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The Hero Within

March 28, 2015

Heroism, Personal Growth

Stoner

In the last few weeks I have read Andersonville, a story about the notorious Confederate prisoner-of-war camp; Augustus, a historical narrative exploring the life of the founder of the Roman Empire; and Stoner, a novel about a man whose life, measured by modern-day metrics, was an abject failure. These works have reminded me how grateful I am to be ordinary.

So much of our life is dependent on contingency that I feel privileged not to have suffered like the prisoners in Andersonville, but I’m also grateful that fate never selected me, as it did Augustus, to play a significant role on the world stage, nor for that matter, an insignificant one. I would not have wanted to banish my daughter to an isolated island, never to see her again, even if was for the greater good. Neither would I have wanted to be responsible for the deaths of close friends and men of the caliber of Cicero, even if the political necessity was plain. The toll of taking up a great cause, a vast project or the reins of power, is all too often the destruction of our own personal happiness.

But, if it’s good to be ordinary where does heroism fit into this world? We crave wisdom but only find ignorance and the worship of moguls, morons, and movie stars. However, in his novel, Stoner, John Williams gives us a portrait of a much older, classical vision of heroism, based on private character. Character, of course, is out of fashion, but it wasn’t always this way. The 20th century shift from small rural communities to large anonymous cities marked the transition from a culture of character to one of self-promotion. Instead of learning someone’s virtues and vices first-hand or by reputation, over their lifetime, city life placed a premium on first impressions and the manipulation of image. Advertising, television and more recently social media, have exacerbated this trend. Today, the summation of a course in self-marketing would be to “make a noise”, and the number of likes, friends and followers has become the measure of our success.

John Williams’s novel follows the life of an obscure academic named William Stoner, a man forgotten by his students and colleagues, by history itself. Stoner makes all the right choices when confronted with difficult decisions, but pays a steep price for his integrity, eventually losing his wife, his daughter, his career and even his mistress, the one true love of his life. However, John Williams didn’t see Stoner as a failure. In an interview he gave a few years before his death, he remarked that he thought Stoner was “a real hero”:

“A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life….He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important…You’ve got to keep the faith.”

In a world which appears almost designed to distract us from the anguish of our inner lives, the lesson of Stoner is that ultimately we are measured by our capacity to face the truth of who we are in private moments, not by the public image we have crafted for ourselves.

____________________

“There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.”    John Williams, Stoner

 

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill

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61 Comments on “The Hero Within”

  1. Cindy Bruchman Says:

    Character! And the appreciation of it! O, have we always been moronic? I think so; there have been brilliant people saying brilliant things since Cicero, and yet, we don’t seem to be any further along as a species. Compassion. Humility. Selflessness. That, too, is something that’s been around since Cicero but it seems like it’s lacking today. Do you think Cicero and Williams thought their society was filled of morons?

    Reply

    • Bill Hayes Says:

      With respect Cindy, I think those qualities are still around, but they just don’t make the headlines so much.

      Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Cindy. It’s really a question of emphasis. There are morons in all ages and all times, but who we choose to idolize says something about us as a society. In the United States we currently idolize moguls, athletes and movie stars rather than scientists, explorers and teachers, and we put a premium on ‘noise’ rather than quiet serenity. This speaks volumes about who we are.

      Reply

      • Cindy Bruchman Says:

        Tis true! I am a fan of films and movie stars and athletes and I don’t think that’s a bad thing if done in moderation. That is, I sure appreciate Daniel Day-Lewis and Cate Blanchett and the art that directors make; I sure won’t apologize for that. I’d like to think if they were in the same room with me I wouldn’t start screaming like a Beatlemaniac. I sure love Star Trek and explorers and scientists, but I value humanitarians and philanthropists more. “nothing in excess” is what I try to live by and I fail.

        Reply

  2. john flanagan Says:

    A fine posting, Malcolm – informed, entertaining and well written.
    Thank You.

    Best Wishes

    john

    Reply

  3. Holistic Wayfarer Says:

    Guess which Roman orator I am reading about in Cleopatra, a Life. My college minor in Classics comprised mostly of the languages so it feels like I am learning about Rome for the first time (to the extent she features with Caesar in the book on the Egyptian queen). Why were all the greats (Caesar, Cicero, Alexander) so bombastic?

