It is an open question whether the policeman is not demoralizing us; and that in proportion as he does his duty well; whether the perfection of justice and safety, the complete "preservation of body and goods," may not reduce the educated and comfortable classes into that lap-dog condition in which not conscience, but comfort, doth make cowards of us all. Our forefathers had, on the whole, to take care of themselves; we find it more convenient to hire people to take care of us. So much the better for us, in some respects: but, it may be, so much the worse in others. So much the better; because, as usually results from the division of labour, these people, having little or nothing to do save to take care of us, do so far better than we could; and so prevent a vast amount of violence and wrong, and therefore of misery, especially to the weak: for which last reason we will acquiesce in the existence of policemen and lawyers, as we do in the results of arbitration, as the lesser of two evils. The odds in war are in favour of the bigger bully; in arbitration, in favour of the bigger rogue; and it is a question whether the lion or the fox be the safer guardian of human interests. But arbitration prevents war: and that, in three cases out of four, is full reason for employing it.
On the other hand, the lap-dog condition, whether in dogs or in men, is certainly unfavourable to the growth of the higher virtues. Safety and comfort are good, indeed, for the good; for the brave, the self-originating, the earnest. They give to such a clear stage and no favour wherein to work unhindered for their fellow-men. But for the majority, who are neither brave, self-originating, nor earnest, but the mere puppets of circumstance, safety and comfort may, and actually do, merely make their lives mean and petty, effeminate and dull. Therefore their hearts must be awakened, as often as possible, to take exercise enough for health; and they must be reminded, perpetually and importunately, of what a certain great philosopher called "whatsoever things are true, honourable, just, pure, lovely, and of good report;" "if there be any manhood, and any just praise, to think of such things."
This pettiness and dulness of our modern life is just what keeps alive our stage, to which people go to see something a little less petty, a little less dull, than what they see at home. It is, too, the cause of--I had almost said the excuse for--the modern rage for sensational novels. Those who read them so greedily are conscious, poor souls, of capacities in themselves of passion and action, for good and evil, for which their frivolous humdrum daily life gives no room, no vent. They know too well that human nature can be more fertile, whether in weeds and poisons, or in flowers and fruits, than it is usually in the streets and houses of a well-ordered and tolerably sober city. And because the study of human nature is, after all, that which is nearest to every one and most interesting to every one, therefore they go to fiction, since they cannot go to fact, to see what they themselves might be had they the chance; to see what fantastic tricks before high heaven men and women like themselves can play; and how they play them.
Well: it is not for me to judge, for me to blame. I will only say that there are those who cannot read sensational novels, or, indeed, any novels at all, just because they see so many sensational novels being enacted round them in painful facts of sinful flesh and blood. There are those, too, who have looked in the mirror too often to wish to see their own disfigured visage in it any more; who are too tired of themselves and ashamed of themselves to want to hear of people like themselves; who want to hear of people utterly unlike themselves, more noble, and able, and just, and sweet, and pure; who long to hear of heroism and to converse with heroes; and who, if by chance they meet with an heroic act, bathe their spirits in that, as in May-dew, and feel themselves thereby, if but for an hour, more fair.
If any such shall chance to see these words, let me ask them to consider with me that one word Hero, and what it means.
Hero; Heroic; Heroism. These words point to a phase of human nature, the capacity for which we all have in ourselves, which is as startling and as interesting in its manifestations as any, and which is always beautiful, always ennobling, and therefore always attractive to those whose hearts are not yet seared by the world or brutalized by self-indulgence.
But let us first be sure what the words mean. There is no use talking about a word till we have got at its meaning. We may use it as a cant phrase, as a party cry on platforms; we may even hate and persecute our fellow-men for the sake of it: but till we have clearly settled in our own minds what a word means, it will do for fighting with, but not for working with. Socrates of old used to tell the young Athenians that the ground of all sound knowledge was--to understand the true meaning of the words which were in their mouths all day long; and Socrates was a wiser man than we shall ever see. So, instead of beginning an oration in praise of heroism, I shall ask my readers to think with me what heroism is.
