The Trouble with Heroes
In this regard, Mr. Alter’s book is the flip side of — and perfect companion to — Heroes: Saviors, Traitors, and Supermen. A History of Hero Worship, a new work by British literary critic Lucy Hughes-Hallett. Heroes is an elegant historical and literary analysis of eight individuals (one fictional) who inspired unbridled hero worship from ancient Greece to modern Europe. To her credit, Ms. Hughes-Hallett doesn’t round up the usual suspects. Instead of Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon, and the other bigger-than-life heroes dubbed Great Men by Thomas Carlyle (and Supermen by Friedrich Nietzsche) in the 19th century, she chooses the tales of slightly lesser-known figures who, rather than being fearsome conquerors, were seen in their day as saviors by the masses. Cato, El Cid, Francis Drake, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and the other personalities she profiles were each complex characters who gave great service to their people, but — and here is the point of her story — that service came at a high price.
It turns out that heroes are difficult to live with. They single-mindedly succeed at their tasks because they are self-confident and have no quit in them — which also means they tend to be self-centered, unyielding, obsessive, arrogant, and unwilling to bend to anyone’s rules. Such uncompromising men (Ms. Hughes-Hallett notes that women seldom have been seen as heroes) are particularly useful if the task is protecting a constitution (Cato), fighting foreign invaders (El Cid), sinking an armada (Drake), or securing national independence (Garibaldi), but in all other ways and times they are royal pains in the neck. The incorruptible Cato fought valiantly against Julius Caesar’s attempts to become all-powerful emperor of republican Rome, but he also was unfeeling (“he expressed regret that he had been so weak as to have kissed his wife”), austere and self-righteous (he practiced “the theatre of poverty, a humble act with a proud subtext”), and pugnacious (one biographer observed that Cato was always ready to throw himself into the breach, whether or not it was necessary to do so). El Cid kicked the pants off the invading Moors, but he also was a mercenary adventurer who “rode out, high on adrenaline and self-love,” a man capable of extreme violence and cruelty even against his fellow Christians. Francis Drake saved the day for Elizabeth I when he scuttled the Spanish fleet, but he was first and foremost an amoral pirate who, at the point of defeating the armada, abandoned the patriotic cause to capture a disabled ship for its booty. And Garibaldi deserves as much credit as anyone for having united Italy but, at base, he was an extremely lucky egotist who didn’t have the sense to know when to stop fighting. In the end, Ms. Hughes-Hallett’s heroes all came a cropper. As Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “Every hero becomes a bore at last.”
Ms. Hughes-Hallett’s subtitle is A History of Hero Worship. The question she explores is not why men want to be heroes (the answer: It’s fun to be the loose cannon in a crowd of conformists); instead, what intrigues the author is why we not only tolerate heroes, but actually seek them out. Since hero worship is manifestly the first step toward totalitarianism, this is high-risk behavior. Even when the careers of heroes are nipped in the bud before they have absconded with our freedoms, their activities drain us of our power. Emerson said that “life is sweet and tolerable only in our belief in great men,” but he added that a hero is a “monopolizer and usurper of others’ minds,” and that hero worshipers run the risk of “intellectual suicides.” That is why the Athenians had the sense to ostracize any leader who showed heroic tendencies. That may not have been the most efficient way to govern, but it was deemed healthier for the people to learn to govern themselves.