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From Hero-Worship to Celebrity-Adulation

The problem of greatness in an age of equality.

Oct 10, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 04 • By TOD LINDBERG
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It’s important to note that for most of the thousands of years of hero worship leading up to Carlyle’s coining the term, and in many places thereafter down to the present, the veneration in question was not voluntary but mandatory, and there could be grave repercussions for a failure to fulfill one’s duties. An “official” opinion on the subject of who counted as great or heroic prevailed, often under penalty of death or exile. Socrates had to drink the hemlock after being convicted on a two-count indictment: corrupting Athenian youth and refusing to believe in the gods of the city. Alcibiades was convicted in absentia and sentenced to death for mutilating statues of Hermes. And this was all in freewheeling, democratic Athens. Imagine Sparta.

If the king ruled by divine right, then his person was due something akin to worship or veneration. Woe betide the commoner arrogating to himself the right of dissent. Carlyle seems to see historically—and seek contemporaneously—a consensus judgment within a people about who their heroes are. If there have been such collective judgments (which does not go without saying), the consensus was not entirely voluntary but enforced.

What’s striking, then, is how intimately tied the question of heroism turns out to be to the condition of freedom. In unfree conditions, the heroes are exactly those whom the authorities decree them to be. In conditions of freedom, the human tendency to disagree quickly breaks up such artificial uniformity. If there is an established church, no one may go elsewhere, and God is Who the ecclesiastical authorities say He is, with the properties they deem Him to have. If the church is disestablished or the custodians of its doctrine become irresolute, all of a sudden there is a competing religion or two. 

A doctrine of equality rebels against claims of a status of superiority. Freedom dethrones claims of superiority that hold sway by force. Both to the good. The problem is that Carlyle is right to note that in his time and in our own, these leveling tendencies leave us at some risk of concluding that no deed can be especially heroic and no achievement especially great. 

These themes emerge from myriad currents of modern political, intellectual, and cultural opinion. Its most radical form, an abandoned Marxist position deemed extreme by most Marxists themselves, is the view that the individual simply doesn’t matter to the progress of history. The view is precisely the opposite of Carlyle’s: What he attributes solely to the influence of “Great Men”—namely, the shape of the world and history itself—here is the result of the vast, impersonal work of dialectical materialism. During World War II, the philosopher and social critic Sidney Hook wrote a book called The Hero in History whose project was to refute this radical Marxist view by demonstrating the importance of individuals in shaping events. His prime example (the irony was intentional) was V. I. Lenin: Hook shows convincingly that in the absence of Lenin’s personal leadership and the decisions he made, there would have been no October Revolution in Russia.

A much attenuated form of the view that the individual matters not at all is the view that most of what an individual does is never properly the subject of praise or blame—because behavior is much less the product of individual initiative than of genetic and environmental influences. Often, this point of view travels under a banner of compassion or empathy: “There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford,” said the 16th-century clergyman John Bradford on seeing condemned men en route to the gallows. The compassionate perspective sits easily with modern egalitarianism. And it is no more false than the opposite perspective, namely, that those who succeed do so solely by dint of hard work and personal strength—their heroic qualities, as Carlyle might argue.

To the extent the compassionate perspective fosters regard for others and a sense of obligation toward those less advantaged, it is certainly valuable. But it does not offer especially good guidance on how to live one’s own life. Few are those whose circumstances are such that their personal choices account for nothing. Luck is a factor for good or for ill or for both. But it is not the only factor that determines life outcomes. Potentially, at least, an unbalanced perspective of compassion can be corrosive, not least among young people thinking about how they will try to live their lives. If they come to believe that making something of themselves is entirely beyond their power, their personal prophecy may end up self-fulfilling. Worse, they may be highly vulnerable to social and cultural signals emphasizing the powerlessness of the individual and the overriding weight of social forces in how people’s lives turn out. The result might be unnecessary paralysis, alienation, even rage.

While it seems impossible to deny that Carlyle lost the fight he picked—to persuade people to bow down before “Great Men”—it is nevertheless possible to find some vindication for him in contemporary social practice and cultural norms. Notwithstanding the leveling tendency of modern, egalitarian societies, we have not lost our regard for achievement, even if we occasionally disguise it.

The fact that the modern world has concluded that officially enforced claims of superiority must not stand, and that wherever a claim of “superiority” of one kind or another erupts, it must be interrogated for the human foibles that go along with it, does not mean that a voluntarily accepted claim to greatness or superiority or heroism is impossible. Tiger Woods is a great golfer. Sinatra could really sing. Elvis does nothing for me, but, hey—it’s a free country. George W. Bush and Barack Obama are two of only 43 people to have been elected president of the United States. Professional baseball players are better at the game than anybody else.

As we were discussing our kids’ respective high school graduations, a friend and colleague noted that his daughter’s school conferred its diplomas with no awards of honors or special prizes for achievement. It’s perhaps a somewhat extreme egalitarianism by the standards of most high schools, but it reflects the school’s commitment to a cherished principle. It also in no way suggests that the achievements of all of the students are equal. They were not all admitted to Harvard. Nor were the Ivy League-bound among them chosen from the ranks of the graduating class by lot. Our egalitarianism is not incompatible with sorting on the basis of various kinds of achievement, even if we remain zealous about the promotion of equality. 

Moreover, there is a certain type of character in a democratic society whose heroism is, in fact, a matter of consensus. It’s the firefighter rushing into the Twin Towers on 9/11. It’s Lenny Skutnik, who in 1982 leapt out of his car and jumped into the Potomac River to pull a woman to safety after a plane crash. It’s the two young Marines in Iraq who made a split-second decision in the last moments of their lives to open fire on a truck hurtling toward the compound where they were standing guard, thereby preventing the bomb-laden vehicle from entering before it blew up and so saving the lives of their sleeping comrades. It’s all those willing to risk their lives to save the lives of others.

Celebrities may think adulation is their due and that special rules apply to them. On the latter point, they may be right. But real heroes of the kind who risk their lives for others do not demand adulation. On the contrary, they more often than not rush to deny that there is anything special about who they are. They specifically disavow any status of superiority as a result of their heroic deeds.

Their reticence in relation to their own exploits is itself a tacit acknowledgment that they understand the greatness of their particular achievement; otherwise, they could talk matter-of-factly about what they had done. But this taciturn self-consciousness is a long way from the towering ambition that gave rise to the tragic hero of the classical age—the ultimately unsatisfiable desire to rise above the human. 

No, we don’t bow down to our heroes. But in our egalitarian way, we can and do recognize them in a fashion that actually does evoke Carlyle’s “everlasting adamant” to honor achievement: We award them medals and keys to the city. We give them a round of applause. We buy them a beer.

Weekly Standard contributing editor Tod Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of its task force on the Virtues of a Free Society. This essay is one in its series on Endangered Virtues, available at www.hoover.org.

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