    “But, if it’s good to be ordinary where does heroism fit into this world?”
    In the ordinary, of course.

    “The 20th century shift from small rural communities to large anonymous cities marked the transition from a culture of character to one of self-promotion. Instead of learning someone’s virtues and vices first-hand…city life placed a premium on…the manipulation of image. Advertising, television and more recently social media, have exacerbated this trend.”

    Neil Postman did a rousing job with his incisive social commentary on the effects of media on all areas of life (Amusing Ourselves to Death, popular in the early 90s). One of the most brilliant writers I have read. It was in my first blog series where I cite this book that I actually did talk about the diminishing role of books (as per your recent comment.). He notes that the automobile helped to individualize Americans and separate neighbor from neighbor (so that we suddenly led very private lives and could go years without knowing whom we lived next to). The ability to learn virtues firsthand brings to mind the value of raw, unmitigated hard work, the kind afforded by farm work and pioneer life (all over the globe). Though the industrial age and city life have offered their own challenges, we certainly have lost something organic in character development. This is a lament I keep circling back to in the parenting, seeing how kids today can cough up pretty much any fancy at the click of a button.

    “pays a steep price for his integrity, eventually losing his wife, his daughter, his career and even his mistress,” Not to lay judgmt, esp on a man I’ve not read about, but can you clarify how he held on to his integrity in taking on a mistress?

    “the number of likes, friends and followers has become the measure of our success.”
    MG is not knocking on HW now, is he? *grin*

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Guess which Roman orator I am reading about in Cleopatra, a Life.

      Famous minds think alike. Thanks for the book tip HW. The reviews are really good.

      Why were all the greats (Caesar, Cicero, Alexander) so bombastic?

      In those days rhetoric was a path to power, particularly if, like Cicero, you didn’t have the advantages of wealth or an army behind you.

      “…marked the transition from a culture of character to one of self-promotion.”

      Neil Postman did a rousing job…One of the most brilliant writers I have read. It was in my first blog series…

      Thanks HW. I tried to find this post but could not see a search bar on your blog. I looked him up and Neil Postman certainly seems to have been an incisive critic of modern media.

      “pays a steep price for his integrity, eventually losing his wife, his daughter, his career and even his mistress,”

      Not to lay judgmt, esp on a man I’ve not read about, but can you clarify how he held on to his integrity in taking on a mistress?

      Stoner realizes after just one month that his marriage is a disaster. His wife, Edith has been raised in an emotional vacuum, taught only useless ornamental skills and sheltered as wholly as possible from reality. Stoner has to look after their baby because changing diapers is too earthy a task for Edith. She has been taught that sex is associated with everything negative and quickly evolves into a brittle, conniving hysteric whose cruelty to Stoner and their child is all the more hateful because she is unaware of it. She has no understanding and much condescension for Stoner’s work as a teacher of American literature and avails herself of every opportunity to spend time away from home. Stoner finds himself alone in the world with nobody who understands or cares for him, until he meets a brilliant graduate student who becomes his lover. Do you think resignation would have served Stoner better HW?

      “the number of likes, friends and followers has become the measure of our success.”

      MG is not knocking on HW now, is he? *grin*

      MG is certainly not doing this. Your success is measured by the wonderful community of commentators you have built up not by simple notches on your follower counter.

      Reply

  4. Michael R. Edelstein Says:

    the lesson of Stoner is that ultimately we are measured by our capacity to face the truth of who we are in private moments, not by the public image we have crafted for ourselves.

    The lesson of Stoner is that all humans have both failures and successes in their lives. Through all of this they remain only and always imperfect humans who act imperfectly. It is incoherent to measure their being, totality, or essence in terms of the evaluation of their acts. There are no gods or devils, just us very fallible humans.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Michael. As you know I completely agree with you that it’s incoherent to try and rate someone in their entirety. However, the point of the post is to argue in favor of individuals rating themselves based on their private character rather than their public appearance.

      Reply

      • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

        You say rating a human is “incoherent.” Yet in your next sentence you suggest rating a human. What am I missing?

