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An essay by Maurice Maeterlinck


Title:     Heroism
Author: Maurice Maeterlinck [More Titles by Maeterlinck]

One of the consoling surprises of this war is the unlooked-for and, so to speak, universal heroism which it has revealed among all the nations taking part in it.

We were rather inclined to believe that courage, physical and moral fortitude, self-denial, stoicism, the renunciation of every sort of comfort, the faculty of self-sacrifice and the power of facing death belonged only to the more primitive, the less happy, the less intelligent nations, to the nations least capable of reasoning, of appreciating danger and of picturing in their imagination the dreadful abyss that separates this life from the life unknown. We were even almost persuaded that war would one day cease for lack of soldiers, that is to say, of men foolish enough or unhappy enough to risk the only absolute realities--health, physical comfort, an unimpaired body and, above all, life, the greatest of earthly possessions--for the sake of an ideal which, like all ideals, is more or less invisible.

And this argument seemed the more natural and convincing because, as existence grew gentler and men's nerves more sensitive, the means of destruction by war showed themselves more cruel, ruthless and irresistible. It seemed more and more probable that no man would ever again endure the infernal horrors of a battlefield and that, after the first slaughter, the opposing armies, officers and men alike, all seized with insuppressible panic, would turn their backs upon one another, in simultaneous, supernatural affright, and flee from unearthly terrors exceeding the most monstrous anticipations of those who had let them loose.

To our great astonishment the very opposite is now proclaimed.

We realize with amazement that until to-day we had but an incomplete and inaccurate conception of man's courage. We looked upon it as an exceptional virtue and one which is the more admired as being also the rarer the farther we go back in history. Remember, for instance, Homer's heroes, the ancestors of all the heroes of our day. Study them closely. These models of antiquity, the first professors, the first masters of bravery, are not really very brave. They have a wholesome dread of being hit or wounded and an ingenuous and manifest fear of death. Their mighty conflicts are declamatory and decorative but not so very bloody; they inflict more noise than pain upon their adversaries, they deliver many more words than blows. Their defensive weapons--and this is characteristic--are greatly superior to their arms of offence; and death is an unusual, unforeseen and almost indecorous event which throws the ranks into disorder and most often puts a stop to the combat or provokes a headlong flight that seems quite natural. As for the wounds, these are enumerated and described, sung and deplored as so many remarkable phenomena. On the other hand, the most discreditable routs, the most shameful panics are frequent; and the old poet relates them, without condemning them, as ordinary incidents to be ascribed to the gods and inevitable in any warfare.

This kind of courage is that of all antiquity, more or less. We will not linger over it, nor delay to consider the battles of the Middle Ages or the Renascence, in which the fiercest hand-to-hand encounters of the mercenaries often left not more than half-a-dozen victims on the field. Let us rather come straight to the great wars of the Empire. Here the courage displayed begins to resemble our own, but with notable differences. In the first place, those concerned were solely professionals. We see not a whole nation fighting, but a delegation, a martial selection, which, it is true, becomes gradually more extensive, but never, as in our time, embraces every man between eighteen and fifty years of age capable of shouldering a weapon. Again--and above all--every war was reduced to two or three pitched battles, that is to say, two or three culminating moments; immense efforts, but efforts of a few hours, or a day at most, towards which the combatants directed all the vigour and all the heroism accumulated during long weeks or months of preparation and waiting. Afterwards, whether the result was victory or defeat, the fighting was over; relaxation, respite and rest followed; men went back to their homes. Destiny must not be defied more than once; and they knew that in the most terrible affray the chances of escaping death were as twenty to one.

Nowadays, everything is changed; and death itself is no longer what it was. Formerly, you looked it in the face, you knew whence it came and who sent it to you. It had a dreadful aspect, but one that remained human. Its ways were not unknown: its long spells of sleep, its brief awakenings, its bad days and dangerous hours. At present, to all these horrors it adds the great, intolerable fear of mystery. It no longer has any aspect, no longer has habits or spells of sleep and it is never still. It is always ready, always on the watch, everywhere present, scattered, intangible and dense, stealthy and cowardly, diffuse, all-encompassing, innumerous, looming at every point of the horizon, rising from the waters and falling from the skies, indefatigable, inevitable, filling the whole of space and time for days, weeks and months without a minute's lull, without a second's intermission. Men live, move and sleep in the meshes of its fatal web. They know that the least step to the right or left, a head bowed or lifted, a body bent or upright is seen by its eyes and draws its thunder.