Now, we shall always get most surely at the meaning of a word by getting at its etymology--that is, at what it meant at first. And if heroism means behaving like a hero, we must find out, it seems to me, not merely what a hero may happen to mean just now, but what it meant in the earliest human speech in which we find it.
A hero or a heroine, then, among the old Homeric Greeks, meant a man or woman who was like the gods; and who, from that likeness, stood superior to his or her fellow-creatures. Gods, heroes, and men, is a threefold division of rational beings, with which we meet more than once or twice. Those grand old Greeks felt deeply the truth of the poet's saying--
"Unless above himself he can Exalt himself, how poor a thing is man."
But more: the Greeks supposed these heroes to be, in some way or other, partakers of a divine nature; akin to the gods; usually, either they, or some ancestor of theirs, descended from a god or goddess. Those who have read Mr. Gladstone's 'Juventus Mundi' will remember the section (cap. ix. section 6) on the modes of the approximation between the divine and the human natures; and whether or not they agree with the author altogether, all will agree, I think, that the first idea of a hero or a heroine was a godlike man or godlike woman.
A godlike man. What varied, what infinite forms of nobleness that word might include, ever increasing, as men's notions of the gods became purer and loftier, or, alas! decreasing, as their notions became degraded. The old Greeks, with that intense admiration of beauty which made them, in after ages, the master sculptors and draughtsmen of their own, and, indeed, of any age, would, of course, require in their hero, their godlike man, beauty and strength, manners, too, and eloquence, and all outward perfections of humanity, and neglect his moral qualities. Neglect, I say, but not ignore. The hero, by virtue of his kindred with the gods, was always expected to be a better man than common men, as virtue was then understood. And how better? Let us see.
The hero was at least expected to be more reverent than other men to those divine beings of whose nature he partook, whose society he might enjoy even here on earth. He might be unfaithful to his own high lineage; he might misuse his gifts by selfishness and self-will; he might, like Ajax, rage with mere jealousy and wounded pride till his rage ended in shameful madness and suicide. He might rebel against the very gods, and all laws of right and wrong, till he perished in his [Greek text],
"Smitten down, blind in his pride, for a sign and a terror to mortals."
But he ought to have, he must have, to be true to his name of Hero, justice, self-restraint, and [Greek text]--that highest form of modesty, for which we have, alas! no name in the English tongue; that perfect respect for the feelings of others which springs out of perfect self-respect. And he must have, too--if he were to be a hero of the highest type--the instinct of helpfulness; the instinct that, if he were a kinsman of the gods, he must fight on their side, through toil and danger, against all that was unlike them, and therefore hateful to them. Who loves not the old legends, unsurpassed for beauty in the literature of any race, in which the hero stands out as the deliverer, the destroyer of evil? Theseus ridding the land of robbers, and delivering it from the yearly tribute of boys and maidens to be devoured by the Minotaur; Perseus slaying the Gorgon, and rescuing Andromeda from the sea-beast; Heracles with his twelve famous labours against giants and monsters; and all the rest--
"Who dared, in the god-given might of their manhood Greatly to do and to suffer, and far in the fens and the forests Smite the devourers of men, heaven-hated, brood of the giants; Transformed, strange, without like, who obey not the golden-haired rulers"--
These are figures whose divine moral beauty has sunk into the hearts, not merely of poets or of artists, but of men and women who suffered and who feared; the memory of them, fables though they may have been, ennobled the old Greek heart; they ennobled the heart of Europe in the fifteenth century, at the rediscovery of Greek literature. So far from contradicting the Christian ideal, they harmonised with--I had almost said they supplemented--that more tender and saintly ideal of heroism which had sprung up during the earlier Middle Ages. They justified, and actually gave a new life to, the old noblenesses of chivalry, which had grown up in the later Middle Ages as a necessary supplement of active and manly virtue to the passive and feminine virtue of the cloister. They inspired, mingling with these two other elements, a literature, both in England, France, and Italy, in which the three elements, the saintly, the chivalrous, and the Greek heroic, have become one and undistinguishable, because all three are human, and all three divine; a literature which developed itself in Ariosto, in Tasso, in the Hypnerotomachia, the Arcadia, the Euphues, and other forms, sometimes fantastic, sometimes questionable, but which reached its perfection in our own Spenser's 'Fairy Queen'--perhaps the most admirable poem which has ever been penned by mortal man.
