July 30, 2010

On Self-Respect

Once, when I turned up to what was then my (rather disreputable) workplace in a suit and tie, my boss asked me if I was due in court. I’m still not sure what the correct answer to this should have been, for it was surely not my place to explain that office attire ought not to stretch to board shorts and plastic flip-flops. While it might be true that nothing about the professional world really depends on looking this way or that, there is surely a certain a sense of decency/appropriateness that ought to intercede before the rot sets in. It is the major way in which we signal our professionalism, after all.

Yesterday, I was talking to Anthony while receiving Barnet maintenance and, being the philosopher that he is, he was reflecting on the way in which the internet is changing the world. The man in the sharp suit but with an empty head used to be able to get along rather well, simply by looking perky when the boss was in the vicinity. The dishevelled oaf who went to Dickie Moore’s, but who had a head full of bright ideas, was never allowed to shine. Now, so says Anthony, the sharp-suited man competes unfavourably with the man who never leaves his living room and doesn’t even bother putting on his trousers. What is to become of the empty-headed sharp-suited man? And what should we make of our bare-legged house-bound go-getter of the future?

I do not know this person, but assuredly he is succeeding from home

Musing on these fragments relating to sartorial attitudes leads me to the following: while we used to have standards, looking the part often superseded being the part, and if we have made a meritocratic turn, so much the better; then again, if the meritocratic turn has come at the expense of all standards, then we have turned too far. There is, I conjecture, a balance to be struck. People can go to work in appropriate attire and be good at their jobs. And people who stay at home and make fortunes by manipulating the ether can don a collar and tie just because it feels good to look good.

Incidentally, in answer to the question posed by my former boss I pointed out that I have a certain amount of self-respect to maintain. I did not say ‘How about you?’ but it was probably understood.

July 26, 2010

On Becoming Manly, Part III

Allow me to resume this thread, with increasing trepidation. I have been uncertain whether to put the how before the why or vice versa, but decided that method should precede what may well be madness on my part. Of course, any attempt at prescription is bound hopelessly to fail, for men being men, and boys being boys, rules will be dismissed peremptorily. All I may offer, therefore, is a sketch (something sketchy?).

Unburdening responsibility upon a greater mind than mine, let us hear what Carlyle has to say (when he unburdens responsibility upon his own fictitious inventions):

In all the sports of Children, were it only in their wanton breakages and defacements, you shall discern a creative instinct: the Mankin feels that he is a born Man, that his vocation is to Work. The choicest present you can make him is a Tool; be it knife or pen-gun, for construction or for destruction; either way it is for Work, for Change. In gregarious sports of skill or strength, the Boy trains himself to Cooperation, for war or peace, as governor or governed… (Sartor Resartus).
Boys, in short, must play at being men if they are to become men. This is not to say that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, but then again, men will be incomplete without having sensed victory and pleasure, and, perhaps more importantly, defeat and pain. Furthermore, they must be given the freedom to build and fashion, to be frustrated and to bleed. We wrap our boys in cotton wool at their peril, for the adult world will not cushion their falls. The chips of life fall in much the same way in childhood as in adulthood, but the stakes are not so high. A boy needs to learn to win with magnanimity and to lose with humility (and to resolve to win the next time) before the blinds become too big.

The Playing Fields of Eton, by Edmund Bristow (1822)

What does this mean in practical terms? Nothing more than the rough-and-tumble, active life, indoors and out, that some of us took for granted. I wonder, nervously, how many boys now enjoy this kind of experience. There is so much fear, and so few playing fields, that kids are cloistered, attached umbilically to their video games and gadgetry. Perhaps the most fundamental step, therefore, is to unplug.

July 23, 2010

100 Not Out

My dear and faithful Readers,

It seems I have reached something of a traditional milestone, at least in cricketing terms, and I must take the opportunity to raise my bat to the pavilion and salute you all. I trust I shall go on to make an unprecedented innings!

For lovers of statistics, as I know cricket enthusiasts to be, my current stay at the crease began on December 16th, 2009, and has included visits from 12,750 people, who between them have read 24,618 pages of ‘Being Manly’. There are some 49 following the blog directly – I do hope for more – and a further 195 following on the facebook site, not accounting for some duplications there. You have demonstrated yourself to be a trustworthy and intelligent lot, and as such I humbly beg that you ask your esteemed peers to look in on me as well. If we are to do any good, we must share our noble thoughts widely.

