Manvotional: Heroic Education

by Brett & Kate McKay on September 26, 2010 · 18 comments

in A Man's Life, Manvotionals

“Heroic Education”

From Courage by Charles Wagner

THE old stoics had this saying among themselves, Nihil mirari, — “Do not be astonished at anything.” The sense of it is plain; it means that we must not allow ourselves to be overawed by men or things, to be frightened or disconcerted. A man should retain his self-possession, and be master of himself, amid all the impressions that he receives. This is certainly a good rule. It is in happy contrast with the fickleness of our moods and the neurotic tendencies of the times. Such a maxim is like a soothing and refreshing bath; after it, one’s eyes are clearer, one’s arms stronger, one’s step more alert. Let us often repeat to ourselves this old saying which has reassured and sustained the courage of so many, and which fulfilled, for those whose device it was, the office of a sure and steadfast friend, who took them by the hand in the hour of trouble, and said, “Be calm, have courage, be wise, and all will come out right!”

There is another way of translating the adage against which I wish to protest, precisely because it is so common. Our contemporaries adopt the Nihil mirari, but they translate it, “Let us admire nothing.” If those who conform to the rule thus modified were old men, I should not permit myself to attack them. I should say to myself, “They are tired of life; to their old organs everything seems old; they have lost the faculty of admiring, as they have lost their sense of hearing, or the capacity to sleep, or the appetite of twenty.” Such is not the case, however. Those who undertake to admire nothing are young men. To admire anything seems to them humiliating. It is all very well for children to open their eyes wide and stare at men and things with that serious and surprised air, which shows that they believe what they see. One must leave that kind of emotion in the nursery, with one’s petticoats, one’s last doll, and all the forgotten toys of one’s tender years. A man must not admire anything. Nothing should surprise or excite him. To admire is to be a dupe, to let oneself be taken in. A serious young man should not put himself in the ridiculous position of “swallowing” anything. To be able to say solemnly, in every situation: “Oh, I know that; that’s an old story; ” to be tired of everything before having experienced anything,—this is the pose of your young man. Among his comrades he who admires the least passes for the strongest-minded, and is almost sure to be the most admired; for if it be a servile attitude of mind to feel admiration, to be admired is one of the noblest delights of life. Thus a spirit has spread among youth, and in the schools and ateliers, whose ideal is to have no ideal. From this to respecting nothing and no one is but a step.

This spirit of belittling and scoffing is the order of the day; and one of the manifestations of this unfortunate tendency is that we meet together more willingly to cry down a thing than to honour an illustrious memory, or to do homage to a great citizen. To my mind, one of the worst misfortunes that can happen to you when you are young is to be inoculated with this spirit of which I speak. If there be anything which is not young, it is this spirit. To feel respect shows the quality of a young man, as the bouquet of the wine shows from which province it came. Thus, wherever I discover an absence of respect, I say to myself, “That smells of vinegar.” We must get rid of this tendency. It is a source of weakness, of decrepitude. It is an enemy, and one of the most dangerous.

We live through respect, and we perish through scoffing. Plato banished musicians from his republic because he wrongly believed that music enervated man’s courage. As for me, I declare war against this spirit of mockery; I wish that it might be hunted down, and exterminated, like those parasites which are nourished in our marrow and blood. Let us chase the scoffer; and, on the other hand, let us cherish admiration, respect, and enthusiasm in all their forms, as among the elements of a healthy morality, and the source of strong wills. All that I have to say on this subject I shall try to say under the heading of Heroic Education.

What is a hero? He is a man of larger stature than his fellows, who has lived an intenser and wider human life than the majority; a being who concentrates in his mind and heart the aspirations of a whole epoch, and gives them powerful expression; or it may be that he is a man who appears above the crowd to accomplish one deed, but one so great, so fine, that it immortalises him.

When we study the history of humanity, we see heroes appearing at the beginning of every great movement. Their example is contagious; some virtue emanates from them and takes possession of others. It is their privilege to arouse enthusiasm, hope, and light. They are the saviours of hopeless times, the guides in dark days, the pioneers of the future, the pure and noble victims who die for justice and truth, in order to pave the way for them. But what influence would they have without the respect, admiration, and enthusiasm which they excite in us? It is by dint of admiring them that we become capable of profiting by their virtues. What is true of the hero, is true of everything that is heroic, to no matter what degree. Everything that is great, everything that is beautiful, everything that is pure and sacred, penetrates to our hearts through our respect and admiration. These are the senses by which we perceive the high realities of the soul….

I am not speaking here of our illustrious heroes, but of those obscure, unknown, unnamed heroes of whom the world is full. It is for them that I ask of youth eyes and ears to perceive, and a heart to admire. It is time to put a stop to this superstition of evil, to this invidious pessimism, propagated by conversation, by the press, by our novels, according to which there is nothing good anywhere in the world. The fanatic apostles of this superstition are so convinced of their belief, that when they meet a man of heart and generous action along their road, or in history, they prefer to impute to him low motives rather than to accept them for such as they are. The result is that the majority are more and more disposed to find only thieves and rogues in the world, and to seem to wait with resignation the occasion to become such themselves. Out upon this school of degradation, this conspiracy for ignominy!

