-1Political Philosophy Miclot The Revaluation of One Value, or How to Philosophize with a Hero: Heroism from Modernity to Postmodernity

in Carlyle, Nietzsche, and Saul In previous eras, American heroes have been Presidents, men of honor and courage who single-handedly seemed to alter history. Around these men, a nation built great stories to emphasize their honesty and bravery. More recently, the public’s assumptions of morality that once followed Presidents like a coterie of bodyguards have dissipated, and our leaders have substituted virtue with greed and sex, power and secrecy. Now, the stories Americans tell publicly of their Presidents revolve around how nasty they were in private, though no one knew at the time. Perhaps this change in regard for the Presidency stems from the election of lesser men, perhaps from a postmodern urge to disparage hierarchy, or perhaps a more investigative press is to blame. But regardless of the cause, with the loss of certainty in a leader’s moral worth goes his privileged claim to heroism. The President’s traditional spot in the pantheon of heroes — beside Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln — goes to a hero stand-in, a stunt man, an actor who can give the appearance of heroism without having to work for it. Sometimes, however, the audience confuses these actors with their roles, and this can radically change the way we, as a society, think of and respond to our heroes. More insidiously, the worship of false heroes who conjure their audiences through “emotive tricks” and “personality politics” (Saul 336) can lead to a total dearth of legitimate leadership and an ignorance among the public that could be fatal to a functional democracy. As cultural critic John Saul notes, the proliferation of false heroes carries “us ever deeper into a world where the assumptions of leadership may lean toward parody” (Saul 353). By extension, these assumptions would seem to push us toward a parody of democracy, in which “there is a profound misunderstanding of the mechanism by which orders are given and obeyed” (Saul 346). In forming his conclusions about the nefarious effects of heroes, real or imagined, Saul draws on ADM 21 November 1994

the tradition of hero-worship that begins (at the latest) with Thomas Carlyle, moves through Nietzsche, and ends with a hybrid of contemporary mass culture and politics. If we understand Saul as yearning for something beyond the encompassing rationalism of modernity, we can look back to Nietzsche as initiating the movement beyond modernity, and still further back to see a dyspeptic Carlyle idealizing modernity and worshipping a handful of “Great Men” whose combined biography yields the proud tale of world history. As each of these three men embraces or grapples with modernity, he must also respond to the presence of heroes, men who for one reason or another first rise above and then lead the general citizenry. Carlyle’s distinctly modern view is bad for democracy and perhaps worse for human dignity; Nietzsche, who is more successful than Carlyle in his attempts to elevate himself to heroic status, combats and condemns his predecessor, but seems lackadaisical in his attempts to offer, as Carlyle had, real-world heroes; Saul, disenchanted with civilization’s predilection for prostrating itself before heroes, seems at first ready to dispense with the whole enterprise of heroism, but ultimately simply urges caution. Of the three, Saul’s view is the most applicable to contemporary concerns, but also the least inspiring. Where Carlyle and Nietzsche sing encomiums to their Chosen Ones, Saul hesitates to endorse even the most benign of heroes, for fear that society will once again misapply empty religious customs in the social realm. Despite, perhaps through, Saul’s refusal to support a political system based on heroics, we can isolate his discussion of the heroism, expand on it, and trace the path of the hero as it reflects the transition from modernism to postmodernism. Throughout his Voltaire’s Bastards, Saul reevaluates the work of Nietzsche and Carlyle, accusing them of fueling the fire of reason which has established a “dictatorship of reason in the West.” His remarks on Carlyle generally are accurate, since Carlyle is so blatantly “fawning” (Saul 340) in his pleas for a near-dictatorship led by the Rational Hero. Saul’s commentary on Nietzsche, for reasons that will become clear, is more troubling, mostly because Nietzsche is rarely reluctant to change his opinion, contradict himself, or “create tensions” in his work. As a result, we are left with Saul arguing that Nietzsche “built a perfect nest…in the very heart of modern reason” (Saul 72), while Nietzsche himself wars against