With the knowledge that you will not desert me, for I shall not desert you, I re-don my helmet, take guard, and once again turn to face the bowling.

Sincerely and ever yours,

VB.

July 22, 2010

Many A True Thing...

…said in jest. I felt that after the recent onslaught of posts a little light relief might be in order. But, being unable to let go of serious intent, the levity to which I direct your attention is, in the best tradition of British comedy, funny because it’s true. Grotesque, it may be, as if in a circus mirror, but this skit on British sport, manliness, gender, and incompetence is a rather accurate portrayal of life in Blighty. Never one to shun the issues that make us shudder, Mr. Elton plays all the trump cards – race, class, sex, snobbery, and the like – to brilliant effect. I shall leave you to find subsequent parts on youtube. Do enjoy.

Honour Bound?

I have of late been reading a book about Imperial German doctors and their prescriptions with regard to honour. I shall not trouble you with the details of this tome, but merely bring to your attention one of its observations, which seems particularly pertinent in the light of my recent post on la Gloire.

Honour, so says the author, referring to some esteemed theorists, used to be thought to fall somewhere between the law and the moral conscience:

While morality was empowered by the inner voice of the individual’s conscience, the law used external, physical force. The social demands of honour… were secured by internal as well as external means. Violations of honour had subjective, inner consequences and social, externally palpable ones. In this way, correct conduct could be guaranteed in areas which could not be reached by the law and in which conscience-based morality alone was not reliable (A-H Maehle, Doctors, Honour and the Law, 2009).
Among doctors, lawyers, academics and the like, on the one hand, and among such nebulous groups as gentlemen or the aristocracy, on the other, a breach of honour damaged the whole group, whose reputation as societal leaders and upstanding citizens was called into question by the misdeeds of an individual. The importance of restoring this jointly held and esteemed sense of honour accounts for duels, specialist courts and panels of arbitration, and private clubs and societies. A man would fight a duel to restore not only his own slighted reputation, but also that of his peers; a court specific to a respected profession could censure and publicly disown dishonourable miscreants; private societies could expel undesirable elements, thereby ensuring their collective honour stayed intact. The thread of civility by which society hangs, to which I referred yesterday, was duly reinforced by an understanding of the social importance of a shared code of honour.


To be sure, this still exists in some spheres today, although it is not called honour, and is not defended by duelling. But by and large we have lost sight of this middle step between the law and the conscience, this honorific superego. In countless ways we see that the morality of individuals is insufficiently developed to prevent them from acting without inhibitions, and that the law remains rightly disinterested, even if it is not uninterested, in moral matters. There is no extra check; no sense of being bound by common interest, or the common good.

July 21, 2010

E-pistolary E-tiquette

My dear Readers,

Ah, the online world. I loathe it, but cannot live without it. Walking around on the earth, one gets a sense that society hangs by a thread of civility, and that it is ready to crumble at a cross word. Being interpersonally polite keeps everyone in check, on a virtuous circle of humanity and so forth, don’t you agree? The ethereal world knows no such bounds. Have you ever looked at a comments board on youtube? Ever received an email from a person who is not old enough to remember email being invented? Do you indulge in ‘text messages’? I shudder at the thought. The horrors of this angry, invective and illiterate world rather terrify me. I suppose there is no hope of improving it, but I might share with you a notion or two.

When I was at school they used to teach letter-writing skills. These could be usefully employed today, I think. An email, after all, is merely a letter by another name. Start an email with ‘Dear…’ and end it appropriately, depending on the level of formality. If you’re writing to a professional of any stamp, don’t assume a first-name basis, but wait instead for the tone of his/her reply and proceed from there. This might involve finding out if the recipient of your message has any professional qualifications. People who are doctors, professors, and so on, tend not to care for unsolicited epistles that begin ‘Hi John’. If it looks like its heading to first-name terms, you might want to consider ‘Dear John (if I may)’ as a way of politely introducing a less formal correspondence. Sentences should be sentences, with the grammar and punctuation of a person able to function in his own language.

