Is the West’s Culture of Heroism Under Threat?
Tod Lindberg, The Heroic Heart: Greatness Ancient and Modern (Encounter Books, 2015)
My friend Tod Lindberg has written an interesting and important book on the changing nature of heroism. I disagree with much of it, but I encourage you to read it, because The Heroic Heart is a learned rumination on a subject crucial to the preservation of Western society: Do our modern notions of heroism make us vulnerable to attack from without and corrosion from within? I desperately wish more writers wrestled with ideas about martial valor and their consequences for our society.
At a time when Western military forces comprise only a small slice of the state’s body politic (in the United States, less than one half of one percent of Americans are in military service) those of us who benefit from their protection have little exposure to the culture of heroism inculcated in our military. Not only is understanding that culture important to properly valuing those men and women’s contributions to our well-being, but in a political system that subordinates our military to control by civilians, it is also essential to properly utilizing deadly force.
Lindberg argues that heroism in the ancient world centered on selfish excellence at destruction, whereas our modern conception of heroism is constructed from a selflessness of sacrifice in generosity to others. He contends that this progression tracks the democratization of our societies: As political order became institutionalized (and therefore not at risk of overthrow by heroes), our notion of heroism also democratized, broadening to include the kinds of excellence that speak to prosperous societies largely at peace.
Achilles of the Iliad is his avatar of the ancients, a malevolent force driven by an inner sense of greatness. New York City’s firefighters running into the World Trade Center on 9/11 exemplify his modern notion. And what happens in between is the institutionalization of political power in the West. But it does this book an injustice to draw a straight line from one to the other. Moreover, it would give short shrift to so much of the beautiful and the interesting in between. And it is those chapters of the book that are the most enlivening.
The Heroic Heart is a quixotic book: It commences with a discourse on the genesis of language, explores Lucretia’s suicide, Henry Kissinger’s self-deprecating wit, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Joan of Arc, juxtaposes de Tocqueville versus Nietzche, evaluates the risk of a Seven Days in May military backlash as society stigmatizes classical heroism, and concludes with the ominous prospect that although our Western societies are uncomfortable lionizing physical bravery and excellence at killing, our enemies are not. It includes an elegant discourse on British poetry from World War I, as the glory of empire was overtaken by the exorbitant butcher’s bill of trench warfare, which is reason enough to buy this book. And Lindberg looks at interesting places for evidence of changing attitudes. For instance, he tracks the evolving language in Medal of Honor citations in one particularly interesting proof.
But I read differently many of the texts he explores in The Heroic Heart and believe he excludes important elements that would disrupt his Hegelian progression of heroism from narcissist to sacrificial figure. If Jesus Christ can be employed as an example of our modern notion of self-sacrificing heroism, it’s not a modern notion.
To take an example at length, Lindberg’s description of the Iliad as a tale of Achilles’ self-actualizing butchery is too pinched a reading of Homer. What makes the Iliad compelling isn’t Achilles’ compulsion for glory. That is merely the catalyst for propelling the story in all its dimensions. Achilles is a tragic figure because he chooses the glory of achievement and he is accessible to us moderns because it is a conscious choice. He is a tragic figure because his petulance sets in motion the death of his dearest human connection, Patroklous. He is accessible to us moderns because his grief both devastates him and enables him to attain the greatness he chose as his fate, returning to the fight with a vengeance to kill Hector, which leads to Troy’s destruction.
Lindberg also ignores Homer’s inclusion of other heroic models. Odysseus’ involvement is sacrificial, compelled to join Agamemnon’s force because his Ithaca cannot afford to make so powerful an enemy. His stratagems are all driven by an effort to preserve the cause and minimize losses. The Trojan side, too, has its heroes, and their virtue is “the caring will” Lindberg characterizes as uniquely modern — Hector’s name translates as “holder,” or “preserver.”
Moreover, Homer, writing a thousand years before Christ, even draws women who meet Lindberg’s description: Hector’s wife Andromache persuades him to offer himself in single combat against any Greek to determine the outcome of the war. Christopher Logue, the best modern interpreter of Homer, contrasts Helen with Andromache’s bravery and intelligence as “From diadem past philtrum on to peeping shoes / You show another school of beauty.”
And what is Virgil’s Aeneas but the protector of Troy’s survivors, risking himself to shepherd them to safety in Latium? The Aeneid describes him as having an “attentive heart,” and the abiding virtue of endurance amidst adversity. Surely Shakespeare’s Henry V cares for the destruction he will visit upon France, since he pleads with the Dauphin not to occasion it. Lindberg skips completely over the soldier’s-eye perspective from the American Civil War, which prefigured much of the effect he describes so beautifully with British poetry in World War I.
Lindberg is certainly right that our colloquial use of the term hero has broadened: Teachers that inspire underprivileged children and civic leaders in blighted communities are described as heroic by virtue of their commitment to positive change rather than their exposure to risk of death. And he rightly ridicules its extension to celebrities and “truth tellers.” But even in the ancient world, civic virtues were appreciated alongside martial ones: Aristotle describes the civic as lesser because military heroism is necessary to produce the conditions for civic life.
And that is my central disagreement with Lindberg’s argument: He ascribes to political evolution a change equally explicable by increased safety. To put it another way, we apply the term mostly now to people who don’t risk death by their actions because our societies are so safe. It may be a function of increased security rather than form of government. And it may not be immutably directional — when safety is compromised, we may well revert to more martial attitudes on heroism.
Hegel’s dialectic reigns supreme in Lindberg’s thinking. He admirably cannot celebrate the luxurious modernity of heroic schoolteachers without worrying that paradigm contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. He can imagine it occurring either with a bang (the rise of a Hitlerian villain with the power to subjugate societies grown weak) or a whimper (“the gradual abandonment of the classically liberal principles that animate the modern world and provide its dynamism”). It is the fingerprint of this book that its author, an advocate of not only the universality of Western values, but also of international institutions like the International Criminal Court to enforce them, also worries about the risks of their expansion.
Tod Lindberg worries a lot. A lot. His concerns about the changing nature of heroism and what it means for our safety make for a wonderful and important book.
Kori Schake, Ph.D. is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
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