CHAPTER XV — GREATNESS OF SOUL
A FEW years ago Colonel Lindbergh returned from his triumphant flight over the Atlantic to a spontaneous public reception in New York. It seemed that the whole city turned out, eager to express its admiration for the daring of this lone aviator; the admiration was enthusiastic, even hysterical. Absolutely everyone had a splendid time, except, perhaps, Lindbergh. When the crowds finally scattered to their homes, they had no envy in their hearts, no grumbling dissatisfaction on their lips that it was Lindbergh and not themselves who was the hero. Apparently everyone was satisfied that Lindbergh should have the glory, the medals, the place in history.
No serious desire to imitate
For the most part, that is the attitude of the average man towards the heroic. He does not envy a hero, has no earnest desire for the heroic himself, except by way of a relaxing dream. The family butcher around the corner may enjoy reading the life of Napoleon or following the progress of a modern war; but he has no serious desire to be a great military leader himself, After all, there is no secret ruthlessness within him, he has no desire to kill people; the monotony, discipline and rigidity of army life do not make his mouth water; he has no desire to wander over the face of the earth. Rather he is quite satisfied with his humble business, with the peace, kindness and quiet of home life.
And in that he is much like the rest of men. When the hard working lawyer relaxes with a detective story at the end of a grinding day, he does not seriously look forward to the day when he himself will be unearthing clues. He has no taste for man-hunts, no affinity for criminals, no relish for the constant threat of a bullet in the back. So it is with all the rest. The daring aviator, the racing automobile driver, the animal trainer and all-around daredevil — we can enjoy their exploits. We are thrilled by them, admire them, but as for personally imitating them — ah no.
No dismay at lack of this desire
We have no more desire for that than we have to be suddenly turned into an angel. Moreover, we show no more dismay at our lack of desire than we do at our reluctance to rise promptly on a cold morning, or our cowardice in the face of a cold tub before breakfast. In fact, we can laugh a little about all this. It is a weakness we have in common with practically all men, the ordinary attitude of ordinary men; not something we have to be ashamed of. Heroism is something for the exceptional, the rare man. Heroes are few and far between; as for the rest of us, well, we simply trudge along our mediocre way.
Yet there is something wrong with this point of view. In our last chapter we saw that courage was essential for the living of human life; and that courage could not exist without its primary object — the facing of the danger of death. Everyone, then, not only can but must have the courage to face death itself. In other words, everyone must have something of the heroic in him.
Defect of this attitude: Defective basis of it
This modern attitude towards the heroic is incomplete, half-baked, something like a half-considered opinion. And its incomplete character is due to the modern identification of the heroic with the venturesome. In other words, we have identified the heroic with the lesser, the easier act of courage, namely, the act of attack. Men do not particularly like to attack, either other men or things; the crunching bones in an adversary’s face under the blow of a fist is not music to the ears of the man who struck the blow, if he is normal. Attack is an emergency measure with considerable distaste attached to it, even if it is easier; people do not enjoy rushing down a fire escape in their night clothes, even though they do it readily as the easiest way to meet the emergency of fire. So men show no dismay at their reluctance to engage in this emergency action which we have called heroic.
Catholic’s knowledge of this defect: Evidence in face of sanctity
But there is another act of courage, the act of sustaining dangers and difficulties, of holding on. The Catholic, above all others, is familiar with this other side of courage; he knows well that this other is the principal, the chief act of courage and that it enters into the field of the heroic. He is constantly faced with this type of heroism and he gives it an honor and respect which he accords to no other courage. He is, in a word, familiar with the saints and their sanctity. In the depths of his heart he realizes that courage cannot go beyond this; this is heroism that touches the sublime.
Yet a man cannot merely cheer as sanctity goes by and, when the parade is over, go home well satisfied with himself. True, there is not a universal eagerness among Catholics to imitate sanctity; but it is also true that the Catholic cannot be too complacent about his lack of imitation of the saints. He knows that, through the grace of God, this heroism is in his power, that it is his persistent clinging to things that do him no good or to trifles that holds him back from reaching these sublime heights. Sanctity inevitably awakens shame and compunction in the bystander, not merely satisfied admiration. Frequently it begins a movement of personal reform; yet often it stirs up a violent hatred that is directed much more at sanctity’s implied rebuke to the sinner than at the saint himself.