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Michael, thank you. I think you are being too literal. We both agree that, from a psychological perspective, it makes no sense to rate a person in their entirety and that only individual actions should be rated. However, I am making a moral argument that someone is better off moving from rating themselves on individual actions related to their public image to individual actions based on their private character. For example, it is better to rate myself based on being a good father than on having 50,000 Facebook friends. From a clinical perspective you may see no difference, but from a moral perspective, there is huge difference.

  5. Bill Hayes Says:

    I find in those private, still moments when I come closer to the real me, I get an urge to get up and move to another seat further along. I think I prefer the crafted public image. Very interesting piece Malcolm.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      I quite agree Bill. The real thing is often very scary. Now if only I can find a way to convince myself that the crafted public image is more real than the original. Alcohol certainly helps 🙂

      Reply

  6. Middlemay Farm Says:

    My family watched Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939) for movie night a while back about a school teacher who quietly lives his life and dies. No rousing Robin Williams-esque teacher speeches, no spectacle what-so-ever.

    We sat in the darkness of the living room smirking at the overly sincere 1930’s portrayal of an ordinary man, yet the movie sticks with me. Our tastes in movies and books may have changed but I agree with some of the other commenters who pointed out there are still people quietly, heroically not taking selfies.

    Reply

  7. chr1 Says:

    Excellent post, Malcolm.

    I read Suetonis ‘The Twelve Caesars’ recently and couldn’t help but have similar thoughts about public office, power, its costs and corruptions as well as the importance of coming to know one’s self, character, and the decisions that so often matter, making us who we are and will become.

    It’s difficult and often painful to confront some basic truths about ourselves and our condition, and just to be alone with one’s own thoughts.

    It’s made me appreciate basic human decency much more.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thanks Chris. I read Suetonis many years ago and remember that it contained plenty of juicy, salacious bits, which could be true for all I know. As you say, it makes one appreciate basic human decency.

      Presumably it’s the difficulty and pain of confronting truths about ourselves that lends some heroism to the act.

      Reply

  8. jhana jian Says:

    I love the title of your post — The Hero Within. It brings a sense of a quiet, unassuming, non-spectacular heroism. A heroism that goes largely unnoticed and unheralded. Perhaps the unsung hero truly is the most courageous kind of hero simply because there are no accolades. There is only a doing what is right in one’s own eyes regardless of whether it fits into the general consensus of what is right. The heroism that goes unnoticed and unapplauded is, to me, the most courageous kind of heroism. I haven’t read Stoner, but I’m sure I would enjoy it. Kudos to John Williams for bringing such a hero into our world. And kudos to you too, Malcolm, for bring him to our attention.

    By the way, you read about Andersonville. Have you ever read about Camp Douglas, the prison camp outside of Chicago that held Confederate prisoners of war? Probably not.
    http://www.ncgenweb.us/transylvania/Camp-Douglas-Civil-War-Prison,-Chicago.html

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “The heroism that goes unnoticed and unapplauded is, to me, the most courageous kind of heroism.”

      Well said. It certainly has a weight and dignity to it that is lacking in the public adulation of ‘heroes’ like Chris Kyle (American Sniper). Also, thank you so much for the link to Camp Douglas Prison. I had wondered whether there was a northern equivalent to Andersonville and you have provided it. I particularly liked this line from their website:

      “To the victor belongs the silence.”

      Reply

  9. Aquileana Says:

    ¨But, if it’s good to be ordinary where does heroism fit into this world? We crave wisdom but only find ignorance and the worship of moguls, morons, and movie stars¨…
    I second your statements… Heroes nowadays are falling stars. They just go down…
    The classical ideal of what a hero is supposed to be like should be claimed again, I guess…
    A very thought provoking post, Malcolm…
    Thanks for sharing and best wishes to you. Aquileana 😀

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Aquileana, and of course your own wonderful blog is a living tribute to the classical tradition. I’m not sure the classical hero can just be brought back though. Our worship of “moguls, morons, and movie stars” is a symptom of a decadent society which probably needs to collapse and be reborn for a new concept of heroism to emerge.

      Reply

  10. rung2diotimasladder Says:

    I haven’t read Stoner, but it sounds interesting. The title as the character’s last name is something to think about too…it has strange implications. Why is the first name left out? Why “Stoner”?

