My Personal Hero

In this egalitarian age, the concept of the hero seems as superfluous and out of touch as the pomp and circumstance of the British royal family. Paradoxically, our fetish for equality has combined with our impious self-absorption to turn us into idolaters, rather than hero-worshippers. We have infantile personality cults where in the past mature men admired genuine greatness as a guide for living.

Thus, leftists who laugh at the very thought of religious faith have no problem fawning over Barack and Michelle Obama as if those two thoroughly insignificant blemishes on world history were Jesus and Joan of Arc. And Donald Trump, a man with the temperament, curiosity, and seriousness of a poorly-raised twelve-year-old girl who fell in with the wrong crowd, has engendered a following greater (in numerical terms only) than that of Achilles.

On second thought, perhaps this is not so strange after all, since it is precisely a community without genuine piety or meaningful ideals that is most apt to go in for the cultish infatuation with empty idols and demagogues. In other words, the apparent paradox of a society without higher ideals collapsing into idolatry is not so paradoxical at all, for the natural human need to admire something, once drained of all intellectual and moral content, is a vacuum that an intellectually and morally deprived people will blindly fill with whatever is closest to hand, which inevitably means one of their own, a shell as hollow and unsatisfying as their own souls, but one with the chutzpah to stake a bold claim: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for!”

In other words, while true ideals, heroes, and objects of worship indicate a certain kind of humility among their partisans — the acceptance that there is something higher than us — idol worship and cults of personality actually indicate the opposite, namely collective hubris on the part of the cultists. Idols and celebrities are born of the spiritual vacuum of a people that has rejected all substantial standards of life and thought, and therefore no longer believes in anything at all. Gods and heroes compel us to admire them through the force of their will, so to speak. Idols, by contrast, being inherently chimerical, are produced by the collective will of the worshippers themselves. In this sense, an era of unchecked egalitarian impulses — the hatred of all things suggestive of “superiority” or orders of rank — is prone to spew forth idols and personality cults for the same reason that such an era is disdainful of the concept of the hero.

Recently, in an e-mail to a great friend, I made the following passing remark:

So I like [Nietzsche], even though he is the first (and last) truly great philosopher audacious enough to set himself up as a direct rival to Socrates, my personal hero.

In reply to this remark, my friend, who is adept at finding just the right point on which to challenge a person to think through his premises and justify even his most casual statements, sent me these two questions:

  1. What do you mean when you say that Socrates is your personal hero?
  2. What does it mean to have a personal hero? What are the attributes of such a condition or state of being? How does one define it or conceive of it, characterize it, recognize it? How does it come about?

Here are my answers:

I think it might be best to begin with Question 2, the more general question, and then consider my personal example as noted in Question 1.

What is a hero? The concept has been trivialized or mocked out of regular use in our modern egalitarian civilization, due to the scent of hierarchy — not to say aristocracy — it emits. Today we speak of having “role models,” rather than heroes, and the two notions, though not exactly opposites, are certainly from different worlds.

A role model, as far as I can make sense of the idea at all, means a person who does something I might like to do, or who perhaps even “inspires” my desire to do that thing. “I became a police officer because my favorite uncle was a police officer — he was my role model,” is a typical modern sentiment. A role model is a person who “models” a particular social “role” — a public persona — in a way that one happens, for whatever reason, to find appealing and wish to emulate. There are many social roles, no one intrinsically superior to any other, but if one catches my attention, and I decide to pursue that path, then I might say that the person whose performance of that role caught my attention first is my role model.

So a role model is a person we may choose to emulate for whatever reason. A hero, by contrast, is someone we wish to emulate in a manner much deeper than adopting his “role,” but whom we feel inadequate to emulate — someone we would not dare to imagine we could emulate. There is a kind of humility in calling someone a hero, because it implies there is a higher type of man to whom we look for direction, before whose achievements we must see ourselves as inferior. Thus, whereas a role model merely shows me one of the possible lives I might live, a hero shows me an ideal (i.e., a possibility beyond ordinary human “roles” or attainments) that serves as a guiding light in my life — “That’s what I’m supposed to be aiming at.”

