Life & Liberty: Of Mermaids and Magnificence


It is a striking paradox that democracy places the highest value upon the development of the individual yet is frequently indifferent to heroes and hostile to greatness. There is a natural and praiseworthy skepticism among free people when they are confronted by those with heroic ambitions, above all when their ambitions tend towards the dictatorial. Yet democracies, like all human societies and indeed like all individuals, need heroes and require a vision of greatness if they are to achieve their potential.

My own ideas about how greatness and democracy are to be reconciled were molded by my Texan origins and by the role of the hero in Texan culture. Consider the fall of the Alamo, a story which is part history, part legend, and perhaps part myth.

Actor Peter Ustinov once recalled a meeting with Governor Preston Smith of Texas during the filming of Viva Max, a fantasy about the retaking of the Alamo by the Mexican army. The governor ritually retold how the leader of the Texans, Colonel Travis, had drawn his sword, cut a line across the dirt floor, and voiced his famous challenge: "All who choose to fight and die for Texas's independence, cross over and stand with me."

And Governor Smith concluded, "Every Texan crossed over that line with Colonel Travis."

"But Governor," Ustinov asked, "if all those in the Alamo crossed the line and stayed, and if they all died with Colonel Travis, how is it that we know the story?" The Governor was undaunted: "Mr. Ustinov, that's because a French feller named Rose refused to cross the line; he turned tail and ran. But he weren't no Texan." "Ah," said Ustinov. "Would he perhaps be the one who inspired that famous song, The Yellow Rose of Texas'?"

Conceivably, we owe our account of the heroes of the Alamo to the yellow Rose of Texas, but this seems unlikely. Rose would hardly have talked. Who then was the anonymous poet, the blind Texas Homer of the tale? Who composed this epic event, whose end no one ever witnessed? What other source could there be than the fact that the defenders, outnumbered 20 to 1, were prepared to give their lives for freedomthat they, like Patrick Henry, set a higher value on liberty than on life?

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead has argued that moral education depends upon our recognition of the essential role of heroes: "The sense of greatness," he writes, "is the groundwork of morals." And this sense of greatness, he holds, must be embodied in myth or story rather than in some catalogue of moral virtues or duties. "The sense of greatness is an immediate intuition and not the conclusion of an argument." The story of the brave defense of the Alamo is a more powerful image of moral greatness than any to be obtained by a course in ethical theory.

It is an essential and traditional function of literature and art to provide these immediate intuitions of greatness, hence the great role assigned to literature and art in liberal education. Documents from the Boston school system a century ago make it clear that the inculcation of the heroic life was crucial to the curriculum: Macaulay's "Lays of Ancient Rome," Milton's "Paradise Lost," and Scott's Ivanhoe were studied in high school. Grammar schools assigned readings in the history of England and the United States, in which such figures as Henry V, Queen Elizabeth, Sir Walter Raleigh, Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson were held up to the young as models to be emulated.

In McGuffey's readers, the dominant textbooks of American education in the 19th century, the emphasis is less dramatic but no less edifying. The heroic is domesticated and brought within the purview of the child: greatness becomes accessible. Examples of Roman generals, European kings, queens, and knights are therefore rare. The greatness is of smaller scale, but its relevance has been widened, democratized. A prudent, honest, confident George Washington, a steadfast, compassionate Lincolnthese appear in the company of wise grandmothers, sacrificing parents, and good children. Behind McGuffey's readers is the same moral impulse that produced a sign on the wall of the San Antonio YMCA when I was a boy: "Don't wait to be a great man. Be a great boy!"

Unfortunately, our educational system has become less and less effective in transmitting our birthright of heroism, our patents of potential nobility. With the tragic disappearance of the idea that there are certain books that every educated person should read, we have lost the idea of inspiriting greatness of which Whitehead speaks. The heroes of the Iliad display the truths of human existence: the importance of learning from life, the meaning of excellence, the nature of friendship, the necessity of loyalty and courage, the tragic solitude of our condition, and the inevitability of death.

