Welcome one and all to the seventieth volume of the Areopagus. No seven lessons this week. I have, instead, written for your perusal and critique and — I hope! — enjoyment, an essay. It was Michel de Montaigne, that solitary Frenchman, who invented the "essay" as we understand it today. Alone in his castle library in 16th century France, while Europe tore itself to pieces in the Wars of Religion, Montaigne set himself "trials" — essais in French, thus becoming essays in English — on subjects as varied as the education of children, cuisine, liars, and cannibals. That is what I have done, then. And it is heroes I have chosen to write about. Why? I think they are a marvellous way of journeying through history, of seeing and understanding history — and thus of seeing and understanding ourselves all the more clearly.
I should mention, also, that I will roll over the answers to last week's question to next week. I asked:
Can money make a person truly happy?
There's still time to answer, then. Email me your responses and I'll share them in next week's newsletter.
And now — onwards! As Leonard Bernstein once said, quoting somebody whose name I cannot remember, "I claim the right to be wrong." Such a right I claim also, and where I have erred I have no doubt you shall lead me right. So let us think about "heroes" and see what we discover in the thinking thereof...
Ludwig van Beethoven (1803)
Performed by the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
Since I have decided to write about heroes it only seems appropriate that, for our musical introduction, I should choose Ludwig van Beethoven's Third Symphony, usually known as the Sinfonia Eroica, which means "Heroic Symphony". Why? Because when Beethoven wrote this symphony he was thinking of a man who, at that time, was regarded as the hero: Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul of the French Republic. Beethoven was inspired by Napoleon to write it and even named the symphony after him. It was called, simply, Bonaparte. Napoleon was at that time regarded as the man who had risen to sweep away the rotten old order of Europe, a true hero who would surely usher in a new and better age of liberty, democracy, and equality. Lord Byron even had a bust of Napoleon on his mantlepiece. That is to say, whether in Austria or England, Napoleon was the one to whom all liberally-minded Europeans looked up. Such then, was the spirit of Beethoven's Third. No longer merely Classical in the Viennese sense of the late 18th century, with the perfectly rational, restrained, and harmonious music of Mozart and Haydn, but imbued with a Romantic grandeur and fervour. Here we hear the first and second movements.
But why is Beethoven's Third no longer called Bonaparte? Because, in December of 1804, Napoleon had himself crowned Emperor. In a flash the democratic dream was gone; in a single moment that promise of liberty was dashed on the rocks of Napoleon's megalomania. Upon hearing the news of his coronation Beethoven ripped out the dedication to Napoleon from his manuscript and even tried to destroy the music altogether — had it not been for the intervention of his friends then we would have no Eroica, as it was retitled, to speak of.
I want a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one.
History is yours. You can look at it, chew it up, throw it around, dissect, venerate, ignore, and do with it as you please. There are no “rules” for how one ought to think about history, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. We usually think about it chronologically, following a course of events from one year to the next. But we can also take a particular theme, such as art or food or technology, and see history through those lenses. We can read books about history, or we can read history itself, or – better yet – we can go and look for history in the dust and the stones. Even the words we use — etymology — present a winding path, not often chronological, always surprising, across nations and eras.
And so beware the person who tells you that history is this or that – for it belongs to all of us, and we must make of it what we will. And, should I be so bold, we must be careful with where we get our history – we must not rely too heavily on “history books” or “books about history” or “brief histories…” and so on. Why? Because there is more history in one rusty doorhandle than in all the history books ever written. I do not mean to disparage facts whatsoever – I am fond of dates, names, and places – but facts can only take us so far. Understanding is more valuable than knowledge – and we shall secure a far deeper understanding of history by contemplating the long and storied life of an old and rusty doorhandle than by reading any number of scholarly or intellectual or Dryasdust books about “this” and “that”.