Your father, for example, might be your hero when you are a child and believe the man knows everything and can do no wrong. As you mature, and gain a more rational perspective, then your father may become your role model — you might follow his career path, or try to be as good a father as he was — but he will probably cease to be your hero, for the simple reason that you begin to see him more as a flawed, normal human being, albeit a good one, rather than as representing a higher form of life that resides somewhere between the divine and human realms. A genuine hero, from an adult point of view, is a man who never loses that aura of the superhuman archetype.

It is also important to the concept of the hero that he be not merely a representative of some activity you happen to find appealing — businessman, reporter, teacher, artisan — but rather, as I said, a kind of archetype, i.e., the perfect or “ideal” case of one essential way of life from among the very limited number of legitimate human quests for that divine or immortal glimmer within us that most of us will never touch.

A role model makes me feel, “I can do that.” A hero makes me feel, “No one can do that, but if I am to live well I must have the courage to die trying.”

So far, I guess I have sort of answered the first part of Question 2: What does it mean to have a personal hero? To answer the rest of Question 2, I think it easiest to look at my particular case.

Without wishing to bore you with details, suffice it to say that I went through high school with absolutely no sense of direction. I became interested in politics and philosophical questions, but I had no idea what to do with these things, or how I might incorporate them into my daily life in a fruitful way. I ended up in university almost by accident, certainly through the back door, and without any clear idea of what I would do there. I only knew, vaguely, that I wanted to study philosophy (whatever that meant), but that due to English being my only good grade in high school, I was stuck as an English major in my freshman year, and had to earn my escape by doing well in my first-year philosophy classes.

My enthusiasm for philosophy grew continually during my undergraduate career, but still I had no idea what to do with my life, or whether that philosophic interest could play any part in my practical future. By “practical” I do not mean financial, but merely “related to the active part of life, beyond one’s private musings.” In fact, in those days I basically had no active life beyond my private musings. I was an almost pure loner, did not like people very much (or at least people my age), and saw no way to negotiate a path through life that would involve others at all without entailing significant (and unpredictable) misery. Thus, again almost by accident and through the back door, I slipped into graduate school. What else was there to do? What else did I care about? Keep studying.

I knew, before entering the M.A. program, that part of my place in the department would be as a part-time teaching assistant, leading small tutorial groups. I was given the opportunity to select my three preferences for a teaching assignment that first year, and luckily I got one of my choices, a freshman history of philosophy class in which the entire first semester was devoted to The Republic. I had already developed a healthy respect for Plato, and therefore admired Socrates the teacher in the abstract, but somehow the convergence of immersing myself in Socrates’ conversation about justice during my own first experience as a teacher opened up a new world for me — or rather not a new one, but a first one. Finally, almost by chance, and immediately from the first weeks of the first semester, I discovered that teaching, which I had dreaded somewhat (due to my antisocial inclinations) was not only something I could do effectively, but was something I needed to do.

In those first couple of years, looking back, I can easily see that I was not a very good teacher in the sense that I did not know how to activate other people’s thinking, but always wanted to “impart knowledge.” Though philosophically I saw teaching as lighting a fire rather than filling a cup, to borrow Plutarch’s imagery, I did not immediately understand how one might do that; and so, like most teachers afraid of failing, I often fell back on the “filling a cup” method in spite of myself. On the other hand, from the very beginning, I remember that on my student evaluations at the end of each semester, my highest ratings were always on questions such as, “Does the instructor show enthusiasm for the material?” and “Did this class make you more or less likely to take another course in this subject?” I gradually realized that getting other people excited about great ideas and old books was quite natural to me, and even, much to my surprise (given my antisocial past), that the more intelligent and serious students — the ones who instinctively saw university not as job training, but as their one chance to grasp at new, unorthodox ideas and ways of living, i.e., to seek the meaning of life — tended to want to be around me, consult me outside of class, and engage in follow-up discussion related to the most serious topics addressed by Plato, Hobbes, Mill, and so on.

