I’ve been listening to David McCullough’s book 1776 to and from Breckenridge, and was happy to learn more about Nathan Hale, the famous patriot and martyr of the Revolution. He was always someone I was proud to share a name with. We all know that he was a spy, who was caught at age 21 and at his hanging said something like “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”
Apparently, he was a reckless and blundering spy, quite out of his league, and hopeless to truly accomplish the audacious mission he set out upon. He was just a kid after all.
Knowing that Nathan Hale was in fact, naive and careless in his mission lends his last words even more pathos: “only one life to give.” Most men understand that this life is the only one they are going to get, so they do everything they can to protect and extend it. If an average man was caught by the British, their final thoughts might be, “I only wish I had been more careful” or “why do these British have to come over here and ruin everything!” or “life sucks.”
There is a German expression: Einmal ist Keinmal, once is never. What happens but once, might as well not have happened at all. “If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all,” as Milan Kundera expressed it. Quite a depressing philosophy, but a reasonable one if you consider just how small one lifetime is dwarfed by the vast expanse of eternity, never to be repeated.
But Nathan Hale had a different take on life. His own life was worth nothing, unless it was as a sacrifice to something greater, something eternal. For him, his country was that eternal cause, which he freely and willingly cast upon the alter, wishing only that he could do it again and again.
Nathan Hale’s poor, pathetic life vanished away, without posterity, without any real or lasting accomplishment, same as many other men, to be lost in oblivion. But, in sacrificing his life on the alter of his country, Nathan Hale’s identity suddenly transcended his pathetic life. It became part of something greater, morphed into the ideal and dream of America, a dream that would be eternal.
The Nathan Hale we honor is not the real Nathan Hale, the blundering spy. Our Nathan Hale is the dream of American freedom, and that freedom is greater than any of us individually. And anyone who casts their fate with America, or with an ideal greater than themselves, may also find transcendence from “einmal is keinmal.”