The Hero as Werwolf

by Henry on October 10, 2004

Brad DeLong takes issue with Chris’s characterization of Achilles and Che Guevara as heroes.

As far as I’m concerned, we “respond” to Achilles—we may even pity him—but we do not admire him. None of us would wish to have the character of Achilles. Hektor is the one we admire. Hektor is the hero of the Iliad. And none of us would wish to have the character of Che Guevara.

This misses the sense in which Chris (and others) might very fairly regard Achilles (and Guevara) as heroes, despite their very evident personality flaws, or indeed because of them. For Brad, a hero is someone whom we should both admire and emulate. Thus, we should aspire to the virtues of the sagacious Hektor, who fights only because he must, and not those of the vainglorious Achilles. But Homer and his interpreters among the classical Greeks surely understood Achilles in a rather different way. To them, he was an embodiment of the arete of the hero bound by his self-understanding and his honour-code to choose glory over a life of respectable insignificance, and to seek retribution for affronts regardless of their consequence (as in Achilles’ vengeance after the slaying of Patroklos).The fate of the hero is bound up in tragedy – he (and it is usually a ‘he’ of course in early Greek thought) does what he must, even when he knows that he will be punished by the gods. He is bound by his fate and his code of honour. Bowra captures this sense of heroism quite well in this fragment – as he argues elsewhere, it is precisely the capacity for heroism that distinguishes men from the gods.[1] Just because Guevara did “personify a historical moment and he did turn his back on a comfortable future as a communist bureaucrat to pursue the goal of the revolutionary liberation of humanity,” he was a hero in a certain sense, and his fate was precisely a tragic one – it was a direct consequence of his aims and personal limitations. His arete may not be one that anyone sane would want to emulate in today’s world, but it’s surely an arete nonetheless.

fn1. Although note that Bowra’s personal enthusiasm for this ideal goes hand-in-hand with some rather unsavoury political opinions.

{ 40 comments }

1

Abiola Lapite 10.10.04 at 6:18 pm

“Just because Guevara did “personify a historical moment and he did turn his back on a comfortable future as a communist bureaucrat to pursue the goal of the revolutionary liberation of humanity,” he was a hero in a certain sense”

Only in the sense that Ernst Röhm was a “hero.” Guevara was a cold-blooded executioner of innocents, in the name of a murderous ideology. Just because he also happened to be a pretty boy doesn’t absolve him of his heinous crimes.

2

Henry 10.10.04 at 6:25 pm

Abiola – for god’s sake could you _read_ the post and think about it for once in your life before you jump in with knee-jerk platitudes. Try to figure out what I mean by the term “hero” for a start (hint: Achilles too was an ‘executioner of innocents’)

3

Abiola Lapite 10.10.04 at 6:33 pm

“Abiola – for god’s sake could you read the post and think about it for once in your life before you jump in with knee-jerk platitudes.”

Thanks for the ad-hominem response, the eloquence of which is simply breath-taking …

“Try to figure out what I mean by the term “hero” for a start (hint: Achilles too was an ‘executioner of innocents’)”

Yes, I know, I’ve read the Illiad, “Rosy fingered dawn” and all. I just happen to disagree with your use of the term “hero” in the sense in which you choose to deploy it, and I happen to take particular umbrage to your use of the term for a murderer who was neither fictional nor set 3,000 years in the past.

I ask you this: even granting your (ahem) unusual usage of the term “hero”, would you be willing to extend the same term to Ernst Röhm, or even the former ally who got rid of him? If not, why not?

4

Henry 10.10.04 at 6:40 pm

Abiola, I reiterate – read the post and respond to the point I’m making if you want to – otherwise I have no interest in responding. I’ve no intention whatsoever of having the discussion hijacked by a left vs right bar-room brawl over the question of whether Che Guevara was better or worse than Ernst Roehm. If you’ve something serious to say that’s on-topic, then say it.

5

Abiola Lapite 10.10.04 at 6:59 pm

“If you’ve something serious to say that’s on-topic, then say it.”

In other words, you won’t sully yourself by condescending to respond the likes of myself, who in your estimation are too unintelligent to understand what you’re getting at? Well done, sir.

All your post amounts to is a Greek take on the old saying “Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum viditur”; references to arete and the like are no more than an attempt to dress up something foul in a an appealing guise of antiquarianism. Take for instance the following excerpt from your post:

.The fate of the hero is bound up in tragedy – he (and it is usually a ‘he’ of course in early Greek thought) does what he must, even when he knows that he will be punished by the gods. He is bound by his fate and his code of honour.