And why? What has made these old Greek myths live, myths though they be, and fables, and fair dreams? What, though they have no body, and, perhaps, never had, has given them an immortal soul, which can speak to the immortal souls of all generations to come?
What but this, that in them--dim it may be and undeveloped, but still there--lies the divine idea of self-sacrifice as the perfection of heroism; of self-sacrifice, as the highest duty and the highest joy of him who claims a kindred with the gods?
Let us say, then, that true heroism must involve self-sacrifice. Those stories certainly involve it, whether ancient or modern, which the hearts, not of philosophers merely, or poets, but of the poorest and the most ignorant, have accepted instinctively as the highest form of moral beauty--the highest form, and yet one possible to all.
Grace Darling rowing out into the storm toward the wreck.--The "drunken private of the Buffs," who, prisoner among the Chinese, and commanded to prostrate himself and kotoo, refused in the name of his country's honour--"He would not bow to any Chinaman on earth:" and so was knocked on the head, and died surely a hero's death.--Those soldiers of the 'Birkenhead,' keeping their ranks to let the women and children escape, while they watched the sharks who in a few minutes would be tearing them limb from limb.--Or, to go across the Atlantic--for there are heroes in the Far West--Mr. Bret Harte's "Flynn of Virginia," on the Central Pacific Railway--the place is shown to travellers--who sacrificed his life for his married comrade,--
"There, in the drift, Back to the wall, He held the timbers Ready to fall. Then in the darkness I heard him call,-- 'Run for your life, Jake! Run for your wife's sake! Don't wait for me.'
"And that was all Heard in the din-- Heard of Tom Flynn, Flynn of Virginia."
Or the engineer, again, on the Mississippi, who, when the steamer caught fire, held, as he had sworn he would, her bow against the bank till every soul save he got safe on shore,--
"Through the hot black breath of the burning boat Jim Bludso's voice was heard; And they all had trust in his cussedness, And knew he would keep his word. And sure's you're born, they all got off Afore the smokestacks fell,-- And Bludso's ghost went up alone In the smoke of the 'Prairie Belle.'
"He weren't no saint--but at judgment I'd run my chance with Jim 'Longside of some pious gentlemen That wouldn't shake hands with him. He'd seen his duty--a dead sure thing-- And went for it there and then; And Christ is not going to be too hard On a man that died for men."
To which gallant poem of Colonel John Hay's--and he has written many gallant and beautiful poems--I have but one demurrer: Jim Bludso did not merely do his duty, but more than his duty. He did a voluntary deed, to which he was bound by no code or contract, civil or moral; just as he who introduced me to that poem won his Victoria Cross--as many a cross, Victoria and other, has been won--by volunteering for a deed to which he, too, was bound by no code or contract, military or moral. And it is of the essence of self-sacrifice, and, therefore, of heroism, that it should be voluntary; a work of supererogation, at least towards society and man: an act to which the hero or heroine is not bound by duty, but which is above though not against duty.
Nay, on the strength of that same element of self-sacrifice, I will not grudge the epithet heroic, which my revered friend Mr. Darwin justly applies to the poor little monkey, who once in his life did that which was above his duty; who lived in continual terror of the great baboon, and yet, when the brute had sprung upon his friend the keeper, and was tearing out his throat, conquered his fear by love, and, at the risk of instant death, sprang in turn upon his dreaded enemy, and bit and shrieked till help arrived.