reason, positing it “is the cause of our falsification of the senses” and therefore in part responsible for the erroneous conception of the ideal world, an idea from which Saul himself extrapolates the dangers of the Rational Hero.1 In the Europe of high modernity, heroes mostly originated in the realms of the military. Through their remarkable deeds, generals won the admiration of huge populations, and in the latter’s case, would exploit their new-found status to gain power of their own land after conquering a foreign one. Of course, there was not then, and is not now, any guarantee that good military leadership is synonymous with good political leadership, but nonetheless, in many countries, politicians and generals were indistinguishable from one another. When modernity spawned a monster, it was Napoleon. Saul reports that no one knew quite what to make of him. Was he evil or good, or simply great? Carlyle, writing in the year Napoleon’s body returned to France, implored his contemporaries virtually to deify men like the emperor. He found in such activity a faith that mirrored what he desired from Christianity, but never really seemed to attain. Perhaps Carlyle felt that men like Napoleon, or others only a century or two removed, were more inspiring and accessible than some one as distant, albeit remarkable, as Jesus. In effect, Carlyle in his Heroes and Hero-worship displaces his feelings for Jesus onto a slew of heroes, ranging from Dante to Napoleon, and he offers them the same homage previously reserved only for Christ. Suddenly, in Carlyle, there is a shift from the medieval “Christ” to the modern “Christ-like,” and Carlyle makes only ambivalent attempts to relate it back to the initial object of his adoration. “Hero-worship, heartfelt prostrate admiration, submission, burning, boundless, for a noblest godlike Form of Man,—is not that the germ of Christianity itself?” (Carlyle 19) One can already begin to anticipate Nietzsche’s raging response to Carlyle and his prostrated Christianity, and his fury that man should choose to submit himself so thoroughly. Carlyle, then, is the reluctant modernist, or anachronous medievalist, torn between Jesus and Napoleon, and never really coming to a decision. Nietzsche goes so far as to reduce Carlyle to “an English atheist who wants to be honoured for not being one” (Nietzsche 86). Slyly or according to Nietzsche, unconsciously, replacing Christ with the Christ-like, and yet

continuing to abase humanity, Carlyle in some sense occupied a turning point in modern philosophy and could have stolen the thunder of Zarathustra had he chosen to get off his knees. This is to say that Carlyle explores heroism from the perspective of the common man, despite his insistence throughout his life that he wanted to be a hero himself. Nietzsche, by contrast, had the confidence to think of himself as a genius, a dynamite explosion that occasionally rocks civilization, and so took on the perspective of the hero while philosophizing on other heroes. In so doing, Nietzsche rearranged the hierarchy Carlyle and his successors established, and placed himself alongside his genius-heroes. It is from the position of the hero that Nietzsche revalues of all value, and admonishes those who pity. Since the hero has nothing to gain from pitying, or being pitied, Nietzsche encourages the strongest not to adulterate their strength by giving energy to the weak, but rather to exhaust themselves, to give themselves over to the Dionysian force. Clearly, Nietzsche differs widely from Carlyle on a variety of herorelated issues. Carlyle evidently is guilty of violating Nietzsche’s rule against confusing cause and consequence (Nietzsche 58). The English philosopher subscribes to the erroneous belief which persists even today that a man heroic in one discipline is outstanding in all. Carlyle’s approach to the hero, on a social level, is to “find in any country the ablest man that exists there; raise him to the supreme place” (Carlyle 228). Ablest at what?, Nietzsche might ask. If the man is so able, he would himself rise to the “supreme place,” and if he were not so able to do so, he would not be the appropriate figure for the top of the hierarchy. The ablest general will not necessarily be the ablest politician. This tradition survives today in the United States, in which our President, or supreme politician, also serves as the Commander in Chief of the armed forces. When one considers the usual career path of a politician, though, it seems incongruous with the role of commanding an army. Despite this, an assumption lingers that if someone rises to the Presidency, then that person has lived a meritorious life of honor, courage, and bravery, and is therefore entitled to rule. This assumption holds about the same amount of legitimacy as the belief that family lines will necessarily provide good leaders. The traditional notion of heroes endangers a citi-