The good exists; I shall prove it to you. Suppose that you found yourself in the midst of a large assembly, in a big hall, and that all of a sudden your neighbour said to you, “Do you know that everything here, the floor beneath you, the galleries, the columns, the walls, are rotten? ” Do you think that you would believe what he said to you, and that this objection would not immediately present itself to your mind: “How is it possible for this rotten edifice to stand beneath the great weight of this assembly? There must still be some beams to hold, some parts of the wall that are solid, some columns that are strong.” Such is the case in human society. The proof that certain good elements still exist is that this society has not yet gone to pieces. If there were only untrustworthy cashiers, venal writers, hypocritical priests, bribed officers, dishonest employees, men without conscience, women without modesty, homes that are disunited, ungrateful children, depraved young people, — we should long since have been buried beneath our own ruins.

Where is this good, of which I speak, to be found? We must seek for it. Those who seek for it and are capable of seeing it, will find it. I urge many young people to investigate this unknown region. They will discover many salutary herbs which will serve them as elixirs.

The truth is, that no one has any idea of the number of good people who live about us. The amount of suffering patiently borne, the injuries pardoned, the sacrifices made, the disinterested efforts, are impossible to count. It is a world full of unknown splendours, like the profound grottoes lighted by the marvellous lamp of Aladdin. These are the reserves of the future; these are the silent streams that run beneath the earth, and without which the sources of good would long since have become exhausted, and the world have returned to barbarism. Happy is he who can explore the sacred depths! At first, one feels profane, small, out of place. There are people of such a simple benevolence, of such natural disinterestedness, that one feels poor and unworthy beside them; but this is a grief which is salutary, a humiliation which exalts us. What can be better for a young man than to feel himself small and inferior in the presence of truth, of abnegation, and of pure goodness? If he is troubled, moved, bewildered, downcast; if he weeps; if his life, when compared with those which he sees about him, seems to him like a childish sketch by the side of a canvas of a great master, — so much the better for him. This humility is a proof in his favour, and places him at once in the path of progress. They say that young nightingales, whose voices are not yet formed, are very unhappy when they come into the presence of those older birds who fill the nights of summer with their music. When they hear them, they cease to sing, and remain silent for a long time. This is neither from a spirit of envy nor ill temper; but the ideal presented to them bewilders and disturbs them. They listen, they are intoxicated by the melody, and while thinking, perhaps, in their little bird brains, —

“I can never hope to equal thee!”

they become so inspired that they end by singing in their turn.

Hail to the good listener!

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Patrick Pugh September 26, 2010 at 2:47 am

Firstly, I’d like to say that this blog has really made a profound impact on me. I wake up every morning and the newest artofmanliness article is in my inbox, and I start my day inspired and enlightened — thank you! However, I’m curious about your sources — where do you unearth all these great books from the 18th & 19th century? I clicked on the link above to read “Courage” and now I can’t go to sleep because I’m so in to it. Also, a while back, there was an etiquette-related article that had a link to a book on Google books that I cannot find now. I think it was Grove or something with a ‘G’. I would greatly appreciate a re-posting of that link or revival of the article from the archives.

Thank again, and don’t stop blogging!


2 Mato Tope September 26, 2010 at 6:27 am

Amen to the above.
I have never subscribed to the wasted youth ethos of our times, “the seen it all, done it all”, cynicism that pervades a large section of our society.
I believe our education should be built around the actions and ideals of men and women from history. It should exemplify those of an iron will, who have eked out of every tyranny and every despotic regime higher values, greater freedoms and a spirit of magnaminity, thus paving the way for the advancement of mankind in every sphere of living.
“It is their privilege to arouse enthusiasm, hope and light.”
That privilege is one bestowed upon the Art of Manliness for all it’s thought-provoking, inspirational and truly motivating articles.

Excellent stuff.

3 John September 26, 2010 at 7:07 am

One of the best articles yet. You’ve nailed it.

4 Taylor September 26, 2010 at 9:40 am

As a young man myself (20 years old), I just wanted to write and thank you for this post. I recently stumbled upon AoM and have been quite edified since.

If I may, I would also like to interject a thought about your article. In my life, one idea has consistently presented itself. I believe it is the same issue that you spoke of in this post, simply worded differently. I will let you be the judge of that, though. It is as follows: “The man who is confident in his identity is unmoved by circumstance.” In other words, this man is not “astonished at anything” circumstantial. Instead, he is moved to admiration by the unwavering passions of his heart.

In an attempt to find confidence in their identity, my peers, namely the young men, have sought to imitate the outward appearance of confidence. In an effort to not be astonished by anything, they have stifled their ability to admire anything. They have suffocated the passions of their heart, compounding their lack of identity with apathy.

I believe this is the largest issue plaguing the young people of today, which, if solved, would pave the way for many more wrongs to be righted. The solution is apparent in your example of the nightingales. It is direct exposure to the music of the older birds that inspires the younger birds to sing. The education system of today, in my opinion, leaves little room for direct exposure to the heroes in any particular field (except academia). What happened to discipleship and apprenticeship? What happened to fathers imparting legacy at the communal level, generation after generation? If this is still occurring in a real way, I must be missing it.