I discovered, in other words, that teaching was not simply something I could do for a living, but that it was a kind of “calling,” something (the only thing) I seemed destined to do. But what did that mean? To answer this, I instinctively turned to the example of Socrates, the archetype of the philosophic teacher. My progression from teaching by necessity to teaching with enthusiasm ran parallel to my progression from teaching about Socratic dialectic to teaching by means of Socratic dialectic, or some approximation of it.

Over time, however, this connection to Socrates and my attempt to “emulate” him with regard to method became something much deeper. Increasingly, I was looking at civilization in a broad view, and of course seeing the essential role of the philosophers in the development of the so-called Western tradition. For me, this meant, as I’ve argued before, that the West is, in effect, the living history of philosophic education, which is to say of teaching in the highest sense of the word. This, in turn, means that teaching in the highest sense is the process of finding and developing souls of merit from their immature state of submission to, or blind rebellion against, social conditioning, to a growing sense of purpose and independence.

The relationship between Plato and Socrates itself, as indicated implicitly throughout Plato’s dialogues, is the model of what teaching is and should be. Plato was twenty-nine when his teacher died. After Socrates’ death, Plato “disappeared” for a few years, during which much of his young adulthood is unaccounted for. Then he returned from his mountaintop, as it were, and spent most of the rest of his life teaching, including writing dozens of dialogues about Socrates.

More than anything else, Plato’s dialogues show us the philosophic teacher’s life, his manner of interacting with others, the enthusiasm for ideas that he generated in young men, his unwillingness to accept “disciples” as a substitute for students (that is part of the significance of his insistence that he had no wisdom, and of his perfect irony in the face of his followers’ admiration), his refusal to compromise on principles, and his courage in the face of every kind of challenge up to and including execution. The search for truth, and the desire to infect others with the passion for that search, was Socrates’ central focus, to a degree that seems otherworldly in its intransigence. Plato wrote in a letter that his purpose in writing the dialogues was not to present “Plato’s thought” but to give the world “a Socrates made beautiful and new.” I cannot think of a more remarkable tribute to a teacher: arguably the greatest thinker in human history, and certainly the most impressive student in human history, devoted his entire body of public writings, produced over decades, to giving the world, in a “perfected” form, the gift he was given as a young man — the gift of Socrates’ teaching.

As a teacher of young adults, and one inclined to approach even the most pedestrian subject matter through the prism of the great philosophers, I cannot imagine viewing my purpose other than in the light of Socrates’ example. To view my teaching within any other context would mean lowering my aspirations, and therefore reducing the seriousness and potential effects of my teaching. Thus, Socrates is, for me, the “ideal” or unreachably pure goal of the teacher’s vocation. If I reach for lower fruit, I am selling myself and my students short.

I have directly expressed this aspiration to be a Socratic teacher to only a very few people in my entire life. Nevertheless, I have had several students over the years, particularly very sincere and motivated students, call me “our Socrates” or “my Socratic teacher.” It is not an ego boost, since I do not believe I deserve the compliment. On the other hand, it is very gratifying to know that a few good students recognize the seriousness of my intentions and feel somewhat inspired by having a teacher who cares this much about their learning and their souls.

So that, to answer Question 1, is what I mean when I say Socrates is my personal hero. I’m trying to do, in my own extremely deficient way, what he tried to do in the most uncompromised and systematic way, namely make the world healthier. That sounds like an absurdly extreme aspiration, and it is. But Socrates actually accomplished it — though Nietzsche judged the health he engendered a kind of sickness — which makes him a genuine hero, in the sense of being exemplary of a higher kind of man, perhaps the highest kind of man qua earthly mortal, the philosophic teacher. My judgment that such a person may be the highest goal of man qua composite being — of man in practical life — explains why Socrates is my personal hero.

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