None of this is now a part of the common experiencethe common curriculumof high-school graduates. This means that many lack the texts of their potential humanity, even their spiritual survival. They will all face, surely before they are 30 or 40, the loss of a close friend or family member, the loss of love, disappointed hopes. Ignorant of the heroes of ancient Greece, ignorant of Biblical heroes, ignorant of greatness, they will not know David's lament on the death of Jonathan:

The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places;
how are the mighty fallen!
From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan turned not back, and the sword of Saul returned not empty.
Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided:
They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.
Ye daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you in scarlet, with other delights, who put on ornaments of gold upon your apparel.
How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!
O Jonathan, thou wast slain in thine high places.
I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan:
very pleasant hast thou been unto me;
thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.
How are the mighty fallen and the weapons of war perished!

Magnificent. Lacking these texts of greatness, we may find ourselves dumb when we most need to articulate our grief, deprived of the company of those who have suffered greatly before us and like us.

But our need for exemplars is not limited to coping with grief or the other modalities of human life. There is also need for greatness in community and national life. But this need does not ensure the emergence of heroes, nor does it overcome the ambivalence that citizens in a democracy feel about heroes and heroism.

The fundamental obstacle to the emergence of political heroes is found in the electoral process itself. If the people are to be led by heroes, the people will have to elect them. Every American politician knows that foremost among his tasks is pleasing a majority of his constituents.

But what are the consequences of trying to please everyone? "When the right of suffrage is universal, and when the deputies are paid by the state, it is singular how low and how far wrong the people can go," Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the diary of his American journey.

Several days later, traveling on a steamboat, he met a man who had left his wife, gone to live among the Indians, taken an Indian wife, and liked to take a drink. When he heard that this man was also a former governor of Tennessee, who, like Huck Finn, had lit out for the territory, Tocqueville believed he had found proof that the people can go low and far wrong indeed. "Full of pride and ignorance, the electors want to be represented by people of their own kind."

But Tocqueville was soon forced to reappraise the wisdom of the backwoods Jacksonians who had elected Sam Houston governor of Tennessee and would, a few years later, elect him the first president of the Republic of Texas. Tocqueville questioned Houston about his life among the Indians, and before long he was taking pages of notes on their religion, their government, their concepts of justice, the role of Indian women, and Houston's analysis of U.S. policy toward the Indians. When it came time to sum up his impressions of Sam Houston, Tocqueville no longer sneered: "Everything in his person indicates physical and moral energy."

Sam Houston is one type of the democratic hero: ambitious, large-spirited, driven by a personal code of honor, in touch with the people and with the land, a friend to the indigenous peoples but a pioneer in promoting civilization in their territories. But it is surely worth remembering that Houston died an outcast, despised by his fellow Texans for opposing Texas's secession from the Union. Houston and other heroes have found that doing the right thing is seldom popular and often fails to achieve success in any obvious sense. Indeed, having a clear recognition of this fact, the unpopularity of opposing the popular, is one of the traits that defines the heroespecially in a democracy.

Even if there were never opposition to heroes, problems would arise. For in the confrontation of greatness with the ordinary, we can glimpse what might be called the shadow of the hero. On the one hand, the hero exalts and motivates; on the other, he intimidates and demeans. Greatness may evoke envy and rancor among those less great and misleadingly absolve others of their responsibilities; it may discourage future generations; and by no means least of all, greatness may be expressed in great evil. Such villains as Iago, Tamburlaine, and Milton's Satan, Shakespeare's Richard III, and Lady Macbeth are themselves heroesperverse, evil heroes. However wrongly, however terribly, they act.

In our time, the heroic shadow has created the antihero. We have all seen him. Some antiheroes are repelled both by the idea of greatness and by those who exemplify it. Others are frightened by greatness; still others, bored. All share a conviction that heroism is not for them.

Perhaps the best literary portrait of the antihero is T.S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock. A weak, sensitive, and timid man, but conscious of heroism in human life, Prufrock occasionally contemplates doing something that might, for him, amount to an heroic actbut he always sinks back, with an ironic sigh, into passivity.