In what way is this not equally applicable to Der Führer, acting out his Twilight of the Gods in the closing days of April 1945? “We may go down, but we’ll take a world with us!” Yet for all it’s appropriateness, I’m certain you wouldn’t dare make the same argument for him that you do for Che Guevara, which is why you don’t want to answer the question I posed you; instead you throw insults in my direction that only serve to display your contemptible arrogance towards those you feel are inherently your intellectual inferiors. “For once in your life” indeed!

6

Gene O'Grady 10.10.04 at 7:08 pm

I’m not sure the opinions Bowra (hardly a current trend setter in classical studies) expresses in that excerpt are “political,” nor are they necessarily Bowra’s, but a rough paraphrase of Greek attitudes.

Those interested in Bowra and politics may read the story in his memoirs of his meeting with Hitler. Hitler entered the room, raised his hand, and said “Heil Hitler.” Bowra remained seated in silence. The media version, however, was that he stood and said “Heil Bowra.” One of those “wish I’d said it but I didn’t moments.”

7

WeSaferThemHealthier 10.10.04 at 7:10 pm

Henry,

Sure, the word “hero”, using the meaning the Greeks gave it, could very well be applied to Guevara.

I don’t think Abiola is asking you to say if left is better than right, just to say whether, under that definition, you would be ready to call Rohm a hero.

If Bertram meant that Guevara is a hero in the ancient sense of the term, he should have made that clear and not done a: Achilles was a hero ( Greek sense ), Guevara was like Achilles, so Guevara is a hero ( modern sense ).

If I saw someone burning an offering yesterday, can I go around saying there’s been another holocaust?

8

mona 10.10.04 at 7:26 pm

I don’t really see a Che Guevara – Achilles parallel, but I’ve never heard anyone deny the heroic status of Achilles. That’s a very weird thing to say, that he’s not a hero. Why?

(It’s also quite weird to deny the appeal of the figure of Che Guevara, whatever one’s political views may be)

9

Katherine 10.10.04 at 7:41 pm

Abiola, did you accuse your high school English teacher of glorifying patricide when s/he referred to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex as a “tragic hero”?

10

Katherine 10.10.04 at 7:44 pm

Abiola, did you accuse your high school English teacher of glorifying patricide when s/he referred to Sophocles’ Oedipus as a “tragic hero”?

The title of the post is “hero as werwolf” for God’s sake.

11

katherine 10.10.04 at 7:49 pm

Sorry. (Not only did I get an error message, but I closed my browser, reopened it, and my post still wasn’t there.)

12

Josh 10.10.04 at 7:49 pm

I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask Henry to explain, and defend, his cryptic remark about Bowra’s politics. Bowra’s politics are not a subject I know a great deal about; but in his earlier years he was strongly in favour of liberal causes, and opposed to Nazism — indeed he befriended and aided a number of refugee scholars from Germany, Austria, and elsewhere. Nor, however, was he taken in by the Soviet Union, or fellow-traveling. I know less about his politics in later life — though he did both refuse to visit Greece when it was under the rule of the generals (quite a sacrifice for the passionate Hellenist Bowra), and voiced his opposition to the Vietnam war. Bowra was not the nicest man, but his politics, so far as I know, were always decent and honourable. (One wishes that the same could be said for Ernesto Che Guevera.)

13

Katherine 10.10.04 at 7:53 pm

“If I saw someone burning an offering yesterday, can I go around saying there’s been another holocaust?”

You probably shouldn’t say “another holocaust” because that phrasing and the way the word has been redefined will make people think you mean “another Holocaust,” with a capital H, referring to Hitler’s genocide.

If you make it quite clear that you mean the original definition of the word, “a sacrific consumed by fire”, then sure you can say it. Though it’s rather redundant to say “that burnt offering was a holocaust, by which I mean a sacrifice consumed by fire.”

14

Brad DeLong 10.10.04 at 8:00 pm

Re: “But Homer and his interpreters among the classical Greeks surely understood Achilles in a rather different way. To them, he was an embodiment of the arete of the hero bound by his self-understanding and his honour-code to choose glory over a life of respectable insignificance, and to seek retribution for affronts regardless of their consequence (as in Achilles’ vengeance after the slaying of Patroklos).The fate of the hero is bound up in tragedy – he (and it is usually a ‘he’ of course in early Greek thought) does what he must, even when he knows that he will be punished by the gods. He is bound by his fate and his code of honour. “

And a good many Greeks thought that Achilles was someone to admire and emulate–that he was a “hero”. Alexander for example.

