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A Hero and Some Other Folks by William A. Quayle

But what was the old hero's chief failure? The answer is, He lacked conscience. Duty had no part in his scheme of action, nor in his vocabulary of word or thought. Our word "virtue" is the bodily importation of the old Roman word "virtus," but so changed in meaning that the Romans could no more comprehend it than they could the Copernican theory of astronomy. With them, "virtus" meant strength--that only--a battle term. The solitary application was to fortitude in conflict. With us, virtue is shot through and through with moral quality, as a gem is shot through with light, and monopolizes the term as light monopolizes the gem. This change is radical and astonishing, but discloses a change which has revolutionized the world. The old hero was conscienceless--a characteristic apparent in Greek civilization. What Greek patriot, whether Themistocles or Demosthenes, applied conscience to patriotism? They were as devoid of practical conscience as a Metope of the Parthenon was devoid of life. Patriotism was a transient sentiment. Demosthenes could become dumb in the presence of Philip's gold; and in a fit of pique over mistreatment at the hands of his brother-citizens, Themistocles became a traitor, and, expatriated, dwelt a guest at the Persian court. Strangely enough--and it is passing strange--the most heroic personality in Homer's Iliad, the Greek's "Bible of heroisms," was not the Atridae, whether Agamemnon or Menelaus; not Ajax nor Achilles, nor yet Ulysses; but was Hector, the Trojan, who appears to greater advantage as hero than all the Grecian host. And Homer was a Greek! This is strange and unaccountable irony. Say once more, the old hero's lack was conscience. He, like his gods and goddesses, who were deified infamies, was a studied impurity. Jean Valjean is a hero, but a hero of a new type.

Literature is a sure index of a civilization. Who cares to settle in his mind whether the world grows better, may do so by comparing contemporaneous literature with the reading of other days. "The Heptameron," of Margaret of Navarre, is a book so filthy as to be nauseating. That people could read it from inclination is unthinkable; and to believe that a woman could read it, much less write it, taxes too sorely our credulity. In truth, this work did not, in the days of its origin, shock the people's sensibilities. A woman wrote it, and she a sister of Francis I of France, and herself Queen of Navarre, and a pure woman. And her contemporaries, both men and women, read it with delight, because they had parted company with blushes and modesty. Zola is less voluptuous and filthy than these old tales. Some things even Zola curtains. Margaret of Navarre tears the garments from the bodies of men and women, and looks at their nude sensuality smilingly. Of Boccaccio's "Decameron," the same general observations hold; save that they are less filthy, though no less sensual. In the era producing these tales, witness this fact: The stories are represented as told by a company of gentlemen and ladies, the reciter being sometimes a man, sometimes a woman; the place, a country villa, whither they had fled to escape a plague then raging in Florence. The people, so solacing themselves in retreat from a plague they should have striven to alleviate by their presence and ministries, were the gentility of those days, representing the better order of society, and told stories which would now be venal if told by vulgar men in some tavern of ill-repute. That Boccaccio should have reported these tales as emanating from such a company is proof positive of the immodesty of those days, whose story is rehearsed in the "Decameron." Rousseau's "Confessions" is another book showing the absence of current morality in his age. Notwithstanding George Eliot's panegyric, these memoirs are the


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