15 The Limits of Heroism: One is Punished for Stubbornly Defending a Fort Without Good Reason

After making a philosophical case for a heroic outlook in life, Montaigne takes a step back here and examines limits to heroism. This is a pattern he’ll follow throughout the essays, always wanting to moderate a position that could come across as too strong. He also follows up a very long essay with a very short one. It’s a very pleasing style, one that brings to mind Malcolm Lowry in “Under the Volcano.” To give you an idea of what I mean, take a look at these two consecutive sentences from Lowry:

The shattered evil-smelling chapel, overgrown with weeds, the crumbling walls, splashed with urine, on which scorpions lurked – wrecked entablature, sad archivolt, slippery stones covered with excreta – this place, where love had once brooded, seemed part of a nightmare. And Laruelle was tired of nightmares.

Notice the ‘and’ that starts the second sentence. Lowry could have stretched his long thought into one sentence by replacing the period with a comma. But he achieves both beauty and power by dividing the thought in two. Montaigne does the same by following his long neo-Stoic chapter about the heroic worldview with this short follow up on heroism’s limits. He begins with this:

Like all other virtues valour has its limits: overstep them, and you tread the path of vice; consequently a man may go right through the dwelling-place of valour into rashness, stubbornness and madness if he does not know where those boundaries lie: yet at their margins they are not easy to pick out

Political discourse today is all about the rashness, stubbornness and madness that Montaigne decries here. An example this week concerns a debate that has broken out between pundits left and right about the recent spike in food prices around the globe. The thesis, first advanced by Paul Krugman in a New York Times column on Monday, is that the huge increases in the prices of wheat, corn, sugar and oils so far this year have helped fuel political instability, perhaps touching off the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. So far so good … but next Krugman blames the price increases on global warming. And, as you might expect, that set off a heated response from the conservative blogosphere, both in attempt to debunk Krugman’s global warming thesis and to blame Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke for creating the food crisis by dumping so much liquidity into the global financial markets.

So somewhere on the way to an interesting, perhaps useful discussion about the price of food, political instability and what could be done to alleviate these global risks, a predictable food fight erupted along ideological lines. And what’s most distressing about both the Krugman hypothesis and the counter-arguments is that, if true, there’s virtually nothing we can do.

If Krugman is right that global warming has progressed significantly enough to cause food-supply disrupting droughts now, then we’ve run out of time to find global public policy solutions to this crisis, it’s already upon us. True, we may still have time to take global action to ameliorate the crisis, but who’s kidding who … we can’t even find political consensus in the U.S. to adopt modest ideas like cap-and-trade. If Krugman believes that the crisis is at hand, he should be offering us ways to manage it. Instead, he picked a fight and cast blame.

And his critics eagerly joined in by casting the blame on Bernanke. If his Quantitative Easing strategy is already touching off global commodities speculation, driving up the cost of food, likewise there’s very little we can do to stop it at this point. The only solution the right is offering is total political capitulation from the left … which matches nicely with the total capitulation from the right necessary to force through meaningful climate change legislation.

This is what has become of American politics – ever issue turns into a definition war, a new opportunity to determine who is to blame for the current crisis we’re in. Today’s is the Food-Pocalypse. Tomorrow, who knows … but you can bet that the end result will be a lot of finger pointing, unrealistic political options and a continued sense that our democracy is adrift.

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