The Human Condition:

When Strength is Weakness – April 21, 2013

Classical farce had a stock character called “Miles Gloriosus,1 or the Boastful Soldier. This is the braggart, the swaggerer, the man with bulging muscles and—in the modern idiom—lots of metal piercings, chains, leather, and tattoos, who dares any man in the room to challenge him and who stares down any man he thinks is a weakling. If there’s a miles gloriosus around, you cannot help but notice him. Being noticed, and reveling in the reaction of the noticers, is his entire modus operandi, not to say his raison d’être.

Miles Gloriosus is not necessarily a good or experienced soldier. Those who have actually gone into the field, endured the hardships and privations of campaign, faced competent enemies who were fully capable of removing them from life, and in consequence may have commended their souls to the God they believe in or cast their lives at hazard with the Fates … they tend to be rather quiet. They know what they’ve seen, done, and achieved. Their worth has been proven. They want to put the trial and its uncertainty behind them. They may carry scars, or maybe a single tattoo to remind them of loyalty to a group that will never disband. They will buy you a beer with one of those tight-lipped smiles that say, “Don’t ask.”

I can’t help thinking of these contrasts in character when remembering the May Day parades of the old Soviets through Red Square, with their echelons of tanks and rocket launchers and marching soldiers. Or the military parade through Beijing on the 50th anniversary of the Communist revolution, where the marchers outnumbered the permitted spectators by maybe a hundred to one. Is this strength? Or a show of desperate weakness and a desire to be thought strong?

Compare those parades with the shows of the militarily strongest nation on the planet, the United States. We may do flyovers of military aircraft and march an honor guard representing the respective service at a funeral. We may march representatives from all the services as a sign of respect at a presidential inauguration. But we leave the tanks and rocket launchers back at the base. And when we celebrate our national day, July 4, we march as citizens in the ranks of our high school band, our veterans group, our service club, our scouting organization, and other civic-minded groups. We celebrate with bunting, balloons, and fireworks—not actual weapons of destruction. We don’t have to show how strong we are, because we’ve proven that strength again and again. We will buy you a lemonade with a grin that says, “Don’t ask.”

I’m writing this post two days after the bombing of the Boston Marathon. At this time, we don’t have a declaration or a reason for the bombs that went off at the finish line. But even if some group or individual were to come forward2 with a doctrine or a demand or a claim of righteousness, I’m not sure there would be any more point to the action than, “See? I can make you bleed. I can make you grieve. I can terrify, horrify, and disgust you.”3

To some minds—whether the calculating, political operative who thinks he uses terror as a weapon or a lever to his ends, or the ingrown, isolated individual who lashes out against his tormentors, his demons, or simply against those he believes are better off than him—this act of blood may seem like strength. It might look like an undeniable and irrefutable statement. But it’s an act of desperate, hopeless weakness.

Those who cannot prove their case or invite the participation of their fellows with facts, logic, and persuasion, in the final act of bitter failure will plant a bomb and sneak off. Those who cannot defend themselves with their wit and grace, or with their fists and courage, in the last gasp of frustration will plant a bomb and sneak off. Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, may have thought he was delivering a scathing indictment of technology, or capitalism, or the bourgeoisie. He was simply declaring his failure of consequence.

Strength is proven not by a single act but by a whole pattern of actions, a lifetime, a response of character to challenge. The strong accept that things will not always go their way. They prepare themselves in mind and body for the fights and struggles and tests of endurance that may be brought to them. They prepare to protect and preserve those people and principles they love and honor. They endure what cannot be changed and change what can no longer be endured. Strength is a response that goes so far and then no farther. Strength does not lash out. The truly strong do not need to draw attention to themselves. And they protect the weak, rather than making tools of them.4

I would have thought this was obvious, as well understood today as it was to the audiences of Old Rome. But apparently we need reminding in every generation about who are the heroes and who the braggarts and cowards.

1. From a play of the same name by Plautus. The character was celebrated in a song of the same name in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

2. As of posting, police have one seriously wounded teenager in custody, and his presumed accomplice—his brother—is dead. Still no reason that we know about has been given for the attack.

3. In this I’m reminded of the character Melkor in the chorus of Iluvatar, from the beginning of the universe according to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. While all the other divine beings are singing together in harmony, Melkor is dissatisfied. He cannot come up with a better song himself, nor outshine them as a soloist; so he disrupts their chorus with the angelic equivalent of squeals, belches, farts, and other rude noises. He thinks he’s making a bold, brave statement, but all he’s saying is, “I can make noise, too.”

4. For more on the obligations of the strong to the weak, see What is Strength? from November 20, 2011.