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      I can’t remember where I read it but I believe Williams had a different title in mind but the publisher chose Stoner. It’s a good, strong sounding name and I think adding a first name would have weakened it. I wonder what “strange implications” you had in mind?

      Reply

      • rung2diotimasladder Says:

        Well, the first thing I thought was a pot smoker, but I doubt that was intended. Then leaving off the first name is really formal and anonymous at the same time. Does the book have that tone?

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Well, the book is set in the early 1900’s so the name was not definitely not meant to suggest pot smoking.The style and tone is of the utmost simplicity with no fancy words added for effect. I honestly think the name had no special significance and that your studies in German philosophy have encouraged you to expect complex and complicated meanings, even when they are not there 🙂

        • rung2diotimasladder Says:

          Oh, I’m not sure the German philosophers can be blamed for that. I’ve always looked for meaning in the title and in character names, though I don’t always get it right!

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Forgive me but I remember trying to understand Habermas at university and now being reminded of the problem trying to understand Heidegger. I think I just have something against the German philosophers but I appreciated the comment on your blog about their real value 🙂

        • rung2diotimasladder Says:

          I totally understand! If I hadn’t started with Kant, I probably wouldn’t have read any of them.

  11. aFrankAngle Says:

    There are also those who somehow crafted a negative image – no matter if true or not – thus that is who they are portrayed to be, which isn’t who they really are.

    Reply

  12. L. Marie Says:

    I for one am sad to see quieter character studies trumped in favor of glamorized, larger-than-life heroes in formulaic plots just so some Hollywood producer will take notice and make a movie. The quieter stories are often the most powerful.

    Reply

  13. Brett Says:

    Great post, Malcolm. I’ve been thinking about this question for a while now. I often think of the scene in Plato’s Republic, where Odysseus is asked how he wants to reincarnate and he says that he prefers the life of a normal, quiet laborer–not a hero.

    More personally, as I choose grad schools and make these big life decisions, I’ve learned to appreciate little things more: a cup of tea in the morning, time to cook, time with friends, and time just to be and (dare I say it) “waste time,” and the sorts of sacrifices that society wants us to make for “success” or “fame,” as if we’ll only find fulfillment through a narrow lens of things. I think your meditations are thoughtful.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Brett, and of course we only notice this as we get older. From experience talking with my teenager, this is one of those things that can’t be taught. One just has to come to it in one’s own good time.

      Reply

  14. Andrea Stephenson Says:

    Watching a ‘leaders debate’ on TV last night, where the leaders of all our main political parties debated questions leading up to our elections, I found myself wondering if any of them could really be said to have gotten into politics to make a difference to the world or whether it was purely ambition to be ‘someone’ in the public eye. Ultimately it must be more satisfying to know that you’ve had integrity and been true to yourself than to an image that may be quite different to who you are.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Agreed, but of course nothing is black or white. I recently finished reading Robert Harris’s book ‘Imperium’, about the life of Cicero, the Roman orator. Cicero rose to Consul, the highest elective office of the Roman Republic. As he had neither wealth, family connections, nor an army behind him, he had to use the weapons God gave him, notably his oratorical skills and his wit. Inevitably he had to strike deals, compromise his principles and even sell himself to powerful protectors. However, in the end one must say that he did more good than harm. Unfortunately, I don’t think we can say the same of most modern politicians.

      Reply

  15. Dalo 2013 Says:

    This may be my favorite post you’ve written (at least until the next one debuts). You hint at one of the more troubling pieces of life we all deal with and that is “to face the truth of who we are in private moments” which can vary greatly with the public persona we put out there in social media. Like you, I am grateful I am to be ordinary. These days, there are many heroes flying under the radar; those who do not put a ‘premium on first impressions and the manipulation of image’ and rather let their substance and action do the talking.

    In this day and age, it becomes more difficult to face the private moments of our lives as there is such little focus and thus the need to pay attention to the real question of who we are. As we grow older, the hero I believe understands this and is proud of the simple value of taking care of those he/she loves and values the responsibility. In turn, the hero feels the respect from living this “good life” and with or without fanfare, that it all that matters.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “proud of the” simple value of taking care of those he/she loves”

      Thank you Dalo. I think it was Edmund Burke who spoke about “little platoons” of ordinary people finding ways to achieve their own happiness by working together with others. Only individuals can pursue happiness, governments cannot do this. It doesn’t matter how poor a person is, this type of happiness and heroism is available to anyone.