Some would now-a-days use that story merely to prove that the monkey's nature and the man's nature are, after all, one and the same. Well: I, at least, have never denied that there is a monkey-nature in man as there is a peacock-nature, and a swine-nature, and a wolf-nature--of all which four I see every day too much. The sharp and stern distinction between men and animals, as far as their natures are concerned, is of a more modern origin than people fancy. Of old the Assyrian took the eagle, the ox, and the lion--and not unwisely--as the three highest types of human capacity. The horses of Homer might be immortal, and weep for their master's death. The animals and monsters of Greek myth--like the Ananzi spider of Negro fable--glide insensibly into speech and reason. Birds--the most wonderful of all animals in the eyes of a man of science or a poet--are sometimes looked on as wiser, and nearer to the gods, than man. The Norseman--the noblest and ablest human being, save the Greek, of whom history can tell us--was not ashamed to say of the bear of his native forests that he had "ten men's strength and eleven men's wisdom." How could Reinecke Fuchs have gained immortality, in the Middle Ages and since, save by the truth of its too solid and humiliating theorem--that the actions of the world of men were, on the whole, guided by passions but too exactly like those of the lower animals? I have said, and say again, with good old Vaughan--
"Unless above himself he can Exalt himself, how mean a thing is man."
But I cannot forget that many an old Greek poet or sage, and many a sixteenth and seventeenth century one, would have interpreted the monkey's heroism from quite a different point of view; and would have said that the poor little creature had been visited suddenly by some "divine afflatus"--an expression quite as philosophical and quite as intelligible as most philosophic formulas which I read now-a-days--and had been thus raised for the moment above his abject selfish monkey-nature, just as man requires to be raised above his. But that theory belongs to a philosophy which is out of date and out of fashion, and which will have to wait a century or two before it comes into fashion again.
And now: if self-sacrifice and heroism be, as I believe, identical, I must protest against a use of the word sacrifice which is growing too common in newspaper-columns, in which we are told of an "enormous sacrifice of life;" an expression which means merely that a great many poor wretches have been killed, quite against their own will, and for no purpose whatsoever: no sacrifice at all, unless it be one to the demons of ignorance, cupidity or mismanagement.
The stout Whig undergraduate understood better the meaning of such words, who, when asked, "In what sense might Charles the First be said to be a martyr?" answered, "In the same sense that a man might be said to be a martyr to the gout."
And I must protest, in like wise, against a misuse of the words hero, heroism, heroic, which is becoming too common, namely, applying them to mere courage. We have borrowed the misuse, I believe, as we have more than one beside, from the French press. I trust that we shall neither accept it, nor the temper which inspires it. It may be convenient for those who flatter their nation, and especially the military part of it, into a ruinous self-conceit, to frame some such syllogism as this--"Courage is heroism: every Frenchman is naturally courageous: therefore every Frenchman is a hero." But we, who have been trained at once in a sounder school of morals, and in a greater respect for facts, and for language as the expression of facts, shall be careful, I hope, not to trifle thus with that potent and awful engine--human speech. We shall eschew likewise, I hope, a like abuse of the word moral, which has crept from the French press now and then, not only into our own press, but into the writings of some of our military men, who, as Englishmen, should have known better. We were told again and again, during the late war, that the moral effect of such a success had been great; that the morale of the troops was excellent; or again, that the morale of the troops had suffered, or even that they were somewhat demoralised. But when one came to test what was really meant by these fine words, one discovered that morals had nothing to do with the facts which they expressed; that the troops were in the one case actuated simply by the animal passion of hope, in the other simply by the animal passion of fear. This abuse of the word moral has crossed, I am sorry to say, the Atlantic; and a witty American, whom we must excuse, though we must not imitate, when some one had been blazing away at him with a revolver, he being unarmed, is said to have described his very natural emotions on the occasion, by saying that he felt dreadfully demoralised. We, I hope, shall confine the word demoralisation, as our generals of the last century would have done, when applied to soldiers, to crime, including, of course, the neglect of duty or of discipline; and we shall mean by the word heroism in like manner, whether applied to a soldier or to any human being, not mere courage; not the mere doing of duty: but the doing of something beyond duty; something which is not in the bond; some spontaneous and unexpected act of self-devotion.