zenry because it pushes toward a blind belief that a hero in one field will be equally outstanding in all disciplines. A great militarist is not necessarily a great President, a star athlete is not always the best husband. A hero used to start his career as a soldier, move through the ranks to general, become a military hero, and enter the political realm, where a new hero eventually unseated him. Recently, the trend has been to skip the ugly and inconvenient military stages, begin in the political realm, and through careful manipulation of, and cooperation with, the media, become a celebrity, and then, almost by default, be considered a hero. Strangely, the politician seems to become a hero for being famous, not famous for being a hero. As a result of this quick and perhaps undeserved rise to heroism, the celebrity is not ready for the label “hero” and cannot live up to it. Soon, the same media which propelled him to fame excoriates each of his faults, even those which have nothing to do with the reasons he ascended to celebrity. The loss of one false hero leads to the arrival of another to continue in the cycle until, perhaps, as Saul supposes in a rare moment of optimism, the preponderance of false heroes will eventually allow for a legitimate hero with extraordinary leadership ability who will fill “the chronically empty public stage” (Saul 338). The inability to distinguish between varying realms apparently affected the minds of the politician-generals who often could not differentiate between political and military struggles, and would impose the rational view that a perfect society is as achievable as the nearly perfect, victorious battle. They may not stop to consider that at no point is it possible to look at a society and conclude, we have won. The leap from “I can win a battle, therefore I can build a perfect society” is a faulty one, and the transition is bound to be rough at best. Saul conjectures that for heroic or falsely heroic leaders, especially those who came to power through military authority, this mentality “can give [the hero] the right to use violence,” a measure he describes as the historical “key to power” (Saul 338, 319). The rationalized use of violence is nothing if not modern, and is therefore wins the oblique endorsement of the effete Carlyle who assures his skeptics that whatever the ablest man says or “tells us to do must be precisely the wisest, fittest, that we could anywhere or anyhow learn.”

Such a statement, applied to a contemporary political atmosphere, such as our democracy, has terrifying implications. It is the cult of hero conflating with the cult of the expert: the continuation of the notion that the hero is like God, and as such infallible and all-knowing. The God- and Christ-like aspects of at least Carlyle’s hero-worship cannot be underestimated (as becomes evident in consideration of what Saul calls “The Politics of Immortality”), nor can the negative impact that such a belief system could have on our society. The confidence in the dictatorship of the Hero historically has allowed dictators to supplant whatever democratic, representative institutions a given society may have already had in place. Cromwell, for instance, staged a coup “in the public’s interest” and subsequently “claimed to speak for the people better than the people’s representative” (Saul 338). It should not take long for the public (including Carlyle) to realize with Saul that “all heroes…were the enemy of the public interest” (Saul 319),2 at least when they jumped at the opportunity to seize and revel in power or “personal enrichment” as Cromwell had. For Saul, rationality combines with apotheosis to produce the hero as unquestioned moral agent. Extending Carlyle’s naive assessment of the worth of all the Able Man does and says, and assuming that whatever the Able Man argues is rational, it soon becomes possible to believe that “virtue is regularly redefined to reflect fashion” (Saul 229). Saul’s use of the passive voice in that phrase emphasizes the reciprocity of the hero/herd relationship, in which the two parties sap strength from each other. The hero can rant all he wants about the revaluation of all values, but unless the herd approaches him with the same acclaim they had shown their previous heroes (whether Bismarck, Napoleon, or Christ), his moral declarations will not stand. Building on Saul’s argument that the Hero, once in power, can find justification for almost any action (Saul 339), one might also conclude that an adoring herd will also seek justification for the actions of their hero. Such a process means that the moral code that a Hero introduces will be, by nature, a dynamic one as he finds more and more questionable activities he needs to justify, i.e. rationalize. The Rational Hero’s addiction to reason ends with reason turning out to be not quite so constant as one might think. Such a realization suffices to push one to the brink of modernity.