Hitherto we had no example of this preponderance of the destructive forces. We should never have believed that man's nerves could resist so great a trial. The nerves of the bravest man are tempered to face death for the space of a second, but not to live in the hourly expectation of death and nothing else. Heroism was once a sharp and rugged peak, reached for a moment but soon quitted, for mountain-peaks are not inhabitable. To-day it is a boundless plain, as uninhabitable as the peaks; but we are not permitted to descend from it. And so, at the very moment when man appeared most exhausted and enervated by the comforts and vices of civilization, at the moment when he was happiest and therefore most selfish, when, possessing the minimum of faith and vainly seeking a new ideal, he seemed least capable of sacrificing himself for an idea of any kind, he finds himself suddenly confronted with an unprecedented danger, which he is almost certain that the most heroic nations of history would not have faced nor even dreamed of facing, whereas he does not even dream that it is possible to do aught but face it. And let it not be said that we had no choice, that the danger and the struggle were thrust upon us, that we had to defend ourselves or die and that in such cases there are no cowards. It is not true: there was, there always has been, there still is a choice.

It is not man's life that is at stake, but the idea which he forms of the honour, the happiness and the duties of his life. To save his life he had but to submit to the enemy; the invader would not have exterminated him. You cannot exterminate a great people; it is not even possible to enslave it seriously or to inflict great sorrow upon it for long. He had nothing to be afraid of except disgrace. He did not so much as see the infamous temptation appear above the horizon of his most instinctive fears; he does not even suspect that it is able to exist; and he will never perceive it, whatever sacrifices may yet await him. We are not, therefore, speaking of a heroism that would be but the last resource of despair, the heroism of the animal driven to bay and fighting blindly to delay death's coming for a moment. No, it is heroism freely donned, deliberately and unanimously hailed, heroism on behalf of an idea and a sentiment, in other words, heroism in its clearest, purest and most virginal form, a disinterested and whole-hearted sacrifice for that which men regard as their duty to themselves, to their kith and kin, to mankind and to the future. If life and personal safety were more precious than the idea of honour, of patriotism and of fidelity to tradition and the race, there was, I repeat, and there is still a choice to be made; and never perhaps in any war was the choice easier, for never did men feel more free, never indeed were they more free to choose.

But this choice, as I have said, did not dare show its faintest shadow on the lowest horizons of even the most ignoble consciences. Are you quite sure that, in other times which we think better and more virtuous than our own, men would not have seen it, would not have spoken of it? Can you find a nation, even among the greatest, which, after six months of a war compared with which all other wars seem child's-play, of a war which threatens and uses up all that nation's life and all its possessions, can you find, I say, in history, not an instance--for there is no instance--but some similar case which allows you to presume that the nation would not have faltered, would not at least, were it but for a second, have looked down and cast its eyes upon an inglorious peace?

Nevertheless, they seemed much stronger than we are, all those who came before us. They were rude, austere, much closer to nature, poor and often unhappy. They had a simpler and a more rigid code of thought; they had the habit of physical suffering, of hardship and of death. But I do not believe that any one dares contend that these men would have done what our soldiers are now doing, that they would have endured what is being endured all around us. Are we not entitled to conclude from this that civilization, contrary to what was feared, so far from enervating, depraving, weakening, lowering and dwarfing man, elevates him, purifies him, strengthens him, ennobles him, makes him capable of acts of sacrifice, generosity and courage which he did not know before? The fact is that civilization, even when it seems to entail corruption, brings intelligence with it and that intelligence, in days of trial, stands for potential pride, nobility and heroism. That, as I said in the beginning, is the unexpected and consoling revelation of this horrible war: we can rely on man implicitly, place the greatest trust in him, nor fear lest, in laying aside his primitive brutality, he should lose his manly qualities. The greater his progress in the conquest of nature and the greater his apparent attachment to material welfare, the more does he become capable, nevertheless, unconsciously, deep down in the best part of him, of self-detachment and of self-sacrifice for the common safety and the more does he understand that he is nothing when he compares himself with the eternal life of his forbears and his children.

It was so great a trial that we dared not, before this war, have contemplated it. The future of the human race was at stake; and the magnificent response that comes to us from every side reassures us fully as to the issue of other struggles, more formidable still, which no doubt await us when it will be a question no longer of fighting our fellow-men, but rather of facing the more powerful and cruel of the great mysterious enemies that nature holds in reserve against us. If it be true, as I believe, that humanity is worth just as much as the sum total of latent heroism which it contains, then we may declare that humanity was never stronger nor more exemplary than now and that it is at this moment reaching one of its highest points and capable of braving everything and hoping everything. And it is for this reason that, despite our present sadness, we are entitled to congratulate ourselves and to rejoice.

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Maurice Maeterlinck's essay: Heroism