"A hero cannot be a hero," said Nathaniel Hawthorne, "unless in an heroic world."
Maybe that helps explain why we no longer have heroes in this country—at least no larger-than-life national heroes worthy of the name. Arguably we live in singularly unheroic times. True, the potential for catastrophe today is limitless. But so ambiguous in form, effect, and importance are the circumstances we regularly face that events no longer seem capable of making the person. Now instead is a time that calls for men and women who can shape events.
Thomas Carlyle, the 19th-century Scottish historian, said: "Society is founded on hero worship." Historically, that may once have been true. It may even be true of other societies today. It certainly isn't true of America. We are a society of celebrity worshipers, voyeurs of the rich and famous. We are infatuated by celebrities. We idolize them. We grovel in their presence. We try to look and be like them. We mistake them for heroes. To most of us, who you are and know is much more important than what you do or stand for.
Celebrities, though, are qualitatively quite different than heroes, markedly inferior to them in fact. The celebrity is nothing but a person of celebrity, well known for his well-knownness (as historian Daniel Boorstin put it), famous for being famous. Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, and Walter Cronkite are celebrities. Michael Jordan, Barry Bonds, and Tiger Woods are celebrities. So too Bill Gates, Ted Turner, and Donald Trump, Bob Dole and Jesse Jackson, even John McCain and Colin Powell.
Heroes, in contrast, are transcendent, mythic, seemingly superhuman figures who combine greatness with goodness. They may have charisma, presence, and "gravitas"; they must demonstrate courage, vision, and character—selfless character. Heroes have stature, if not size. Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel come quickly to mind. Non-heroes and anti-heroes lack stature, even if possessed of size. Bill Clinton, the quintessential postmodern anti-hero of our day, who demeaned and diminished most of what he touched, comes even more quickly to mind.
I live in Virginia, so I, like other Virginians, perhaps have an unfair advantage in appreciating the importance of heroes and understanding what they're made of. Even if we deny heroic standing to such famous sons of the commonwealth as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Patrick Henry, Sam Houston, and John Marshall, we still have George Washington, Robert E. Lee, and adopted son George Marshall to shine the eternal light of exemplification upon the rest of us.
Of Washington, Jefferson said: "His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known, no motives of interest or consanguinity, of friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decisions."
Of Lee, Senator Benjamin Hill of Georgia observed: "He was a public officer without vices; a private citizen without wrong; a neighbor without reproach; a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guile. He was a Caesar, without his ambition; Frederick, without his tyranny; Napoleon, without his selfishness, and Washington, without his reward."
Of Marshall, George Kennan extolled "his unshakable integrity, his consistent courtesy and gentlemanliness of conduct, his ironclad sense of duty; his imperturbability—the imperturbability of a good conscience—in the face of harassments, pressures and criticisms; his deliberateness and conscientiousness of decision; his serene readiness—once a decision had been made—to abide by its consequences, whatever they might be; his indifference to the whims and moods of public opinion."
Why do we need heroes—today more than ever? First, because we are all followers at heart. We praise and preach leadership, but we practice followership. Consciously or not, we constantly seek someone beyond ourselves to tell us when and how high to jump. Better that we relinquish ourselves to someone worthy of adulation and veneration than to the many charlatans and demagogues who prey on us.
Second, we are adrift, wandering aimlessly in a post-Cold War intellectual and spiritual desert, unable to remember who we are or whither we should be tending. There must be someone of supernal dignity and virtue who can lead us out of our anomie and ennui.
Third, we are cynical, disillusioned, drained of the respect that would justify placing unconditional trust in public figures who presume to claim our allegiance. So, we turn to athletes and entertainers for escape.
Finally, despite our self-deluding sense of superiority as a country—you know, world's only superpower and all that—we are less than we could be as individuals and as a people. Ultimately that's what heroes do for us: They make us mere mortals want to be better. As Emerson observed: "Great men exist that there may be greater men."
Would that we could find among us someone who is up to this great task. There's an empty pedestal waiting to be mounted.
Gregory D. Foster is a professor at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University, Washington, D.C., where he previously has served as George C. Marshall Professor and J. Carlton Ward Distinguished Professor and Director of Research. The views expressed here are his own. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.