April 8, 2017
WHAT IS the will to victory? In a warrior or in an artist, what is this will?
We may safely begin with what it is not. It is not will to destruction, will to cruelty. Though atimes it may include such, it need not, simple proof of which is in the fact that both the mightiest warriors and the best artists take none but great and exemplary enemies, rather than selecting the weak and the vulnerable as their foes. No warrior of quality goes about, wantonly smashing and slaying. Indeed, anyone who did such would certainly be regarded with a suspicious eye, and it is likely he would fail to attain that historical regard which is among the high rewards for his striving.
And yet, the artist does destroy, the warrior does slay—destroys past models and images, slays those who threaten what is his, his goods, his kingdom, his family, his people, his preeminence. In both cases, the aim is not abasement, but glorification; not bringing down the other, but exalting the self. This is why such men seek out not any enemy, but the enemy, the highest enemy they may, in firm belief that it is more glorious to fall before dragons than to rise before swine, and that there is a kind of victory, if imperfect, in perishing at worthy hands.
The will to victory is not avarice—the lust for treasures, for gold. The warrior ethos is a generous ethos, which historically has given more than ever it has taken, and knows how to perfect itself through munificence and the lost art of gift-giving. The artist as well: his soul is full and overfull; he bestows as he plies his art. There has even been an historical tendency toward poverty on the part of warriors and artists alike, which belies all greedy seeking of pilf and plunder. Even when such men desire riches, it is common that they seek only those treasures which are well-merited and rare.
In the same way, the will to victory is not a longing after mere honors and the recognition of potentates. Honors can be bestowed on dishonorable men as soon as honorable ones. The dishonorable man takes honors as a sign of honor; he is content with appearance and public perception. The warrior and the artist do not rest content with so little, but want, not the sign of honor, but the content of it, even if this should bring with it public shame and the scorn of the powerful.
The will to victory is neither the will to defeat one’s opponent at any cost and by any means, even if this include treachery and sneakery. Beowulf determined to defeat Grendel without the use even of arms; Sophocles’ Ajax was suspicious of Odysseus’ wile, judging it unbefitting to the warrior; Odysseus himself, in full expression of his native complexity, denounced liars in the Odyssey. Hemingway scorned Faulkner’s prose as employing “tricks”—charge which Faulkner, of course, would have considered an unjust misinterpretation of his style. One’s natural power, one’s naked ability, one’s sincerity—these are the things that really count.
It is worth noting that even the great weapons of the ancient warrior tradition support, rather than complicate, this fundamental point: these were days long before the perverse modern obsession with technology as an equalizing force. It is a relatively modern phenomenon that, for example, an army of excellent warriors might be overtaken by an army of fewer and lesser enemies endowed with merely technological superiority, and this might be regarded as a true victory. Though certainly such things happened in the warrior tradition, as well, it was not thought to be anything to be vaunted. Rather, the classic conception of force and weaponry is embodied in the old tradition of chivalry. Common conceit in the old tales has it that a battle between two armies is effectively settled in the meeting of two great men amidst the fray—or, even more clearly, is determined even before the joining of arms, in a single duel between two preeminent warriors. The same kind of spirit regulated the very idea of weaponry. Beowulf defeats Grendel’s mother with a sword only a great man might wield. The bow of Odysseus, greatest arm of its kind, cannot even be strung by the best of the suitors. Excaliber cannot be drawn from its stony scabbard save by the true king. To the warrior tradition, all the best arms were such: they were wrought for the use of a great man, they were an extension and a sign of his greatness.
And might it be objected that these are but tales, but inventions of the poets—then so much the better for our point! For truly, the line between the historic warrior tradition and the artistic tradition do overlap most playfully, so much so that it is difficult if not impossible to disentangle them. There, in that zone wherein they cross and weave, where the warrior cannot exist without the poet, nor the poet without the warrior, there stands what we call the heroic tradition; it is the truest zenith of them both, and marks an intimacy between them which is much to our substance.