Element of heroic in all life
For heroism is not to be identified with venturesome attack but with courage. It is to be found plentifully in daily living. Since courage cannot be separated from living, neither can heroism; indeed, its very height will not be in the secondary but in the primary act of courage, not in the act of attack but in the act of sustaining, of holding on.
Element of heroic in all courage (Integral parts of fortitude)
Strictly speaking, heroism is nothing more than high courage. It is found chiefly in the supreme act of courage, that is, in facing the dangers of death; and those dangers can be met either by sustaining or attacking them. In either case there are some necessary acts without which the act of high courage itself cannot possibly be produced. For attack, a man must be straining for the stars. That is, in his heart he must have great hopes for great things, hopes so great for things so great that all else sinks into insignificance; so great, indeed, that they give a greatness to his own soul (magnanimity). Moreover there must be a magnificence to his action corresponding to the soul’s greatness; the execution must be as splendid as the inspiration. For the act of sustaining a man must have a wall of patience built around his soul, a wall that tosses back the waves of the tremendous seas of sorrow that rush at his soul to leave it a wretched, broken thing; it is a wall that must not weaken, must not break, must not allow the smallest leak. Then, too, he must have a bulwark of perseverance to withstand the ceaseless continuity of sorrow’s pounding on his soul day after day, month after month, year after year.
If these four — magnanimity, magnificence, patience and perseverance — are restricted to meeting the dangers of death they are not virtues, but rather integral parts of the virtue of courage. They are acts that must run along side by side with the acts of courage if that act is not to fail.
In lesser dangers and lesser difficulties, each of these four is a separate virtue. Let us look at it this way: if we consider each difficulty, each danger, as a fragment blasted from the rock of the supreme danger and difficulty which is death, then in handling every one of these fragments we find some of the gold of heroism in the shape of magnanimity, magnificence, patience or perseverance.
Or, looking at it in a different way, we could consider each difficulty, each danger, as a preparation for the supreme danger. Each particular difficulty, each particular danger pours some of the concrete of heroism into the foundations of the soul; it builds in these four habits that eventually make the ultimate heroism a kind of second nature to us. This truth is not hard to check. A girl who has pampered herself for years, naturally finds it practically impossible to make the sacrifices demanded by married life; in a very short time she seeks escape through the emergency exit of divorce. Or, again, the sham battle of mortification makes the real battle against temptation somewhat of a routine matter for which we are well prepared; on the contrary, the tremendous penances of Martin Luther, taken in long separated gulps, were positive detriments instead of being helps to the real battle. Human nature does not become anything all of a sudden. We were made to live in time; and it is in time that we build up our characters.
Heroism in greatness: Greatness of soul — magnanimity
The first of these fragments of heroism, magnanimity, implies a great heart, a heart enlarged, reaching out to great things, to things that are difficult, precisely because of their greatness. Just as courage moderates fear and daring to the end of courageous action, so magnanimity, looking to a great work, moderates the expectations of honor. These expectations must not be too great, lest in a kind of despair we begin to be satisfied with petty things, counting their honor as great; nor yet must they be too small, for then a man will also refuse to undertake great things, considering them petty, not worth while, as does the cynic to whom all honor is more or less of a joke.
The magnanimous man is not a publicity hound with his nose turned to the wind to catch any slightest scent of honor. His interest is in great works, works worthy of honor. His virtue of magnanimity moderates the hope of future honors and the joy of present honors by way of guaranteeing the accomplishment of the great works which are its proper object. Of course the magnanimous man has a real regard for honor; as a matter of fact, a man with no regard for honor will do the most despicable things with a kind of gusto, with the strange pride of a gangster kicking an insensible victim or a seducer wrecking the home of his friend. But because he seeks the works and not the honor, the magnanimous man is not upset when due honor is not given him; nor is he impressed by too much honor, for he is far from a fool. He is not crushed by dishonoring attacks. He is above honor and dishonor, though he is dealing constantly with honor; for he knows that the due reward of virtue can come only from God.
