Of Heroism and Liberty

While heroism may seem a forbidding theme, in Tod Lindberg’s hands it becomes an engaging one. He fashions a grand historical narrative with heroism at its center, explaining where we are and how we’ve gotten there. And yes, liberty too proves a major theme because inseparable from the others. While heroism has meant different things in different times, Lindberg’s distinctively modern hero serves equality and liberty.

Lindberg subscribes unapologetically to the old view that the core of heroism is courage. “The distinctive characteristic of the heroic figure is the willingness to risk death,” he writes. While only too aware that contemporary notions of heroism tend toward the fluffy, he shows himself willing, near the end of the book, to meet CNN (and its annual feel-good “Heroes” competition) half way. People who open soup kitchens for the homeless qualify as heroes of a sort, he grants, because they practice the heroic virtue not of courage but of “generosity.” Generosity, which is personal and unpredictable, makes all our peaceful liberal democratic lives just a little bit nicer and a little less dependent on impersonal public bureaucracies.

This endorsement of prevailing opinion—that the generous are the heroes of everyday modern life—was something of a let-down, I have to admit. To be fair, though, most of The Heroic Heart: Greatness Ancient and Modern is about Achilles, Patroclus, Alexander, Caesar, King Arthur, Napoleon, and (in a more democratic key) American soldiers, police, and firefighters.

What Lindberg offers explicitly is a grand history of heroism. The interplay between heroism and liberty is a subordinate theme but a recurring one. Lindberg is anything but a grouch lamenting heroism’s past golden age. He strongly affirms historical progress and the evolution of heroism in keeping with it. Inasmuch as ordered liberty has superseded earlier principles of human association, we should heartily congratulate ourselves. We should also embrace the implications of this evolution for the practice of greatness or heroism.

Lindberg begins with classical or pure heroism, that of the epic tradition as personified by Homer’s Achilles. (He offers a charming excursus on the epic of Gilgamesh.) For the pure hero, heroism is an end in itself. He serves no cause except insofar as it permits him to exhibit his inner greatness. Locked in an endless contest for superiority, he manifests himself primarily as a slayer.

Through what we might call the dialectic of heroism, however, history has worked to tame the slayer. Each of its epochs from feudalism onward has left heroism somewhat more amenable to reason and so (in the end) to the dictates of liberty. We conclude with the hero as not slayer but saver, the defender of the lives of ordinary people. Yet Lindberg does not preach complacency, for new versions of the hero as slayer—now as the sworn foe of liberty—threaten our peaceful societies from without. And any breakdown of liberal society could rouse such demons from within.

It will clarify Lindberg’s project to relate it to that of a predecessor whom he discusses, the Scottish author Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). Carlyle, one of the great declaimers of the 19th century, wrote On Heroes: Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (1841). He sought to make his own time more receptive to heroism, but also to update the latter to respond to the needs of that time and of those to come. In a world increasingly dominated by commerce, industry, and the hard-headed rationalism of an ascendant middle class, swordplay, however deft, no longer cut it. So Carlyle redefined heroism as more than martial prowess. It was now “greatness” in a broader sense, and as such highly relative to the epoch in which each hero lived.

Through “greatness” the Viking berserker of the misty past linked hands with frock-coated contemporaries of Carlyle devoted to peaceful cultural pursuits. By thus demoting warfare to being one (largely obsolete) form of heroism among many, Carlyle sought to rehabilitate heroism for an increasingly peaceful future.

Lindberg rightly treats Carlyle as a now-dated forebear. By recrafting the hero as a historically situated engine of culture, Carlyle sought to give liberalism and progress their due while scotching egalitarianism. The distinction between the great and the rest of us remained, as did our dependency on them. “The history of the world,”  Carlyle declaimed, “is but the biography of great men.” This didn’t wash. As egalitarianism grew ever more pervasive (as per the analysis of Carlyle’s contemporary, Alexis de Tocqueville) Carlyle’s notions became ever less congenial. As Lindberg notes pointedly, hero worship, which Carlyle promoted, is something we’re warned to avoid.

Much to Carlyle’s posthumous distress, popular culture has largely ditched greatness in favor of celebrity, our admiration of which is as evanescent as it is ambiguous. Indeed, with the advent of what Lindberg calls “the age of wikiculture,” celebrity has become simultaneously fragmented and diluted, measured by numbers of Twitter followers. If there is a heroic type apt for our Wikileaks era, it is the supposed seeker after suppressed truths supposedly victimized for his fearlessness (for example, Al Gore or Sarah Palin, both of whom profited handsomely). Lindberg is terrific on this stuff: one can only regret that the pseudo-heroic Trump candidacy came along  too late for Lindberg to get his hooks in it.

All of which raises the question of what, if any, version of genuine heroism is compatible with our age of skeptical egalitarianism. There is, moreover, another crucial reason why Carlyle’s defense of heroism requires updating by Lindberg. It is that the future to which Carlyle looked so hopefully has proved far less peaceful than he supposed. The implications of this for heroism have proved highly ambiguous.