Try to imagine them – the thousands of hands that have touched this little patch of burnished bronze, hands which belonged to real people, just like you and I with our grumpy mornings and our evenings of hopes and fears. How old is this doorhandle, exactly? Well, perhaps somebody once touched it who had never seen the shimmer of electric lights, who knew not the word “digital”, who perhaps could not even read! The hand of the curious child who does not know why the bronze glitters in the sun, of a spurned lover gripping with rage, of a mother in trepidation of what news she will learn on the far side, of a soldier with his fingers wrapped around that old familiar doorhandle for one last time. All these thousands of real people have left their mark – there, in the little patch of burnished bronze, and all of them were leading in their thousands… to you, right now. Suddenly you realise that history both begins and ends here, in this present moment, and goes on beginning and ending continually, forever, eternally. For what is true of that one rusty doorhandle is true of all the world! As I write these words history is beginning and ending – as you read these words my writing of them has become history. So do not be afraid to use your imagination, dear Reader, for I dare say there is no more powerful or useful way of understanding the past.
We may allow the facts of history to be our starting point – but not our ending! Let the truth of history be what we seek.
So let us think about history in terms of a specific theme, then, rather than a particular time period, and see what we find. Of all the themes I might have chosen it is heroes that I have selected – the people we, or any given society or group of people, hold up as worthy of admiration, respect, and imitation.
Who are your heroes? That is not a rhetorical question. Think, now, and even write it down if you like: who do you look up to, admire, thank, and perhaps even wish to emulate? Do your friends and family have similar heroes? Do the other people in your community or country have similar heroes? Do people around the world also admire them? This is not a trivial matter, because those whom we admire reveal a great deal about who we are; our heroes simultaneously reflect that which we believe to be most important and the sorts of people we want to be. Let us consider some historical heroes, then, from across the ages and around the world.
The Ancient Greeks had heroes; the word hero is itself of Greek origin – hērōs, once meaning something like “protector”. And these Ancient Greek heroes, whose stories were retold in the epic poetry of Homer, the mythological tales of Hesiod, or the poetry of Pindar, all had certain traits in common. They were inevitably humans descended from gods, they were great warriors, they performed great deeds, and they strived – above all – for honour and glory. Achilles, Ajax, Odysseus, Hector; these were the heroes who fought in the Trojan War, striving to perform valorous deeds and win the admiration of their fellow men. Hector captures this best:
A further story about Ajax should suffice to give you some idea of what these warriors were like. Because, unlike our modern superheroes, it wasn’t the common good they fought for – or were admired for defending – so much as glory. As Homer recounts, after Achilles’ death at the hands of Paris it was Ajax who brought his body back to the Greek camp. There the foremost warriors hold a competition to decide who should inherit Achilles’ magical armour, forged for him by the fire god and divine blacksmith Hephaestus. In the end it is Odysseus who wins, partly thanks to his eloquence, and Ajax – ashamed that his heroic deeds were not sufficiently worthy – kills himself. Glory was where it began and ended in the Heroic Age of the Greeks.
But there was another kind of hero in Ancient Greece: the military or political leader, usually both at once, and real rather than mythological. Solon and Lycurgus, who created the constitutions of Athens and Sparta respectively, were two such heroes — heroes in the modern sense rather than the epic-poetic sense; though Solon and Lycurgus were regarded as what we would call “heroes”, the Greeks would not have considered either of them hērōs. Pericles was another, who rose to the top of the Athenian democracy during the city’s Golden Age in the middle of the 5th century BC. If ever you have seen the Parthenon, built under his leadership, then you shall understand why Pericles was, more than a century after his death, being invoked by politicians like Demosthenes as a model Athenian. He was patriotic, devoutly democratic, politically prudent, and – most importantly, perhaps – an inspiring public speaker. To be a great Greek one necessarily had to be a great orator.
