The Need for Heroes and Heroism
A group of classical liberals whose email list I’m on got into an interesting discussion recently about the role of, and need for, heroes and heroism.
The best comment I saw was by Todd Zywicki, a law professor at George Mason University, who gave me permission to quote him. Here’s Todd, with a little chopping by me:
Yes—[classical] liberalism can bring out those virtues to people.
But, he is saying, the liberal thinkers of his time—and I would say our time—as a matter of actual practice and argument do not explain to people how one can be heroic in the liberal order. And one cannot simply assume that people will find these virtues when left to their own devices. Nor can those impulses simply be waved away as irrational, irrelevant, or whatever.
I think it is interesting, for example, that one of the appeals of Ayn Rand’s novels is she makes ordinary life heroic. And I think this explains much of Jordan Peterson’s appeal—he makes the task of day-to-day living heroic. Doing your duty, bearing your burden, tending to your family and community, raising good kids, making the world around you better on a day to day basis is a moral duty. I could elaborate, but that’s not the point.
Strauss’s point seems to be, “You really need to recognize this is part of human nature and you better take it seriously and figure out how to meet this impulse through the liberal order. Because if you don’t, people are going to look for it somewhere else.” How that’s done is a task for the liberal thinkers.
So Strauss’s argument, as I understand it, is not that the liberal order cannot meet those demands of human nature. It is that human nature makes those demands and liberal thinkers better figure out how to meet those demands if they want the liberal order to survive.
This discussion reminded me of a good point made by Charles Murray in one of his books in the 1990s whose name I’ve forgotten. Murray talked about how the welfare state makes it harder for normal average people to be heroic by helping those around them.
It also reminded me of the segments on CBS’s Sunday Morning that I like best: those done by Steve Hartman. Here’s his latest, from last Sunday, that’s one of his best.
I desperately wanted heroes when I was growing up. The pic above is of The Lone Ranger, one of my heroes when I was young. We didn’t have TV then, but I saw him in the movies.
I think we need not only to have heroes, but also to be heroic. At least I do.
Jan 15 2023 at 8:51am
I think you can broadly classify heroes into to types. The first type are the ones that take heroic action in scary circumstances – running into a burning building to rescue someone, standing up to a bully, jumping into a river to save someone from downing. We celebrate those heroes with honors and medals.
The second type are the people that rise above what we typically expect of a person. These are the people that quit using addictive drugs, the people that sacrifice to provide more opportunity for their children, the people who stick to what they believe is right in the face of social pressure. There is a lot less glory for these heroes. In some cases, like people who emigrate to create a better life for themselves and their family, there is more derision than celebration. But in some ways this type of heroism is more difficult because it has to be sustained over a period of time.
In some ways, lauding people as heroes can cost those people money. We regularly praise soldiers and law enforcement officers as heroes. Surely that increases the supply of people wanting to enter those professions, which decreases the price of their services. But you won’t win a lot of friends by telling people that celebrating Veterans Day helps reduce the cost of paying soldiers.
Jan 15 2023 at 12:42pm
“how the welfare state makes it harder for normal average people to be heroic by helping those around them.”
This is a really good point. The welfare state allows the crowding out of the “virtue” by the “virtue signaling”
To count as “true virtue”, help has to be voluntary AND use the virtuous helper own resources. Under the welfare state politicians help voluntarily using other individuals resources and individual taxpayers are coerced into using their own resources to help others.
So, “true virtue” is effectively banned.
Jan 15 2023 at 5:26pm
Thanks, Jose. I think your last statement is a little too strong. True virtue is not banned; it’s just sometimes sidetracked to other less important issues. The welfare state leaves such cracks and also leads to such bad results in many cases that there is always room for virtue. Think, for instance, about the stories we hear of people who want to feed the homeless and are stymied by local government regulations, but often proceed to do so anyway.
Jan 17 2023 at 1:22pm
Jan 16 2023 at 2:35am
I think the book you’re referring to is What it Means to Be a Libertarian, in which he argues the welfare state has effectively denuded our civic culture
Excellent! We’ve historically been a self-reliant people willing to put ourselves at risk for the sake of others, in spite of the fact that we’re now being crushed under the weight of a growing state. We’re shrewd enough to discern injustice on our own, but are we still heroic enough to fight it?
“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” (Harvey Dent – The Dark Knight)
Jan 16 2023 at 10:24am
He makes that point in What It Means to be a Libertarian. But the book I’m referring to is In Pursuit, published in 1989. He makes the point there more extensively and in a more nuanced way.
Jan 16 2023 at 8:54pm
I am not sure whether living the conventional bourgeois life with wife and kids a la Jordan Peterson is the heroism Strauss had in mind. He talks about heroism of world-denying or world-transcending type, something like St Francis perhaps.
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