      Reply

      • Dalo 2013 Says:

        Yes, that is a great way to put it ~ “this type of happiness and heroism is available to anyone” and such a surprise to realize how many people do not chase it.

        Reply

  16. UpChuckingwords Says:

    Well put, as always. Good thoughts while drinking my morning coffee.

    Reply

  17. Daniela Says:

    Hi Malcolm,

    I enjoyed reading this post very much, thank you. I tend to agree with the notion and have often thought along the same lines, that the price we have and continue to pay for our modern world is such that the chasm between who we really are and who we project to be to meet demands of that same modern world is growing wider by day, or perhaps hour since our shrinking perceptions can only sustain ever smaller attention.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Daniela, thank you. I like the way you phrased the issue. Also, in reading your comment it struck me that, as bloggers we are particularly susceptible to this widening chasm between who we are and who we project ourselves to be. I, for one, certainly don’t feel that I’m as urbane in real life as I project on this blog. It would be an interesting question to pose to all bloggers.

      Reply

      • Daniela Says:

        I can’t agree more Malcolm! I have recently came across simply wonderful piece about our importance of our ‘authentic self’ and hoping to find time to write/blog about it! Or we both might do as we seem to often think and write about similar issues albeit from different angels -:)!

        Reply

  18. Kate Loveton Says:

    We tend to hide from ourselves, and this era’s television and social media makes it even easier to do so. You mentioned something about distraction, I believe, in your post.

    We are not only distracted from the reality of ourselves and our world, we crave the distraction. Bread and circuses, you know; anything to take us away – even momentarily – from those moments of quiet desperation (as one writer termed them), from having to think. Introspection is painful, for individuals and society. Who wants the pain? Not 21st c man.

    Heroism? We need to redefine what it is in an era in which sports and entertainment figures are idolized. The more extreme the behavior, the greater the adulation. Self sacrifice? No more; now it is self-aggrandizement and indulgence.

    It makes me sad. Worse, it often makes me lose hope for us all.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Kate, thank you for this thoughtful comment. Who hasn’t felt sad and occasionally been tempted to lose hope in the face of mass man? Yet reading history reminds me that it was the same in other eras. The very term bread and circuses originated in Rome as a strategy to placate the masses. We expect everyone to go to college to get ‘educated’ when in fact most people are best fitted for vocational training, not a study of the Great Books. In no period of history has the examined life been anything but a minority pursuit. If we lower our sights and just try to carve out a thin slice of sanity for ourselves, our friends and our family, or nationally, if we can just build a small island of civilization for a brief period of time, we are probably doing as much as we can ever hope to do.

      Reply

      • Kate Loveton Says:

        Superb response, Malcolm!

        Regarding the remark about some individuals more fitted for vocational work than college, I’ve often agreed with this point of view. There’s no shame to it, either.

        College / university used to be perceived as a place of big ideas. Today it often seems a place where one goes to ‘learn a trade’ – business administration, accounting, organizational development, and so on. People struggle (lack of interest, perhaps) to get through the courses that often were the foundation of a good university education – they are more interested in getting to the course work that will earn them money in Corporate America. I’m not saying this is a bad thing… or maybe I am. College should teach one to THINK. I’m not sure it does that so much these days…

        Reply

  19. authorbengarrido Says:

    Hey Malcolm,

    Thanks for this article. I wonder if your conclusion here isn’t covertly essentialist. The idea that we can be good inside and then behave poorly has always troubled me. Is this what Stoner represents or am I misunderstanding you?

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Ben, it is not that Stoner was good inside but behaved poorly outside, but rather that he was good inside even though publicly he was seen as a failure. It’s strange but I brought up Stoner in a chat today about a good friend’s obituary. He lived an amazing life full of accomplishments, both academic and professional. However, I remarked that some people would have nothing to include in their obituary but that does not make them any the less worthy. The good deeds don’t have to be the outward public ones that appear in the obituary, they can be the silent, inner ones that maybe nobody knows about.

      Reply

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