Quotations about   heroism

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It occurs to me that there is a proper balance between not asking enough of oneself and asking or expecting too much. It may be that I set my sights too high and so repeatedly end a day in depression. Not easy to find the balance, for it one does not have wild dreams of achievement, there is no spur even to get the dishes washed. One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.

May Sarton
May Sarton (1912-1995) Belgian-American poet, novelist, memoirist [pen name of Eleanore Marie Sarton]
Journal of a Solitude, “February 4th” (1973)
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Added on 19-Oct-21 | Last updated 19-Oct-21
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These are times in which a Genious would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. Would Cicero have shone so distinguished an orater, if he had not been roused, kindled and enflamed by the Tyranny of Catiline, Millo, Verres and Mark Anthony. The Habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. All History will convince you of this, and that wisdom and penetration are the fruits of experience, not the Lessons of retirement and leisure. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the Heart, then those qualities which would otherways lay dormant, wake into Life, and form the Character of the Hero and the Statesman.

Abigail Adams (1744-1818) American correspondent, First Lady (1797-1801)
Letter to John Quincy Adams (19 Jan 1780)
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Written when John Quincy was twelve, in Paris with his father for the peace negotiations with Britain.
Added on 9-Jul-21 | Last updated 9-Jul-21
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Life is a tragic mystery. We are pieced and driven by laws we only half understand. We find that the lesson we learn again and again is that of accepting heroic helplessness.

Florida Scott-Maxwell (1883-1979) American-British playwright, author, psychologist
The Measure of My Days (1968)
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Added on 25-Jan-21 | Last updated 25-Jan-21
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Though great in all, thou seem’st averse to lend
Impartial audience to a faithful friend:
To gods and men thy matchless worth is known,
And every art of glorious war thy own;
But in cool thought and counsel to excel,
How widely differs this from warring well!
Content with what the bounteous gods have given,
Seek not alone to engross the gifts of heaven.
To some the powers of bloody war belong,
To some, sweet music, and the charm of song;
To few, and wondrous few, has Jove assigned
A wise, extensive, all-considering mind;
Their guardians these the nations round confess,
And towns and empires for their safety bless.

[Ἕκτορ ἀμήχανός ἐσσι παραρρητοῖσι πιθέσθαι.
οὕνεκά τοι περὶ δῶκε θεὸς πολεμήϊα ἔργα
τοὔνεκα καὶ βουλῇ ἐθέλεις περιίδμεναι ἄλλων:
ἀλλ᾽ οὔ πως ἅμα πάντα δυνήσεαι αὐτὸς ἑλέσθαι.
ἄλλῳ μὲν γὰρ ἔδωκε θεὸς πολεμήϊα ἔργα,
ἄλλῳ δ᾽ ὀρχηστύν, ἑτέρῳ κίθαριν καὶ ἀοιδήν,
ἄλλῳ δ᾽ ἐν στήθεσσι τιθεῖ νόον εὐρύοπα Ζεὺς
ἐσθλόν, τοῦ δέ τε πολλοὶ ἐπαυρίσκοντ᾽ ἄνθρωποι,
καί τε πολέας ἐσάωσε, μάλιστα δὲ καὐτὸς ἀνέγνω.]

Homer (fl. 7th-8th C. BC) Greek author
The Iliad [Ἰλιάς], Book 13, l. 726ff (13.726) (c. 750 BC) [tr. Pope (1715-20)]
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Polydamas, suggesting Hector accept counsel from others. Original Greek. Alt. trans.:

Hector, still impossible ’tis to pass
Good counsel upon you. But say some God prefers thy deeds,
In counsels wouldst thou pass us too? In all things none exceeds.
To some God gives the pow’r of war, to some the sleight to dance,
To some the art of instruments, some doth for voice advance;
And that far-seeing God grants some the wisdom of the mind,
Which no man can keep to himself, that, though but few can find,
Doth profit many, that preserves the public weal and state,
And that, who hath, he best can prize.
[tr. Chapman (1611), l. 646ff]