We do consider Oedipus to be a hero: he seeks to be a wise king who uncovers mysteries. If Oedipus were a deliberate parricide, we would not see him as a hero.

One of the interesting differences between the Greeks and us is that they considered both Achilles and Hektor to be heroes, while we consider only Hektor to be a hero.

And one of the interesting differences between the Communists and us is that they–in spite of the fact that their projects were disastrous–consider Lenin and Guevara to be heroes, while we do not.

15

WeSaferThemHealthier 10.10.04 at 8:04 pm

Katherine,

“If you make it quite clear that you mean the original definition of the word”

Did Bertram?

16

Katherine 10.10.04 at 8:05 pm

I should also note that I do not really “respond to” Achilles at all–I find him a spoiled bully whose only redeeming quality is his friendship with Patroklos–nor so I respond so much to Macbeth. To me, Hector, Patroklos and Hamlet are more interesting, compelling characters as well as more admirable. But I don’t think that’s universal.

I don’t really know anything about Guevera.

17

Brad DeLong 10.10.04 at 8:05 pm

Re: “His arete may not be one that anyone sane would want to emulate in today’s world, but it’s surely an arete nonetheless.”

Don’t you mean, “It was an arete”? I

18

anon 10.10.04 at 8:54 pm

“Did Bertram?”

henry farrell != chris bertram

19

WeSaferThemHealthier 10.10.04 at 9:09 pm

Anon,

See, this Farrel post is about a Delong post about a Bertram post and what was being discussed is the use of the term “hero” which began with Bertram.

My contention is that the use of the term “hero” as it was used in the post that started it all is questionnable, it plays on the confusion between the ancient meaning and the modern meaning.

20

bob mcmanus 10.10.04 at 9:40 pm

“Study Greek art and literature and create a taxonomy of “heroes” and leading characters. I suspect if you do that Odysseus and Hector are the exceptions, not the rule, and we would find most of the leading figures of Greek mythology unattractive. As did that proto-totalitarian Plato.

Only when you see Achilles as a “role-model” for the Greeks does that crazed horror story by Thucydides become any where near comprehensible.” crossposted from DeLong

Kinda trite and redundant, I guess, everyone here understands the cultural gaps.

I am reminded of one of my favorite Nietzsche epigrams, about admiring the achievements of the Greek, Romans, Renaissance Italians while despising the conditions that made those achievements possible.

This is of course all about controlling the language, the discourse. Who gets to define “hero.”

Actually comparing Bush and Achilles not so ridiculous. And as much as I despise him, I might still call Bush “heroic.”

21

Henry 10.10.04 at 9:45 pm

Gene – as you say, Bowra is hardly cutting edge – I plead that I learnt my Greek from a somewhat old-fashioned Benedictine (who was a fan of Bowra’s work) and that it seemed apposite to the point at hand. Belle is our resident classicist, not me. Probably I’m a little unfair to his politics – my reference was to the fragment that I link to, which has a distinct whiff of the “lesser breeds” in its reference to the surrounding cultures (and we should remember that not all classical Greeks agreed with Bowra on this- cf Xenophon’s Cyropaedia).

wesaferthemhealthier – I think you’re crediting abiola lapite with more than he deserves. He was precisely trying to turn this into a left versus right brawl, and his argument rested on a fairly egregious misreading of my post. I don’t mind this sort of barracking too much when I make a post that’s overtly political or critical of the right, but I do object to being dragged into politics – or recitations of Lapite’s personal insecurities – when I’m trying to start a serious conversation.

Brad – I take your point that the Greeks considered Achilles to be worthy of emulation, but I’d still contend that there is a lot more to their notion of heroism than admirable behaviour, and that the something more is what is interesting about Achilles and about Che. To put it more bluntly – there’s something about the hero that is a little monstrous, which is what I was trying to get at with the title of the post (a riff on a somewhat obscure Gene Wolfe story, which develops this theme at length, as does his New Sun quintet).

22

WeSaferThemHealthier 10.10.04 at 9:51 pm

Henry,

You could very well be right. Never mind what I said.

As for me, I wasn’t trying to do that, just trying to see if the standard would be applied equally. I’d have asked the same of a rightist in an equivalent situation.

