Fr. J. Swanton
Why do we like heroes’ stories and why are they so much a part of our Christian heritage?
`Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Alfred Lord Tennyson put these words in the mouth of ageing Ulysses, who was prepared to risk his old bones in one last voyage rather than rot in a static and safe kingship:
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seep to find, and not to yield.
It is this resilience, this deep-rooted courage that cannot abide the contented somnolence of decay, that characterises every hero in every memorable tale of human lore: Ulysses, Arthur, Christian, Rudolf Rassendyll, Bilbo Baggins and the rest. Heroes have restless hearts and need adventure with its accompanying effort and peril in order to be in their true element. And it is with heroes that we most easily identify, since it is their lives, fictional or otherwise, that have made the deepest impression on the imagination of men.
Why should this be so?
Looked at in the cold light of reality, the efforts and perils that heroes like Ulysses undertake are highly undesirable, not something that we naturally go looking for. A normal human being is not by reflex a masochist. We do not have a deep-rooted need to get killed or maimed; what we want is to be happy: completely, securely, blissfully happy. We do not want, as a modus vivendi, the life of a hero.
So why our interest?
There are several easy answers. Heroes do good deeds and so are models of virtue which we can admire, some will say. This is to some extent true, but it does not explain the fascination the hero has for us. People can be good without being heroes, and heroes themselves can be imperfect in their virtue without losing their heroic appeal. The great theme of tragedies is the flawed hero, a man who is fundamentally good but who does evil and suffers the consequences: Oedipus, Cuchulain, Hamlet. They need to be good in order to be heroes, but it is not just goodness that makes us so willing in spirit to put on their shoes.
A second explanation is that heroes are simply supermen, with powers and abilities enabling them to do things we frail mortals can only dream about. In other words, heroes live out our ego trips. But this is to forget that villains can be supermen too, and many heroes are not as physically endowed as a Hercules or a Samson. In fact, part of the interest in heroes is the fact that they are vulnerable: they set out to confront dangers that could easily destroy them, they need a lot of help from the gods, fate or luck, and it is the choices they make and the courage they have rather than their physical prowess that is the meat of their adventures.
Another idea is that the hero makes a big impact on human (and non-human) affairs. In other words he is a hero because he is not an anonymity. Ordinariness is something we have an innate horror of being born, growing up, working, getting married, having children, getting old, and dying. We instinctively abhor this kind of existence if we come to think that this is all that there is, with nothing beyond death except a decaying corpse. We need more, and it is in the adventures of a hero that we vicariously find it.
This is halfway toward the truth. The underlying restlessness of a hero (and of us who admire him) comes from the perception that the ordinary achievements and joys of an ordinary life are just not enough by themselves to make that life worth living.
Now God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!
wrote Rupert Brooke in 1914. He had enjoyed what life had had to give, and was glad to leave it all for a uniform. If we are not completely sunk in hedonism or materialism then at some time in our lives we will surely feel the same need, to shake free of the convenient and the comfortable and do something worthwhile. We all need, if our souls are not at the level of the mud, to be heroes.
But the question then is, why should an ordinary life not be enough? What is wrong with this world or with ourselves that we cannot be content?
It is a little quick to answer, Original sin. Original sin has two aspects: the sin itself, which means we are conceived in a state of separation from God, without grace, and the effects of that sin on our nature, leaving us with what are called the fomes peccati, or sources of sin. These sources of sin consist in a fourfold wound to our human nature: ignorance, whereby the intelligence has difficulty in grasping truth and falls easily into error; malice, whereby the will is egocentric; concupiscence, whereby the concupiscible appetites get out of control, and weakness, whereby the irascible appetites (i.e. our desire for things that take time and effort to achieve) falter and fail. It is possible to a great extent to overcome these defects by grace and the practice of the cardinal virtues: prudence against ignorance, justice against malice, temperance against concupiscence and fortitude against weakness. But putting Original sin right does not make a man more contented with the world, human and natural, in which he lives. Quite the opposite. Virtuous men, who are able to raise their minds and hearts above the low and narrow limits of sinful desires are more likely (dare I say it) to feel that inborn dissatisfaction with the portion of this universe that God has given to man. It is the men who live good lives on earth who feel that nameless longing when gazing at the stars. Those preoccupied with the tight, practical world of sin never take the time to glance upwards and so awaken that sense of missing something. Anyone who has eyes to see cannot get away from the impression (at least I can’t) that there is something not right about the mechanism of Creation. It is a beautiful, complex, balanced, wonderful thing, but it is not — our hearts never stop telling us — as it could and should have been.
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tiger! Tiger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
What is wrong with the universe? Well, ultimately, nothing, in the sense that all the bad in Creation is used by God to the effecting of a good that will make all the imperfection worthwhile. To quote St. Thomas Aquinas, “….as Augustine says (enchir. 11), God is so powerful that He can even make good out of evil. Hence many good things would be taken away if God permitted no evil to exist; for fire would not be generated if air was not corrupted, nor would the life of a, lion be preserved unless the ass were killed. Neither would avenging justice nor the patience of a sufferer be, praised if there were no injustice.” — Summa I Q. 48, Art. 2 ad 3.
Here I shall put my head on a block and query, not the argumentation of Augustine and Aquinas, but the example the latter gives of the lion and the ass. A lion is not evil: nothing is that is created by God. But it is harmful to the natural good of other creatures. Anyone who has seen a film of lions hunting will have a sense of unease at watching them spend up to a quarter of an hour choking the life out of a hapless buck. If a animal must die, why should it be so gruesomely? Why, come to think of it, should creatures die? Why did God make lions, or tigers, or deadly viruses and bacteria, or leeches or the thousands of species that kill and maim other creatures? And why create a world in which all creatures can be frozen by cold, or drowned by floods, or burnt by fire?
These question raises a hundred others like them. I shall save space and crystallize them all into one: looking at the world around us, we can understand what constitutes the good of everything in it: we ,know what any creature needs to be complete and content; and looking at the world around us, we can perceive that the good of everything is threatened, undermined, weakened and even destroyed by some or other agent. Why should this be so? The question is important because these evils seem to be built into the order of things. Pain, sickness, death, are as much a part of this existence as breathing. And it seems clear enough that it was this way right from the beginning. When Adam was created, he was endowed with the Praeternatural Gifts which protected him from the physical harm around him. Physical harm has always been a part of the order of things. But why have such an order?
The answer is that this universe was designed for a humanity that is not yet saved, and hence not yet arrived at its true home. When we see the goodness of things-the beauty of a landscape, the joy of life of a bird, the contentedness of a cow we know how they should be in their perfect state. We instinctively grasp what the perfect state is: the trouble-free, misery-free, fear-free paradise that has many names: Arcadia, the Elysian fields, Atlantis, Valinor, a paradise that has never in fact existed Knowing it, picturing it, longing for it, we can never really be contented with this world as it is, and thus is born in us the restlessness, the desire to somehow find the blessed realm that — however vaguely and confusedly — we sense must exist if there is to be any sense in things at all.
All this is on the natural plane, but it is the indispensable ground on which the supernatural seed of the Faith is sown. The whole force of Faith lies in that it confirms that a perfect, and more than perfect, happiness can be found, that there is a blessed realm that God has made for us, and that this existence is not a spoiled Utopia but merely a preparation for the bliss to come. God will have His creatures to be happy, but He will have them seek Him out with all the generosity of their free wills, with this life as a path and they as pilgrims.