But even if they invented many things, the Greeks did not invent heroes. The oldest epic poem in the world, composed and written down two thousand years before Homer ever sang a line of his Iliad and long before the ‘Greeks’ existed, is about a man called Gilgamesh. Who was Gilgamesh and what did he want? Glory and honour. He, like Achilles or Aeneas, fought with or was favoured by the gods and goddesses above, whose quarrels were played out in the lives of humans. Gilgamesh had a fellow warrior and beloved friend called Enkidu, and together they performed such marvels as defeating the Bull of Heaven, a terrifying beast sent to kill them by the jealous goddess Ishtar. When Enkidu dies Gilgamesh, after delivering a surprisingly moving lament for his lost companion, is confronted by his mortality. And so he embarks upon a dangerous quest to find Utnapishtim, who survived the Great Flood and was granted immortality by the god Enlil. Gilgamesh finds him and is given a test: to stay awake for one week. But Gilgamesh falls asleep – how can he hope to conquer death if he cannot even conquer sleep? He learns that Utnapishtim’s gift was unique and that he must simply deal with the fact that he shall eventually die.
This story was inscribed on clay tablets in an alphabet known as cuneiform no less than five and a half thousand years ago among the city states of Sumer in modern-day Iraq. Just like the heroes of the Trojan War, Gilgamesh was essentially mythological and somehow tied up with divine affairs. So much is true of ancient heroes all around the world, then. But what of real heroes?
The Romans did worship the Greeks epic heroes – Hercules is what the Romans called Heracles, and Virgil’s Aeneid, essentially the Roman national story, continued where Homer’s Iliad left off – but they also had their own. And, like Pericles, they were political leaders. Of these many specifically Roman heroes there is one which I think you will find most interesting. His name was Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. He lived in the 5th century BC, shortly after the Romans had expelled their kings and established themselves as a republic. Rome was still an unimportant city state, however, and nobody could have predicted that within three centuries they would come to rule half the Known World. This was the age of Rome Without An Empire: its constitution was still forming, it didn’t rule anybody else, and its culture was largely agricultural and military – no literature, poetry, or philosophy here.
Cincinnatus, born to a noble family, became an important politician who fought for the rights of the aristocracy and resisted the claims of the common people. But his son was embroiled in a scandal and the subsequent legal feud bankrupted Cincinnatus. So he retired from public life and went to work on his farm. Years later, during a war with the Aequi, the Roman army and all its leaders fell into a trap and were surrounded by the enemy. Panic ensued at Rome, and in their desperation the senate sent a delegation to Cincinnatus. They had voted to appoint him dictator – a rarely held political position which granted the holder supreme power in order to solve a major crisis. Cincinnatus left behind his plough, took charge of the state, swiftly rescued the Roman army, defeated the Aequi, and – after just fifteen days – resigned his dictatorship and returned to his farm.
Cincinnatus was regarded for centuries as an ideal Roman. Why? Because he wielded the plough and the sword, he cared not for wealth and lived modestly, he put the good of his country above personal gain, and he was a simple man who cared little for philosophy and the luxuries of life. Cincinnatus was a model of civic virtue and an upholder of tradition, both of which was vitally important in the deeply patriotic Roman Republic. What do we make of this Roman hero – do you admire him? By answering this question we come face to face with the Romans.
During the Middle Ages the nature of the hero changed again; it was neither those epic warriors nor the political leaders who held first place. That being said, there are always warrior and leader heroes – in the Middle Ages they wrote poetry about Roland, a knight of Charlemagne, and King Arthur and his Round Table, and leaders like Frederick Barbarossa and Saladin were esteemed great. But what interests us here are the main heroes in the minds of the people – and, in the Middle Ages, they were saints. Sure enough the bards sang of Lancelot and the poets wrote their panegyrics for their patrons, but images of the saints, in glass or gold or lapis lazuli, adorned every church wall and every street. People were named after them, prayed to them, and celebrated their feast days. And the strange stories of these saints, called hagiographies, were known to all.