Let us put this from the point of view of magnanimity, as a protector of reason’s command. The serious threat to the command of reason does not come so much from the intrinsic nature of man’s own passions; they were made to be subject to reason. Rather it comes from the extreme desirability of external things, especially from the attractions of money and honor. Of the two, the attraction of honor is by far the greater, since, as a witness to virtue, it is so close to that supreme value in human life. Unquestionably there is something of the supreme about honor, its blood is royal. It is given to God and to the best of men; to avoid its contrary men have sacrificed all else. It is, then, a thing for which men we going to reach desperately; but a thing about which mistakes are so easily made that a virtue regulative of the appetite for honor is absolutely essential. We need a virtue governing our expectations of this witness of virtue from men.
Even to our loving eyes, the contours of our soul may have a closer resemblance to the flat monotony of the western plains than to the New York sky-line. Yet greatness of soul runs through all of life, all of virtue, all of our works. Wherever there is an aspect of greatness, there magnanimity must be at work. Perhaps it is only such a relative greatness as our Lenten fast as compared to the asceticism of a saint; nevertheless it is true greatness for us who have such a vague, nodding acquaintance with hair shirts. In a word, there is greatness in every human life, even the smallest and meanest of human lives,
This relative and hardly discernible greatness allows us to escape what absolute greatness never avoids — the sharp, hard thrusts of the gossips’ chatter. The magnanimous man is called a “glory-hunter”; he does aim at big things and they do bring glory. `’He moves so slowly”, and that is true, for he is looking at great things and they are not many; it is only the trafficker in trifles who is a hustler, a “go-getter.” “He is lazy, even his voice is slow and heavy”; again there is some truth in this, for the magnanimous man is mixing only in great things, arguing only about great things; and great things are not only rare, they are not the sort that have to be bickered about. These are the things that grab hold of the very heart of a man or they do not touch him at all. “He is unsociable”, because there is no need for him to parade his own excellence. “He is impractical”, because he is not producing many results but only big results. “He is hard”, because he is not a whiner, because he is above external things and not to be overcome by them. Sometimes he is too truthful because he has none of the fear that makes a timid man lie. In other words, he has time to live, to think, to act, because he is not overwhelmed with a mass of trifles; his eyes are on big things and everything else is unimportant to him.
Fortitude and magnanimity go well together; the one is the head of the family of courage, the other a favorite son. As they walk down the street together, heads will be turned to follow their progress: both are strapping fellows, strong, resolute. The one is the grim, tenacious fighter, strong against evil; the other, in its young strength in the pursuit of good, is not so much involved with security against evil as with the robust confidence that is stimulated rather than downcast by the very magnitude of the task it sets itself.
The greatness of its works, taking greatness in its absolute meaning, demands that magnanimity make use of wealth as an indispensable instrument. Great works erected by dreams come tumbling down at the trumpet blast of the alarm clock; wishing produces its wonders only in fairy tales; in the hard world of reality it takes money to produce great works. In other words, wealth is an instrument of this virtue; but it must be clearly understood that it is only an instrument. It is not an integral part of the virtue, nor is it a necessary condition for the interior, and principal, acts of the virtue, the acts which actually expand a man’s own soul.
Its opposites by excess: Presumption
An evidence of this limitation of wealth in magnanimity is seen in the fact that wealth often proves an obstacle to the virtue, sending a man hurtling after petty things under the impression that they are big. It frequently induces a kind of blindness to the really great things that leaves its victim as pitiable a figure as a physically blind man in the midst of Broadway traffic. He may mistake riches themselves for greatness and wave his bank book as sufficient proof of his right to admittance everywhere and under every condition. In his blindness he may think the top rung of the social ladder is the peak of human achievement; the isolation of snobbery, the sweep of ruthless power, or even the very clothes with which he covers his nakedness, may seem to him goals worthy of a great soul. Yet by all these things, he condemns himself in the eyes of God and men as possessing a small soul. He makes a burlesque even of presumption; and presumption itself is no more than a mockery of magnanimity. He has merited not honor, but contempt, for he has abided by greatness as it is judged by fools.
