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Friday, Dec. 19, 2014

Yes, there are 'Aristocrats'

Thursday, April 26, 2007

"Aristocrat" comes from the Greek aristos, "best."

Who's "best"? In most of history it was defined by heredity. If your parents were "best," so were you, even if you were the most worthless lout on earth.

The modern world rejects this "best," only to replace it with a "worse." The pop culture's "best" are the "rich and famous," most of whom are no better than that titled worthless lout. The entertainment world is known for its cliquish "artiste" types who fancy they have "finer feelings" than the rest of us, and that their thus being "best" entitles them to behave their worst.

After much mulling, I've arrived at a tougher definition.

An aristo, a "best," is one prepared to die.

Die for cause, I mean, of course. But causes are many and varied. A nobody expiring in pain, who conquers death by conquering himself, is an aristo. (And suicide bombers don't count. They're preparing, not for death, but for eternal life, with 72 virgins thrown in.) Leeriness of death, even of mentioning it, is a flaw in our culture. Other cultures, including our own ancestors', faced it headon. They left us their wisdom and advice: Memento mori, remember that you must die (Latin proverb). In the midst of life, we are in death (Book of Common Prayer). Death ... the least of all evils (Bacon). And so on and on.

Lately I watched the rather obscure movie "Flight 93," about the one hijacked 9/11 plane that failed its mission because passengers and crew turned the tables on Allah's nutcases, knowing full well that they would all die in the attempt. And I wondered, was I the only viewer to be reminded of Macaulay's once-famous, stately lines? Then out spake brave Horatius, The Captain of the Gate: "To every man upon this earth Death cometh soon or late. And how can man die better Than facing fearful odds For the ashes of his fathers And the temples of his gods?" Surely even the most cynical modern will concede, if ever there were a band of Horatii, it was they of Flight 93, those few ordinary Americans, strangers to each other, who joined hands and faced fearful odds indeed, and indeed died, for their own "ashes and temples." For the terrorists' target for Flight 93 almost certainly was the White House or the Capitol.

Those were aristocrats, aristos, the best.

As were the women on board, who, as the movie told it, faced their end with predictable emotion but also with nobility, acceptance, and fortitude. Likewise the wives on the ground, in touch with their menfolk by cell phone. When the character I most likened to Horatius long agonizes over the family he'll leave behind (even as did Macaulay's Horatius), but then cries out to his wife, "What shall I do?" she cries back, in her worse anguish, but without hesitation, "Do it!" Mere average wife and mother, she was an aristocrat.

It's no aspersion on the passengers and crew of the other planes, all of whom died as well, that they tried no similar action. Only those on 93 guessed or learned in time that the "hijackers" really were on a suicide mission. And that thus personally they had nothing to lose takes nothing away from their heroism. Many "worsts" or "not-so-goods" would have gone on quaking in their seats, cowed by the terrorists, or by death, for lack of whatever makes a "best." The same idea (an aristo is one prepared to die) was pointed up in another movie recently re-aired: "Glory," the story of the 54th Massachusetts colored regiment all but wiped out in a typical Civil War suicide charge. On the eve, the blacks tell each other, each in his way: We gonna die tomorrow. Then one ends the debate, gives the unanswerable answer: "But we be men, won't we?" Dead men, A yes, but men. Macaulay couldn't have put it better.

Madness? All in vain? That's the modern attitude. Moviegoers probably wondered why the movie was named "Glory," since the world stopped believing in glory come World War I, with its mass slaughter. I recall a Gulf War soldier telling a reporter his warrior's ideal, far from the likes of "death before dishonor," was just to "save his butt."

To my mind, another, older movie offers the perfect comeback. The now-reviled Custer (Errol Flynn), on the eve of Little Big Horn, is palavering with the villainous fort sutler. To hell with that glory stuff, sneers the sutler. Money! That's the thing, that's what counts! "There's one little difference," Custer replies with a smile, lifting his glass in ironic toast.

"You can take the glory with you when you go." Think what you will of glory, you sure as hell can't take the money.

The Prayer Book assures us of that: "We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out." Properly, of course, glory is what we leave behind. "Glory: Praise, honor, or admiration, accorded by common consent; renown" (O.E.D.) Would even a cynic rather leave mere money? "A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches" (Proverbs).

Custer took his glory with him till he became politically incorrect. Horatius's lives yet in Macaulay's lines. And as I see it, those "best" of Flight 93, as likewise those who gave their all at Ft. Wagner, deserve every ounce of "praise, honor, or admiration," glory, we can give them in return. They earned it, and they both took it with them and left it for us.

It's only natural, of course, for the living to want to go on living. Death, above all of the young, always is sad. But there come times when clinging to life is simply contemptible.

We're all dying anyway, from the moment we're born. Remembering this puts life marvelously in perspective. Live, by all means; but "live as if you were to die tomorrow" (Gandhi).