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by William H. Benson

July 27, 2017

     The 50’s and 60’s presented me with a wonderful set of heroes: Roy Rogers, Superman, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Perry Mason, Neil Armstrong, Mickey Mantle, and Bart Starr. Some were real, others fictional.

     When young, the public librarians saw me often. I read most of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Fleming, and Earl Stanley Gardner, and came to admire Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Perry Mason, for their resourcefulness, intuitive wisdom, and skill at detection.

     I enjoyed watching television: cowboys and westerns, detectives and mysteries, football and basketball games. The stories and the games pulled me in, just as video games entice the young today.

     George Will, the columnist, pointed out how the western converted into the mystery. “The closing of the frontier drove the cowboy to town where he became a detective.”

     The first hero worship that I witnessed occurred on August 13, 1969, when I watched on television as the three Apollo 11 astronauts—Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins—rode in a convertible, down Broadway and Park Avenue in New York City during a ticker tape parade.

     When in my twenties, during the 1980 presidential election, a majority of Americans voted for Ronald Reagan, a former sports announcer, cowboy movie star, and California governor. The writer Paul Johnson called Reagan “a happy hero, who tried to communicate this happiness, and succeeded.”

     Heroes and hero worship. Over the centuries, thinkers have wondered about the hero’s role in civilization’s progress. In ancient Greece, Plato argued for a philosopher-king. He believed citizens would enjoy the best government when philosophers ruled the nation. To achieve an ideal community, he said, “philosophers must become kings, or those now called kings must philosophize.”

     Thomas Carlyle, the nineteenth-century Scottish thinker, listed his heroes in his book, Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History: the gods of mythology, Thor and Odin; the poets, Dante and Shakespeare; the prophet Muhammed; the priests Luther and Knox; the men of letters Samuel Johnson, Rousseau, and Robert Burns; and the kings, Cromwell and Napoleon; some real, and some fictional.

     Carlyle insisted that great people—those gifted with supreme power, vision, and action—should lead the masses, because “only then would humanity achieve true progress.” He looked around him and could find no one great who dared to lead. Europe lacked will and leadership, and so the people were lost in commercialism and self-gratification, and could not convert their lives into something great.

     Carlyle went so far as to suggest that citizens should worship their heroes, but not so far as to create a set of rituals for worship, or a set of scriptures and texts.

     The German philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche, took Plato and Carlyle’s ideas and arrived at the idea of a superior man, an overman, or in German, an Übermensch, who would guide his followers toward new values that would satisfy people now, while they lived, and not in heaven after they pass on.

     Paul Johnson wrote in his book Heroes that one can determine who are a society’s heroes by the number of times that a person or character appears in the movies. By the year 2000, Sherlock Holmes was first with 211 times. Following him, in order, were Napoleon, Dracula, Frankenstein, and Lincoln.

     The trouble with hero worship is that heroes grow old or die. Micky Mantle is gone, as is Neil Armstrong. Buzz Aldrin is 87, Michael Collins is 86, and Bart Starr is 83. Roy Rogers died in 1998 at 86. George Reeves, Superman on television, died of a gunshot wound, and Christopher Reeve, Superman in the 1978 movie, died of complications from paralysis caused by a fall from a horse.

     The fictional but timeless characters—James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, and Frankenstein—still live on.

     Paul Johnson made a good point in Heroes when he said that the real heroes are the wives of famous men. “History,” he wrote, “is crowded with unsung heroines, wives of celebrated but difficult men, who promoted their husbands’ interests, put up with their rages, depressions, and vanities, comforted them in bad times, and remained in the background during moments of glory.”

     Question: “What is the wife of a saint called?” Answer: “A martyr.”

     Paul Johnson asked another question: “’How many more people would Julius Caesar have killed, if his assassins had failed?’ Napoleon killed five times as many as Caesar’s total, perhaps five million. Mao Tse-tung, another admirer of Caesar, killed seventy million. These things need to be weighed when we tell stories of heroes.”