I am glad, but not surprised, to see that Miss Yonge has held to this sound distinction in her golden little book of 'Golden Deeds;' and said, "Obedience, at all costs and risks, is the very essence of a soldier's life. It has the solid material, but it has hardly the exceptional brightness, of a golden deed."
I know that it is very difficult to draw the line between mere obedience to duty and express heroism. I know also that it would be both invidious and impertinent in an utterly unheroic personage like me, to try to draw that line; and to sit at home at ease, analysing and criticising deeds which I could not do myself: but--to give an instance or two of what I mean--
To defend a post as long as it is tenable is not heroic. It is simple duty. To defend it after it has become untenable, and even to die in so doing, is not heroic, but a noble madness, unless an advantage is to be gained thereby for one's own side. Then, indeed, it rises towards, if not into, the heroism of self-sacrifice.
Who, for example, will not endorse the verdict of all ages on the conduct of those Spartans at Thermopylae, when they sat "combing their yellow hair for death" on the sea-shore? They devoted themselves to hopeless destruction: but why? They felt--I must believe that, for they behaved as if they felt--that on them the destinies of the Western World might hang; that they were in the forefront of the battle between civilisation and barbarism, between freedom and despotism; and that they must teach that vast mob of Persian slaves, whom the officers of the Great King were driving with whips up to their lance-points, that the spirit of the old heroes was not dead; and that the Greek, even in defeat and death, was a mightier and a nobler man than they. And they did their work. They produced, if you will, a "moral" effect, which has lasted even to this very day. They struck terror into the heart, not only of the Persian host, but of the whole Persian empire. They made the event of that war certain, and the victories of Salamis and Plataea comparatively easy. They made Alexander's conquest of the East, 150 years afterwards, not only possible at all, but permanent when it came; and thus helped to determine the future civilisation of the whole world.
They did not, of course, foresee all this. No great or inspired man can foresee all the consequences of his deeds: but these men were, as I hold, inspired to see somewhat at least of the mighty stake for which they played; and to count their lives worthless, if Sparta had sent them thither to help in that great game.
Or shall we refuse the name of heroic to those three German cavalry regiments who, in the battle of Mars La Tour, were bidden to hurl themselves upon the chassepots and mitrailleuses of the unbroken French infantry, and went to almost certain death, over the corpses of their comrades, on and in and through, reeling man over horse, horse over man, and clung like bull-dogs to their work, and would hardly leave, even at the bugle-call, till in one regiment thirteen officers out of nineteen were killed or wounded? And why?
Because the French army must be stopped, if it were but for a quarter of an hour. A respite must be gained for the exhausted Third Corps. And how much might be done, even in a quarter of an hour, by men who knew when, and where, and why to die. Who will refuse the name of heroes to these men? And yet they, probably, would have utterly declined the honour. They had but done that which was in the bond. They were but obeying orders after all. As Miss Yonge well says of all heroic persons--"'I have but done that which it was my duty to do,' is the natural answer of those capable of such actions. They have been constrained to them by duty or pity; have never deemed it possible to act otherwise; and did not once think of themselves in the matter at all."