23

John Isbell 10.11.04 at 12:31 am

A highly disproportionate number of heroes has killed people. The problem then is to work out which of those killings are justified. Robert E. Lee is a reasonable reference point, the man Lynne Cheney would like more of in the history books, with a little less Harriet Tubman.
It might seem odd to call England’s Henry V a hero today, or France’s Bayard or Sweden’s Charles XII. Or Wolfe in Quebec. By what right did he kill the French who opposed him? It was emphatically not self-defense.

24

liberal japonicus 10.11.04 at 1:26 am

Though most of you all may know this, I am compelled to relate the story of Bowra and some other colleagues swimming au naturale at a bend in the river called Parson’s Pleasure in Oxford. The water was higher than usual and a boat full of women ended up passing by. While all the other men covered up their private parts, Bowra covered his face and after the women had passed by, he said ‘I don’t know about you chaps, but I’m known around Oxford by my face’.

FYI, the chapter (ch 29) from Pirsig’s book _Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintanence_ where he quotes the section from Kitto’s _The Greeks_ on arete is here along with the rest of Pirsig’s work at http://bonigv.tripod.com/. Interestingly, Kitto uses the example of Hektor rather than the example of Achilles as an exemplification of arete.

25

Abiola Lapite 10.11.04 at 2:01 am

“I think you’re crediting abiola lapite with more than he deserves. He was precisely trying to turn this into a left versus right brawl, and his argument rested on a fairly egregious misreading of my post. I don’t mind this sort of barracking too much when I make a post that’s overtly political or critical of the right, but I do object to being dragged into politics – or recitations of Lapite’s personal insecurities – when I’m trying to start a serious conversation.”

Yet more of the same cheap ad hominem, coupled with repeated deliberate misspellings of my name in lowercase, and a virtuoso displaying of mind-reading abilities. You’re such a class act, aren’t you? Brad DeLong gets the point I’m trying to make just fine, and all you’ve shown is that you’re a classless asshole who resorts to pathetic stabs at hauteur when he can’t argue his way out of the cul de sac he’s talked himself into.

Pardon the likes of us for daring to challenge high and mighties like yourself; I forgot that our lot was to be that of hewers of wood and drawers of water for “serious” people like you. Would you have responded in such a contemptuous fashion to someone you thought was from the “right” (i.e. left-wing academic) circles? Fuck you, you smug, snooty, bigoted prick.

26

Henry 10.11.04 at 3:18 am

Abiola – consider yourself barred from commenting on any future posts of mine until you learn how to behave yourself in public. Any future comments that you make on my posts will be deleted as soon as I see them.

27

bob mcmanus 10.11.04 at 4:00 am

“The fate of the hero is bound up in tragedy – he (and it is usually a ‘he’ of course in early Greek thought)”

Nah. Electra, Antigone, terrible Medea…not just a token representation. Far, far better than Rome I think. Probably better than Shakespeare. Maybe not til Chekhov and Ibsen are such strong women seen.

Read the Pirsig chapter(again, of course). Always thought of Pirsig as just a good pop philosopher. Reminded me of a joke I once made, that Western Civilization has been in decline since Socrates. I gave due, if misplaced, credit to Nietzsche. Plato and Aristotle are the Greeks after they destroyed themselves, the Greeks in decadence.

Still reading Thucydides. Horrible. Affects me much worse than “Sorrow and the Pity” or whatever. There is a recognition, an empathy, even an admiration. These people, the Greeks, were trying to do their best, trying for excellence in the first full flush of self-concious freedom. And devoured themselves, and their children.

“there’s something about the hero that is a little monstrous”

Freedom. Not brutish submission to instincts, but unbounded choice. Oedipus in the play is warned not to investigate. All kinds of hubris. Achilles and Guevara frighten us cause we don’t like to be reminded how free we really are.

28

John Isbell 10.11.04 at 4:39 am

I expect Thucidydes’s Melian Dialog to stay with me until my dying day. Or at least until my memory goes.

29

Dick Fitzgerald 10.11.04 at 5:23 am

Brad De Long, on the historical 20th cen. left, is such a mindless anticommunist we’d all be better off if he’d just avoid the whole general subject. When Paul Sweezy died, De Long’s obit. was nothing but a screed, like something Carl Rove would cook up.

