n the mid-19th century, the Scottish man of letters Thomas Carlyle coined the term “Hero-worship,” by which he meant the high regard, entirely proper in his view, that ordinary people have for the great figures of their history. His project in Lectures on Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History(1841) was to restore greatness to dignity in an age he believed had come to belittle the very possibility of exceptional human achievement. Carlyle claimed, on the contrary, “Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here. . . . All things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world.”
Each of the Lectures takes up one of the “six classes of heroes” Carlyle identifies: the hero as divinity, prophet, poet, priest, man of letters, and king. He suggests that the times in which one lives have some bearing on the type of hero who steps forward: the hero-divinity seems to be a figure belonging to the pagan past and is unlikely to resurface. Nevertheless, Carlyle argues vehemently against the proposition that the times make the man. He asks: What about the numerous manifest historical instances in which a people were in desperate need of a hero and didn’t get one—to their ruin? Heroes appear on their own schedule.
Carlyle seems to regard heroism as an essential property: The greatness of the heroic type will always express itself, but it manifests itself in a form appropriate to its times. One age’s prophet is another age’s playwright is another’s king. A young person destined for greatness will find a proper avenue for its expression and travel down it. What distinguished Muhammad and Samuel Johnson from their respective contemporaries was greatness or heroism. What distinguished them from each other was that the 7th century was ripe for a prophet, the 18th for a literary lion.
Carlyle professed himself to be certain of the ultimate success of his project to rehabilitate greatness, veneration of which he considered innate to mankind. He refers to the “indestructibility of Hero-worship”:
We all love great men; love, venerate, and bow down submissive before great men: nay can we honestly bow down to anything else? Ah, does not every true man feel that he is himself made higher by doing reverence to what is really above him? . . . And to me it is very cheering to consider that no sceptical logic, or general triviality, insincerity and aridity of any Time and its influences can destroy this noble inborn loyalty and worship that is in man. In times of unbelief, which soon have to become times of revolution, much down-rushing, sorrowful decay and ruin is visible to everybody. For myself in these days, I seem to see in this indestructibility of Hero-worship the everlasting adamant lower than which the confused wreck of revolutionary things cannot fall.
Carlyle was a romantic; he was not a systematic thinker, and in keeping with both his romanticism and his theme, praise for hero worship, he had a tendency to gush. But he had genuine hold of a serious problem of his time and ours—the modern world’s egalitarian distrust of claims of greatness and heroism.
Carlyle was not antimodern. There is certainly a large helping of Enlightenment modernity in his proposition that the figure “we all” properly “love, venerate, and bow down submissive before” is not God or the king, but a certain type of human being. Yet Carlyle clearly has a foot in both the piety of the ancient world and the humanism of the modern. He wants to retain the qualities of reverence (“love, venerate, and bow down”) historically associated with belief in God. But he seeks to abstract them into a generic “Hero-worship” characteristic of all times and places. He does so in an effort to counter the ascendant “sceptical logic,” “unbelief,” and decadent “revolution” swirling all around him. He wants to save the modern world from its leveling tendencies, to keep a place in it for due regard for greatness, or the heroic. Clearly, he refers to “every true man” (emphasis added) feeling himself “made higher by doing reverence to what is really above him” in order to evade the manifest fact that many of his contemporaries and ours, in the egalitarian spirit of the age, flatly rejected the proposition that there was or is anyone (or anything) “above” them before whom they should “bow down submissive.”
Notwithstanding the bravado of its author, Carlyle’s project was a failure. He recurs to the abstract coinage “Hero-worship” at the historical moment when “bow[ing] down submissive” is finished. An indication of the extent to which the man was overmatched by his times comes in ironic form from the resilience of his term “Hero-worship,” which remains common in discourse nearly 200 years later. Carlyle wrote in praise of “Hero-worship.” Today, hero worship is something parents tell children, teachers tell students, and friends admonish each other not to engage in.
Is the modern world really worse off for its unwillingness to worship heroes—or leaving worship aside, at least to acknowledge that some individuals, by dint of superior achievement, have a superior claim on our respect and admiration?
There is, of course, the counterclaim that the modern world is awash in heroes. Movie stars, athletes, and pop singers command attention and affection as never before. In the recently concluded age of mass culture, Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Elvis, the Beatles—they were like unto gods in terms of capturing the fancy of an adoring public. Of course humans being prone to disagreement—a fact Carlyle conveniently overlooked—many people hated one or all of them. But even the hatred was an artifact of their ability to compel attention. Mass-scale phenomena they remained.
In our age of wiki-culture, the difference is specialization: One need not be a hero to all to be a hero to some. The Internet allows fanciers of almost any specialty to aggregate and to sort themselves, and by a voluntary process to crown champions. Dissenters are no longer out of luck: They have ample opportunity to try banding together to elevate a rival.
Nor is it the case that all of those celebrated are merely celebrities, famous for their success at the intersection of commerce and culture. Many retain a connection to heroism of a Carly-lian sort—the originators of the “things that we see standing accomplished” in the political and social world. Barack Obama was certainly a hero to millions. So was Sarah Palin. So was John Paul II. Teddy Kennedy. George W. Bush. Osama bin Laden (though that’s a more complicated story).
Yet there is also something distinctly un-heroic about most modern-world heroes. The desire people feel to lift them up seems often to be accompanied by an equal and opposite desire to bring them down. Sinatra had quite a set of pipes, but his appetite for an expensive sort of low-life behavior—eating steak and eggs off the chest of a Las Vegas prostitute, for example—while distinctive, was not admirable. Tiger Woods had an equivalent talent and, it turned out, a similar propensity.
As for political figures, the partisan character of politics ensures that at least 25 percent of the population will be willing to believe and repeat the worst about a politician from the opposing camp: Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance; Obama was covering up his foreign birth. After the party nominating conventions in 2008, one could plausibly see both Barack Obama and John McCain as heroic figures: Obama as the first black man to be nominated for president, McCain for his years enduring torture in a North Vietnamese POW camp. Yet a Venn diagram mapping those who regarded Obama as a hero and those regarding McCain as a hero would surely have shown very little overlap. Partisan sentiment more often than not dictates or at least temporarily overrides judgments of character.
Many are the venues today where people gush over the famous. Equally important, however, are the venues devoted to proving that idols have feet of clay. Often, they are the same venues. “You’re ridin’ high in April / shot down in May,” as Ol’ Blue Eyes sang. That’s life. No longer is there a heroic status that attaches itself to a person, in the light of which all the person’s actions, great and terrible alike, count as fundamentally superior to those of lesser mortals. Heroes are a mixture of some form of greatness and an all-too-human baseness, about which people are equally if not more curious. Osama bin Laden was a figure of great evil to most Americans, and, let us be frank, a hero to many Salafist Muslims. How fascinatingly subversive of both views was the screaming headline (it’s called the “wood”) on the front page of the New York Post the day after the revelation that the Navy SEAL team that killed bin Laden found a cache of pornographic DVDs in the compound in Abbottabad: OSAMA BIN WANKIN’. Now, that is cutting someone down to size.
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.