Some positive features in our characters can lie dormant for long periods of time, awaiting the right opportunity to make themselves known. Even bad men can have positive qualities that manifest themselves only under extreme duress.
I have always thought that pressure reveals the man. This has been my experience. And you never really could tell who would rise to the challenge, and who would not. Appearances in this regard can be very deceiving.
The muscled, steroid-addled braggart may turn out to be less than capable under pressure. And sometimes the mild-looking, reticent fellow can astonish with incredible displays of endurance.
And vice-versa. You never can quite tell.
Certain liquids and solids, we know from chemistry, break down into their constituents when subjected to the right combination of external forces.
In Plutarch’s Life of Antony (Ant. 17), he notes that
It is a common experience for men who are brought down by some overpowering catastrophe to understand what virtue is, but it is rare for people to find the strength to emulate the qualities they admire and to rid themselves of the vices they condemn. On the contrary, many people become so discouraged by adversity that they give way to their accustomed habits all the more and allow their judgment to collapse.
At any rate, on this occasion Antony set a wonderful example to his soldiers. In spite of all the luxury and extravagance of his recent life, he could bring himself without difficulty to drink foul water and eat wild fruits and roots. And during the crossing of the Alps, we are told, the army was reduced even to devouring the bark of trees and creatures that no one had ever tasted before.
So adversity can bring out the best in us. But it can also bring out the worst. Which of these sides has the final say is the ultimate judge of our character’s worth.
In the 1997 film The Edge, there is a scene where Anthony Hopkins tells one of the other characters that when he finally gets out of his present situation (of being stranded in the wilderness), he would “start his life over.” He resolves to do just this, but goes on to reflect that he has never actually known anyone who was able to pull off this feat: that is, starting one’s life over again.
It is a good point, when you think about it. It isn’t easy to break out of our old habits. A thousand memories, habits, ruts, grooves, and channels all force us along certain pre-excavated canals. I would imagine that really to start one’s life over again would take a supreme act of will. Or it might take some severe trauma that jars the brain out of its old thinking patterns, and enacts a new set of paradigms.
Necessity can be a powerful stimulus to change. One of the first European writers to attempt to make a living by writing was Christine de Pizan (1364-1430). Before her, writers earned a living from a separate occupation or appointment, and wrote without expectation of much monetary recompense.
She is not widely know today, but her story is impressive. Widowed at a young age, she was forced to try to earn a living by her pen. She had to find a way to support her children and mother.
So she turned to what she knew best: writing. She had always been well-read and erudite. So she began to turn out little treatises in the form of advice to courtly ladies, kings, prostitutes, military men, and counselors. Some of her books are impressive achievements for a writer of any era.
One of the them, The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry, is remarkable in that it is a practical manual of military advice to commanders written by a woman with no direct experience in such matters.
Her books are fascinating windows on a value system that we are in dire need of today. Women need role models and exemplars just as much as men do. But the choices of “role models” that are presented to women and girls today are of mostly dubious value, if not outright harmful, to feminine development.
In the world of Christine de Pizan, the values that women should cultivate are the classical virtues: loyalty, endurance, strength of character, thrift, modesty, and patriotism.
One finds the same value system in another great book of feminine virtues: Giovanni Boccaccio’s On Famous Women (De Mulieribus Claris). It is a fascinating digest of stories about famous women, both real and legendary. What matters here is the value system, not really the biographies themselves. Boccaccio is trying to paint a picture of the ideal feminine virtues.
And they are the same virtues found in Christine de Pizan. A female reader recently emailed me, asking if I thought women needed goals and role models as much as men.
My answer was: of course they do. Why would they not? But we must pick our exemplars, our role models, very carefully. And we must be willing to turn our back on the corrupt “role models” that are being placed before us by the mass media culture today.
One can say that much of Christine’s books are not “original,” in that they paraphrase some works of classical antiquity (especially Vegetius, in her writings on warfare).
Yet this does not diminish her achievement. Very little in the literary world is “original,” except arrangement.
She knew how to synthesize and condense what classical authors had written, and how to put this wisdom in language that her contemporaries could understand. She was one of the first persons to earn a living by writing, a distinction she perhaps can share with the scholar Erasmus.
This in itself is an achievement.
It is an example of duress bringing out the best in a person.
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