In The Good Life and Sustaining Life: An Inquiry into Our Great Vexation (in progress), I write,
I have included the figure of the warrior in the schema but not without some reservations since I am not at all sure whether the heroic life is possible in modernity. Many societies have held the aristocrat-warrior in special high regard. Epic heroes such as Alexander the Great and Tamburlaine in Christopher Marlowe’s play Tamburlaine both strove to achieve glory and immortality. And even after the heroic societies were supplanted by more humane civilizations (such as in 5th and 4th C. Athens), the warrior figure was still highly honored. In Plato’s Republic, for example, the guardian figure, who embodies thumos (passion, spiritedness), protects the city-state from its enemies. The guardian stands beside the philosopher-king who rules and the craftsmen, fishermen, and farm workers, all of whom labor to meet everyone’s needs. During the medieval period, the reigning motto was that there were those who pray, those who fought, and those who worked. The clergymen, the arisocrat-knights, and the laborers were all necessary even if the men of the cloth were regarded as the most venerable.
What the warrior shows us is how to be so courageous that death fails to become what is ultimate for us. He is like a metaphysician of life, revealing by example that there is more in or about human life than mere death.
Somehow or other, the concept of the noble has been transposed into our time, yet it now occupies much different milieu. There is still, whether said or unsaid, ideas about the noble thing to do with one’s life. What has been taken, in the modern age, as the noble thing to do? What orientation, I mean? I take it the twin aims of doing what is noble have been (a) the eradication of inequality (the question of injustice) and (b) the eradication of unwanted death (the question of mortality).
Apropos (a), one is put in mind of the plight of the impoverished as one philosophical friend recently pointed out, the civil rights movement in the US, the anti-colonialist struggles in the developing world, the various battles for sovereignty (e.g., Basque separatists), the gay and lesbian movements, women’s suffrage, anti-sex trafficking, the implementation of child labor laws, the improvement of the labor conditions of the working class, etc.
Apropos (b), one is reminded of various scientific breakthroughs such as the polio vaccine, the discovery of antibiotics, the discovery of penicillin, the discovery of anesthetics which made surgery possible, etc. Current research to cure Parkinson’s, cancer, etc., also fall in line.
But what do equality and death have in common? Naturally, both assume that there is a victim either of cruelty (in (a)) or of circumstance (in (b)). So, the project is to end victimization, so far as this is possible. Or to end unnecessary suffering, so far as this is possible.
In sum, to be noble in our time is to greatly, markedly alter the ills stemming from the magnificent cause or causes of one’s time. In our time, the magnificent causes, as I argued, are injustice on the one hand and human mortality on the other. This is why politics, science, and medicine could be called the ‘three noble vocations.’ Politics, science, and medicine are aimed at ending needless suffering.