Heroism as self-abnegation

I received an email this morning with the subject line “What is true heroism?” The body contained this:

Arthur Ashe had a prescient observation on the subject.

In honor of all those who served, Memorial Day 2011.

“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.”

I shared these thoughts with my correspondent:

I understand that Ashe’s aphorism appeals to your sense of fair play and generosity of spirit, but it is the root justification of statism: The interests of every person trump the interests of each person. Looters such as our President will fully approve.

Consider Ayn Rand on the topic:

The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves. The relationship produces nothing but mutual corruption. It is impossible in concept. The nearest approach to it in reality — the man who lives to serve others — is the slave. If physical slavery is repulsive, how much more repulsive is the concept of servility of the spirit. The conquered slave has a vestige of honor. He has the merit of having resisted and of considering his condition evil. But the man who enslaves himself voluntarily in the name of love is the basest of creatures. He degrades the dignity of man, and he degrades the conception of love. But that is the essence of altruism.

Those who prate that the highest purpose is serving others soon conclude that others can be best served only when those others are required to live up to the terms of service. Insisting that the highest aspiration is placing others’ interests above your own is a perversion of the Golden Rule.

Rand again:

I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

Ashe is saying exactly the opposite. Atlas Shrugged was prescient, Ashe is merely banal.

Your email mentions Memorial Day, as if Ashe’s words describe the ideals of the men and women of our Armed Forces. I disagree. Our men and women in the Armed Forces should not be described as sacrificial objects. If they are sacrificed, it is by a government using them to serve others: What We Owe Our Soldiers