Hardly less pitiable is the sin of presumption itself. We are saddened rather than angered by the powerful dictator’s decision to design a whole city, the great industrialist’s attempt to bring peace to the world personally and in short order, or the monk’s efforts to improve on the doctrine of Christ. All these men have taken on works that were too big for them; they have been guilty of presumption, not as it is a sin against the Holy Ghost, but as it is opposed to magnanimity. No matter how small the scale on which the presumption exists, it is always a distressing thing to witness. Its victim is out of his depth. He is in a constant state of panic; in a fever of fear, jealousy, overwhelmed in hurried, desperate work. Ultimately he is a bitterly disappointed, if not a broken man. It is significant that it is impossible for a man to aim too high in the life of supernatural virtue. Here it is not a question of establishing a proportion between our capacities and the work we try to do; from the beginning there has been no proportion. Yet there is always proportion, a proportion that comes not from us but from the omnipotent, infallible help of Almighty God.
Presumption aims too high; ambition does not aim too high, but it does aim at the wrong target. It speaks the language of magnanimity with all the peculiar inversions of a foreigner; it works out the problems of greatness like a dishonest child who gets all the solutions from the back of the book with none of the argumentation by which those solutions were reached. For ambition aims, not at great works, but rather at the honor they bring; it embraces the conclusions of greatness and snubs the labors of the works themselves.
Of course it makes a man as helplessly vulnerable as a spoiled child. If he is not given his proper place at a banquet, he pouts in sullen silence or roars in anger; yet he is delighted if a head-waiter mistakes him for a visiting dignitary and gives him honors to which he has no claim. He gulps down honors with the uncouthness of a glutton; even the honors of God. To him the works are always unimportant; he lives on an airy diet of honor like the mythical honeymooners who lived on love alone. He must inevitably discover that it would have been much better to stop long enough to take a few bites of the solid sandwich of the works themselves. As a matter of fact, he has less and less interest in, or effort towards, meriting the honors upon which his life so desperately depends. He is like an athlete hoping for great victories, yet doing nothing about getting into condition, even going without food.
The ambitious man does not feel towards his honor as the saint feels towards his sanctity, satisfied to have it unknown to the world. He is no shrinking violet; he is not embarrassed by the plaudits of men, he gloats over them, for he seeks not only honor but honor’s effect which is glory. The more dazzlingly his light shines before men, the more pleased he is; he wants desperately to make a name for himself, though he is not particularly interested in laying the foundations which would justify that name.
Vainglory: A capital sin
It is not wrong, of course to have glory, or even to desire it. But vain-glory is something else. The latter has furnished a living for those creative artists who manufacture coats-of-arms for non-existent family trees; but economic reasons will not suffice to excuse the cultivation of vainglory. It hardly needs cultivation at any time; it springs up in the oddest places and settles down comfortably for a long stay, as much at home in the murderer’s pride in his crime as in the physician’s joy in the great name he has among the patients of his insane asylum. Its future is secure, its home safe, in the heart of the man who makes glory his god.
All this may sound a little extreme. But in our daily lives we do seek honor for non-existent works and purely fictional virtues. We accept honors for things as unworthy of honor as brigandage in the business world, lying in the political world, successive polygamy in the domestic world, and godless broad-mindedness in the individual world of our own soul. Indeed, honor will be accepted from people who are utterly incapable of giving it, even from fools.
When we do these things, we make a fatal mistake. Perhaps, in itself, the sin of vain-glory does not exceed a venial sin; it may, of course, be mortal if we glory in material that is mortally sinful or make glory our god. But what is more far-reaching in its tragic consequences is that this sin with which we have become enamoured, is a capital sin.
Ordinarily we lump this sin with pride in our enumeration of the capital sins; but, theologically, pride is a concentration on one’s own excellence, whereas vain-glory is a concentration on the manifestation of that excellence. It might be called a sally of pride from behind its fortifications into the world of men. Certainly it is a stiff-necked pride that will not surrender an inch; as it elbows through the world of men it dispenses, with equal prodigality, blows and yawns, for in its negative activity it is a ruthless fighter while in its positive form it is the greatest of bores.
