Monday, February 8, 2010

A Shameless Veneration of Heroes

Although he is considered - along with Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes - one of the world's most influential economists, Karl Marx was dead wrong.
Not just because his theories have failed to lift people out of poverty and create prosperity. Not just because societies built on his principles have systematically denied citizens their basic rights. (And not just because millions around the world have risked their lives to escape them.)
Karl Marx was also wrong because he distrusted exceptional men and women, envied superior talent, and instead exalted those who tilled the soil, cut the cloth and swept the floors.
There's nothing wrong with a day's work for a day's pay, of course. Work gives meaning and dignity to life. Our society couldn't run without the numberless men and women who quietly and competently go about their daily business.
But the real history of civilization is the story of extraordinary individuals. They are the ones who excite and inspire us. Is there any emotion that rivals the one we feel when we say, "I can't believe a human being did that?"
In the summer of 1941, for example, Sergeant James Allen Ward was awarded the Victoria Cross for climbing out onto the wing of his Wellington bomber in mid-flight to extinguish a fire in the starboard engine. Secured only by a rope around his waist, he smothered the fire and managed to crawl back into the cabin.
Winston Churchill, a great admirer of swashbuckling exploits, summoned the soldier to 10 Downing Street. Struck dumb with awe in Churchill's presence, however, Ward was unable to answer even the most basic questions. Surveying the unhappy hero, Churchill said, "You must feel very humble and awkward in my presence."
"Yes sir," stammered Ward.
"Then you can imagine how humble and awkward I feel in yours," replied Churchill.
The prime minister got it exactly right. We should never lose our shameless veneration of heroes: The soldiers who spilled onto the beach at Normandy in June 1944, the New York firefighters who rushed into the Twin Towers on 9/11, Captain "Sully" Sullenberger landing his disabled jetliner on the Hudson River.
These are the men and women who change our conception of who we are and what is possible.
It's not just about raw courage and bravery, however. History shows that heroism comes in all shapes and sizes.
We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to rational thinkers like Plato and Artistotle, groundbreaking scientists like Newton and Einstein, and great moral leaders like Confucius, Socrates and Jesus.
In The Greatest Minds and Ideas of all Time, historian Will Durant wrote, "I see men standing on the edge of knowledge, and holding the light a little farther ahead; men carving marble into forms ennobling men; men molding people into better instruments of greatness; men making a language of music and music out of language; men dreaming of finer lives - and living them."
How different our lives would look without political innovators like Locke and Jefferson, inventors like Edison and Marconi, or even business pioneers like Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie.
Novelist Ayn Rand once said the motive and purpose of her writing was not philosophical enlightenment, beneficial influence or the reader's intellectual development, but rather "the projection of an ideal man."
In The Romantic Manifesto, she writes, "Since man's ambition is unlimited, since his pursuit and achievement of values is a lifelong process - and the higher the values, the harder the struggle - man needs a moment, an hour or some period of time in which he can experience the sense of his completed task, the sense of living in a universe where his values have been successfully achieved. It is like a moment of rest, a moment to gain fuel to move further."
Her books and the work of artists she particularly admired - men like Victor Hugo and Sergei Rachmaninov - provide that. But what motivates them?
Scholar and social scientist Charles Murray spent years studying excellence in the arts and sciences from 800 B.C. to 1950. He compiled inventories of more than 4,000 men and women who have been essential to literature, music, art, philosophy and the sciences and ranked them according to their eminence.
His research reveals that these individuals have had - almost without exception - a strong sense that this is what I have been put on earth to do. This zest, this life-affirming energy turns out to be an essential prerequisite to great achievement.
In Human Accomplishment, Murray writes, "If human beings with the potential for excellence generally have done best in cultures where people believe the universe to have transcendental meaning, one must ask why. The easy answer is that the giants of the past were deluded. They imagined that what they were doing had some transcendental significance, and, lo and behold, their foolishness inspired them to compose better music or paint better pictures. But this line of thought can become embarrassing when one confronts just what those self-deluded people accomplished. Is it not implausible that those individuals who accomplished things so beyond the rest of us just happened to be uniformly stupid about the great questions? Another possibility is that they understood things we don't."
This truth crossed Karl Marx's head at 30,000 feet. He envisioned life as a meaningless trial based on social forces and "class struggles." Without intellectual, political and religious freedoms, how can we realize our potential as individuals or live the best possible life?
Marxist philosophy fails us utterly here. Heroes don't.
They provide us with vivid examples of excellence. They show us how the human spirit expresses itself most gloriously. They inspire us, galvanize us. Without them, our lives are impoverished.
Our goal, therefore, should be to study them, to contemplate their actions, warm ourselves by their fire, and pursue some modest form of discipleship.
True, we may never lead like George Marshall, write like Jane Austen, or compose like Beethoven. But exceptional men and women like these provide brilliant stars to steer by.

Carpe Diem

Editors at Sound Of Cannons

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