I’m pleased to note that the comments I receive from you on these pages generally do you a great credit, being of a thoughtful and literate kind (I wouldn’t publish them otherwise). So much of what is said online needn’t have been written. If one really has nothing to say, one might consider ‘keeping schtum’.

Back in the day when I used to own a cellular telephone, I confess I occasionally sent a text message. These were the heady days of youth. Least said, soonest mended. Still, when I did put my thumbs to work in this most unnatural fashion my messages were, like my letters, written in full sentences with the correct punctuation. I could not, even then, sully myself with what has become the accepted derogation of the English language. In most cases, if one must communicate so much, I suggest a telephone conversation would be better. It is more personable; more human. So many texts neither say nor mean anything. So why bother?

Wondering what you make of all this, and having gone on too long anyway, I remain

Your humble servant,

VB.

July 20, 2010

On Becoming Manly, Part II

In the first part of this thread, I noted that the questions of when, how, and why to become a man are of pressing importance. I propose now to deal with each in turn, insofar as a humble blog such as this can treat such weighty subjects. I shall begin with the when of the matter, although I already find myself somewhat at a loss...

In 1746, or thereabouts, the Earl of Chesterfield wrote to his then eight-year-old son the following:

Everybody has ambition, of some kind or other, and is vexed when that ambition is disappointed: the difference is, that the ambition of silly people is a silly and mistaken ambition; and the ambition of people of sense is a right and commendable one. For instance; the ambition of a silly boy, of your age, would be to have fine clothes, and money to throw away in idle follies; which, you plainly see, would be no proofs of merit in him, but only of folly in his parents, in dressing him out like a jackanapes, and giving him money to play the fool with. Whereas a boy of good sense places his ambition in excelling other boys of his own age, and even older, in virtue and knowledge. His glory is in being known always to speak the truth, in showing good-nature and compassion, in learning quicker, and applying himself more than other boys. These are real proofs of merit in him, and consequently proper objects of ambition; and will acquire him a solid reputation and character. This holds true in men, as well as in boys… (Earl of Chesterfield, Letters to His Son, 1746-7).

The last clause holds the key. The spark of becoming manly occurs when the interests of boys and men begin to align. This entails that men know what their own interests are or should be, and recognise when boys become receptive to them. Fathers need to recognise their importance! We are wont to let boys be boys for rather too long, so that the vigorous, playful, unserious youth is never given a sober check, or a manful duty, until he is already physically a man. ‘Don’t let them grow up too fast’ is a phrase you’ll hear often. I would like to have parents add another clause to the imperative: ‘Don’t let them grow up too fast, but do let them grow up’. Before you know it, if you’re not careful, your boy will become just another undergraduate who does not know that it is rude to talk and chew gum in the library, with his girlfriend (rather than a book) sitting provocatively in his lap.

It is unthinkable, today, that a child of eight would receive such a letter from his father, extolling the virtues of a serious intellect, decency of character, and hard work. So when should it come? It seems to me that we rather underestimate the capacity of children, with school curricula increasingly spoon-feeding watered-down knowledge into the gaping mouths of perennial babes even up to the University years. Little room is given for initiative, for individual expression, for self-reliance, or for self-education. Since children are not given the responsibility to do anything, they do not learn that there are consequences to actions, and that they must take ownership of them. In most schools, there is no scope for building character at any point up to the age of eighteen. I suggest that, from the age of eleven or so, boys be given increasing freedom to act, within certain boundaries: to succeed and take the honour; to make mistakes and pay for them. There is no fixed point at which the boy of good sense will emerge from among his silly peers, but when he does he will likely serve as a positive example, if he can bear his exceptional status with courage. Becoming manly takes time, but at some point the process must begin.

