BMCR 2001.01.05

Heroism and the Christian Life: Reclaiming Excellence

, , Heroism and the Christian life : reclaiming excellence. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000. 253 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0664258123 $23.95.

Hook and Reno concisely present various visions of the heroic life, as seen in the works of Homer, Virgil, Plato, the Gospels, the letters of Paul and early Christians, Spenser, Milton, Albert Camus, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This book is not a monograph written exclusively for an audience of classical scholars, nor is their work simply a piece of literary criticism or Biblical exegesis. Rather, their stated purpose is apologetic in the sense of offering readings of various visions of the heroic life in order to reclaim the life of excellence in a postmodern democratic culture. Thus, their book can be compared to other works of American moralistes who draw on classical and literary studies to remind American citizens that one can have too much of a good thing and to prevent democracy from succumbing to its own characteristic vices.

Their argument is twofold. First, in providing a defense of the heroic ideal within a postmodern and democratic culture that has an impoverished view of that ideal, they also argue that the heroic ideal is problematic and paradoxical. They wish to bring the heroic ideal to public attention, but they also wish to illuminate its inner tensions and deficiencies. Second, they argue that the Christian account of heroism is the most satisfactory one, and one can understand their book as a response to Nietzsche’s claim that Christianity is a life-denying slave-morality: “Our purpose is apologetic. We want our readers to grasp the distinctive form of Christian heroism, the form that so agitated Nietzsche because he saw it so clearly. We wish to study heroism, in these various texts, so that both we and our readers can see self-denial as a form of human excellence” (9).

Their case for heroism is built upon considering three motifs, recognition, imitation, and participation, within the literature of heroism, and showing how various heroic exemplars fulfil these motifs. Heroic excellence must be recognized by its surrounding community; heroism evokes the desire to imitate it; and heroism poses problems of how others can participate within its glory. These motifs are not problems to be solved, and one will not find “recognition passages” or “participation passages” and so forth; rather they are “foci”, as the authors term them, that “mark a differentiation of readerly sensitivity” (95). For Reno and Hook, classical literature trains the modern ear to hear Christian heroism.

In building their case, they apply these motifs in their studies of Achilles, Socrates, and Aeneas, and show how each tends to fulfil one or two of these motifs, but fails to fulfil a second or third. For example, while Achilles’ manliness fits somewhat into Greek cultural views of heroism, they point out that his greatness actually transcends the communal frame of reference, leaving him alone and unrecognized (except perhaps by Priam). None of the other heroes can fulfil Achilles’ desire for recognition and nothing in the economy of gifts and praises in that culture can satisfy him. Thus, Achilles describes himself to Priam as παναώριος, “completely out of season” (24.540), which refers both to his impending death and to his utter heroic singularity that lies beyond the scope of the cultural frame of reference. Ironically, however, Achilles is more recognizable to us, at least superficially, because our individualism makes us relatively predisposed to recognize the tragedy that lack of recognition engenders, and also flatters our own belief that we too are out of season.

If Achilles fails to receive recognition, Socrates’ irony makes him problematic to imitate. His heroism, like that of Achilles (to whom Socrates likes to compare himself), is overflowing but can be recognized (despite Alcibiades’ complaints that he cannot understand him) because Socrates’ greatness does not (at least) blatantly overstep the Athenian frame of reference for greatness. Yet, his greatness is elusive because it is ironically hidden in ordinariness, as when he speaks about tanners and cobblers. It is this elusiveness that makes Socrates difficult to imitate, despite the fact that his attractiveness produced legions of admirers and imitators. Socrates’ ordinariness, in contrast to Achilles’ extraordinariness, makes him more recognizable. However, Socrates’ irony makes his heroism nontragic, which makes him difficult to imitate, but one could add that also makes his heroism difficult to recognize.

In terms of the three motifs, Aeneas’ heroism is almost the reverse of Achilles’ and Socrates’ because Aeneas’ heroism serves Rome; he struggles to fit into the vision of heroism of Rome, unlike Achilles and Socrates who spill over the bounds of their respective frames. Aeneas’ heroism is defined by his obedience to Jupiter and to his seeking his destiny, whereas Achilles’ heroism includes his struggle with his destiny. Yet, despite the problems of recognizing Achilles, the authors argue that we as readers paradoxically feel closer to Achilles than to Aeneas because Achilles’ dissatisfaction is more familiar to us than is Aeneas’ identification of himself with his destiny and Rome: “Our sense of Aeneas’s alienation from the human condition is neither a ‘modern’ nor a ‘Christian’ response… For Virgil’s goal is to bring us to consider a greatness that is not essentially tragic, to consider a heroism in which the man does not exceed the measure, but rather, participates in a greatness that we can recognize and glorify” (87). Yet, Virgil’s heroism is one that emphasizes participation over recognition and imitation and eventually subsumes them: “imitation becomes legacy; recognition becomes citizenship” (88).

Classical heroism suffers from a degree of incoherence and irresolvable tensions: being capable of receiving recognition might hinder imitation and participation, or having imitators does not necessarily mean that they properly recognize you, and so forth. The authors argue that only the life of Jesus, as set out particularly in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, can resolve those inner tensions. This is not to say they offer a Hegelian or Christian scheme about the “development” of heroism from Achilles to Jesus. They mostly succeed in treating these documents on their own and the authors as they understood themselves. Just because, in their reading, the life of Jesus offers a more differentiated account of heroism than the others does not “sublate” the classical models (93). As their interpretive strategy shows, the classical models offer insight into the real tensions of heroism that the life of Jesus resolves in one sense but covers up in another sense. As their treatment of Jesus shows, the Gospels resolve the inner tensions of classical heroism only to reintroduce them in a new and even heightened form in the model of the Christian hero.