After dismissing Carlyle’s work as “heroical-moralistical interpretation of dyspepsia” (Nietzsche 85), Nietzsche enters looking for someone beyond reason, someone whose life is built of energy and tragedy, not a mundane preoccupation with reason; someone with the will to power, not the safer will to a system. “I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity” (Nietzsche 35). Anticipating Saul’s “We have…replaced beliefs with systems” (Saul 348) and referring to the rationalist Carlyle, Nietzsche contends that “the desire for strong faith is not proof of strong faith, rather the opposite” (Nietzsche 85) and that modernity has forced the opposites into one system. Saul’s later notion of feigned religious belief seems directly related (as much as he might resist the intimation) to this point of Nietzsche, who now seems actively engaged in the process of destroying “the illness of modernity,” as represented in the thoughts and words of Thomas Carlyle. Nietzsche even finds a name for the need for belief that plagued Carlyle and annoys Saul: “Carlylism…a requirement of weakness” (Nietzsche 184). Thus stated, Nietzsche seems to put to rest the modern hero as the product of herd weakness.3 The Nietzschean hero, or genius, connects with the tragedy in his life and embraces it. It is no challenge for Carlyle’s hero to love himself after winning a battle or crowning himself emperor; it is much more courageous to consider the total suffering of life and choose to live every moment again, forever. Equally heroic is the living in the Dionysian sense, in which all potential is exhausted. Strangely, it is precisely the Dionysian element that allows, maybe forces, Carlyle and Nietzsche, for all their differences, to choose the same hero, Napoleon. The Dionysian part of Napoleon allowed him to accomplish all that he did, and for this reason Carlyle admires him, but it is the element itself, mostly independent of the particular action, that catches Nietzsche’s attention.4 The explosive energy of Napoleon and other geniuses makes Nietzsche sound as cautious as Saul. “The danger which lies in great human beings…is extraordinary; sterility, exhaustion of every kind follow in their footsteps” (Nietzsche 110) he warns, indicating that the arrival of the Great Man (as in Saul’s “natural product of long-term structures) is precipitated by years of energy building up, and because of

the maximizing of the Great Man’s potential, a civilization may be left with nothing after his departure. “The great human being is a terminus. His greatness lies in the fact he expends himself” (Nietzsche 110). If Nietzsche is right, and civilization will be left with nothing afterwards, it seems that Nietzsche leads straight to Saul, whose heroes are vacuous. Where Carlyle’s modern heroes filled their egos with accomplishments and pomp, and Nietzsche’s transitional heroes began abundant and spent themselves, Saul’s postmodern heroes begin and end with little besides an image. Saul’s use of the word “hero” by the end of his chapters on heroism seems as mocking and empty as the figures he discusses. One wonders where, if anywhere, the real heroes in Saul and contemporary society, are hiding. Saul’s initial conception of the hero is “a facile combination of the democratic and rational approaches—simultaneously popular and efficient” (Saul 319), an idea born out of “courage”, “self-sacrifice”, and “humility” (Saul 339) but that soon turns to his brooding about “violence”, “personality”, “actors”, and “monsters”. All these phenomena he holds in contempt, attributing them to the split between “the heroic” and the “Hero”, and the subsequent loss of courage, self-sacrifice, and humility. Where once heroism’s essence, according to Saul, was “submission to unlimited risk”, in other words completely irrational, the rational hero refuses to submit, limits the risk, and is “ego unchained” (Saul 339). In other words, people are not heroic to be good or self-sacrificing, they mock heroism and still attempt to reap its rewards. The postmodern hero concerns himself with the image, and it is no surprise that so many recent “heroes” have come from the entertainment world. From that world, heroes attain the final ingredient of the Hero-as-God recipe: immortality. When heroes used to be like Napoleon, or Frederick the Great, or some seemingly insuperable despot of high modernity, their citizenry could look to them for great military successes combined with a personal charismatic flourish that would lend the nation a general pride that their leader was unfailingly victorious, and by extension, immortal, or at least less mortal than the common person. Don DeLillo writes of this phenomenon in his novel White Noise, in which a professor theorizes that Hitler seemed “larger than death.” This reflects

