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Courage and Honor Be Yours

Commentary by Stephen Heck


“You will never do anything in this world without courage. It is the greatest quality of the mind next to honor. “
Aristotle, Greek Philosopher, 4th century BCE       


The race for the Presidency of the United States has now entered its final eight months and millions of dollars will continue to be spent by both the Democratic and Republican parties and their surrogate Political Action Committees to convince the citizens of the United States that each party’s respective nominee stands out as the most courageous and honorable man to lead the United States through the next tumultuous four years.  Most of the original Republican candidates have crashed and fallen in front of the shield wall of its skeptical and radical foot soldiers while the Democratic incumbent has been accused of sundry diabolical transgressions by his opponents.  But even members of his own party have called the incumbent President a weak leader, frustrated by his decision making process. Additionally,  we no longer hear the earlier pronouncements of pundits who had absurdly compared this President within weeks of his election to the courageous leadership of President Abraham Lincoln.  I think political leadership in this country has become increasingly divorced from Aristotle’s maxim.  In too many cases, courage has been replaced by dissembling, and hypocrisy has overridden honor.We can expect that the current election year will continue to present a morbid case study in this devolution. 

I totally agree with Aristotle’s statement because over the centuries the most highly regarded men and women have been those who never lost sight of the close connection between these two human attributes.  Aristotle’s student, Alexander the Great, was courageous in battle against the Persian Empire, yet after conquering the Persians, he honored their society by encouraging the blending of Greek and Persian cultures through the marriage of thousands of his soldiers to Persian women.  In the modern era, Mohandas Gandhi, through his courage of nonviolent resistance to British rule in India, brought about India’s independence after World War II and his achievement has been honored by subsequent mass movements of peaceful political change. 

As we approach the feast day of St. Patrick this month, many of us become honorary sons and daughters of the Emerald Isle to honor the memory of this courageous man.  However, Irish culture abounds in many stories of courage and honor, and one of the most respected subjects of these stories is Cuchulain, who many Irish consider to be the greatest hero of Ireland.  I offer the following as a parable for our troubled political environment:

Once upon a time, Briccriu of the Poisoned Tongue, a Lord of Ulster, put on a feast for all the nobles of Ireland to determine who would be undisputed Champion of Ireland.  After much discussion, accompanied by the consumption of bottomless goblets of mead, the gathered nobility agreed upon three choices for the final competition: Conall of the Victories; Laery the Triumphant, and Cuchulain. It was determined that the contest would be decided by a hideous giant who was known simply as The Terrible. The three contestants traveled to the giant’s abode where he said that each contestant must undergo a test of courage and honor.  The Terrible stated that each of the contestants would be able to cut off the giant’s head that day, but only if each contestant agreed to allow the giant the opportunity to cut off the contestant’s head the following day.  Laery and Conall, who felt they were as brave as any Irishman, blanched white at the idea, gave their regrets to the giant, and departed.  Cuchulain, however, agreed to the conditions.  Cuchulain then picked up his sword and chopped off the giant’s head. The headless giant picked up his head, gave his regards to Cuchulain about seeing him the next morning, and then walked away into the mists. Cuchulain slept an uneasy sleep that night, hoping that he would not lose his courage. Early the next morning, as the mists clung to the bogs, the giant returned, complete with a fully restored head and carrying a very large very sharp axe along with wooden chopping block.  Cuchulain swallowed hard, but honoring his bargain he placed his head upon the block and waited for the bite of the axe.  The giant swung the axe three separate times, yet each time the giant just touched the block with the blunt end of the axe.  Cuchulain, relieved and puzzled, was commanded by the giant to rise to his feet and stand tall as the new Champion for all of Ireland.

So, my friends, think of this story of Cuchulain as we ponder the future of our Republic and be of stout heart in your own daily lives as your courage and honor is tested.   Perhaps someday the spirit of Cuchulain will raise a cup of mead to salute you as a new Champion. 

Stephen J. Heck is a Fellow of The Business Forum Institute.  Steve has extensive experience leading complex, multi-faceted initiatives impacting growth, operating efficiency, and overall financial performance of businesses across diverse sectors including public, private, and not-for-profit organizations. Career achievements include reengineering under-performing business operations, managing Information Technology enterprise system integration and facilitating global business expansion and growth. He has held senior positions with such organizations as Synergy Consulting in Portland, Oregon;the WiMAX Forum in Beaverton, Oregon; Humboldt State University in Arcata, California; and Metro Regional Government in Portland, Oregon. Steve gained a B.A. and Masters of Public Administration from Portland State University, Oregon. He also received a Masters of Social Work from the University of Washington in Seattle after serving as an infantryman in Vietnam. He has been a member of the Project Management Institute and IEEE, and served as Vice Chair of the Portland Police Bureau’s Citizens Advisory Board. Since 1996 Steve has been an evaluator with the Prior Learning Assessment Program at Marylhurst University in Oregon, and from 1984 to 2000 Steve was Adjunct Professor in Public Administration at the Hatfield School of Government, Portland State University in Oregon.

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