There was Saint Lucy, who removed her own eyes to discourage a man trying to woo her (thus becoming the patron saint of people with eye diseases) and who was then burned at the stake for refusing to renounce her Christian faith. There was also Saint Bartholomew, an apostle of Jesus who was skinned alive while preaching in Armenia. Hence he is inevitably depicting in art… holding his own flayed skin in his hands. And there was Saint Sebastian, a Roman knight who converted to Christianity. He was tied to a tree and shot with arrows, though this did not kill him. So Sebastian went back to Diocletian, the Roman Emperor and his former master, and urged him to change his violent ways; Sebastian was clubbed to death by the emperor’s guards. Should you wish to read more of these remarkable tales then I recommend the Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, which was the most popular collection of hagiographies in the Late Middle Ages.
Saint Lucy by Francesco del Cossa and Saint Sebastian by Guido Reni
Unlike Hector, Gilgamesh, Pericles, or Cincinnatus, these saints were rarely leaders or warriors, and they never had power or wealth, nor did they seek personal glory of triumph. They were, almost invariably, people whose faith was stronger than their fear of death and who were persecuted for their beliefs. More often than not they also did their best to help the poor and the sick. Some of them had once been soldiers, but what people admired them for was the fact that they had lain down their arms – a far cry from glory-seeking Hector was Sebastian! There are exceptions, of course, such as Saint George of dragon-killing fame and Joan of Arc, the peasant girl turned commander who led the French against the English in the Hundred Years’ War. But, on the whole, these saints were hero-worshipped for their strength of faith, their non-violent resistance to authority, their care for the needy, and their disregard for earthly authority or physical punishment. Somewhat unlike the glorious heroes of the Greeks or the virtuous republicans of Rome, one might deduce. More than unlike – they are almost opposite. For, as it was written in the Book of Baruch:
And the Greeks and Romans and Mesopotamians would never have said, as John Milton did:
But after the Middle Ages came the Renaissance. New heroes emerged, and two above all: the Scholar and the Artist. There had been scholars before and there had been artists before, but none who achieved quite the same level of fame and adulation, in their lifetimes and afterwards, as Erasmus or Leonardo da Vinci.
Erasmus, if we are to speak briefly, can reasonably be described as the most famous and sought-after man in Europe in the first few decades of the 16th century. There was hardly a major figure of that era with whom he did not correspond, whether popes or kings or emperors or bishops or artists or poets: King Henry VIII, Pope Leo X, Albrecht Dürer, and Martin Luther are but four examples. Why? Because everybody was reading his books, whether the Praise of Folly or Enchiridion or Adages and Colloquies or On the Eating of Fish. He was humane, witty, erudite, and passionate about literacy and education. When Europe was split in half by the Reformation both sides called out to Erasmus, but he refused to join either. And, for this very reason, his hero-status is somewhat less than it might have been had he chosen either the Catholics or the Protestants!
As for Leonardo da Vinci, you have probably heard of him before; he is still a hero. Well, suffice to say that just thirty years after his death this was what the art historian, painter, and biographer Giorgio Vasari saw fit to write about him:
Not since Ancient Greece had artists been quite so revered, and even then they were regarded as inferior to philosophers and mathematicians because they used their hands rather than their minds. Not so with Leonardo, whom King Francis I of France apparently held in his arms as he was dying.
What do you suppose it means that writers and painters had come to be regarded as greater heroes even than kings or saints? A new society was emerging — and a newer one yet would soonfollow in its wake. Because it was Thomas Carlyle who said in 1843 that the national epic of the world was no longer “Arms and the Man” but “Tools and the Man.” This reworked the first line of Virgil’s Aeneid, running thusly:
Carlyle’s point was that society had become fundamentally industrial rather than, as it once been, religious or military or feudal. No more would generals, kings, saints, lords, and warriors be the Heroes – instead it would be workers, factory-owners, businessmen, and engineers. And what greater proof of this do we need than Isambard Kingdom Brunel? His first name is of Germanic origin and means, by a peculiar twist of fate, something like “iron bright”. And it was with iron that Brunel changed the world in the first half of the 19th century. All we need to explain this transformation – of society and of its heroes – is a single photograph. Think of Ajax with his sword and shield, of Cincinnatus with his plough and toga, of Bartholomew with his flayed skin, and of Erasmus with his quill and Leonardo with his brush, and now look upon Isambard Kingdom Brunel with his cigar and chains:
The Hero of the 19th century was the Engineer who raised bridges and skyscrapers and Crystal Palaces, who built shipyards and laid railroads, who dredged the rivers and excavated the sewers, who pumped water and bored mine-holes, who smelted iron and at the head of his army of blacksmiths and carpenters and brought forth from the generous earth iron ships and steam trains. Brunel – the archetypal Industrial Engineer – was a hero who dragged civilisation forward not with swords or speeches or paintings or books or faith, but with Girders, Glass, Bolts, Chains, Bulwarks, Forges, and Iron. Not so long ago every child wanted to be an astronaut; in the 1850s every young child wanted to grow up and become an Engineer.
