Heroic Ethos

One of my favorite subjects, not a term I use lightly, passionate as I am in the few things I am passionate.  Heroic ethos, just sounds like the title of a course at a prestigious university that will never grant you that high-powered managerial position at an investment bank.  And it’s a subject deserving of that sort of treatment, but you’d be unlikely to draw any more than any number of students you could count on a single hand or foot if you’d mismanaged grenades in the war.

So what is the “Heroic Ethos?”  I suppose the question would be better asked, “What is an Heroic Ethos?”  There are many types; there are many varieties, but they all share a relatively small but pronounced series of traits that make them virtually incomprehensible to the denizens of the more civilized nations; I suppose that’s why I find these ideas so precious.

I’m sure you’ve heard, somewhere certainly, of the life and times of the chivalric knight–his kindness and charity, piousness before god, and the vicious sting of his blade against the wicked?  Perhaps that’s how a professor might presume these knights would have preferred to be conceived, as the educated tend to perceive the universe altogether as nothing but a set of conspiracies, but that’s not the truth in the slightest.  The chivalric knight, as we perceive him in the popular fiction of the modern centuries, is an invention only extremely loosely based upon the original model.  In reality, knights were quite violent creatures pursuing after three things first and foremost, the same three things most central to every heroic culture stretching back to the time of the Iliad and even before.  The first is that the knight seeks out difficult enemies to defeat in combat.  The second is that, having defeated them, the knight seeks to take their stuff, either by the literal despoiling of their corpse or ransoming the survivor to his loved ones.  Lastly, the knight seeks to get famous in the process, and this is the essence of it.  While the preceding two are both toils and dividends of the heroic life, it is the last aspect that is the most alluring and the most eluding.  Assuredly a man could become temporarily famous for defeating a difficult man, but this glory would ebb in time.  Rare is the glory that does not die, singular is the honor of Achilles.  And that’s the most important part.  A man might live and die, for the flesh is weak and exceedingly wicked, but the fame of a man’s deeds might live on–even forever live on–and the man survives in some capacity in that alone.

Before Achilles agreed to join the Achaeans in their expedition against Troy, his mother–the goddess Thetis–provided him an oracle that if he stayed in his native country, he would live to be a fond old man surrounded by his children and grandchildren and die at great age in the loving bosom of his family, but if he went off to war, his life would be consumed within the time of ten years, but he would nevertheless have for it–glory unfleeting.

Does this make the heroic ethos a sublime way of looking at the universe, despising the material matter of the universe as nothing but an means to an ends, or does this make it the overestimated insanity of those that loved their weapons too much?  I’m not going to make any decisions for you.  I’ll only say that I wouldn’t pontificate as such on the subject if I didn’t find figures heroic so fascinating.