I have touched on this topic from time to time but have not, until now, addressed it in detail. I am speaking about the astonishing lack of restraint that is not only allowed in our culture, but actually applauded. One sees it especially in sports where one team member will call out his teammate and trash him in public while the talking heads on television applaud him for his “emotional honesty.” There was a time, not long ago, when Johnny Unitas would throw a touchdown pass to Raymond Berry who would smile, toss the ball to the referee and trot back to the bench. Rod Laver would win one of his “Grand Slam” tournaments, smile, jog to the net and shake hands with his opponent. But no more. This sort of behavior is not regarded as exhibiting “emotional honesty” and would never make Sports Center.
We now see the football players make a touchdown and then beat their chests like great apes drawing attention to themselves and getting huge applause from the crowds. The tendency has even infiltrated the more tranquil sports (if you will) like tennis and golf where the victors throw themselves down on the court after the final point or pound their chests after the last putt drops in like….well, like a great ape. The act itself is one thing, but the fact that the cameras follow those types and avoid the more sedate players who simply behave themselves is worth a moment’s reflection. Why do we think it worthy of praise if a man or a woman wallows in self-applause, insults another person, or “lets it all hang out”? The less restraint the better, we are led to believe. And it’s not just in sports. Many admire our sitting president for these very qualities, which can by no stretch of the imagination be regarded as estimable.
I think back to the Greeks who prized self-control. Homer, for example, describes Achilles’ actions after the death of his close friend Patroclus — which was every bit the sort of thing we see on television every day: dragging Hector’s corpse around the walls of Troy. He then learns restraint in granting Hector’s father permission to take Hector back to Troy and provide him with the hero’s burial he justly deserves. And that seems to be the lesson. Indeed, the Greek plays, especially, are full of examples of heroes who cross the line and behave in an unrestrained manner and then have to pay the price. This is the heart and soul of tragedy. And Plutarch’s Lives were written about true heroes who exemplified self-control in order to provide examples to the young people who read them years later.
The Victorian age followed the Greeks in their praise of self-restraint, and that age has generally been dismissed as repleat with human suffering and emotional hang-ups that required Freud to untangle. Focus tends to be on the manifold sins of the age in which the people were all “uptight” by today’s standards and tended to look the other way as the poor were left to fend for themselves. But a peek behind the curtain of the Victorian ethos reveals a people who prized self-restraint every bit as much as did the Greeks. George Eliot is a case in point. Her novels are filled with heroes and heroines who know the value of self-restraint, who seek always to control their emotions, do their duty, and respect others. There is no better example than the remarkable woman Maggie Tulliver in Eliot’s The Mill On The Floss who falls deeply in love with Stephen Guest who is promised to another. The man, as it happens, also loves Maggie and seeks to “compromise her” as the Victorians would have it.
In a lengthy passage that goes on for pages, the would-be seducer manages to divert Maggie’s attention while they are drifting down the river, passing the landing spot they had initially targeted. This means they will have to spend the night together after they land down-stream. This was no accident as Stephen repeatedly attempts to win Maggie over and she fights against his will and her own deepest desires. She sums up the struggle in the following passage:
“I am quite sure that [this] is wrong. I have tried to think of it again and again; but I see, if we judged in [your] way that it would be a warrant for all treachery and cruelty – we should justify breaking the most sacred ties that can ever be framed on earth. If the past does not bind us, where can duty lie? We should have no law but the inclination of the moment. . . Faithfulness and constancy mean something else besides doing what is easiest and pleasantest to ourselves. They mean renouncing whatever is opposed to the reliance others have in us – whatever would cause misery to those whom the course of our lives has made dependent on us.”
Bear in mind that in the eyes of her society Maggie has already compromised herself. She is a sinful woman who has spent the day — and the night ahead as it happens — with a man betrothed to her best friend. But regardless of the consequences Maggie sees her duty to others clearly and provides us with an excellent example of the self-restraint of which I write. It is truly admirable — through it would almost certainly be dismissed these days as an example of a woman who needs to “give it a rest” and be more honest with her feelings.
The fact is, of course, she is totally honest with her feelings. She knows exactly how she feels and her feelings are every bit as strong as Stephen’s. But she resists “the inclination of the moment.” She shows the sort of self-restraint that the Greeks admired. Eliot knew about the struggles between desire and duty and always sought to do the right thing. As a result she was greatly admired while today, I wager, she would be dismissed out of hand as a wooly headed fool.
Thus things do change. And not always for the better.