I found a clue tonight reading an old copy of Peter Benchley's The Deep. (I've always liked the film version and decided to read the book, which is a quick read and turned out to be better than I expected. One of the better adventure stories I've read in some time, in fact.) At one point, the salty old diver Treece (played by Robert Shaw in the film) offers some advice to the younger David Sanders, who killed a shark with a knife underwater after he thought the shark was about to attack his wife. It turns out that this was a foolish move, because the shark was not really a threat and Sander's attack only attracted many more sharks, forcing the divers to surface. Treece engages in some perceptive analysis:
"It's natural enough, Treece said. "A lot people want to prove something to themselves, and when they do something they think's impressive, then they're impressed themselves. The mistake is, what you do isn't the same as what you are. You like to do things just to see if you can. Right?"
Though there was no reproach in Treece's voice Sanders was embarrassed. "Sometimes, I guess..."
"What I'm getting at..." Treece paused. "The feeling's a lot richer when you do something right, when you know something has to be done and you know what you're doing, and then you do something hairy. Life's full of chances to hurt yourself or someone else." Treece took a drink. "In the next few days, you'll have more chances to hurt yourself than most men get in a lifetime. It's learning things and doing things right that make it worthwhile, make a man easy with himself. When I was young, nobody could tell me anything. I knew it all. It took a lot of mistakes to teach me that I didn't know goose shit from tapioca... That's the only hitch in learning: it's humbling... Anyway, that's a long way around saying that it's crazy to do things just to prove you can do 'em. The more you learn, the more you'll find yourself doing things you never thought you could do in a million years."
Treece is teaching nothing other than Aristotle's distinction between the truly courageous and the merely reckless. The difference is that courage is conditioned by the virtue of prudence, whereas the reckless are dangerous actions not ordered to right reason. Treece puts it succinctly: True courage is only displayed in actions that are dangerous but must be done and, further, done in the knowledge that you know what you are doing.
But to know something must be done implicitly implies a knowledge of the good, i.e. an end that is desirable in itself. The man who displays virtue in the pursuit of the good has acted nobly. But the noble is just one of those ancient concepts that modern thought has "debunked", only to discover that, debunked or not, it is necessary. It is necessary to order passionate souls like Chris McCandless into constructive paths. This is where the contemporary university failed Chris McCandless so comprehensively. His university education should have educated his soul into a true appreciation of the good and the noble; instead, it "educated" him into the modern conceit that there isn't any true good or nobility that can we really can know. In effect, he was educated into anti-prudence. Yet the passion in his soul didn't go away merely because its object was denied; it was only given a prophylactic. So the rest of his tragic life was spent in the pursuit of extreme adventures that would, somehow, allow him to "break through" to the other side, whatever that might be. But when the denial of prudence itself becomes mistaken for a virtue, then the pursuit of pointless dangers becomes a substitute for the noble.
This accounts for the curious combination of thorough technical preparation in the service of foolish ends that characterized McCandless's adventures. He didn't die in the bus from lack of preparation; he extensively researched Alaskan flora and fauna, knew what he could eat and couldn't eat (almost - it appears he died from eating the wrong seeds), and survived for some time on his own. In fact, he would have succeeded (at what? - that's the problem) but for one slip up. But his prudence was truncated; it extended to the preparation and conduct of his adventures, but had nothing to say about their ends. This is the difference between a life that might have ended nobly and heroically, but instead ended foolishly and tragically. I see Chris's tragic end as a consequence of the peculiarly modern suffocation of the soul.