Category: Xenophon

Living Without Heroes

“I think continually of those who were truly great–
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.”

-Stephen Spender

I don’t have heroes any more. Not really. When I was growing up there were certain sports stars I revered and as a six year old I looked on in wonder as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin gamboled about on the pitted, ancient surface of the moon.

Now I’m a man in my mid-forties and my views on the subject of heroes have been jaundiced by decades of lies and evasions from leaders of all political persuasions. Athletes these days are remote, rich and juiced on any performance enhancing drug they can get their hands on. And it turns out that Neil Armstrong is a rather cold, undemonstrative man and Buzz Aldrin spent the entire Apollo mission sulking because he wasn’t going to be the first one out the hatch once they set down in the Sea of Tranquility.

Heroes nowadays are at a disadvantage—Caesar and Alexander and Boadicea never had to put up with celebrity biographers (just malicious gossip), the Andrew Mortons and Kitty Kelleys of the world peeping in keyholes and tracking down anyone with a bit of tittle to tattle. It’s hard to rally the citizenry and inspire high minded ideals while trying to cover up or defend some transgression or moral lapse. The optics are really awful.

When I’m looking for a bit of inspiration, a true tale to remind me of the strength and resilience of the human spirit, I look to the past, often the very distant past. Seeking those individuals who seized control of their own fates, who were determined, regardless of the cost “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” (Tennyson). These men and women didn’t employ spin doctors or commission polls before determining policies and tactics.

We don’t find leaders of the quality of Leonidas, Xenophon or Marcus Aurelius in the halls of power these days. No figures of unimpeachable authority and strength to admire and emulate.

Take a look at the head of state of your country. Would you follow that person to the ends of the earth, serve them without question, suffer extreme deprivation, enter the very depths of Hell itself at their behest?

I rest my case.

Do the soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq feel heroic, like latter-day versions of Achilles and Agamemnon, laying siege to the fortresses of terrorism? Or are they just guys and gals who have a job to do, a family to support, hoping and praying each and every night before they bed down that they’ll survive their tours of duty?

We’ve become a smaller people, soft and pliant; hedonistic narcissists, indifferent to the world around us. We don’t dare dream and rarely does our gaze stray to the horizon line (for the most part we keep our heads down and try not to meet anyone’s eyes).

Historical narratives presented by the likes of Stephen Pressfield, Conn Iggulden, Robert Graves and Michael Curtis Ford evoke past ages with thrilling vigor and elan. These authors devote incredible time and energy researching the great and near great, presenting us with gorgeous, vibrant, utterly convincing portrayals that are documentary-like in their realism, provoking a constant sense of you are there. In the process, we are reminded of what frail and timid things we are in comparison, how addicted to creature comforts, how far removed from suffering and strife. We were a much sturdier, hardier breed in days of yore.

In America, it was the pioneers who came closest to the kind of heroic courage that is the making of myths and legends. Unfortunately, they soon gave way to the lawyers and bankers, mercantilism replacing true grit. From Kit Carson and Jim Bridger, Lewis & Clark and Davey Crockett to being a “nation of shopkeepers”.

I grieve for what has been lost—the price of “progress”, which seems to instill a desire for stability, comfort…and mediocrity. I crave heroes, the visions and dreams they inspire. We’re poorer as a species without such men and women. They show us what might be possible if we exert ourselves for a higher purpose and deny or withhold from us the bright attractions of commonplace things.