And yet these engineers were but the heralds of another new hero. In 1999 Time magazine published a list of the one hundred most important people of the 20th century. And who was voted the most important? Who was, indeed, lauded as the “Person of the 20th century”? Albert Einstein. A hero rises: the Scientist. History may well be a litany of scientists and scientist-types, whether Archimedes or Francis Bacon or Copernicus or Isaac Newton, but the reason we think of these people so highly right now is precisely because scientists have become our modern heroes!
There are still politicians we treat as heroes, though rarely (if ever we did!) while they are yet living. John F. Kennedy is a good example of that, I suppose, and before him the leaders of the Second World War. Alas, war always breeds heroes and villains, and forever shall. It was the First World War which produced perhaps the last Romantic hero: Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. He was an archaeologist and amateur photographer when he arrived in Cairo in 1915 to work for British military intelligence; when he returned to England in 1919 he had led the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire and, in no small way, helped bring the First World War to a close. Photographs of Lawrence published by the American photojournalist Lowell Thomas turned him into an international celebrity; he was the hero of the war and yet he seemed to want none of this fame. But Lawrence of Arabia was, as we have said, the last of a dying and now-dead breed of hero, a sort of explorer-knight-wanderer-warrior-outcast who captures the imagination and fires the heart in a way that, normally, only fictional or mythical figures can. To these heroes, for now, we have said our farewell. What was Lawrence, and what was Napoleon, and what was Cincinnatus, has become Oppenheimer.
But we are not quite done, for alongside the Scientist another new hero has arisen in the last hundred years: the Humanitarian. To explain what I mean I need only mention the names Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela. These Humanitarians are sometimes treated with a certain saintly admiration (and are not Óscar Romero and Mother Theresa now officially saints?) but the nature of their hero-worship is tied in the minds of most people to political causes and general humanitarian values rather than a specific religion. In what was, as far as we know, the bloodiest and most destructive century in all of our history they stood for the Peace, Justice, and Equality of all humankind, or so the story goes.
As for the 21st century… I shall leave that to you. Who are our heroes now? And how do they compare with the heroes of the past? And – most important of all – what do our heroes say about us? Gods, warriors, generals, orators, politicians, sages, saints, scholars, artists, engineers, scientists, humanitarians. They all stand together like a great procession of stars, some of them long-dimmed by the condemnation of posterity – for who now thinks highly of Marcus Junius Brutus? – and others forgotten entirely, and others revived, or saved from villainy in their own times, like Galileo, to be vaunted now, and so many more – too many – yet living whose seeming heroism is a mere result of Fame, that Goose Goddess, who quacks and squawks and distracts us from the real work of choosing whom it is that we claim as our very best, and to whom we turn to lead us, and of whom we see to the next generation, “look, this is the sort of person you ought to be!” Or, as Carlyle said how only Carlyle could:
Words, words! Of all the things I cannot write — and there are many — that which I most wish I could is poetry. But I cannot, and thus I humbly offer you the poetry of others. Today, at least, upon hearing some solitary morning birdsong, I thought of that famous poem by Isaac Rosenberg: Returning, We Hear the Larks.
With that I bid you farewell, Gentle Reader, and offer my enduring Gratitude, and wish you Good Night, and Prosperity, and Blessings, & all that I may reasonably wish for you!
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A beautiful education.
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