July 19, 2010

An Honest Burger

The cook is Joe or Carl or Al, hot in a white coat and apron, beady sweat on white forehead, below the white cook’s cap; moody, rarely speaking, looking up for a moment at each new entry. Wiping the griddle, slapping down the hamburger. He repeats Mae’s orders gently, scrapes the griddle, wipes it down with burlap. Moody and silent… Al never speaks. He is no contact. Sometimes he smiles a little at a joke, but he never laughs. Sometimes he looks up at the vivaciousness in Mae’s voice, and then he scrapes the griddle with a spatula, scrapes the grease into an iron trough around the plate. He presses down a hissing hamburger with his spatula. He lays the split buns on the plate to toast and heat. He gathers up stray onions from the plate and heaps them on the meat and presses them in with the spatula. He puts half the bun on top of the meat, paints the other half with melted butter, with thin pickle relish. Holding the bun on the meat, he slips the spatula under the thin pad of meat, flips it over, lays the buttered half on top, and drops the hamburger on a small plate. Quarter of a dill pickle, two black olives between the sandwich. Al skims the plate down the counter like a quoit. And he scrapes his griddle with the spatula and looks moodily at the stew kettle (John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939).
I’m quietly celebrating my return to a thirty-inch waist, and that hardly seems like the time to offer a panegyric on junk food, especially having just re-entered the United States. I’ve said before that ‘man food’ is not all fire and grunting, and have waxed opinionated about the value of an educated palate. So, what am I up to?

Well, the thing about junk food is that it is not all junk. Some of it carries a great weight of meaning, as well as of fat. Forget your big chains and your TV-advertised hunger busters: proper American junk food is as honest as the day is long. Authentic hamburgers are made fresh, on site. Nothing about any of the ingredients is remotely processed or mass produced. It is all free from the artificial contaminants that blight so much American food, and that weigh heavily on the American gut.


Best of all, honest American junk food is still served in old-fashioned diners, where nothing much has changed since Steinbeck immortalised the hamburger joints of Route 66. Last night I ate at the Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown, Mass., which serves by its own testimony ‘Industrial Strength Food’. It was all just so. There’s something about a good old-fashioned honest burger in America: in a strange way, it has long reassured a nation that everything will be okay. As long as there is food for workers, then there is work to be done.

July 18, 2010

The Great Stitch-Up

I’ve been on the road again. After ten hours on a bus between Montreal and Boston, it’s all I can do to persuade the blood to move around my body. At dear Hilton’s prompting, and thanks to Mrs. VB’s mother, who popped a late nineteenth-century pocket edition into my hands the other day, I’m reading Sartor Resartus this week, in gaps between more sober eye work. It has long been something of an oversight of mine not to have indulged in this great literary stitch up. Already at the forefront of my mind is the choice question: ‘A man that devotes his life to learning, shall he not be learned?’ Carlyle aside, I’m planning to make hay in the library this week.


The subject of this entry, however, is not so much the warp and woof of Carlyle’s rhetorical entanglements as it is another great knot in the smooth course of freedom. You will no doubt remember all the fuss about Arizona’s new immigration law a while back, the tenor of which might lead you to believe that Arizona is something of a desert island, and now a pariah to boot. Liberal New England tut-tutted in shame, no doubt. It would surely grow louder if they found out that such things were close to home.


The bus ride from Montreal is actually a beautiful thing, for the most part. Descending the length of Vermont in any season is to be recommended. The fly in the ointment is the border, of course, but despite a full bus containing passengers from around the world, today’s crossing ran smoothly. All those who needed visas had them; all those who needed to answer questions answered them. Fifty people were stamped up and packed off in thirty minutes. Those border guys do a great job. No one could question their thoroughness, or their seriousness. Yet, in Vermont at least, they do it with a lot of humility and a sense of humour. They also speak French – a rare quality for your average American. Two hours later, we arrived in White River Junction, Vt., where the bus terminated, and most of us boarded a new bus, along with some newcomers.

At this stage, two plain-clothes police officers – no, two shabbily dressed teenagers with badges – alighted and made their way down the bus, demanding declarations of citizenship, taking away passports, and interrogating everyone on the bus. Having found someone who looked suitably foreign, they confiscated his identification and started making telephone calls. While teenager number one carried this out, teenager number two stood at the front of the bus chatting with the driver in full earshot of us nearby passengers: you can never be sure of the Chinese, apparently; his ID could easily be fraudulent, since so many of them were; it was difficult to catch their organised crime rings, what with them being so shifty, but it’s always best to check. All of this, apart from being offensive and unnecessary, was, so far as I can tell, illegal. There is surely no requirement that ticket holders for domestic bus routes should carry proof of citizenship, and I doubt the legitimacy of the police officers’ demands to produce it, as well as their unwarranted admittance to the bus. The dubious alien, shockingly, turned out to be perfectly legitimate. Shortly, the boys’ supervisor arrived (equally shabby) and asked the driver where this bus had come from. In perfect honesty, she replied, ‘it hasn’t left yet’.