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two…

Prufrock knows there is an "overwhelming question," but asks us not to ask it and instead, in his stream of consciousness, we find a portrait of the failing society that has no use for serious questions. Not daring to disturb the universe, he draws back from the seductive forces of life:

I grow old, I grow old.
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.

The mermaids sang to Achilles and to David, to Sam Houston, and, terrible as their song may have been, the mermaids also sang to Stalin and to Lucrezia Borgia. With a certain self-pity and resignation, the antihero says sadly: "I do not think that they will sing to me."

There is truth, of course, in what Prufrock feels. How does an individual, aware of his limits, of his mortality, achieve that sense of greatness that is the motivating force of life?

Regrettably for us all, the question is more apt to be avoided than answered. The most common means of avoiding it is to abandon consciousness altogether. In thrall to hedonism, cut off from past and future, a disconnected present is all that remains of human life. The poverty and paucity of meaning negate any notion of the heroic.

Another method of avoiding the problem is the deliberate denial of individuality. The "Marxist hero" renounces all claim to, indeed all belief in, individual effort or worth. History for him is made not by individuals but by dialectical forces operating through social classes. He submerges himself, not only accepting his destiny as an obscure member of society, but seeking this obscurity as his fulfillment.

But for those who refuse to abandon either consciousness or individuality, the problem of the heroic remains. The democratic man in his ordinariness must find that sense of greatness on which moral achievement depends. If he is not motivated by greatness in the abstract, he must be able to appropriate for himself a relevant model like Jefferson, whose greatness includes a refinement and a reach which to some seems beyond that of the common man; or a man like Sam Houston, whose greatness was expressed not only in heroic appetite, ambition, and achievement but in a magnanimity and a common touch.

Yet the democratic hero remains a paradox. For all their greatness, Jefferson and Houston, like all other men, were subject to the "discourtesy of death"the ultimate democracy. The democratic hero, however great, lives not only in the great light of his significanceof which he may, like Sophocles' heroes, be unconsciousbut in the stark realization of his insignificance.

This duality is eloquent in the great chorus of Sophocles' Antigone, which emphasizes both the brevity of man's life and the glory of his accomplishments on earth:

Numberless are the world's wonders, but none
More wonderful than man; the storm gray sea
Yields to his prows, the huge crests bear him high;
Earth, holy and inexhaustible, is graven
With shining furrows where his plows have gone
Year after year, the timeless labors of stallions.
Words also, and thoughts as rapid as air
He fashions to his good use; statecraft is his,
And his the skill that deflects the arrows of snow,
The spears of winter rain; from every wind
He has made himself securefrom all but one:
In the late wind of death he cannot stand.

This paradox confronts us also in the climax of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman—a play that a Yale professor told me could not be a tragedy, because tragedies had to do with heroes, and Willy Loman was just an ordinary fellow who failed because he was a bad salesman. Yet for Miller the life and death of a salesman is worthy of the highest art. We find ourselves voicing both sides of that climactic scene between Willy Loman and his son Biff, where Biff, out of a life of failure, tells his father: "Pop, I'm a dime a dozen, and so are you!"

And Willy replies: "I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!"

Then Biff, at the peak of his fury: "Pop, I'm nothing! I'm nothing, Pop! Can't you understand that?"

Biff collapses in tears, and Willy says: "What're you doing? What're you doing?" He turns to his wife, and asks: "Why is he crying?…Isn't that remarkable? Biff—he likes me!…He…cried to me."

Then Willy, choking with his love, cries out his promise: "That boyThat boy is going to be magnificent!"

We do not have to choose between Biff and Willy. Both are right. They are a dime a dozen, and they are magnificent.

If we believe only that we are magnificent, we become insufferably arrogant at best and Tamburlaines at worst. On the other hand, if we believe that we are merely a dime a dozen, we lose our reason for being, the motivation for excellence, and the ability to sustain the disappointments and losses that go with even the happiest and most fortunate of lives.

Heroism is essential to the life of every human being. The genius of democracy is found in this paradox: we are all a dime a dozen and we are all magnificent.

John R. Silber is president of Boston University. This article is adapted from his commencement address at Boston University in May 1986.