When I read about Joe Paterno’s passing this weekend — on two separate occasions, strangely — I found it impossible to separate the coaching legend of so many decades from the sexual abuse scandal of recent memory. For good or ill, one event or choice can fundamentally alter public perception of a person’s life and legacy.
Indeed, this is a central element of the book project on classical heroism that I just finished. The image of ourselves that we want to present to the world isn’t necessarily the one that will actually be presented or accepted, especially if there is some sort of anomalous behavior that doesn’t fit with that image. At bottom, there are only so many decisions we can make in a short lifetime, which is why each decision we make matters a great deal.
Now, it’s almost certainly the case that few people will be able to line up every single decision and say, “Everything you see here tells one complete, clear, and consistent story about me.” But it’s so important to think critically about what we do and say because of the basic fact of our existence. As Shakespeare (5.5.27-29) pointed out, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more.” Macbeth, into whose mouth Shakespeare puts these words, is nearing his own death and is correct that the most basic fact about human beings is that their lives are brief.
But he is wrong about the very next line that he utters, for life is not necessarily “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (5.5.29-31). Macbeth might be somewhat consoled by this conclusion; he has done terrible things to others in his pursuit of power so that his life has turned out to be one that has been lived badly. But each life, however brief, can have great significance if lived well. As Janusz Korczak wrote, “The lives of great men are like legends – difficult but beautiful.”
That the best lives are filled with hardships whose navigation or endurance contributes substantially to their virtue is an idea that runs throughout the stories handed down to us from the Greeks. This is why we continue to find these stories so compelling. And it’s also the reason why we still find the lives of contemporary moral heroes to be so compelling: These are people who assign more weight to living a good life than they do to living a long life and who, as a result, end up risking more than most other people.
In no small part, they do this because they understand the stakes.
If we cling to the false hope that we might somehow stretch out our lives, we fail to recognize the finitude of our choices and thus we fail to imbue each decision or action with the importance that it rightly ought to have. When human beings face the fact of their mortality, when they give up all hope for continued existence, then they are able to think most clearly about the sort of life they want to have lived. It is only in doing so that morally heroic action becomes a possibility.