To the vain-glorious man, disobedience is a factual manifestation of his excellence; discord proves the superiority of his will; quarrelling is by way of showing he will have the last word; while stubbornness is his idea of superiority of intellect. With the last opponent shouted down, the way is clear for vain-glory’s positive action: for boasting, hypocrisy, the eccentricities of singularity by which it hopes to stand out from the crowd. Vain-glory, like presumption and ambition, dare not saunter through the town undisguised; men have not yet reached the stage of honoring any of these things unless they parade as magnanimity. They do have an air of greatness about them; though, in them, there is much more of air than of greatness; they are the sins of windbags but they may fool us until they are punctured.
Its opposites by defect — pusillanimity
No such mistake can be made about pusillanimity. Its victim can never be mistaken for the possessor of a great soul; by the very fact of his sin he is defeated, for in the face of greatness he collapses. His pettiness of soul may be the result of an under-estimation of his own power or of an over-estimation of the greatness of the work that faces him. Whatever the cause, whether intellectual or emotional, the pusillanimous man is a pitiable figure as he stands paralyzed, mentally wringing his hands. Such a man was the servant of the gospel story who buried his lord’s talent in the ground through fear of his master’s harshness. In a milder form it is seen frequently in men possessed of all the gifts — clever intellect, kind heart, good personality, splendid health — but who slip through life as unobtrusively ineffective as a figure in a dream. Pusillanimity wraps its feeble fingers around the life of the procrastinator, particularly the procrastinator in a position of authority, the man who can never quite bring himself out of the agony of his indecision.
Watching the small-souled man writhe in the agony of his fear, we pity him. We must, indeed, be extremely careful that contempt does not enter our thoughts; for it is easy to be contemptuous of so unnatural a thing. Man’s soul is not small, it is big; made For tremendous things. Everything in nature moves to the act of which it is capable; this man shrinks from the very thing of which he is capable. Man naturally seeks good, he does not run away from it. Pusillanimity has the pallor of an anemic perversion in contrast to the ruddy, open face of nature.
It is interesting to run through the lives of the apostles with an eye to their greatness or smallness of soul. Those of whom details are recorded all had their moments, at least, of greatness. Nathaniel, recognized as the guileless Israelite, immediately made his gesture of subjection and his recognition of the divinity of Christ. The two pairs of brothers, Peter and Andrew, James and John, left their nets, their ships, their fathers without a backward glance, to follow Christ. Matthew, without a word, rose up from his tax-gatherer’s booth at the word of the Master. Peter again and again showed promise of greatness, though his weakness prevented the execution of his works from coming up to their inspiration. Perhaps Thomas’ contrasting decisiveness was one of the reasons Christ could be so easy on his tardiness and his hard-headedness; you remember, when Christ decided to return to Judea for the sake of his dead friend, Lazarus, even though his life had been threatened there, Thomas, in an almost matter-of-fact heroism said: “Let us go also and die with him.”
There is great significance in this. Moments of pettiness come to nearly everyone. Some men can go all through life without a single moment of greatness. But one flash of the splendor of greatness is a promise that justifies an unlimited investment of confidence. The apostles were to be leaders of men, indeed, leaders of the universe back to Christ and to God. Obviously, there is nothing more impossible than to work under a pusillanimous leader, watching helplessly while things go to pieces through his indecision. It was, then, essential that the apostles have greatness of soul or at least a promise of it. If we could speak on the purely human level we might well wonder how many anxious days and nights Christ spent watching for some little promise of greatness from the soul of Judas, the traitor.
Greatness in work — magnificence: Its nature and extent
Greatness of soul is absolutely necessary if we are to get great things done. It is also necessary if we are to get great things made: but in this respect, greatness of soul is a distinct virtue, the virtue of magnificence. It is the virtue of the builder, the virtue that has produced the cathedrals, masterpieces, even celebrations of great pomp. For the most part it is not a personal affair. As a general rule there is little call for magnificence about our own person or in the details of our daily lives, diaries are usually a bore and full length mirrors are mortifications as well as decorations. Now and then we are magnificent in a personal way — in things that happen once in a lifetime, like a marriage celebration, or with what we expect to last a lifetime, as in the construction of a home. But usually magnificence spends itself on the things of the community or the things of God.