On balance, modern warfare and our perception of it have proved unfriendly to heroism. From the mid-19th century onward—historians generally see the Crimean War of 1853 to 1856 as the watershed—industrialized warfare prevailed. Not only soldiers but civilians suffered as never before. (The first version of the Geneva Conventions was a response to the horrific carnage of the battle of Solferino in 1859.) And this of course was but prelude to the massive horrors of the two world wars and so many other conflicts including the current Syrian shambles.

One predictable effect of this industrialization of war has been to devalue military heroism.  Soldiers have increasingly appeared but cogs and victims of (if not complicit in) vast mechanisms of destruction. Lindberg offers an excellent discussion of this tendency and its manifestations in everything from the literature of war to the design of war memorials. His brilliant discussion of the National Vietnam War Memorial in Washington would itself warrant buying the book, if there weren’t so many other reasons to do so.

This progressive deglorification of warfare has only exacerbated the Carlylian tendency to relocate heroism (such as it is) elsewhere. Yet however modern warfare may have compromised heroism, it hasn’t succeeded in abolishing it. Lindberg looks to Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down (1999) for a soldier’s-eye-view of these issues. American Special Forces troops are all volunteers, not just as soldiers but as members of elite combat units. They know that they have signed up to fight and many of them look forward to it.

What the Army Rangers and Delta Force operators displayed on that day in Mogadishu in 1993 when everything went so horribly wrong was above all devotion to unit and comrade. As Lindberg presents them they were very much contemporary liberal democratic citizens—not typical ones, to be sure, but not throwbacks either. The America they defended was the one they shared with the rest of us. Today’s heroes, even those especially trained as slayers, evince no taste for the lofty and antidemocratic. In recent years I’ve seen something of our troops, including those from the Special Operations Forces, and my own observations confirm Lindberg’s.

In the years since World War II, moreover, the template for military courage has changed. In the armed forces, as in the broader society, the hero as saver has come to the fore. Lindberg establishes this by considering the awarding of Congressional Medals of Honor. While formerly these went mostly to those who had risked or lost their lives to kill the enemy, they now go to those who expose themselves to save their comrades. Saving comrades may also require slaying the enemy, but the shift in emphasis has been clear from the citations accompanying the medal.

That most of us in Western democracies have led ever more peaceful lives has obviously not abolished all significant threats to those lives. Since 9/11, if not before, that premise has been nothing but wishful thinking. In a chapter entitled “The Return of the Slaying Hero?,” Lindberg considers the threat posed to the West by Islamist terrorism, and the need for us to ramp up our heroism in turn.

Yet if this is the threat that the future holds, the contrast between their heroes and ours is clear. The first (and iconic) heroes of the long war—the passengers on Flight 93 and the firefighters who rushed into the Twin Towers—are as fine examples of saving heroes as one could wish. As for Army Rangers, the “D-boys” of Delta Force, and of course Navy Seals, whatever slaying they have to do will still fall under the rubric of saving. They are heroes of liberty, not of some ambition—whether the ancient one of endless conquest, the medieval one of purity of faith, or the modern one of fanatical ideology—to abolish it over the dead bodies of multitudes.

Like any summary of the complex argument of a good book, mine has done justice neither to that complexity nor that goodness. Lindberg excels  at painting with a broad stroke and also at attending  to nuance. Perhaps his greatest gift as a writer is simply his exceptional clarity. This includes his talent for simplification in a good sense. He even makes it seem easy to negotiate the twists and turns of the Iliad: if you have read it, you know that it’s not. He effortlessly intermingles fictional characters with historical ones, King Arthur with Napoleon, appropriating as much of each as (but no more than) is necessary for his purposes. (Whether they are historical or fictional hardly matters, as they serve Lindberg’s argument rather as Weberian ideal types.) Lindberg the literary juggler keeps many balls in the air without that air space ever seeming crowded.

I will note one lacuna in the book and a couple of reservations concerning Lindberg’s depiction of the hero.

The gap is the absence of any thematic treatment of a type of classical hero very different from Achilles, namely the ancient citizen. Given Lindberg’s concern with a heroism that serves liberty, it is surprising that he writes so little of premodern republicanism. True, what the ancients meant by liberty is not what we mean, and their republics differed widely from ours. Still, our tradition drew considerable inspiration from theirs, and even a discussion dwelling on the differences between their conception of heroism and ours would have furthered Lindberg’s purposes.

Oddly, Lindberg treats the role of heroism in the gestation of ancient republics, as well as in the republics’ ultimate subversion by delinquent heroic types like Caesar. He implies that in between (and therefore in their flourishing), republics relied on some sort of bargain between the heroic individual and the greater non-heroic public. Heroes condescended to serve their republics or were bought off from opposing them. Lindberg recognizes that even in the decadence of the Roman Republic the commitment of some of its grandees was sincere. What he fails to relate is Rome’s earlier success (and that of its Hellenic predecessors such as Athens and Sparta) in nurturing whole citizen bodies whose ethos was quasi-heroic.