Nobody gains by such nonsense. A stitch in time saves nine, so they say. The international border is that stitch. The other nine were clearly superfluous, not to mention in poor taste.

July 14, 2010

Make Do and Mend, II

It has been a while since I last harped on this subject, but I was put in mind of it during a recent trip to the cobbler, who has breathed fresh life into three pairs of shoes. It is a rare thing for me to be in the same country as all of my shoes, and I have wasted no time in fixing up these summery selections. Nothing irks me more than the way life leads us towards the disposable, the frivolous, the temporary. Contrary to the popular notion, they still do build them like they used to; it’s just that you have to look a bit harder to find them (whatever ‘they’ may be), and you have to look harder still to find those with the skills to maintain them. When I buy a pair of shoes, I buy them with a mind to them lasting at least ten years. Good shoes are expensive, but if you divide the price by ten, and then compare with the kind of shoes that will last you only a season before being binned, you will find that they make economic sense.


The only thing is to find a decent repair man. The shoes here in question presented a variety of challenges, all ably met in this instance. The penny loafers (Ballin, Italy) were the easiest job. A simple black heel.

These rather amusing summer loafers (Café Noir, Italy) came replete with wooden heel, capped in tan rubber. I think my man found a decent match for it.



And the final pair (also Italian, but I bought them five years ago and can’t remember the maker) represented the greatest challenge. The heel was easy enough, but due to a couple of unfortunate rain incidents and some over use in their early years, the leather around the top of the sole had split, and there was some looseness all around. My man successfully repaired the damage, sanding away the most afflicted areas, and making all secure. This pair is acquiring a lovely patina as they age, and I would be loathe to lose them.

July 12, 2010

On Becoming Manly, Part I

‘My spirits were divided pathetically between the wish to stay on, a guarded child, and to proceed into the world, a budding man, and, in my utter ignorance, I sought in vain to conjure up what my immediate future would be’ (Edmund Gosse, Father and Son, 1907).
Few of us, I can only surmise, have to undergo the kind of wrench borne by Gosse (pictured left with his father) in his formative years. To break out from under a puritanical yoke and give full play to the inner voice of oneself, so long enshrined in suspicion and sin, is not any longer the kind of thing the ‘budding man’ has to accomplish. Children, at least in the West, are at full liberty to indulge in all manner of innocence-losing experiences, that we may wonder if there remains anything traditionally ‘child-like’ in them at all. Yet, all this to one side, Gosse’s dilemma, quoted above, strikes me as one more pertinent than ever for today’s youth. The issue is scarcely ever raised by anyone, and I doubt it arises so articulately within the minds of teenagers, if it arises at all. But the questions of when, how, and why to become a man are of pressing importance, lest we find ourselves among a generation of perpetual half-way houses. We shall not be surrounded by a multitude of Peter Pan figures, for innocence will be lost; but the passage into manhood does not follow effortlessly. The idea of a society of enduring adolescents should horrify us all.

I have written before on the rites of passage that I feel we have mislaid. In some respects, these have been inadequately replaced by the notion that university is a universal coming-of-age ritual that should be available to all. We should be wary of derogating the word ‘university’ to the point where it becomes a mere synonym for ‘party’, for I remain convinced that university is only for the intellectually able, rather than existing simply to boost alcohol tolerance and sexual experience. Still, I understand that the idea of university as a rite of passage has arisen precisely because of the general paucity of other opportunities in this regard. Boys and girls ought to want to grow up, or at least sense that they cannot go on in a puerile state. I am not sure that university fosters the right kind of attitude, but rather provides a space where the ‘spirits… divided pathetically’ are permitted to persist. It is, by all accounts, a space outside of the real world; an extension of adolescence; a not-so-pregnant pause. From this ‘curriculum’ (devoid of its character-building elements of old), why should we expect adults, apparently automatically, to emerge?

