Heroism and the Repudiation of Egalitarian Illusions

The distinguished French historian Patrice Gueniffey has written a profoundly countercultural book on the place of heroism in the human drama. Rejecting the reigning democratic dogma, he insists that great men, “whether they are really great or really mediocre, beneficial or malevolent, saints or monsters, front and center, or hidden behind the curtain . . . still dominate the stage of modern political theater.” As this passage exemplifies, Gueniffey writes with an élan worthy of the subject. He recognizes that we live in “flattened-out societies,” where the very idea of human greatness threatens “the levelling mentality” that “has spread to all democratic societies.” Democratic man, he shows, no longer knows how to distinguish authentic heroes from the glittering superficiality and spiritual emptiness of celebrity. We late moderns prefer “identification” to “elevation”—we prefer those who are like us in our complacent mediocrity to “heroes calling by their example for effort and sacrifice.”

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