Forgive me if I missed the point of this article. If your article is a song, then like the young nightingale, I have been inspired to sing in turn with this response. I may not have gotten it right, but at least I listened, right? I would appreciate hearing any thoughts on this.

5 Michael September 26, 2010 at 2:14 pm

This piece seems to me to be somewhat the opposite of what is a QUALITY life, What else will we receive in life than enjoyment and hopefully joy?
True, If one has widely experienced and is widely educated, There isn’t the pleasure of first discovery which makes it for me more difficult to become ecstatic from what we’ve experienced so many times before.
That said, I can still find pleasure in something of quality: a pastoral vista, a beautiful, quality automobile, a fine piece of furniture, an interesting book or program, a quality relationship etc.
To me it is harder to experience the joy of discovering something new, “having seen and done it all” but I CAN find pleasure and even joy with the familiar things of quality.
To me, my quality of life involves surrounding myself with things that mean something to me and creating and maintaining a quality environment around me.
Having “been there, done that” and studied widely enables me to not be pulled from a pleasant state of mind by the many unfortunate and sad situations we all are exposed to. My goal: attain and maintain as high level as possable of happiness and maybe even joy as possable!

6 shaw fariad September 26, 2010 at 2:34 pm

Dear all,
The article stricks a cord thats long buried under the rubble of todays man made society heading in astray. Lessons of the past are no more exemplified or lived by the majority, but then thats been the archetype of every civilization where most did not go by the norms of those who are known as heroes today except only few who are still known by the time. Nicely put ” The man who is confident of his identity is not moved by the circumstance”, this completely negates todays society… must strive by the innate capacities lying in his inner self and this can happen only if he has discovered the one within him……gratitude to those who paved a way toward excellence. God bless.

7 James Strock September 26, 2010 at 3:11 pm

This is great–where DO you find these?!

8 Mike September 26, 2010 at 7:35 pm

Incredible work. This truly explains how we feel amongst all that is around us. Its as if there is some difficulty in living that we cannot recognize. Yet now it is worded out, and it is very true even if it is over a hundred years old. I for one know that this will be kept in my mind, and I will search out the modern, simple heroes in my life. I still have much to learn, and I am excited for it.

9 Brett McKay September 27, 2010 at 12:45 am


Thank you for the kind words of appreciation.

We find the manvotionals in a few ways. A lot of it is comes from spending hours searching through the amazing google book archives and looking for the gems. We also buy old books and find stuff in them. And sometimes readers tip us off to a good find.

I’m afraid the article you referenced on etiquette doesn’t ring a bell…..

10 Simj September 27, 2010 at 4:50 am

i Haven’t read this word for word but would say that its essence is not to be cowed rather than awed. Some people are truly terrifying…..think Hitler et al. He cowed half of Europe and had a go at the world. I don’t honestly believe there is shame in being cowed by such people as the lengths they will stop at are not particulalry limited. This said the maxim is based along the lines of loss of personal freedom and enslavement to anothers intentions through fear/terror. Its an ideal and perhaps a goal but understandable in many cases for those that do not live up to this.

11 Days and Adventures September 27, 2010 at 5:33 am

Beautiful words. The world is bright if we wish it to be.


12 Bob G September 27, 2010 at 5:58 pm

Excellent post.
The full maxim is “Nihil mirari, nihil lacrimari, sed intelligere” and is by Spinoza. It can be translated as “Let nothing cause astonishment, let nothing cause despair, but understand.” The teaching, in my opinion, is to not let emotion rule us or cause us to shy away from understanding anything. Even though some things may seem intimidating (either overwhelmingly good or impossibly bad), have courage and seek the truth.

13 zane September 27, 2010 at 8:54 pm

ridiculous. this is the modern world where we’re post religion and post tradition. cant u feel the paradigms shift? there’s no place for hero worship or a love of the old. As to the supposed ‘good’ people in this world? they havent been given an opportunity to be truly evil. We are selfish by design and you can harp on about whatever good qualities a person possesses, they arent all that great. Personally, i’d like to live a life like my fictional hero Harry Flashman. One of cowardice and caddishness

14 William September 29, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Zane- Take your flaming negativity somewhere else. Nobody here wants to read it.

15 korg20000bc September 30, 2010 at 10:36 am

Thanks for the post.

Here’s a link to some related material.

Its about the foundations of European martial arts and cultivating virtue. Great stuff.

16 Gerard October 2, 2010 at 10:29 pm

It’s so hard to inspire humility, yet this excerpt does it wonderfully.

As almost everyone has stated before me, thanks Brett and Kate.

17 Ben October 7, 2010 at 1:48 am

@William: Their are indeed cynics out there who will be lost to their own narcissistic cynicism, but I do believe I smell a Troll. Tread softly.

18 Jay the Barber October 7, 2013 at 7:53 pm

I’ve really started accepting the fact this year that my 3 sons are not going to stay little boys forever, and I’ve got to get some seriously good stuff in their gut if they’re gonna survive and thrive in this world. Thank you for this site. Its ministered to me, and now I’m sharing it with my sons.

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