The Decline of Heroes
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
” For The Crisis of the Old Order, the first volume in his continuing study of the Rooseveltian era, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., won the Society of American Historian’s Francis Parkman Prize. His The Age of Jackson, published in 1945, won the Pulitzer Prize. Like his father, who has written fifteen important social and historical studies, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., is professor of history at harvard University. He is married and has four children.
Ours is an age without heroes–and, when we say this, we suddenly realize how spectacularly the world has changed in a generation. Most of us grew up in a time of towering personalities. For better or for worse, great men seemed to dominate our lives and shape our destiny. In the United States we had Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt. In Great Britain, there were Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. In other lands, there were Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Clemenceau, Ghandhi, Kemal, Sun Yatsen. Outside of politics there were Einstein, Freud, Keynes. Some of these great men influenced the world for good, others for evil; but, wether for good or for evil, the that each had not died at birth made a difference, one believed, to everyone who lived after them.
Today no one bestrides our narrow world like a colossus; we have no giants who play roles which one can imagine no one else playing in their stead. There are a few figures on the margin of uniqueness, perhaps: Adenauer, Nehru, Tito, De Gaulle, Chiang, Kai-Shek, Mao Tse-tung. But there seem to be none in the epic style of those mighty figures of our recent past who seized history with both hands and gave it an imprint, even a direction, which it otherwise might not have had. As De Gaulle himself once remarked on hearing of Stalin”s death, “The age of giants is over.” Whatever one thought, wether one admired or detested Roosevelt or Churchill, Stalin or HItler, one nevertheless felt the sheer weight of such personalities on one’s own existence. We feel no comparable perssures today. Our own President, with all his pleasant qualities, has more or less explicitly renounced any desire to impress his own views on history. The Macmillans, Khurshchevs and Gronchis have measurably less specific gravity than their predecessors. Other men could be in their places as leaders of America or Britain or Russia or Italy without any change in the course of history. Why ours should thus be an age without heroes, and whether this condition is good or bad for us and for civilization, are topics worthy of investigation.
Why have giants vanished from our midsts? One must never neglect the role of accident in history; and accident no doubt plays a part here. But too many accidents of the same sort cease to be wholly accidental. One must inquire further. Why should our age not only be without great men but even seem actively hostile to them? Surely one reason we have so few heroes now is precisely that we had so many a generation ago. Greatness is hard for common humanity to bear. As Emerson said, “Heroism means difficulty, postponement of praise, postponement of ease, introduction of the world into the private apartment, introduction of eternity into the hours measured by the sitting-room clock.” A world of heroes keeps people from living their own private lives.
Moreover, great men live dangerously. They introduce extremes into existence–extremes of good, extremes of evil–and ordinary men after a time flinch from the ultimates and yearn for undemanding security. The Second World War was the climax of an epoch of living dangerously. It is no surprise that it precipitated a universal revulsion against greatness. “