In “Popular Fallacies,” collected in The Last Essays of Elia (1833), Charles Lamb scrutinizes sixteen unreflectively enduring bits of conventional wisdom, including: “That a bully is always a coward.”
I’ve often expressed this thought and even more often congratulated myself for saying so. That should have been the first clue that as a generality about my fellows the idea is fishy. We flatter ourselves thinking this way because, naturally, we are neither bullies nor cowards. To say bullies are invariably cowards is to sucker-punch the culprits. A bully, we assume, would be especially vulnerable to the accusation. In effect, we are bullying the bullies. “To see a hectoring fellow exposed and beaten upon the stage,” Lamb writes, “has something in it wonderfully diverting.”
The definition of “bully” has grown elastic in recent years. Anyone who irks us or questions our self-evident rightness qualifies as a bully. When I was a boy, a bully was the obnoxious punk who entertained sycophants by clobbering anyone who would take it. Bullies were cunning to the degree that they could psych out their victims. Any one of us, I suspect, given the right circumstances, could indulge in the very human pleasures of bullying.
Lamb has an unlikely ally in questioning the axiom. In her three-part essay on the 1945-46 Nuremberg trials, “Greenhouse with Cyclamens,” collected in A Train of Powder (1955), Rebecca West details the evidence against much of the surviving Nazi leadership, including Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Alfred Jodl, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Julius Streicher. Eleven are sentenced to be hanged and seven to prison terms of various lengths. West observes their subdued reactions when the verdicts are read. None cries out or weeps in the courtroom:
“We had learned what they did, beyond all doubt, and that is the great achievement of the Nuremberg trial. No literate person can now pretend that these men were anything other than abscesses of cruelty. But we learned nothing about them that we did not know before, except that they were capable of heroism to which they had no moral right, and that there is nothing in the legend that a bully is always a coward.”