April 17, 2009

Rory Stewart on Heroes

My friend Ahmed found this in a book review from 2005:

Outside the pages of historical romance, it seems the old heroes are dead. We don't permit them to exist. We tend to agree with a more recent global hero, Charlie Chaplin, who wrote: "I'm sorry, but I don't want to be emperor. I don't want to rule or conquer anyone."

This is in some ways a tribute to the maturity in our society. The classical hero was driven, from an early age, by a false and lonely conception of himself. Alexander strove to forge an image and attract worshippers. He was haunted by the competition of dead men and the need to out-do everyone who had ever lived. He was half-aware that his own greatness was partly an act and he gave his life with a social fiction called "honour" for a fantasy called "heroism". To move beyond this is a partial enlightenment.

Yet what is its replacement? The old idea gave a purpose and possibility to human life - it celebrated humanity through the idea of super-humans. We are all now reduced to the last moments of Don Quixote. We still fantasise about heroes like Alexander but when we try to realise our fantasies, we do so half-heartedly - pursuing an idea which we suspect is not only impossible but also ridiculous.