To accomplish great things, we must lay out great sums of money. Magnificence, dealing with those expenditures, also deals with love of money, as does liberality; but the latter handles the small change of life, magnificence carries the check-book. It is, then, obviously, impossible for a fifteen-dollar-a-week stenographer to undertake works that demand huge expenditures; yet she can be magnificent, at least in the sense of the inner, and more important, acts of the virtue of magnificence, just as a man can be stingy with nothing to be stingy about. But even in the sense of external magnificence, this girl putting forth what to her is a tremendous amount of money, has a solid claim to the title of magnificent, even though that magnificence is relative and not absolute. Paradoxically it is much easier for the poor to be magnificent than for the rich, for five dollars can be spent in five minutes whereas it takes time and considerable thought to dispose wisely of a million dollars; and, as a matter of fact, the poor are much more frequently magnificent than the rich.
Its opposites: Meanness (parvificentia)
At one extreme from magnificence is the vice the English Dominicans translate as “meanness.” It is a particularly venomous kind of stinginess that attempts to make great things without spending the money demanded by their greatness. As the illiberal man pays out money slowly and painfully, so the stingy man, using stinginess in this special sense, parts with his money as though he were saying a final farewell to a friend. He has, indeed, more reason for his reluctance; no matter how he pares down the expenses, the costs will run into huge amounts. It is this vice in action that has brought such bitter complaints from American labor on the score of unjust wages; where it shows up in inferior material or workmanship, it makes huge concrete piers dissolve like sugar to the astonishment of the citizens who were not in on the deal, or a highly modern overpass in a great city collapse under no heavier a weight than the silence of the night.
At the other extreme is a vice that might be called “waste”, what St. Thomas calls “consumption.” It also disregards the proportion between the dignity of the work and the money paid for it; it is quite willing to pay out money that would build a skyscraper in the actual erection of a birdhouse. In both meanness and waste the norm or medium of reason is violated. By the first the sinner usually injures others as well as himself, as, for instance, by lowering wages below a living scale, using inferior material, skimping on the actual details of the plans, and so on. By the second, the sinner usually injures only himself, unless, and this is not too rare in American life, it is the community money which is being spent. In this latter case, we describe this sin in one short word that has an ugly sound: graft.
Magnanimity and magnificence are the dust of the lesser heroism that is scattered through life. Both are kin to that act of courage which is attack, for they deal with a good which does not repel but rather attracts men. There is something of a rush about both of these virtues. But there is a greater side to heroic courage, the side that consists of enduring in spite of dangers and difficulties. The dust of this heroism is scattered through life much more prodigally and it goes by the names of patience and perseverance.
Heroism in labors and dangers: Patience
These two do not wear the fine raiment of magnanimity and magnificence. They are not nearly so attractive at first sight and they are easily under-estimated; it is not hard to miss the splendid heroism of a man if he is lying in the dust. Yet something of the splendor of this courage was caught in Christ’s simple exhortation: “Possess your souls in patience;” its full brilliance bursts upon us when we remember that no one can follow the path of virtue long without patience, and the path of virtue is the path of heroism. Patience, after all, deals with the sorrows of life; it holds the soul upright under the crushing blows of this sorrow. The extent of sorrow in life is an indication of the extent and necessity of patience. Only so can a man possess his soul; for possession implies quiet ownership, calm dominion, and it is patience which quiets the uproar of the passions and vices. Patience not only forbids unjust revenge, as does justice; it not only bars hate, as does charity; or anger, as does meekness. It even excludes the undue sorrow that is the root of all these sins. Patience is one of the humble, workaday virtues; but it is, in a real sense, the root and guardian of all virtues, not causing them but removing the impediments to their operation. Do away with patience and the gates are open for a flood of discontent and sin, for sorrow will still find its way into human life.
It is not patience that enables a prisoner to endure indignities calmly that he might later on have a better opportunity for revenge against the guard. Patience endures evil, not to commit evil, but rather that evil may not be committed. It finds its place in our daily lives in such crises as the separation from friends, the death of loved ones, sickness, slander and misfortune.
The natural question is, just what can patience do in the face of these things? Well, if we have it on its lowest level, we can at least endure these things without telling the neighbors about it. On a higher level, we bear with these things without telling ourselves about it over and over again in the kind of whining self-pity that sours human life. On its highest level, patience enables us to endure sorrows with positive joy.