Hector! Thou ne’er canst listen to advice;
But think’st thou, that if heaven in feats of arms
Give thee pre-eminence, thou must excel
Therefore in council also all mankind?
No. All-sufficiency is not for thee.
To one, superior force in arms is given,
Skill to another in the graceful dance,
Sweet song and powers of music to a third,
And to a fourth loud-thundering Jove imparts
Wisdom, which profits many, and which saves
Whole cities oft, though reverenced but by few.
[tr. Cowper (1791), l. 877ff]

Hector, thou art impossible to be persuaded by advice. Because indeed a god hath given thee, above others, warlike deeds, for this reason dost thou also desire to be more skilled than others in counsel? But by no means canst thou thyself obtain all things at once. To one indeed hath the deity given warlike deeds; to another dancing; and to another the harp and singing. To another again far-sounding Jove implants a prudent mind in his bosom, of which many men reap the advantage, as it even preserves cities; and he himself who possesses it especially knows its value.
[tr. Buckley (1860)]

Hector, I know thee, how unapt thou art
To hearken to advice; because the Gods
Have giv’n thee to excel in warlike might,
Thou deemest thyself, in counsel too, supreme;
Yet every gift thou canst not so combine:
To one the Gods have granted warlike might,
To one the dance, to one the lyre and song;
While in another’s breast all-seeing Jove
Hath plac’d the spirit of wisdom, and a mind
Discerning, for the common good of all:
By him are states preserv’d; and he himself
Best knows the value of the precious gift.
[tr. Derby (1864)]

Hector, thou art hard to be persuaded by them that would counsel thee; for that god has given thee excellence in the works of war, therefore in council also thou art fain to excel other men in knowledge. But in nowise wilt thou be able to take everything on thyself. For to one man has god given for his portion the works of war, to another the dance, to another the lute and song, but in the heart of yet another hath far-seeing Zeus placed an excellent understanding, whereof many men get gain, yea he saveth many an one, and himself best knoweth it.
[tr. Leaf/Lang/Myers (1891)]

Hector, there is no persuading you to take advice. Because heaven has so richly endowed you with the arts of war, you think that you must therefore excel others in counsel; but you cannot thus claim preeminence in all things. Heaven has made one man an excellent soldier; of another it has made a dancer or a singer and player on the lyre; while yet in another Jove has implanted a wise understanding of which men reap fruit to the saving of many, and he himself knows more about it than any one.
[tr. Butler (1898)]

Hector, hard to deal with art thou, that thou shouldest hearken to words of persuasion. Forasmuch as god has given to thee as to none other works of war, therefore in counsel too art thou minded to have wisdom beyond all; but in no wise shalt thou be able of thine own self to compass all things. To one man hath God given works of war, to another the dance, to another the lyre and song, and in the breast of another Zeus, whose voice is borne afar, putteth a mind of understanding, wherefrom many men get profit, and many he saveth; but he knoweth it best himself.
[tr. Murray (1924)]

You are a hard man to persuade.
Zeus gave you mastery in arms; therefore
you think to excel in strategy as well.
And yet you cannot have all gifts at once.
Heaven gives one man skill in arms, another
skill in dancing, and a third man skill
at gittern-harp and song; but the Lord Zeus
who views the wide world has instilled clear thought
in yet another. By his aid men flourish,
and there are many he can save; he knows
better than any what his gift is worth.
[tr. Fitzgerald (1974)]

Impossible man! Won't you listen to reason?
Just because some god exalts you in battle
you think you can beat the rest at tactics too.
How can you hope to garner all the gifts at once?
One man is a splendid fighter -- a god has made him so --
one's a dancer, another skilled at lyre and song,
and deep in the next man's chest farseeing Zeus
plants the gift of judgment, good clear sense.
And many reap the benefits of that treasure:
troops of men he saves, as he himself knows best.
[tr. Fagles (1990), l. 839ff]