What do we perceive in this unification of these two traditions, which do not, at first glance, appear to have anything in common? We perceive nothing but that which governs these traditions, that common motive which guides them both. Even where the warrior shuns the poet, as being a womanish and unwarlike sort; even where the poet shuns the warrior and seeks his hero in a less likely and certainly less martial figure—even here, we perceive both these traditions best in light of the other. The will to victory, be it in the warrior or in the artist, above all is a will to glory.
Glory is a deeply misunderstood concept in our very unchivalric day; it is obscured by the root concepts which guide our view of human societies. We consistently conflate glory with fame, ignoble confusion which reveals the true limitations of our worldview and the contours of its truncated body.
Now, fame is what is sought today by artists, and more often yet its diminutive child, notoriety: for notoriety is even easier to get than fame, and so is a nice goal for a day which tacitly believes every human being to be an artist. It is certainly not the high and sunripened fruit for which our dwarfish artists exert themselves—foremost evidence of which laziness is the modern tendency almost even to conflate innovation in art with “shock value.” Scandal is the cheapest and vulgarest byproduct of true art; only in a day so degenerate as our own could it begin to appear as the principle quality thereof.
Fame, in any epoch you please, is a “democratic” principle; the degree of one’s fame or notoriety is in direct proportion as the number of individuals who know of one’s deeds, and its prime material result is the affluence that dog-like follows it. Its payment is thus in vanity and in wealth; the two principle driving factors of the larger part of democratic life.
Glory is not founded on these precepts; it transcends them, and not only them. Suppose, as test of this, that for a certain great deed, a particular human being became known to all the members of his society, save the basest and most criminal. If knowledge of his deed were extended also to that segment of society, his fame would increase without doubt—but would his glory? It would not; his glory could not be affected by the acquaintance of individuals who are unprepared to differentiate between the low and the high. Fame is the mere knowledge of an event or a human being in as great a number of minds as possible, the quality of these minds be it what it will; but glory, for its implications of virtue and excellence, is but the memory in virtuous minds. Fame is a state of mere celebrity; glory is worthy celebrity.
The most striking and simultaneously the most important difference between fame and glory is in their relation to death. No human being is willing to die to secure fame; this would be as objectively absurd as dying to secure wealth. It may be that some psychologically unbalanced sort every so often breaks this rule—but we are entitled in such a case to speak of mental illness, and a curious inability to judge of cause and effect. Yet the act of glory in its archetypal form is the act of dying gloriously. This again can be seen in the entire warrior tradition up to the present day; even today, the one context in which one is still entitled to speak of glory, apart from certain religious formulae, is in warfare. This is fitting, but it is also an artificial limitation on the notion of glory. Nonetheless its analysis can aid us in the better comprehension of a very unmodern concept.
What has a man got who dies for fame? Nothing, if not less than he had before. Then what has a man got who dies for glory? In the first place, some approximate immortality. He has secured his memory in the minds of worthy men, a memory which outlasts not only the event of his death, but in principle might outlast even the death of any and all particular human beings, for so long as there be society. If his glory is great enough, he has secured a life which is at least as long as that of his tribe, his people, his civilization, and quite possibly longer yet.
One of the fundamental objections to this—one of the objections a man of fame would make—is that there is no worth in this life in memoriam. For if one can no longer sense, feel, perceive, choose, will, decide—is one then any longer really alive?
The answer to be made on behalf of the notion of glory is complicated and delightfully ambiguous. In the first place, glory is like a flame which eats away at all that is infirm, rotten, and ephemeral in this life and in this soul, transmuting all flesh and leaving only the imperishable core. What remains after the fire of glory has passed is therefore worth infinitely more than that which is sacrificed to attain it. Nietzsche in Section 2 of his Uses and Abuses of History for Life employs the same language to describe the great man:
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