A Grand Meditation on Heroism

A Grand Meditation on Heroism
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Over the last century, as expertise has become narrowly specialized, the genre of the grand meditation has gone out of style. Most scholars blanch at the thought of working through the entire history of a concept from antiquity to the present, because to write confidently on even just one era, let alone dozens, requires years of difficult study. Those who attempt these sorts of books today tend not to be professional historians but amateurs armed with just enough erudition to bluff their way through—Marxist or postmodern dissertators who gamely make any facts fit a grand theory, or belle-lettristic dilettantes cheerfully oblivious to the vast literature that they’re neglecting. Occasionally an exceptionally accomplished intellectual historian or senior political theorist pulls it off with panache—I think of Leo Braudy’s The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History—but in general, for this kind of project you must either know a tremendous amount or be prepared to pretend that you do.

Yet it’s also the case that reflecting on large intellectual and cultural shifts over the course of human history is eminently worthwhile. So the question becomes why and when someone ought to write such a book, and it’s a pertinent one to keep in mind when reading Tod Lindberg’s new volume, The Heroic Heart: Greatness, Ancient and Modern, which tracks the idea of heroism from ancient times to today. It’s unclear who Lindberg’s intended audience is. It isn’t really scholars: The book doesn’t explicitly wrestle with other scholars’ ideas, except for the obvious historical precedents, like Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841). Nor is it heavily footnoted in a way that would suggest scholarly engagement (it includes only a brief “sources and references” section). And yet despite a sometimes-chatty style, the book also doesn’t seem intended for the general reader of history or politics; its tone is too didactic, its judgments too impressionistic.

All that said, Lindberg’s ambition is admirable, and there is much of value in The Heroic Heart. He gives close readings of The Iliad, of Shakespeare, of Machiavelli, and of the World War I poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, among others. Being far from expert myself in the classics, or for that matter in many of the subjects Lindberg covers, I can’t offer more than a layman’s critique of these interpretations. But it seems to me that he is largely correct in his basic claim that we moderns have lost touch to a great extent with the classical conception of heroism. In ancient times, a warrior-hero like Achilles achieved heroism through purposeful action and fearlessness in the face of death. Over time, the rise of liberal democracy eroded this conception of heroism. Lindberg meditates fruitfully on Tocqueville’s examination of America, where “equality of condition,” as Lindberg writes, “was not a fact merely of political life,” but “at the center of what Tocqueville called the ‘social state.’” The failure of Europe’s leaders to bring a better world out of the carnage of World War I, moreover, forged a disillusionment that, as Hemingway famously wrote, drained meaning from words like honor and glory.

Analysis of the conflict between heroism and modernity (including democracy) goes back at least as far as Carlyle. But the issue remains relevant to our time, where the forces of democratization, having prevailed in the political arena, are on the march in the social and cultural spheres as well. Lindberg describes the eclipse of traditional heroism with evident regret. His passages on labeling pop stars like Joe DiMaggio or the Beatles as “heroes” betray a bit of dyspepsia. But the recurring insights and surprising nuances of The Heroic Heart save it from becoming a polemic. In reflecting on contemporary heroism, for example, Lindberg notes provocatively that killing has over time ceased to become a sine qua non of heroism—even in the military it is now seen as regrettable—and that saving others has now eclipsed conquest as a heroic ideal.

Lindberg does recognize, then, contra Carlyle, the endurance of the hero into modern times, albeit in substantially changed form. Sometimes we use the term too promiscuously, but at other times we confer it with real meaning—as when we talk about our soldiers, the firefighters and police officers who put their lives on the line on September 11th, or those who risked life or well-being to help others during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 (an event that led Newsweek to run a “Heroes Issue”). Indeed, today the veneration of the soldier is more powerful and pervasive than it has been at any point in my lifetime: Uniformed men and women now board airplanes first, get hailed at every baseball game and otherwise receive constant appreciation (however rote or superficial it may sometimes be) from liberals and conservatives alike.

If you ask most Americans today to name a hero, the most popular answer would likely be Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet King’s name doesn’t appear in The Heroic Heart. Neither does Nelson Mandela’s or Mahatma Gandhi’s (though Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s does). These men don’t embody the classical battlefield heroism of Achilles, but they did sacrifice—and King gave his life—for the freedom of others and the improvement of society. Lindberg thus might have extended his discussion to the handful of world-historical leaders of 20th-century liberation movements, from whom few today would withhold the label of hero. But to mention this omission is, I think, merely to affirm again the virtues of The Heroic Heart, a book that makes us think about heroism and its value, both in history and in the present day.

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