You are a difficult man to convince with words of persuasion,
Hektor--because god gave you war-deeds beyond others,
therefore in counsel as well as beyond others you wish to have wisdom.
But no way by yourself can you possibly have all together.
For it is true that the god gives war-deeds mainly to one man,
and to another the dance, to another the song and lyre-playing,
while in another man's bosom the lord wide-thundering Zeus puts
excellent wisdom, from which many people derive the advantage --
numerous men he saves, but himself best knows of its value.
[tr. Merrill (2007)]
Added on 6-Jan-21 | Last updated 1-Dec-21
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No matter how black, white, male, female, Irish, German, tall, short, ugly or pretty you felt this year, you are part of a family that has been targeted by an unforgiving cosmos since its inception but has, regardless, survived. If a TV show about this family were to be created, you would very, very much enjoy it, and pay very much money for several seasons of it on DVD, because humanity, warts and all, is an inherently heroic species that has spent about 99.99% of its short lifetime as an underdog. And If you see no billboards telling you that, it’s not because it’s not true. It’s because there’s little to no profit to be made telling you.

I could go on and on about the suffering we’ve endured and the adaptations we’ve made, but to me, our species’ crowning jewel is that on the shortest day of the year, when the sun spends most of its time swallowed, when everything is frozen, when nothing can grow, when the air is so cold our voices stop right in front of our faces … we put a string of lights on a universe that is currently doing nothing to earn it. We not only salvage an otherwise desolate time of year, we make it the best time of year.

Dan Harmon (b. 1973) American writer, producer, entertainer
“Drunk High Christmas Greetings!” blog entry, DanHarmon.com (26 Dec 2008)
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Added on 17-Dec-20 | Last updated 17-Dec-20
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ANGEL: Nothing in the world is the way it ought to be. It’s harsh, and cruel. But that’s why there’s us, champions. Doesn’t matter where we come from, what we’ve done or suffered, or even if we make a difference. We live as though the world is as it should be, to show it what it can be.

Steven S. DeKnight (b. 1964) American television screenwriter, producer
Angel, 4×01 “Deep Down” (6 Oct 2002)
Added on 24-Aug-20 | Last updated 24-Aug-20
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In the pathway of the sun,
    In the footsteps of the breeze,
Where the world and sky are one,
    He shall ride the silver seas,
        He shall cut the glittering wave.

I shall sit at home, and rock;
Rise, to heed a neighbor’s knock;
Brew my tea, and snip my thread;
Bleach the linen for my bed.
    They will call him brave.

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) American writer
“Penelope” (1936)
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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?

Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) English writer and politician
“Horatius,” st. 27, Lays of Ancient Rome (1842)
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Added on 27-Feb-20 | Last updated 27-Feb-20
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There’s nothing noble about dying. Not even if you die for honor. Not even if you die the greatest hero the world ever saw. Not even if you’re so great your name will never be forgotten and who’s that great? The most important thing is your life, little guys. You’re worth nothing dead except for speeches. Don’t let them kid you any more. Pay no attention when they tap you on the shoulder and say come along we’ve got to fight for liberty, or whatever their word is. There’s always a word.

Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976) American screenwriter and novelist [James Dalton Trumbo]
Johnny Got His Gun (1938)
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Heroism, the Caucasian mountaineers say, is endurance for one moment more.

George Kennan (1845-1924) American explorer, journalist, activist, lecturer
Letter to Henry Munroe Rogers (25 Jul 1921)
Added on 28-Dec-16 | Last updated 28-Dec-16
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The grandest of heroic deeds are those which are performed within four walls and in domestic privacy.

Jean-Paul Richter (1763-1825) German novelist, art historian, aesthetician [pseud. Jean-Paul]
(Attributed)

In Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895)
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Are there no ideals more stirring than those of martial glory? Is this generation conscious of calls to the service of native land in ways no more worthy than the way of taking a musket and killing somebody? You ask, in the language of Prof. James, for a moral equivalent for war. A patriot needs only look about to find numberless causes that ought to warm the blood and stir the imagination. The dispelling of ignorance and the fostering of education, the investigation of disease and the searching out of remedies that will vanquish the giant ills that decimate the race, the inculcation of good feeling in the industrial world, the cause of the aged, the cause of the men and women who had so little chance — tell me, has war anything that beckons as these things beckon with alluring and compelling power? Whoso wants to share the heroism of battle let him join the fight against ignorance and disease — and the mad idea that war is necessary.

Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) American industrialist and philanthropist
“A Plea for Peace,” New York Times (7 Apr 1907)
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The greatest height of heroism to which an individual, like a people, can attain is to know how to face ridicule; better still, to know how to make oneself ridiculous and not to shrink from the ridicule.

Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936) Spanish philosopher and writer [Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo]
The Tragic Sense of Life [Del Sentimiento Trágico de la Vida], Conclusion (1913) [tr. Flitch (1921)]
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Added on 6-Nov-15 | Last updated 6-Nov-15
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The high sentiments always win in the end, the leaders who offer blood, toil, tears, and sweat always get more out of their followers than those who offer safety and a good time. When it comes to the pinch, human beings are heroic.

George Orwell (1903-1950) English writer [pseud. of Eric Arthur Blair]
“The Art of Donald McGill” (Sep 1941)
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It was involuntary. They sank my boat.

John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) US President (1961-63)
(Attributed)

When asked how he became a war hero. In A. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days, 4.9 (1965)
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The hero saves us. Praise the hero! Now, who will save us from the hero?

Cato the Elder (234-149 BC) Roman politician and orator [Marcus Portius Cato]
Speech in the Roman Senate
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I have regard to appearance still. So am I no hero.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
Journal (6 Apr 1839)
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Heroism is a model. It is worthwhile to the extent that it is useful. Humans are all full of glory and garbage, and to dwell too long on one or the other robs us of that very humanity.

No picture available
Graham Ericsson (b. 1947) American writer, aphorist
What Have You Done To Me Lately?, ch. 1 (2014)
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Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier. We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) First Lady of the US (1933-45), politician, diplomat, activist
You Learn By Living (1960)

An earlier version of this (the first sentence, at least) was included in a letter to Joseph Lash (13 Feb 1946).
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Strength of numbers is the delight of the timid. The valiant in spirit glory in fighting alone.

Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) Indian philosopher and nationalist [Mahatma Gandhi]
In Young India (17 Jun 1926)
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Is it not better to die valiantly, than ignominiously to lose our wretched and dishonoured lives after being the sport of others’ insolence?

[Nonne emori per virtutem praestat quam vitam miseram atque inhonestam, ubi alienae superbiae ludibrio fueris, per dedecus amittere?]

Catiline (108-62 BC) Roman politician [Lucius Sergius Catilina]
Quoted in Sallust, Catiline’s War, Book 20, pt. 9 [tr. Rolfe]

Alt. trans.: "Is it not better to die in a glorious attempt, than, after having been the sport of other men's insolence, to resign a wretched and degraded existence with ignominy?"
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Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) American writer [Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald]
“The Notebooks” (E), The Crack-Up [ed. Edmund Wilson (1945)]
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I long to accomplish a great and noble task; but it is my chief duty and joy to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. It is my service to think how I can best fulfil the demands that each day makes upon me, and to rejoice that others can do what I cannot. Green, the historian, tells us that the world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker, and that thought alone suffices to guide me in this dark world and wide. I love the good that others do; for their activity is an assurance that whether I can help or not, the true and the good will stand sure.

Helen Keller (1880-1968) American author and lecturer
“Optimism,” Part 1 (1903)
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Often paraphrased as: "I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker."
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 16-Jun-14
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MAL: Well, look at this! Appears we got here just in the nick of time. What does that make us?
ZOE: Big damn heroes, sir.
MAL: Ain’t we just.

Drew Z. Greenberg (contemp.) TV producer and writer
Firefly, 1×05 “Safe” (8 Nov 2002)
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True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.

Arthur Ashe (1943-1993) American athlete
(Attributed)

Quoted in Readers Digest, "Points to Ponder" (Sep 1994)
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