Rather, I suppose that some notion of what adulthood is and why it is necessary should be let loose somewhat earlier in life, and that emerging men should be aware of the choices and imperatives in bringing it about. It is no use, so I think, for a child to try to conjure with the future apropos of nothing at all; it is yet worse merely to proceed through life on a pre-determined course. A sense of responsibility, knowledge of the virtues, ingrained good habits and manners, a stout character: these things are to be built. We are not entitled to them, but must shift for them. If we merely wait until graduation ceremonies end before we inform the incipient citizenry of their roles as adults, we shall hardly be surprised if the alumni fail to live up to expectations. If, as I have said before, we are to give credence to the old adage that the child is father to the man, then we must make sure that our children are given a map, a compass, and the sage advice of those experienced in the lay of the land. Left to fumble through the uncharted territory of their adolescence alone, we must not wonder if they fail properly to emerge at the other side.

July 09, 2010

The Storm; or, Community of the Joyfully Afflicted

‘While the sun was up, it was a beating, flailing heat, but now the heat came from below, from the earth itself, and the heat was thick and muffling’ (John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939).
For a week, in the North East of the American continent, have we laboured in the unremitting heat, compounded by the bone-wearying humidity, of torturous summer. I shall maintain my vow not to bore you with tails of marathon-training woe, merely pointing out en passant that to run in such heat is to add sweat and blood to the tears of sultry misery. Yet we soldier on, for nothing so trivial as the weather shall deter us from our task.

Today we had a most welcome relief sent in the form of passionate of rain. Mrs. VB and I were taking our morning constitutional, undeterred by the oppressive air, and were met with a deluge the likes of which I have seldom known outside of biblical tales. The streets flowed as rivers; our clothing hung from us, saturated by the weight of walls of water; and steam rose from the scorched earth. Sharing a moment of relief, we laughed and stomped through the storm, knowing it to be better to enjoy our fate than to resist it.

As we continued we met others, also promenading through the thunderous and teeming sky. The sense of shared experience, our mutual reduction to primal pleasures, broke the usual boundaries of stifling urbanity and communal anonymity. In this most peculiar of circumstances, there was great joy. Greetings were shared; smiles proffered; shouts of joy raised in exultant and common relief. Those in cars, reduced to a crawl by the severity of the downpour, looked on with smug satisfaction from their dry refuges, while we happy few pitied their torpid inertia, knowing well that a pedestrian life was, for once, to live.

Forgive an Englishman for talking of the weather. It is a national pastime, if not a veil for our awkwardness. But then, an Englishman never met with such drama in his perambulations.

July 05, 2010

Think Italian: Avoid Italy

I was in Italy recently. My ruminations on Italian men are still to come, but in the meantime, since it is forty Celsius outside and nobody knows what to wear, I thought I’d offer a thought or two on Italian threads.

Contrary to proverbial knowledge, the roads led me away from Rome to Sienna, Florence and Milan. Along the way I mentally pressed my nose against the glass of many a tailoring establishment, savouring the finest in Italian couture, and I marvelled at the wealth of quality shoes, in the home of fine footwear. But I neither wet my beak, nor dipped my toes. Oh no. A sage Italian shoe salesman, actually the proprietor of a fine establishment in Montreal, told me before I left that I would shop in Italy in a state of awe but, if I would be sensible, I would buy nothing. He was right. One does not buy Italian in Italy.

Italy is, amongst other irritations, very expensive. In Europe this is not exceptional, but elsewhere one may indulge in the vulgarities of ‘The Sale’, which in Italy seems not to exist. The price is the price is the price. And it is too much. The going rate for a respectable pair of shoes, for example, is anything between 300 and 800 Euros, more if you want a quality pair. Some may not scruple at such a price tag, but to be manly is to be responsible – to know the distance between the price and the value – and to act accordingly. One must ‘go around the block’, and compare. Once one leaves Italy, one finds Italian finery everywhere, at a fraction of the price.

Thus it is with pleasure that I introduce an item of my Italian summer wear, purchased outside Italy, of course. Some of you will perhaps remember my penchant for plaid, and this I couldn’t resist:


The jacket is by Mario Matteo, in a loose-weave linen. The attention to detail makes all the difference. One cannot overestimate quality stitching. One might even be permitted to fawn over an accomplished button hole. The surgeon’s cuffs are a lovely bonus, especially when the heat might give one cause to let one’s wrists breathe. I will not dwell on numbers and figures; suffice to say that it cost no more than 20 per cent of its suggested price.


How pleasant to cut a bella figura. How satisfactory to cut the price!

July 03, 2010

La Gloire

… 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?
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