That is a hard thing? Yes, it is. In the natural order it is nearly impossible, done only in view of some much greater natural good; although long experience may give us a kind of hopeless resignation from the realization that impatience does not help but rather increases sorrow. In the supernatural order, God’s patience with our own weaknesses, forgetfulness and ingratitude, is a constant example before our eyes; we can never draw a curtain over the spectacle of Calvary’s divine patience; and the sublime patience of the saints is not something we are ever in a hurry to forget. Then, too, the realization of its power to satisfy for our sins, its significance for heaven, and closer friendship with Christ, through its power of merit, is a constant spur to our patience. In a word, supernatural patience can be a joyous thing; but even supernaturally it is never an easy thing.
We resent an inhuman harshness and brute stolidity that leave a man insensible to sorrow. And we are right in our resentment. Man should be touched by sorrow, by his own sorrow and the sorrow of his fellows; the man who is not so touched is vicious with the vice of insensibility. On the contrary, if sorrow affects us so deeply that we withdraw from good in order to escape it, then we, too, are vicious; we are guilty of the sin of impatience. This sin crowds many of our days with its trifling manifestations; we may not be at all embarrassed by it, even a little vain about such evidence of a strong mind and will. The truth of the matter is that impatience has nothing whatever of strength in it, but much, very much, of a terrible weakness; it is a confession of our inability to stand up before the rush of sorrow, even trifling sorrow. It stamps us as the vanquished mourning our defeat.
Perseverance: Its nature and limitations
Patience runs all through life because sorrow runs all through life; and, because our human life is measured in time, the courage of perseverance must color every work, every day, every life. Perhaps it is because we are made for eternity that we find it so hard to face the difficulty of time; whatever the reason, we do find duration itself a great difficulty. We do not hesitate to give our dinner to a hungry man; yet we find it extremely difficult to give up a small part of that meal for the forty days of Lent. We do not mind a day’s work; but the same work day after day is an altogether different thing. It is easy to give a moment’s kindness, but not a lifetime of kindness. For real lengths of time are a serious obstacle to human living.
Perseverance is a dogged, unswerving, unbeatable courage whose beauty and grace are often hidden in the weary stumbling of its walk and the gray fatigue of its face. No military bands greet perseverance; no trumpets salute it, no parades are staged in its honor, no decorations publicly conferred. There is not even the human help of racing blood that comes in facing open attack. Perseverance knows only the dull, relentless thud of the moments of time and the fighting heart holding fast to the necessity of fighting through to the end.
But not even this heroic courage is sufficient to cover the whole span of a lifetime, not even when it is the result of the supernatural virtue of perseverance. We went into this question in more detail in the preceding volume; here it is enough to recall that for this endurance we need a special gift of God, the gift of final perseverance. A gift, that is, which meets not this or that work, not this or that span of time, but the whole long sweep of a man’s life from birth until the moment of death.
Its opposites: Softness (effeminacy)
It is the defect of this courage of perseverance that is the distinctive mark of effeminacy. It is not the muscles or the gait of a man that stamps him as effeminate, but his inability to carry through. In fact, a more expressive word for this condition would be a literal translation of the Latin term, i.e., softness; it means yielding easily to the lightest touch. This man is not giving way before terrifying fear, he does not surrender to the strong rush of pleasure, he crumbles before the almost negative touch of sorrow at the lack of pleasure. He is incapable of facing the long span of the difficult and the laborious because he cannot go so long without coddling.
At the other extreme is the hard, stubborn, pertinacious man. He does not know when to yield; or knowing, refuses to give way. He does stand up before difficulties and we often give him a mistaken admiration for the beating he can take; but the admiration is mistaken. For usually it is pride making him hold on, a pride that springs from a secret fear of being considered an inferior, or perhaps an unreasonable joy at winning through these difficulties. Actually, stubbornness exceeds the limit of perseverance by excess, as effeminacy does by defect; both are unreasonable, inhuman. Life does not consist in taking a beating, looking like a conqueror, or stamping on difficulties; it consists in following reason’s rule to reason’s goal.