These last true words bring us to another element in heroism: its simplicity. Whatsoever is not simple; whatsoever is affected, boastful, wilful, covetous, tarnishes, even destroys, the heroic character of a deed; because all these faults spring out of self. On the other hand, wherever you find a perfectly simple, frank, unconscious character, there you have the possibility, at least, of heroic action. For it is nobler far to do the most commonplace duty in the household, or behind the counter, with a single eye to duty, simply because it must be done--nobler far, I say, than to go out of your way to attempt a brilliant deed, with a double mind, and saying to yourself not only--"This will be a brilliant deed," but also--"and it will pay me, or raise me, or set me off, into the bargain." Heroism knows no "into the bargain." And therefore, again, I must protest against applying the word heroic to any deeds, however charitable, however toilsome, however dangerous, performed for the sake of what certain French ladies, I am told, call "faire son salut"--saving one's soul in the world to come. I do not mean to judge. Other and quite unselfish motives may be, and doubtless often are, mixed up with that selfish one: womanly pity and tenderness; love for, and desire to imitate, a certain incarnate ideal of self-sacrifice, who is at once human and divine. But that motive of saving the soul, which is too often openly proposed and proffered, is utterly unheroic. The desire to escape pains and penalties hereafter by pains and penalties here; the balance of present loss against future gain--what is this but selfishness extended out of this world into eternity? "Not worldliness," indeed, as a satirist once said with bitter truth, "but other-worldliness."
Moreover--and the young and the enthusiastic should also bear this in mind--though heroism means the going beyond the limits of strict duty, it never means the going out of the path of strict duty. If it is your duty to go to London, go thither: you may go as much further as you choose after that. But you must go to London first. Do your duty first; it will be time after that to talk of being heroic.
And therefore one must seriously warn the young, lest they mistake for heroism and self-sacrifice what is merely pride and self-will, discontent with the relations by which God has bound them, and the circumstances which God has appointed for them. I have known girls think they were doing a fine thing by leaving uncongenial parents or disagreeable sisters, and cutting out for themselves, as they fancied, a more useful and elevated line of life than that of mere home duties; while, after all, poor things, they were only saying, with the Pharisees of old, "Corban, it is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me;" and in the name of God, neglecting the command of God to honour their father and mother.
There are men, too, who will neglect their households and leave their children unprovided for, and even uneducated, while they are spending their money on philanthropic or religious hobbies of their own. It is ill to take the children's bread and cast it to the dogs; or even to the angels. It is ill, I say, trying to make God presents, before we have tried to pay God our debts. The first duty of every man is to the wife whom he has married, and to the children whom she has brought into the world; and to neglect them is not heroism, but self-conceit; the conceit that a man is so necessary to Almighty God, that God will actually allow him to do wrong, if He can only thereby secure the man's invaluable services. Be sure that every motive which comes not from the single eye; every motive which springs from self; is by its very essence unheroic, let it look as gaudy or as beneficent as it may.
But I cannot go so far as to say the same of the love of approbation--the desire for the love and respect of our fellow-men.
That must not be excluded from the list of heroic motives. I know that it is, or may be proved to be, by victorious analysis, an emotion common to us and the lower animals. And yet no man excludes it less than that true hero, St. Paul. If those brave Spartans, if those brave Germans, of whom I spoke just now, knew that their memories would be wept over and worshipped by brave men and fair women, and that their names would become watchwords to children in their fatherland: what is that to us, save that it should make us rejoice, if we be truly human, that they had that thought with them in their last moments to make self-devotion more easy, and death more sweet?
And yet--and yet--is not the highest heroism that which is free even from the approbation of our fellow-men, even from the approbation of the best and wisest? The heroism which is known only to our Father who seeth in secret? The Godlike deeds alone in the lonely chamber? The Godlike lives lived in obscurity?--a heroism rare among us men, who live perforce in the glare and noise of the outer world: more common among women; women of whom the world never hears; who, if the world discovered them, would only draw the veil more closely over their faces and their hearts, and entreat to be left alone with God. True, they cannot always hide. They must not always hide; or their fellow-creatures would lose the golden lesson. But, nevertheless, it is of the essence of the perfect and womanly heroism, in which, as in all spiritual forces, woman transcends the man, that it would hide if it could.
