„Let me follow my emotions and start with the third column, on the far right, the one about heroes and people of courage. The robustness … of society depends on them; if we are here today, it is because someone, at some stage, took some risk for us. But courage and heroism do not mean blind risk taking – it is not necessarily recklessness. There is a pseudocourage that comes from risk blindness, in which people underestimate the odds of failure. We have ample evidence that the very same people become chicken and overreact in the face of real risks; the exact opposite. For the Stoics, prudence is connatural to courage – the courage to fight your own impulses (in an aphorism by – who else – Publilius Syrus, prudence was deemed the courage of the general).
Heroism has evolved through civilization from the martial arena to that of ideas. Initially, in preclassical times, the Homeric hero was someone principally endowed with physical courage – since everything was physical. In later classical times, for such people as the great Lacedaemonian king Agiselaus, a truly happy life was one crowned by the privilege of death in battle, little else, perhaps even nothing else. But for Agiselaus, courage had already evolved from purely martial prowess into something greater. Courage was often seen in acts of renunciation, as when one is ready to sacrifice himself for the benefit of others, of the collective, something altruistic.
Finally, a new form of courage was born, that of the Socratic Plato, which is the very definition of the modern man: the courage to stand up for an idea, and enjoy death in a state of thrill, simply because the privilege of dying for truth, or standing up for one’s values, had become the highest form of honor. And no one has more prestige in history than two thinkers who overtly and defiantly sacrificed their lives for their ideas – two Eastern Mediterraneans; one Greek and one Semite.
We should pause a little when we hear happiness defined as an economic or otherwise puny materialistic condition. You can imagine how distraught I feel when I hear about the glorified heroism-free ‘middle-class values’, which, thanks to globalization and the Internet, have spread to any place easily reached by British Air, enshrining the usual opiates of the deified classes: ‘hard work’ for a bank of a tobacco company, diligent newspaper reading, obedience to most, but not all, traffic laws, captivity in some corporate structure, dependence on the opinion of a boss (with one’s job records filed in the personnel department), good legal compliance, reliance on stock market investments, tropical vacations, suburban life (under some mortgage) with a nice-looking dog and Saturday night wine tasting. Those who meet with some success enter the gallery of the usual billionaire list, where they will hope to spend some time before their fertilizer sales are challenged by competitors from China. They will be called heroes – rather than lucky. Further, if success is random, a conscious act of heroism is non-random. And the ‘ethical’ middle class may work for a tobacco company – and thanks to casuistry call themselves ethical.
I am even more distraught for the future of the human race when I see a nerd behind a computer in a D.C. suburb, walking distance from a Starbucks coffeehouse, or a shopping mall, capable of blowing up an entire battalion in a remote place, say Pakistan, and afterwards going to the gym for a ‘workout’ (compare this culture to that of knights or samurai). Cowardice enhanced by technology is all connected: society is fragilized by spineless politicians, draft dodgers afraid of polls, and journalists building narratives, who create explosive deficits and compound agency problems because they want to look good in the short term.
A half-man (or, rather, half-person) is not someone who does not have an opinion, just someone who does not take risks for it.
The great historian Paul Veyne has recently shown that it is a big myth that gladiators were forced labor. Most were volunteers who wanted the chance to become heroes by risking their lives and winning, or, when failing, to show in front of the largest crowd in the world how they were able to die honourably, without cowering – when a gladiator loses the fight the crowd decides whether he should be spared or put to death by the opponent. And spectators did not care for nonvolunteers, as these did not have their soul in the fight.
My greatest lesson in courage came from my father – as a child, I had admired him before for his erudition, but was not overly fazed since erudition on its own does not make a man. He had a large ego and immense dignity, and he demanded respect. He was once insulted by a militiaman at a road check during the Lebanese war. He refused to comply, and got angry at the militiaman for being disrespectful. As he drove away, the gunman shot him in the back. The bullet stayed in his chest for the rest of his life so he had to carry an X-ray image through airport terminals. This set the bar very high for me: dignity is worth nothing unless you earn it, unless you are willing to pay a price for it.
A lesson I learned from this ancient culture is the notion of megalopsychon (a term expressed in Aristotle’s ethics), a sense of grandeur that was superseded by the Christian value of ‘humility’. There is no word for it in Romance languages; in Arabic it is called Shhm – best translated as nonsmall. If you take risks and face your fate with dignity, there is nothing you can do that makes you small; if you don’t take risks, there is nothing you can do that makes you grand, nothing. And when you take risks, insults by half-men (small men, those who don’t risk anything) are similar to barks by nonhuman animals: you can’t feel insulted by a dog”
Auszug aus Taleb, Nassim Nicolas (2012). Antifragile. Things that Gain from Disorder. London: Penguin, pp. 378-380.
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