This is the solution sketched, for example, by the Athenian statesman Pericles in his famous funeral oration preserved for us by Thucydides: a democracy of the highest nobility, every citizen of which displays high courage in its service.[1] While Pericles’ speech posed as a description it is better understood as an exhortation. Still, Athenian democracy demanded of many the heroism that we require of only a few. However our democracies have improved on those of antiquity, they haven’t matched them in this respect.

A second question concerns Lindberg’s analysis of classical heroism in the primary or epic sense. This heroism remains for him the core of all subsequent incarnations. As we have seen, one of his major themes is “the ways in which the heroic type shapes politics and the political world shapes heroism.” He shows how successive epochs of society have sought to tame heroism to serve their respective needs. Yet it may be that heroism as such is more the product of society than he acknowledges. Is the hero, even in his full Achillean glory, truly responding not to the demands or opinions of others but to his own inner voice?

In other words might this notion of heroism be too romantic, in the precise sense of that term? (And might this be another respect in which Lindberg takes after Carlyle?) Within Hellenic thought after Homer there was a long tradition of questioning the inner independence of the Achillean type. This found expression in Sophoclean tragedy (consider his Ajax and Philoctetes), in Aristophanic comedy, and in Socratic philosophy (as expressed in the writings of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle). Reflecting on their own culture which had been deeply shaped by the Achillean model, these thinkers came to see it as deeply flawed, and the hero as self-deluded. They saw his obsession with honor as confirming not his independence from society but his radical dependence on it. In the language of Socratic philosophy, the life of the hero was guided not by nature but by convention.

Indeed Homer himself presents the hero more critically than Lindberg tends to acknowledge. The theme of the Iliad after all, is the wrath of Achilles (the Greek term for which is cognate with that for madness). Are we really to think that anyone as deeply angry as Achilles possesses inner independence? Someone who will consign all his fellow Achaeans to death, if need be, rather than swallow a slight to his honor?

While the hero may understand his actions as the “outward manifestation of [his] inner greatness” he also demands that the rest of us recognize it as such. He craves not just the deference of his fellows but the admiration of all posterity. As with the fictional Achilles, so with the actual Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon. And who can doubt that that modern monster of heroism, the fanatical ideologue, has succumbed to some variant of this delusion? What a Lenin or a Hitler or a Pol Pot did was done for all time to come and for the admiration and gratitude of all posterity.

This obsession with the good opinion of others undermines the hero’s claim to listen only to his inner voice. Therefore Lindberg’s distinction between the heroic type and the merely aristocratic one dependent on the approval of his peers may not stand up to scrutiny.

For similar reasons it is doubtful that, as Lindberg claims, Achilles accepts his mortality. Is not the hero’s preoccupation with the immortality of renown the obverse of his failure to resign himself to his actual mortality? And to return to Achilles’ pervasive wrathfulness, is it not also symptomatic of this failure? The acknowledged model of such resignation, Socrates, did not carry around a chip on his shoulder as large as Mount Ida.

Of course not every hero is of an Achillean type; there is also Lindberg’s saving hero, whose ambitions are more moderate and character steadier. In a highly original discussion of Homer’s Patroclus, Lindberg suggests that the poet presents him as a model of the saving hero, not as nobler than Achilles but as better than him. (This is even more obviously true of Homer’s presentation of Achilles’ doomed Trojan antagonist Hector, although personally I will say—and will even suspect that I speak for Homer—that these are cases in which better is also nobler.)[2]

If Lindberg is right about Patroclus, the latter could lodge a more persuasive claim than Achilles to have acted with genuine deliberation and in accordance with his inner voice. Still there remains a tension between Lindberg’s own pervasive historicism and his assertion of the hero’s inner autonomy. If in fact “the political world shapes heroism” as thoroughly as Lindberg contends, isn’t it best understood as a norm inculcated by society? And which, like all other such norms, attests not to our independence from society but our dependence on it?

If there were a life of true liberty available to human beings, it would rest on the independence of the mind in the face of society’s persistent efforts to mold it. Every society inevitably promotes inner dependence on itself. Inner independence is exceedingly rare, rarer even than heroism. For unheroic reasons of its own, society places heroes on a pedestal: would they exist if it didn’t? Here again the ancient citizen is relevant to the argument, attesting to the extent to which heroes are not born but made.

A final question concerns the role of Christianity in all this. Not until late in the book does Lindberg tell us that Jesus is his anti-Achilles: the very model of the saving as opposed to the slaying hero, and therefore of modern heroism. He is not the first to cast Jesus as a hero (rather than the Incarnation of God). Ernest Renan thus “modernized” him in his Vie de Jésus (1863). This claim is problematic, however, in the context of the book’s overall  argument. For Jesus, while he sacrificed his life for others, preached non-resistance to evil. He could therefore model even the modern hero only if saving never required slaying.

These reservations are quibbles, however. Do jostle heroically with other patrons to purchase this outstanding book.

[1] Readers wishing to pursue the question of courage in democratic Athens should consult Ryan K. Balot, Courage in the Democratic Polis: Ideology and Critique in Classical Athens (Oxford University Press, 2014).

[2] On the Iliad see Peter J. Ahrensdorf, Homer on the Gods and Human VirtueCreating the Foundations of Classical Civilization (Cambridge University Press, 2014).