30

Doug Muir 10.11.04 at 7:00 am

This misses the sense in which Chris (and others) might very fairly regard Achilles (and Guevara) as heroes, despite their very evident personality flaws, or indeed because of them.

Isn’t this something of a red herring, though? At least WRT Che?

In the case of Achilles, okay, our modern problem with him is indeed “personality flaws” — he’s an arrogant, hot-tempered, stubborn, selfish brute. Quite different from Hector, the (relatively) decent and mild-mannered family man.

In the case of Che, though, the issue is not — or not just — his personality. It’s the cause he served. Not trying to start a right vs. left punchup, just saying. Consider: suppose Che had been born 20 years earlier and had followed a similar career arc, but as an anti-fascist resistance fighter in Occupied Europe? With his last stand coming before a German drumhead firing squad in 1945? We’d call him a hero without a moment’s reservation, just as we call Schindler and Wallenberg heroes without dwelling long on their (large and obvious) personality flaws.

On t’other hand, you could amend Che’s personality, make him a saint complete in every particular, but if he was still a violent Communist who went about fomenting revolution, a lot of us would still view him rather askance.

So I think the analogy to Achilles is a bit misleading, or at least incomplete.

That’s a fairly large difference between us and the Greeks — we place a much larger value on the morality, or lack therof, of a cause. As Mary Renault observed a while back, Christianity and Islam have permanently changed the moral reflexes of the world; to some extent, we’ve all internalized the doctrine of a just war, even if we explicitly reject it.

Doug M.

31

Keith M Ellis 10.11.04 at 10:47 am

Can someone tell me that this whole argument isn’t (mostly) a bunch of misunderstandings surrounding an unintentional equivocation? And can someone tell me how a group of professors got themselves into this mess? Because this isn’t the sort of error I would expect from this crowd.

On De Long’s blog and here I’ve seen a variety of correct definitions assumed for hero. Since we’re writing English, what would happen if someone pulled from the OED the various definitions and connotations of the word “hero” and, for each, guessed at how we suspect Homer/Greeks would evaluate Achilles and Hector in its regard and then contrast with the similar modern evaluation? I suspect there’d be a lot less argument and a lot more agreement; and, in most particular cases, the ancients and moderns would also probably be in accord.

In other words, the very specific argument here is a waste of time.

On the other hand, as I wrote in Brad’s blog, it’s not a waste of time to argue about what’s more admirable: being, to a fault, an idealistic dreamer who aspires to some lofty goal; or being someone who practically improves the lives of others? Or, hell, many other ideas for “admirable” are possible, of course.

And then the argument: is Che Guevera admirable? Should he be? See previous question, of course.

But, please, especially let’s leave Homer out of it unless we are willing to be very disciplined about our use of language.

32

bob mcmanus 10.11.04 at 12:00 pm

“In other words, the very specific argument here is a waste of time.”

Well, is it. As Doug cites Renault,
have we internalized the lesson of the Greeks and the solution provided in universal morality?

1) Hobbes took a look around him, translated Thucydides, and said nope, internalization didn’t work.

2) Strikes me that much of the argument about Che is that both DeLong and Lapiote are saying don’t be messing with that internalization process. Anything that fragile after 2500 years of effort ain’t all that internalized.
And of course the people making the movie have an ultimate purpose not so different than the ones who criticize it.

3) Slap me down hard if I need it. But I look at Bush saying the Iraq war is ok because me and mine (Bush & his allies) have internalized the good stuff of Christianity and Islam and our opponents haven’t and I have my doubts about the whole internalization project.

33

liberal japonicus 10.11.04 at 12:54 pm

From HD Kitto from the earlier cite I gave
“What moves the Greek warrior to deeds of heroism is not a sense of duty as we understand it…duty towards others: it is rather duty towards himself. He strives after that which we translate `virtue’ but is in Greek areté, `excellence’ — we shall have much to say about areté. It runs through Greek life.”

I don’t know what the current Homeric scholarship is, but I find it hard to believe that it is now accepted that the Greeks were just the same as us and that ‘hero’ would have the same connotations.

Here’s what Christopher Logue, who has done an absolutely brilliant rendition of Homer, points out:
“Even though it owes its life to ridicule or to the power of bad taste, any poem that servives outside literary circles for more than one generation is noteworthy.
For a poem of over 15,000 lines representing an age as remote from its own as it is from ours to survive the collapse of, not just one society (a serious critical test that no poem in English has, as yet, to pass), but two, could easily mean that those who have kept it alive are mad.”