Only in the Gospel account of Christ do the motifs of recognition, imitation, and participation stick together, but, by doing so, they show Christ as “above heroic”, to use Milton’s phrase (96). The Gospel of Matthew, whose narrative emphasizes participation while combining it with recognition and imitation, shows how Christ does more than teach about holy things and perform wonders: “[h]e is joined to the eternal purposes of God in the very particularity of his life” (96). Christ is particular like Achilles but joined to eternal purposes like Aeneas. In fact, he is not so much joined as he is the author of his destiny: “The man fits the role because he writes the script” (103). Jesus is “above heroic” because he is singular and he constitutes the frame of reference for heroism. His singularity and the fact that he constitutes the frame of reference solves the classical tensions of heroism, but it also heightens those tensions because the authors point out that the reader is no longer faced with the problem of understanding or imitating the hero. Rather, the reader is faced simply with either accepting or rejecting the hero’s claim of his achievement. Either Jesus is singular and constitutes the frame of reference or he does not. Raising the problem of recognizing, imitating, and participating within the ideal of heroism to a matter of acceptance or rejection solves some problems but introduces a whole new set of problems.

If Matthew limns the motif of participation, then Mark limns the motif of recognition, while preserving the unity of imitation and participation. The authors’ discussion of the Gospel of Mark (103-16), which marks the thematic and physical center of the book, is its strongest section, and it alone is worth the price of the book. If Matthew shows Christ writing the script of heroism, then Mark shows how this script both “conceals and reveals” heroism, despite what first appears as an uncomplicated presentation of his greatness. In the narrative, “moments when we think we see greatness—a man who has the power to heal, cleanse, and even raise the dead to life—the text presents as moments of blindness. Moments when we cannot see greatness—the dead man on the cross—the text presents as the ultimate moment of clear vision” (105). Discussing textual examples such as the demons who knew (i.e., “recognized”) Christ but did not love him, his interaction with the crowds, and the meaning of the name, Barabbas (meaning “son of the father”), the authors argue that Mark brings “readers to see within the blindness narrated in the text” (106). Like the classical texts that offer both an exemplar of heroism and a sentimental education that enables readers to participate imaginatively within the drama, the effect of Mark’s intra-textual dynamic is to draw the reader into the narrative. However, Mark resolves the tensions in the classical heroic ideal by subsuming the reader within the text’s concealments and revelations: “Everything must be read and reread and reread, for every seeing conceals a blindness, and every blindness a seeing. If we see how the text functions, then we can never look away” (109). Yet, this intra-textual dynamic does not simply resolve the problem of recognizing the heroic pattern but raises the problem of recognition to a new plane because now the problem is not one of knowing or not knowing heroism. Rather, because the hero writes the script for the heroic ideal, or absorbs the frame of reference rather than simply fulfilling it (Aeneas) or receding from it (Socrates), and the reader participates in this new script, the problem of recognition becomes one simply of choosing to accept or reject the hero. As evidence, the authors point to the simplicity of the centurion’s recognition of Christ as the embodiment of recognition. Further, recognition takes the form, not simply of honor and admiration, but of worship and obedience (115). The Gospels fulfil and transcend the classical heroic pattern by identifying the hero with his purposes and by providing the community with a way to recognize the hero in such a way as to absorb the readers into the posited frame of reference.

The rest of the book dwells on Paul’s exegesis of the proper imitation of this heroism, which the authors summarize as “not I, but Christ in me.” Nietzsche regarded the self-sacrifice inherent in this formulation as life-denying, but the authors’ discussions of Paul, Antony, Augustine, Spenser, and Milton indicate that it is anything but.

The authors have provided a compelling reading of the interplay among the motifs of recognition, participation, and imitation in the texts that they present. Their careful selection of passages is impressive, and their interpretations of those passages are convincing and often produce unexpected results. Their choice of themes and careful attention to nuance in their discussions of classical heroism, and in their treatment of the Gospels, reminds the reader of Robert Sokolowski’s careful treatment of the transition of natural to theological virtue in his The God of Faith and Reason (Notre Dame, 1982). Because the book is intended for a broader audience than academic specialists, those specialists will undoubtedly find this book’s paucity of references to secondary sources a weakness. Despite this, its strengths lie in its precise limning of the problems surrounding heroic excellence, and in explicating those problems in the texts that they choose for the modern reader.

However, their categories (or motifs) of analysis and their choice of texts point to the book’s weaknesses. While the authors expressly admit that these motifs are provisional, their analysis obscures the fact that they are unequal in the sense that participation and imitation depend on recognition and that difficulties in the former are the result of the community being incapable of recognizing its hero. This difficulty arises most explicitly in their treatment of Socrates: his followers, perhaps especially Alcibiades, had difficulty imitating him because they could not understand him. Socratic irony makes Socrates so difficult to recognize. While the authors provide sensible comments about Alcibiades’ comparison of Socrates to a Silenus statue, the fact remains that that figure represents the problem of recognizing Socrates, not so much that of imitating him. One might also question the authors’ choice of texts. While focusing on classical heroism is an excellent way to sensitize modern ears to Christian heroism, it is strange that their book lacks analysis of Old Testament heroic ideals. One cannot understand Christ without understanding the suffering servant figures in these texts.

The success of the authors’ efforts as moralistes depends on whether their response to Nietzsche is convincing, and whether one is convinced of their account of participation within the singularity of Jesus and the frame of reference he constitutes, whether self-abandonment is a compelling ethic in our culture. However, their analysis shows that the problems of recognition make imitation and participation difficult in all cultures, and their rhetorical mode of illuminating the reader’s participation within the text shows that whether one finds the heroic ideal compelling depends as much on sentiment as it does on being intellectually persuaded.