The Heroism That Grows from Defeat

Is failure a necessary ingredient for true success?

Posted Jul 14, 2017

Yet another sports playoff season has ended, another is soon to be upon us, and we are hungry for our team to win. Americans love winners. Just look at our politics, with the scorn heaped on losing candidates. There’s no joy in being number two—losers are condemned to the “agony of defeat.”

Agony, perhaps, but is there also value in defeat? That question has become more urgent as I've gotten older.

I’ve recently finished writing a novel about a childhood hero of mine, someone I’d idealized because of his real-life military conquests and martial brilliance. In the course of writing the novel, I came to realize that the most interesting part of his story has to do with how he handled his defeats as much as his successes.

Of Alps And Elephants

public domain
Source: public domain

At first, I suppose, it was all those elephants crossing the Alps.  What more to capture the imagination of an ambitious young adolescent than a warrior who could lead 40,000 soldiers and 37 elephants across snow-capped mountains to invade Italy? No wonder that one afternoon in my town library after school a book with the odd title, Of Alps and Elephants, jumped out at me from the shelves and ignited a lifelong fascination with Hannibal of Carthage and his doomed war against Rome two centuries before Christ, before Julius Caesar, before Cleopatra.

For years I was entranced by the war stories, the amazing string of astounding victories that Hannibal wrought against Rome.  Yet as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that there is a pattern of defeats in this brilliant man’s life and that the most interesting part of the story lies in what is least remembered: Hannibal’s resilience in mastering the failure of his plans.

Unbelievable victories, leading to….defeat.

Hannibal’s successes in the war against Rome are jaw- dropping. At age 25, he carried out a seemingly impossible invasion plan, then defeated several well-trained and experienced Roman armies on their own soil.  At the signature battle of Cannae, Hannibal defeated a Roman army twice the size of his own. Over sixteen years fighting in Italy, he never suffered a significant defeat.

Yet he was unable to force Rome’s surrender. Eventually, Hannibal was recalled from Italy to defend Carthage from the invading Romans. His army—hastily raised and untrained—was routed and Carthage sued for peace.

From one point of view, this is a story of failure. Hannibal lost the second Punic War.

The success of failure

Yet as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that it’s not really about the elephants and the Alps and the military victories. Age also brings an exquisite awareness of the eventual defeats we all experience.  Battles won and lost, some cherished dreams realized, others not so much. Always under the aegis of gathering mortality.  Is there a General who can outmaneuver death? Not likely. We are all defeated in the end. (“Old age is not a battle, it’s a massacre,” a gloomy doctor recently advised me.)

public domain
Source: public domain

What stands out about the Hannibal story now for me is the remarkable resilience that the man displayed as fates conspired to undermine his lifelong hopes of personal victory.

After his defeat, Hannibal returned to Carthage and helped to rebuild the city’s fortunes. He became a political leader, rising at one point to become the Suffete (Chief Magistrate) of the Senate. He pushed hard for Carthage to rebuild. He worked for reform of the Carthaginian constitution to lessen the power of the ruling elites, he reorganized the state finances, and even engaged in urban planning. Carthage again became a prosperous and thriving city.

These very successes occasioned an angry and vengeful Rome to trump up charges that Hannibal was secretly plotting another war.  Hannibal, then in his early 50s, was forced to flee Carthage and begin years of wandering. His fame throughout the Mediterranean world was such that he became a rallying point for those trying to resist the growing expansion of Rome.  He became an advisor to kings. According to the great Roman historian Cicero, Hannibal’s “name was held in great honour among all men.” In her fine biography, Eve MacDonald examines Hannibal’s “timeless appeal” and its complexities.

Remarkable, isn’t it, how the man fought on, how he kept to his goal of resisting the growing and expanding power of Rome, even while wandering far from his city, his homeland?

Eventually, the victorious Romans demanded that Hannibal be handed over to them as terms of a peace treaty with a defeated king. Rather than submit, Hannibal is rumored to have committed suicide in the small seaside house he occupied on the shores of the Black Sea, taking poison that he always carried with him for that eventuality.

I don’t picture Hannibal dying bitter and betrayed. I see him choosing the moment of his own death, which is perhaps the most that any of us can ask.

Yet it’s not how he died but rather how he lived that stays with me. What stands out is how formidably Hannibal was able to persevere and recreate himself through his long life.

What Would Hannibal Do?

Winston Churchill once observed, “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

We may celebrate victory so much that it can be hard to see the crucial lessons in defeat.  “Stumbling” seems apt. We wobble, unsure of ourselves. We may not know what to do after a significant defeat, how to go on after the loss of a treasured ideal or goal, something we may feel we can’t live without or were destined to have. How can it be possible that I lost? If we can hold onto the reality of the loss rather than denying it in a rush to avoid the pain, we may learn much about ourselves and the world.

From that stumbling new plans and goals—and a new resolve—may emerge. Most importantly, we may learn a profound humility. We may recommit to our original goals but with a new understanding of what’s involved, who we ourselves are, and what we face.

The heroism in defeat may lie in the willingness to remain open to the stumbling that follows.

Childhood heroes and adult heroes

Of course, after two thousand years, and with the distortions of history as remembered by the victors (who eventually destroyed Carthage along with most records of its civilization) it’s impossible to know the man who was Hannibal with certainty. The hard-won, changed image of my childhood hero may be built more out of my own hopes and projections than the literal reality of the man.

Still, as I enter my seventies, the image of Hannibal in the winter of his years, battling on, is still a sort of companion, just as the image of Hannibal the intrepid warrior conquering mountains and Roman armies was the companion of my adolescence.

Only now, it is not Hannibal the indomitable warrior who inspires me, but Hannibal the ever-resilient man, able to weather failure and find renewal, to be reborn again and again out of the hopes and dreams of the past.

Sam Osherson, Ph.D., is a therapist in private practice in Cambridge, MA, and an Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the Fielding Graduate University. He consults to schools through the Stanley King Counseling Institute and his most recent book is The Stethoscope Cure, a novel about a psychiatrist and the Vietnam War.


Eve MacDonald, Hannibal: A Hellenistic Life, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015