Chris’s original point was how do we portray the protagonist (I was taught that we don’t use the word hero in order to avoid the kind of debate we are having now) and mentioned Achilles, Lenin and Alexander. Henry picks up the thread and concentrates on Achilles. It is IMO a worthwhile point to try and understand why we are able to, in some form or fashion, put such people on a pedestal. It’s fascinating to think that some may think this only happens on the left, when the right has as many heroes who are held up for emulation (and in fact, one of the biggest complaints against history as it is now done seems to be that either the ‘heroes’ such as Robert E. Lee are either ignored or are subject to such critical scrutiny that they are undermined)

Brad suggests that no one thinks of Achilles as a hero, but is that really true? Petulant, sulking, bullying, yes, but look at any larger than life sports figure and you see the same mix of qualities. (Botham? Maradonna? Michael Jordan?) Coupled with that peerless ability and that childish temperament, what Achilles has is an understanding of his fate that colors all his actions. Here’s the last bit from Logue’s War Music

The chariot’s basket dips. The whip
Fires in between the horse’s ears.
And as in dreams, or at Cape kennedy, they rise.
Slowly it seems, their chests like royals, yet
Behind them in a dobule plume the sand curls up,
Is barely dented by their flying hooves,
And wheels that barely touch the world,
And the wind slams shut behind them.

“Fast as you are,” Achilles says,
“When twilight makes the armistice,
Take care you don’t leave me behind
As you left my Patroclus.”

And as it ran the white horse turned its tall face back
And said
“Prince.
This time we will, this time we can, but this time cannot last.
And when we leave you, not for dead, but dead,
God will not call us negligent as you have done”

And Achilles, shaken, says:
“I know I will not make old bones.”

And laid his scorge against their racing flanks.

Someone has left a spear stuck in the sand.

34

Keith Ellis 10.11.04 at 2:06 pm

Regarding “liberal japonicus’s” previous comment…I honestly and earnestly believe that it is as absurd to take an extreme culturally relativist position as it is to take an extreme culturally absolutist position. Clearly, the sense in which Achilles was “heroic” to the Greeks is quite different from the sense that Brad De Long thinks of Hector as “heroic”.

…But even so, the virtues that De Long sees as “heroic” in Hector are virtues that Homer and the Greeks clearly admired, as well.(1) There is a very real sense in which the classic notion of virtue and the modern notion of virtue intersect. It is quite clear that Homer and the Greeks regarded Hector in a very positive and sympathetic light. Would they describe Hector as “heroic”? Actually, Homer does, doesn’t he?

So, to Bob McManus’s comment, I do think the specific argument about whether Achilles is “really” a hero or not is a non-argument that results from a failure to well-define “hero”. I think that Homer would agree with Brad that Hector was virtuous and admirable in a way that Achilles was not. And I know, because Brad has written it, that he agrees there’s a sense in which Achilles is “heroic” and, perhaps, admirable, in a way in which Hector is not.

So the argument is not whether one can properly say that Homer or even Che is “heroic”. Even restricted to strictly either the classic or modern context, the term “heroic” is just too damn ambiguous.

More than anything else, the real argument here is about whether Che—and to a degree similarly Achilles—is admirable, someone that should be emulated.

And, as I asserted on Brad’s blog, that argument is essentially an argument of idealism versus pragmatism. The Greeks were idealists, excellence—even excellence in murder—is necessarily a virtue because excellence approaches the ideal.

Similarly, we have the related modern romantic notion of the principled dreamer. That is the romanticized view of Guevara De Long is critical of (2). He’s not critical of the assertion that Che was a principled dreamer; he’s critical of the assertion that to be such a principled dreamer is, alone, sufficient to be admirable. Indeed, he’s making a stronger argument, and that is that to admire such a principled dreamer outside the context of his/her actions is morally perverse.

People—people here—disagree. That’s fine. But can we not keep the argument confined to that disagreement and not muddy the waters with the ambiguity of “heroism” compounded with the ambiguity of “heroism” in a culturally relativistic context?

Are Chris and Henry both polisci people and not analytical philosophers, as I think at least Brian (IIRC) is? I ask because I would expect some of the timberites like Brian, at least, to avoid this kind of sloppy equivocation. Honestly, I expect more of Brad and Chris and Henry, but at least it’s not their profession to be extremely rigorous with their use of language. Even so, I am certain that all three are quite aware of how important it is to do so.

