“Here, where a thousand captains swore”
Basho (tr. unknown)
Here, where a thousand
captains swore grand conquest…
tall grass their monument
Mocking the irony of wanting to conquer others for fame and fortune – that’s easy. Our narrator looks out at a battlefield and sees what is: tall grass covering the bodies of the ambitious. Unless one was insane, one could not miss how a combination of planning and spirit – nearly the sum total of our so-called higher faculties, what makes us distinctly human – buried itself.
Any serious reflection starts not with casting aside figures like Napoleon or Genghis Khan, but understanding that all of us want to best others. Admirers of conquerors and tyrants exist always, and as problematic as they are, they can’t be faulted for dishonesty. A thousand captains, leaders of men, each made credible in the eyes of many through honors, virtues, and stories shared then and now. These captains gathered together and swore fealty in order to procure a greater victory. All those honors, virtues, and stories of each were united in loyalty, in combined strength.
Basho’s reflection is impersonal. A little imagination reveals that some of the people we most admire may be subject to the same critique. Attacking our own selves, strangely enough, is the easy part. Basho wants our attention to turn to our virtues and ideals. Conquerors and tyrants loom large in the imagination of some because they impose their will on the world. To what degree is virtue an imposition of will on the world?
There is no small solace in the fact that many do not mind tall grass as a monument. People sacrifice for each other every day. They sacrifice for causes they think will bring about a greater good. The funny thing is how the zeal of those most admirable entails moderation of a sort. Not entirely virtue, not entirely what is good for all, in order to sacrifice well. Whereas either to die for virtue purely, or for one’s own aggrandizement, seem to be two sides of the same coin. The reality of tall grass as a monument is the reality of the earthly.