And it was a pleasant thought to me, when I glanced lately at the golden deeds of woman in Miss Yonge's book--it was a pleasant thought to me, that I could say to myself--Ah! yes. These heroines are known, and their fame flies through the mouths of men. But if so, how many thousands of heroines there must have been, how many thousands there may be now, of whom we shall never know. But still they are there. They sow in secret the seed of which we pluck the flower and eat the fruit, and know not that we pass the sower daily in the street; perhaps some humble ill-drest woman, earning painfully her own small sustenance. She who nurses a bedridden mother, instead of sending her to the workhouse. She who spends her heart and her money on a drunken father, a reckless brother, on the orphans of a kinsman or a friend. She who--But why go on with the long list of great little heroisms, with which a clergyman at least comes in contact daily--and it is one of the most ennobling privileges of a clergyman's high calling that he does come in contact with them--why go on, I say, save to commemorate one more form of great little heroism--the commonest, and yet the least remembered of all--namely, the heroism of an average mother? Ah, when I think of that last broad fact, I gather hope again for poor humanity; and this dark world looks bright, this diseased world looks wholesome to me once more--because, whatever else it is or is not full of, it is at least full of mothers.
While the satirist only sneers, as at a stock butt for his ridicule, at the managing mother trying to get her daughters married off her hands by chicaneries and meannesses, which every novelist knows too well how to draw--would to heaven he, or rather, alas! she, would find some more chivalrous employment for his or her pen--for were they not, too, born of woman?--I only say to myself--having had always a secret fondness for poor Rebecca, though I love Esau more than Jacob--Let the poor thing alone. With pain she brought these girls into the world. With pain she educated them according to her light. With pain she is trying to obtain for them the highest earthly blessing of which she can conceive, namely, to be well married; and if in doing that last, she manoeuvres a little, commits a few basenesses, even tells a few untruths, what does all that come to, save this--that in the confused intensity of her motherly self- sacrifice, she will sacrifice for her daughters even her own conscience and her own credit? We may sneer, if we will, at such a poor hard-driven soul when we meet her in society: our duty, both as Christians and ladies and gentlemen, seems to me to be--to do for her something very different indeed.
But to return. Looking at the amount of great little heroisms, which are being, as I assert, enacted around us every day, no one has a right to say, what we are all tempted to say at times--"How can I be heroic? This is no heroic age, setting me heroic examples. We are growing more and more comfortable, frivolous, pleasure-seeking, money-making; more and more utilitarian; more and more mercenary in our politics, in our morals, in our religion; thinking less and less of honour and duty, and more and more of loss and gain. I am born into an unheroic time. You must not ask me to become heroic in it."
I do not deny that it is more difficult to be heroic, while circumstances are unheroic round us. We are all too apt to be the puppets of circumstance; all too apt to follow the fashion; all too apt, like so many minnows, to take our colour from the ground on which we lie, in hopes, like them, of comfortable concealment, lest the new tyrant deity, called public opinion, should spy us out, and, like Nebuchadnezzar of old, cast us into a burning fiery furnace--which public opinion can make very hot--for daring to worship any god or man save the will of the temporary majority.
Yes, it is difficult to be anything but poor, mean, insufficient, imperfect people, as like each other as so many sheep; and, like so many sheep, having no will or character of our own, but rushing altogether blindly over the same gap, in foolish fear of the same dog, who, after all, dare not bite us; and so it always was and always will be.
For the third time I say,--
"Unless above himself he can Exalt himself, how poor a thing is man."
But, nevertheless, any man or woman who will, in any age and under any circumstances, can live the heroic life and exercise heroic influences.
If any ask proof of this, I shall ask them, in return, to read two novels; novels, indeed, but, in their method and their moral, partaking of that heroic and ideal element, which will make them live, I trust, long after thousands of mere novels have returned to their native dust. I mean Miss Muloch's 'John Halifax, Gentleman,' and Mr. Thackeray's 'Esmond,' two books which no man or woman ought to read without being the nobler for them.
