Esolen says that a hero “extends the limits of what is human. If he does so in the service of something good and noble, we love him so much the better for it,” but that there are often admirable traits even in our enemies. Heroes are special and out of the ordinary and lift our imaginations out of the mundane. (Although Esolen makes a distinction between hero worship and idol worship, I am still uneasy lifting up the word “worship” as applied to anyone but God, so every time I read “worship” in this context I am translating it, in my mind, to “veneration.”)
Anyone who sacrifices for others, or who exercises self-control is beyond the comprehension of most of the people I know. The advice to “follow your heart” offered as the most profound wisdom makes me want to vomit. Following your heart just means doing what makes you happy without regard to anyone else – it is selfishness with a public relations spin.
We can nullify the power of the hero to lift the imagination by saying that nothing is excellent or that everything is excellent. If everything is excellent, then nothing rises above everything else and “excellence” has been redefined to mean ordinary. Where this leaves me and my penchant for diy projects and my occasional craving for punk rock music, I just don’t know. While serving breakfast to my children might not be heroic, doing it faithfully, day after day, for a life time sure feels that way sometimes. But I digress.
We cut down our heroes by fostering contempt and laughing at anything different or at anyone who does anything difficult or noble. We often do this by downplaying or ignoring their special qualities, their greatness, and emphasizing their need to put their pants on one leg at a time, or worse, by magnifying their flaws. Simcha Fisher blogged about this back in September. It’s a good read. My contribution to that conversation in the comment section was to offer part of the quote below, spoken by the character, Maurice Minifield from the television show, Northern Exposure.
I was playing army with the Marshall boys, Jed and Jeff, in Baily’s Wood and Jeff said, kind of off-handedly, that John Wayne didn’t do his own fighting: didn’t throw his own punches, didn’t take his own hits or his own falls. Well, I kicked the hell out of the Marshall boys and then I ran all the way home and asked my daddy if it was true that John Wayne didn’t do his own fighting. He said yes. John Wayne was my hero and the Marshall boys gave him feet of clay.
I don’t give a damn if Walt Whitman kicked with his right foot or his left foot, or that J. Edgar Hoover took it better than he gave it, or that Ike was true blue to Mamie, or that God-knows-who had troubles with the ponies or with the bottle. We need our heroes. We need men we can look up to, believe in. Men who walk tall. We cannot chop ‘em off at the knees just to prove they’re like the rest of us.
Now, Walt Whitman was a pervert, but he was the best poet that America ever produced, and if he were standing here today and somebody called him a fruit or a queer, behind his back or to his face or over these airwaves, that person would have to answer to me.
Sure, we’re all human, but there’s damn few of us that have the right stuff to be called heroes.
And that closes the book on that subject.
Cindy at Ordo Amoris is hosting a book club for Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child by Anthony Esolen, Ph.D.