1 See “Hector’s” thoughtful and amusing comment in De Long’s second post on this subject for a nice presentation of this position. And a criticism of De Long’s overstatement.

2 At the risk of speaking for Brad De Long, which I shouldn’t; and I apologize to him in advance if I mispresent his position.

35

liberal japonicus 10.11.04 at 3:24 pm

Though I read Brad’s 1st post, I didn’t read the comments. I am probably violating some thread comment etiquette here, but Keith, when you say “More than anything else, the real argument here is about whether Che—and to a degree similarly Achilles—is admirable, someone that should be emulated,” Chris has specifically refuted that when he wrote in Brad’s comments “the point of my post over at CT was not to say that I wished to have their character, but rather to say that a certain type of commentary (the Thersites/Berman type) is wholly inadequate to capture what is humanly important about these people and their projects.” I don’t think that Chris is romanticizing Guevera, I think he is just thinking how does one portray him. To invert that notion a bit, how has Jesus been portrayed and have those portrayals been successful?

I missed Brad’s second post, pushed down as it was by the rolecall of the shrill, (and thanks for directing me to the Hector comment!) and there’s far too much to respond to in there. But I think (unless I missed it) that no one noted that Hector was the enemy, the non-Greek. Yes, there is something (as you pointed out) ugly about Achilles, but there is also something ugly about Helen (I think in the Teichoscopia, where we also have the first time that someone ugly (Odysesseus) can be eloquent). But one of Homer’s stunning achievements is to create an ‘enemy’ who is as worthy and noble as the obstensible ‘good guys’ (Something we still quite don’t have the hang of)

FWIW, I still disagree with the notion that we have a set catalogue of ‘heroic qualities’ that we must find in those who we affix the label of heroic. We often recognize obstinancy and refusal to change as heroic qualities. We also often recognize a refusal to compromise and a desire for utopic visions as heroic. To then add that we have to adjudge their objectives to determine those objectives are also “heroic” seems to dilute the word beyond recognition.

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Keith M Ellis 10.11.04 at 4:21 pm

But didn’t Chris attack the Slate author’s criticism of Che on the basis of the Iliad and its conception of “heroic”? That seems to me to be an example of this equivocation. I didn’t read the Slate article, so I don’t know if the Slate author was the person who originally brought Homer into the argument.

It seems to me to be pretty clear that mostly, though not entirely, Brad and the CT folks are talking about different things. And to the degree to which they are talking about the same thing, it’s precisely the degree to which the argument is about how appropriate it is to say that Achilles and Che are admirable and people who should be emulated. And that, I submit, is not in any sense an argument about Homer. Sure, it may be an argument about notions of virtue that in some sense correspond to the Greeks’ arete—but you don’t need to confuse the issue by moving to a different cultural context to make the point that, basically, idealized, romantic qualities are often admired, even if their expression results in tragedy, ungliness, and despair. One side says they shouldn’t be admired, another side says they should. Okay, fine, let’s talk about that then. Not Homer.

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Ty Lookwell 10.12.04 at 8:50 am

God, one of my favorite Gene Wolfe stories. Nice. I miss the Gene Wolfe who wrote that wonderful tale, and the first 4 books of the New Sun.
His modern writing is much more airy and lyrical.

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james 10.12.04 at 6:54 pm

The purposeful confusing of Che as a Hero, in any sense of the word, coupled with the complete refusal to correct this in a straight forward manner, leads to the natural conclusion that the author views Che as a hero worthy of imitation.

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valMichael 10.12.04 at 7:07 pm

Achilles was a coward. He knew that he couldn’t be hurt or killed as long as he kept his sole weakness secret. Then he goes to pick fights with others? That is being both a bully and a coward in his actions and his outlook.

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mona 10.13.04 at 5:56 pm

The purposeful confusing of Che as a Hero, in any sense of the word…

Pause ||

A hero in the ancient Greek tragic epic sense is very different from any moralistic or hollywood notion of hero as “someone you should imitate”. It’s two completely diferent definitions of hero. If someone’s made it clear they are talking about the former, you can’t drag it into the latter only because you’re more used to that meaning.

The question is, if Che Guevara is heroic in that former epic sense at all. I think it’s a third meaning that’s more associated to his iconography, the hero as modern legend, charismatic leader, rockstar, icon, which is after all how he has come to be known to younger generations, and that’s probably the notion the film appeals to.

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