'John Halifax, Gentleman,' is simply the history of a poor young clerk, who rises to be a wealthy mill-owner in the manufacturing districts, in the early part of this century. But he contrives to be an heroic and ideal clerk, and an heroic and ideal mill-owner; and that without doing anything which the world would call heroic or ideal, or in anywise stepping out of his sphere, minding simply his own business, and doing the duty which lies nearest him. And how? By getting into his head from youth the strangest notion, that in whatever station or business he may be, he can always be what he considers a gentleman; and that if he only behaves like a gentleman, all must go right at last. A beautiful book. As I said before, somewhat of an heroic and ideal book. A book which did me good when first I read it; which ought to do any young man good who will read it, and then try to be, like John Halifax, a gentleman, whether in the shop, the counting-house, the bank, or the manufactory.
The other--an even more striking instance of the possibility, at least, of heroism anywhere and everywhere--is Mr. Thackeray's 'Esmond.' On the meaning of that book I can speak with authority. For my dear and regretted friend told me himself that my interpretation of it was the true one; that this was the lesson which he meant men to learn therefrom.
Esmond is a man of the first half of the eighteenth century; living in a coarse, drunken, ignorant, profligate, and altogether unheroic age. He is--and here the high art and the high morality of Mr. Thackeray's genius is shown--altogether a man of his own age. He is not a sixteenth-century or a nineteenth-century man born out of time. His information, his politics, his religion, are no higher than of those round him. His manners, his views of human life, his very prejudices and faults, are those of his age. The temptations which he conquers are just those under which the men around him fall. But how does he conquer them? By holding fast throughout to honour, duty, virtue. Thus, and thus alone, he becomes an ideal eighteenth-century gentleman, an eighteenth-century hero. This was what Mr. Thackeray meant--for he told me so himself, I say--that it was possible, even in England's lowest and foulest times, to be a gentleman and a hero, if a man would but be true to the light within him.
But I will go further. I will go from ideal fiction to actual, and yet ideal, fact; and say that, as I read history, the most unheroic age which the civilized world ever saw was also the most heroic; that the spirit of man triumphed most utterly over his circumstances, at the very moment when those circumstances were most against him.
How and why he did so is a question for philosophy in the highest sense of that word. The fact of his having done so is matter of history. Shall I solve my own riddle?
Then, have we not heard of the early Christian martyrs? Is there a doubt that they, unlettered men, slaves, weak women, even children, did exhibit, under an infinite sense of duty, issuing in infinite self-sacrifice, a heroism such as the world had never seen before; did raise the ideal of human nobleness a whole stage--rather say, a whole heaven--higher than before; and that wherever the tale of their great deeds spread, men accepted, even if they did not copy, those martyrs as ideal specimens of the human race, till they were actually worshipped by succeeding generations, wrongly, it may be, but pardonably, as a choir of lesser deities?
But is there, on the other hand, a doubt that the age in which they were heroic was the most unheroic of all ages; that they were bred, lived, and died, under the most debasing of materialist tyrannies, with art, literature, philosophy, family and national life dying or dead around them, and in cities the corruption of which cannot be told for very shame--cities, compared with which Paris is the abode of Arcadian simplicity and innocence? When I read Petronius and Juvenal, and recollect that they were the contemporaries of the Apostles; when--to give an instance which scholars, and perhaps, happily, only scholars, can appreciate--I glance once more at Trimalchio's feast, and remember that within a mile of that feast St. Paul may have been preaching to a Christian congregation, some of whom--for St. Paul makes no secret of that strange fact--may have been, ere their conversion, partakers in just such vulgar and bestial orgies as those which were going on in the rich freedman's halls: after that, I say, I can put no limit to the possibility of man's becoming heroic, even though he be surrounded by a hell on earth; no limit to the capacities of any human being to form for himself or herself a high and pure ideal of human character; and, without "playing fantastic tricks before high heaven," to carry out that ideal in every-day life; and in the most commonplace circumstances, and the most menial occupations, to live worthy of--as I conceive--our heavenly birthright, and to imitate the heroes, who were the kinsmen of the gods.