Saul’s point that “the modern Hero’s power comes from obscuring our mortality” (Saul 351) Such leaders deceive their populace (while the populace deceives the leader) into believing that the apparent immortality and charismatic force make the leaders “a new earthly divinity” (Saul 340). These people become heroes despite their lack of good will and moral worth, because they fill a society’s hero-function. Regrettably, the project of staving off death no longer rests with fearsome despots. Instead, we can look to celebrity-heroes of the entertainment world for imitations of immortality. The best work of these celebrities invariably is preserved on videotape or film, a process which gives their images an eternal youth unparalleled in the real world. Over time, the audience grows old, but the heroes of film and television remain glossy, young, and vibrant, and their charm and talents never wear thin. Once an actor has made a variety of appearances, especially as a similar character, the barrier between actor and role dissolves in a way that has been possible on a large scale only in the twentieth century. The preservation of youth and the illusion of immortality made possible through unchanging media images makes certain historical figures appear as actors, and gives them the aura of the celebrityhero.5 Such is the effect with President Kennedy who, due to his personal charisma, youthful good looks, and cameraready smile, even on the last day of his life, remains a paragon of vitality. His assassination, or more accurately, the images of his assassination rendered him a hero, a martyr, and immortal. Hero disillusionment seems to have pervaded so much of our national mentality that even celebrity-heroes are parodying their position as heroes. John McTiernan’s Last Action Hero stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as Jack Slater, an action movie hero who gets thrown into the real world, where cars do not explode when shot, good guys lose, and his life is a screenwriter’s fiction. The movie suggests the interchangeability of herocelebrities when it shows Sylvester Stallone (not Schwarzenegger) in a movie-world promotion for The Terminator. Last Action Hero also rebels against the idea that heroes are impervious to death. When Slater gets shot in the real world, he nearly dies and must return to the fantasy, movie world to survive. The sequence implies that Schwarzenegger, as an actor, is not himself a hero, and his

characters are heroic only insofar as they remain a fantasy. As soon as they are decontextualized and entered into a complex, real world, the simplicity of their heroic action is insufficient to deal with the discontinuous, almost incoherent, nature of reality. The hero must retreat into fantasy, “the emanation of dreams” (Saul 340). This, suggests Saul, is exactly where he belongs. 3809 words Sources Carlyle, Thomas. Heroes and Hero-worship. McClurg, 1891. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols / Anti-Christ. 1990. Saul, John. Voltaire’s Bastards. Vintage. 1992. Graphic Summary Hero-worshipper Modernism Carlyle Good Good Nietzsche Bad Good Saul Bad Bad (mostly) Heroes


1By the same token, Saul’s points on Nietzsche are often valid, though it is occasionally necessary to go outside Voltaire’s Bastards to discover this. E.g., Nietzsche’s lifeworld hero, Cesare Borgia, was (famously) espoused by the great dictator of reason, Machiavelli. 2This is not to say that I believe all heroes, by definition, are enemies of the public interest, but rather that the rose-colored view and prostrate perspective of Carlyle is too dangerous to employ in an already risky political environment. Saul’s comment, typically dour, counterbalances Carlyle’s ecstatic optimism. 3This relates to (perhaps) Bloy’s belief (quoted in Saul) in “the excitement of being dominated. 4Nietzsche and Carlyle also share admiration of Goethe, though again for different reasons. Reading Carlyle gives only vague reasons as to why he feels Goethe “is the notablest of all Literary Men” and “our chosen specimen of the hero as literary man would be this Goethe” (Carlyle, 184). 5C.f. the cover art of Voltaire’s Bastards, featuring Voltaire and the lovely Marilyn Monroe.

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