technocracy. Man is not a machine that lives in a series of systems, he does not act in a predictable and quantifiable way. How can an economic table capture man’s love or hate, which confused, can be directed at the same person at the same time?

Suppose we take it as an absolute that man is inclined to total self interest. Then even the most rational, cynical man must either embrace absolute self sufficiency, or accept that his welfare is inexorably connected to the welfare of others. Even following his own interest he is unlikely to act as anti-socially as many cynics assume.

It is in the nature of man to struggle. Human nature can be described though the Aria from Beethoven‘s Cantata WoO 87 Da stiegen die Menschen an’s Licht (then mankind climbed toward the light). It is a phrase that grasps for something beyond its reach, falls, and then rises again. This should not be disheartening. Although man does not ever fully grasp onto that which he desires, and all revolutions end in a desecration of ideals; in Beethoven as in life, we can see glimmers of transcendence that elevate mankind. This is the glimmer of myth. Through myth, man can come to terms not only with “I,” but “we.” He can establish a home in this world and the next. Beethoven’s 9th is often used to mock the concept of “we.” That every definition of “we,” from Maoists, National Socialists, Bolsheviks, European Union citizens; or even those sickening words, citizens of the world, can be encompassed by this desire to belong. It is not something to mock, rather it is an expression of our nature, that is a desire to have a home, to belong to a Brotherhood of Man. The focus is on the brotherhood and not a particular expression of it. It is something so basic that I am surprised Slavoj Žižek, allegedly one of the greatest living philosophers is unable to understand. He asserts that Beethoven was critiquing ideology! That the Turkish march variation of the main theme in the final movement is somehow intended to be ironic. He obviously did not know that Beethoven kept the words “I, Isis, am all that has been, that is or shall be; no mortal Man hath ever me unveiled” beside him as he wrote the 9th Symphony.

Modern man has lost sight of belonging. Many wonder why male suicide rates are increasing, why people have a restless longing. Their longing is for home. A home that has been taken from them. Our society is atomised, and the land below us has become a swirling cloud which we drift across. This is reflected in our architecture. Villages of locally quarried stone are an extension of nature and not in conflict with it. These type of buildings are rooted in the earth, they are dwellings. Compare this to modernist architecture. Glass hung on metal at jaunty angles, a building that taunts nature, a building that is anonymous. Professor Roger Scruton has often written about our need to dwell and identifies that it is a very conservative idea. Many people voice their desire to conserve their home, their dwelling, their fields, their woods, their rivers and their hills; however, their voices have become lost in the noise of modernity.

What of the elderly? they are hidden away out of sight because when we look into their aged faces we see ourselves. Out of fear we spend millions of pounds on cosmetic surgery, make up, and reassuring lies that we will live forever. An elderly woman dies in front of her television set alone, and is only found in her state of desiccation by men that have come to repossess the chair she died in. In a ghastly concrete tower blackened by exhaust smoke. How so many of our council accommodations fall into a state of disrepair: mould on the ceiling, biting drafts that could freeze bone, so damp that the floors are saturated with filthy water. How horrid that children born to such places, and then die alone in such places.

Our National Health Service has become a walking graveyard where the elderly go to die. They are often abandoned, left alone to die under sterile bulbs surrounded by strangers. I have lived in cities for most of my life. The modern man is a wanderer, restless and insatiable. He drifts from one distraction to another in a series of dischords that long for resolution. After years of people watching my fellow townsman, countryman, or menschen, their faces have blurred into a single face. What does this face look like? It is a face of longing and despair. They despair because they don’t know what it is they long for. But when I see two friends embrace in the street, their despair melts into joy, and their laughter resolves the tension of their longing. But what of the friendless, the warrior without comrades? He stalks the cities, he hunches over and drags his feet along the concrete. From where will come the resolution of his longing?

Our small band in the wilderness is not aimless. We are like the pilgrims of Chaucer, a happy ragtag of men and women heading to the tomb of Becket, each with their own stories and dreams. As we dance toward our shared ideals we often come across the sullen faces of the pessimists. They say to us: “why do you sing in this wasteland? how can you be happy to be born at such a time?” and we reply: “we are lucky to be born at such a time. We are honoured and thankful to live at such a crucial point in history,” and on we dance. Many of the gloomy people cast off their old selves and join us. When the laughing crowd arrive, we see the twisted tree and horrid noose, and happy voices burn it to the ground!


4 thoughts on “Heroism in an Age of Despair

  1. The degree to which everything modern stands in stark contrast to what was before, is really frightening.

    Cities in particular are not the problem, as I see it. There are many parts of Birmingham which I think are beautiful: the canals, the old red brick and red terracotta Edwardian buildings. There are many beautiful cities on the earth. They happen to be more organic: the streets do not run parallel to eachother, hidden paths wind around and lead to strange places and districts, the buildings are made from stone instead of glass and concrete. There is an organic order, opposed to an artificial order which is creeping into Birmingham (and many other places).

    The desire to re-order our cities, and the world, into an artificial order is what needs to be quenched.

    The organic order recognises that the world will inevitably overthrow what we have built, yet it’s expression is eternal. The artificial order sees the universe as something that must be controlled, yet it’s expression is transitory.

    “When the sun shouts and people abound
    One thinks there were the ages of stone and the age of
    And the iron age; iron the unstable metal;
    Steel made of iron, unstable as his mother; the tow-
    ered-up cities
    Will be stains of rust on mounds of plaster.
    Roots will not pierce the heaps for a time, kind rains
    will cure them,
    Then nothing will remain of the iron age
    And all these people but a thigh-bone or so, a poem
    Stuck in the world’s thought, splinters of glass
    In the rubbish dumps, a concrete dam far off in the
    mountain… ”

    – Robinson Jeffers.

  2. This is beautiful because it is true. Modernity is to a large extent a constant escape from the three eses of Heroism: suffering, submission, and sacrifice. It is therefore not surprising that liberals — the people who most feverishly embrace modernity — are notorious for being less charitable than conservatives.

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