Great Men And Superheroes

     If you attended high school around the same time as I did, you undoubtedly learned about the Great Man theory of history. For our younger Gentle Readers:

     The Great Man theory is a 19th-century idea according to which history can be largely explained by the impact of “great men”, or heroes: highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or political skill utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact. The theory was popularized in the 1840s by Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle. But in 1860 Herbert Spencer formulated a counter-argument that has remained influential throughout the 20th century to the present; Spencer said that such great men are the products of their societies, and that their actions would be impossible without the social conditions built before their lifetimes.

     Carlyle stated that “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”, reflecting his belief that heroes shape history through both their personal attributes and divine inspiration. In his book On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, Carlyle set out how he saw history as having turned on the decisions of “heroes”, giving detailed analysis of the influence of several such men (including Muhammad, Shakespeare, Luther, Rousseau, Pericles, and Napoleon). Carlyle also felt that the study of great men was “profitable” to one’s own heroic side; that by examining the lives led by such heroes, one could not help but uncover something about one’s true nature.

     The critical word in the above is heroes. I’ve written before about the nature of heroism, and why I try, as a fiction writer, to depict heroes. Sir Thomas Carlyle’s view of heroes as the principal shapers of the great events of history may be accurate – certainly it’s hard to imagine faceless drones bringing about the American Revolution or the World Wars – but to my mind the concept says more about human yearnings and aspirations than about history.

     Who are history’s greatest figures? Which men are seen to have shaped the centuries behind us, whether for good or for ill? What did they contribute that had the most effect? Was it their individual deeds, or their thinking and the expressions thereof?

     The real movers and shakers weren’t the charismatic leaders, but the innovative thinkers. The ideas they promulgated are why we remember them, even if we aren’t fully aware of it. Those whose ideas were good raised Mankind to new heights. Those whose ideas were bad precipitated great destruction.

     Thomas Jefferson didn’t personally lead the American Revolution. It was his insight that men must be free that gave the Revolution the impetus it needed. Adolf Hitler didn’t personally massacre millions. It was his vision of a Greater Germany, a nation that would bestride the world by its racial superiority, that gave the Third Reich its killing force.

     But in the most common case, when we fantasize about heroes, we don’t endow them with great ideas. Rather, we endow them with great physical powers, clothe them in spandex, and send them out to battle evil personally. Superhero fiction is one of the best-selling marketing categories. Superheroes have been the principal fodder of the movie industry for a number of years now.

     I can’t escape the feeling that We the People are waiting for a superhero to arise who’ll take the responsibility of saving the Republic on himself. Like Jesus and the moneychangers, he’ll personally drive the villains out of the corridors of power, such that the good guys can have the Temple back. Failing that, he’ll become our war leader. His charisma will rally the forces of the righteous for an irresistible march on Mordor on the Potomac.

     To be maximally gentle, I wouldn’t advise you to bet the mortgage money on it.


     Throughout recorded history, the greater part of Mankind has striven in vain to lay its burdens on the shoulders of others. That it can’t be done “should” be “obvious” by now. Occasionally, the opposite approach to life – individual responsibility – has gained a foothold and shown the world its superiority. The response of the masses has always been massive envy: the urge to tear down those who have succeeded through their own initiative and their own efforts.

     Please don’t interpret “success” in a narrow material sense. He who has achieved personal peace, even if he wears rags and totes a beggar’s bowl, has succeeded. Few of us could say as much about ourselves.

     No superhero can bring you peace. No guru; no self-help lecturer; no talk-show host. The job is inescapably yours. Similarly, no superhero can set you free. It’s a state you must achieve and secure for yourself.

     We have enough history to know what we need. The ideas are in the writings of the truly great men, the liberators: Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, Adam Smith, Frederic Bastiat, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Schiller, Goethe. Note that “those who have not joy” have striven to remove those persons and their ideas from the education of our young. Oops, my mistake! It isn’t “history” any more, is it? It’s “global studies,” at least here on Long Island.

     Robert A. Heinlein once described our continent as “a place where the soul could grow.” That poetic formulation embeds an essential truth that must not be overlooked. Man must grow to succeed, for the opposite of growth is death. Regard in that light the open desires – the social and political agenda – of the villains of our time. Quoth Heinlein:

     “We see the history of the world as a series of crises in a conflict between two opposing philosophies. Ours is based on the notion that life, consciousness, intelligence, ego is the important thing in the world….That puts us in conflict with every force that tends to destroy, deaden, degrade the human spirit, or to make it act contrary to its nature….
     “The crisis has been growing on us since Napoleon. Europe has gone, and Asia surrendered to authoritarianism, nonsense like the ‘leader principle,’ totalitarianism, all the bonds placed on liberty that treat men as so many economic and political units with no importance as individuals. No dignity, do what you’re told, believe what you’re told, and shut your mouth! Workers, soldiers, breeding units…
     “If that were the object of life, there would have been no point in including consciousness in the scheme at all!”
     “This continent has been a refuge of freedom, a place where the soul could grow. But the forces that killed enlightenment in the rest of the world are spreading here. Little by little they have whittled away at human liberty and human dignity. A repressive law, a bullying school board, a blind dogma to be accepted under pain of persecution, doctrines that will shackle men and put blinders on their eyes so that they will never regain their lost heritage.”

     It is a battle each of us must fight and win for himself. If you succeed in gaining allies and assistance in the struggle, all the better. Nevertheless, the principal effort must be yours. Moreover, I contend that you already possess weapons sufficient to prevail: your innate sense for reality, for right and wrong, and for who is on which side.

     And in your every interaction with others, preach Christ.