… do I not deserve to accomplish some great purpose? My life might have been passed in ease and luxury; but I preferred glory to every enticement that wealth placed in my path. Oh, that some encouraging voice would answer in the affirmative! My courage and my resolution is firm; by my hopes fluctuate, and my spirits are often depressed. (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1831).
Of all the noble feelings which fill the human heart in the exciting tumult of battle, none, we must admit, are so powerful and constant as the soul’s thirst for honour and renown… Although other feelings may be more general in their influence, and many of them – such as love of country, fanaticism, revenge, enthusiasm of every kind – may seem to stand higher, the thirst for honour and renown still remains indispensible. Those other feelings may rouse the great masses in general, and excite them more powerfully, but they do not give the Leader a desire to will more than others, which is an essential requisite in his position if he is to make himself distinguished in it… It is through these aspirations we have been speaking of in Commanders, from the highest to the lowest, this sort of energy, this spirit of emulation, these incentives, that the action of armies is chiefly animated and made successful. And now as to that which specially concerns the head of all, we ask, has there ever been a great Commander destitute of the love of honour, or is such a character even conceivable? (Carl von Clausewitz, On War, 1832).*
Curious, these passages, in our world. Of course, Clausewitz was in deadly earnest, whereas Shelley at least sought to challenge such a notion; but it seems that the very subject makes us liable to squirm in our easy chairs. We are sorely lacking aspirational figures: our wars are only dimly connected to our sovereignty, and there is scarcely anything left intrepidly to discover (nothing particularly entices us to the microscope, much less to particle colliders under the Alps). Our idols of honour are as likely to be football professionals as anyone else, and I can think of nothing more damning to say of us than that. Yet I raise the subject because I believe it still to be worthy.
Much as I have previously extolled the virtues of work, of occupation, of indefatigability, and of resolution, I must stress that there should also be a point. What drives us to keep on, to continue when our spirits are depressed? What inspires us to create, to lead, to cut a swathe through the dross of life? It is, after a fashion, a love of honour. We may wish to cover ourselves in glory, but it would not be something we should wish to boast, for we do not live to be braggarts; we aim to wear it modestly, and inwardly strive to outdo ourselves. True honour is duly recognised by our peers and, we hope, by our descendents. In this, we achieve our immortality, for does not a man wish to live forever? We seek not wealth, nor luxury: honour is its own reward.
As a matter of reflection, therefore, I wonder if we can look ourselves in the eye and honestly proclaim that the point of what we do is bigger than ourselves. There is no glory in serving oneself. There is no honour in merely meeting our own desires. What is our greater contribution? What of us will be left when we are but dust and ashes? For what can we be honoured? Every man will perhaps have an idea of what he can do. No time like the present to start to do it.
*Von allen großartigen Gefühlen, die die menschliche Brust in dem heißen Drange des Kampfes erfüllen, ist, wir wollen es nur gestehen, keines so mächtig und konstant wie der Seelendurst nach Ruhm und Ehre… Alle anderen Gefühle, wieviel allgemeiner sie auch werden können, oder wieviel höher manche auch zu stehen scheinen, Vaterlandsliebe, Ideenfanatismus, Rache, Begeisterung jeder Art, sie machen den Ehrgeiz und die Ruhmbegierde nicht entbehrlich. Jene Gefühle können den ganzen Haufen im allgemeinen erregen und höherstimmen, aber geben dem Führer nicht das Verlangen, mehr zu wollen als die Gefährten, welches ein wesentliches Bedürfnis seiner Stelle ist, wenn er Vorzügliches darin leisten soll... Diese Bestrebungen aller Anführer aber, von dem höchsten bis zum geringsten, diese Art von Industrie, dieser Wetteifer, dieser Sporn sind es vorzüglich, welche die Wirksamkeit eines Heeres beleben und erfolgreich machen. Und was nun ganz besonders den höchsten betrifft, so fragen wir: hat es je einen großen Feldherrn ohne Ehrgeiz gegeben, oder ist eine solche Erscheinung auch nur denkbar?