09/26/07 - magellan

In today's excerpt - esteemed historian William Manchester offers his own definition of heroism as part of his discussion of Ferdinand Magellan, who in 1519 was the first person to lead an expedition to circumnavigate the globe:

"[Magellan] was not the wisest man of his time. Erasmus was. Neither was he the most gifted. That, surely, was Leonardo. But Magellan became what, as a child he had yearned to be—the era's greatest hero. The reason is intricate, but important to understand. Heroism is often confused with physical courage. In fact, the two are very different. ...

"Neither if it is valor of the first [order], may it be part of a group endeavor. All movements, including armies, provide their participants with such tremendous support that pursuit of common goals, despite great risk, is little more than ardent conformity. Indeed, the truly brave member is the man who repudiates the communal objective, challenging the rest of the group outright. ...

"The hero acts alone, without encouragement, relying solely on conviction and his own inner resources. Shame does not discourage him; neither does obloquy. Indifferent to approval, reputation, wealth or love, he cherishes only his personal sense of honor, which he permits no one else to judge. ... Guided by an inner gyroscope, he pursues his vision single-mindedly, undiscouraged by rejections, defeat or even the prospect of imminent death. Few men can comprehend such fortitude. ...

"In the long lists of history, it is difficult to find another figure whose heroism matches Magellan's. For most sixteenth-century Europeans, his [vision]—to circle the globe—was unimaginable. To launch the pursuit of this vision, he had to turn his back on his own country, inviting charges of treason. His ships, when they were delivered to him, were unseaworthy. Before his departure, Portuguese agents repeatedly tried, with some success, to sabotage his expedition. ...

"His character was, of course, imperfect. But heroes need not be admirable, and indeed most have not been. The web of driving traits behind their accomplishments almost assures that. Men who do the remarkable—heroic and otherwise—frequently fail in their personal relationships. This unpleasant reality is usually glossed over in burnishing the images of the great. So many eminent statesmen, writers, painters and composers have been intolerable sons, husbands, fathers and friends that they may fairly be said to have been the rule. Lincoln's marriage was a disaster. Franklin Roosevelt, to put it in the kindest possible way, was a dissembler. ...

"Yet, their flaws, though deplorable, are irrelevant; in the end their heroism shines through untarnished."

[Suggested by a reader.]


William Manchester


A World Lit Only By Fire


Back Bay


Copyright 1992 1993 by William Manchester


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