Heights of heroism — the gift of fortitude
But even with all this splendid equipment of courage, it is altogether above human nature that a man win through to every end. conquer every danger and be bolstered up by a confidence that excludes even the small tugs of fear at his heart, and this not only in great works but in the small, arduous tasks of everyday life. There is a crown of courage that alone makes such heroism as this possible to man; that is the gift of fortitude, a gift of the Holy Ghost by which a man wins through to the end of ends, the final end which is God Himself.
Undoubtedly the pagans did have courage. Nor is this surprising in view of the fact that every man must have some courage to avoid collapse in the face of life. But it is only the infused, supernatural virtues of fortitude, magnanimity, magnificence, patience and perseverance which make heroes out of every man; that demand that every man be courageous in the work of living.
In our day some strange things have been done to the concept of the heroic, and with some weird results. The cult of success, progress or accomplishment has won a fairly universal favor, with a consequent identification of heroism with the courage of attack. Some of the weird outgrowths of this have been to give us the absolute dictator and the soldier of fortune. The thing was inevitable because the norm of our judgment has been the norm of success. It might easily be that the man we admire is a successful lunatic, but still he is successful and so is a hero to his people. In the name of progress we must snub everything that is old; there can be nothing solid worth holding on to because everything is changing, going forward in the name of progress. Consequently patience and perseverance have been classed as the defects of weaklings or failures, of those who are not in the march of time toward success.
Heroism and hero worship: Difference between reaching for and looking at the stars
One serious result of this has been to split men into two uneven groups. One is the very small group that may reach for the stars; the other is the tremendous majority who are forbidden to reach for the stars. In other words, we have left the average man with no stars for which he can reach, we have taken the heroic entirely out of his life, even out of his hope. Because stars are for the extraordinary, the rare heroes, ordinary life has become a dull, drab thing; and human nature is not satisfied with dullness or drabness, not with the glory of eternity haunting its dreams. So we have resorted to that vicarious heroism which is hero-worship. We let someone else take care of our heroism for us; in our admiration and applause for their great acts, we satisfy the yearning of our hearts for the great things for which we were made.
Abandonment of the heroic
Radically that means that the ordinary man of our century has become resigned to the loss of the heroic, or at least, he has been forced to a frank abandonment of the heroic. He does not like it. If work and difficulty, family life and virtue are dull, drab things they will automatically become things to be escaped from, not sources of inspiration; to them man will stoop only under considerable duress, a physical duress that is the instrument of slavery.
Decline of heroism — stars for a few only: Vicarious heroism — hero worship
The fact is that human life cannot go along humanly without heroism; nor can the human heart endure without heroism entering intimately into its actions and its goals. It cannot be satisfied with vicarious heroism, mere hero-worship. For courage is as necessary for the living of human life as air, or food, or drink; not only the courage of the venturesome, but also that principal courage that holds on, even when holding on is the best a man can do. Christ did not take the heroic out of the average man’s life; He frankly insisted that that life was permeated with the heroic. Works and labors, difficulties and perils are not drab necessities but constant inspirations, constant sources of greatness, constant tests of tremendous courage.
Heroism and human life; heroism and modern life
The men of our day need heroism in their lives not one bit less than did the men of Christ’s day. Thus, today we see the instant appeal of such a dogma as that proposed by Communism which gives the man in the street a part in the things that he considers heroic. It is an attempt to re-establish a star in the firmament of the worker and the attempt has had considerable success, even though this star is utterly worthless to the individual worker himself. At least it is a star and he can reach for it. In the Christian life, there can be no individual the firmament of whose life is not filled with stars. There cannot be a day in that life in which he is not only permitted, he is obliged to reach for the stars. His whole life is an adventure of incredible courage toward incredible goals and fought with weapons of incredible strength.
The Christian can admire heroism. He can pay it the tribute of respect, which comes naturally from the human heart confronted with great courage. But much more than that, he himself can be a hero; indeed, he must be a hero. And so it is that the tribute he pays to heroism is one much more deep, more understanding, more heartfelt. It is the tribute of one hero to another, even though that tribute is the tribute that the Christian sinner gives to the sinless Christ.