A Reflection on Hero-Worship

by Mark Wallace

Thomas Carlyle, such a pervasive influence on mid-19th century thought, was a great believer in the power of exceptional individuals to shape collective human destiny: “The History of the world”, he once wrote, “is but the Biography of great men” (On Heroes 34). And what must we do when we recognize one of these great men in our midst? Why, we must worship him, of course. Carlyle was also a great believer in the importance of worship. What one worships, it could almost be said, is a matter of secondary importance, primary importance being given to the fact that one does, at least, worship something: “[W]hoso cannot obey cannot be free […] [O]nly in reverently bowing down before the Higher does [man] feel himself exalted”, insists the Carlylean avatar Professor Teufelsdrockh (Sartor Resartus 189-190).

Thomas Carlyle, engraving from a photo taken in 1874, when Carlyle would have been about 78 (Wikimedia Commons).

How one recognizes the fit object of worship is something Carlyle wasn’t altogether clear on, though often his stance seems reducible to the formula “might is right” (i.e. he who has managed to secure physical power is he who has proved himself worthy of obedience), and, indeed, in analysis Carlyle’s philosophy often has been reduced to this formula.

But whatever one may think of Carlyle’s social and political philosophies, he was surely on the button when he asserted the apparent psychological importance of worship for the “omnivorous biped” that is man (Sartor Resartus 51). Though we no longer tend to engage in the open power worship of a Carlyle, we yet have a need to make heroes. If one was to make a massive generalization, the Victorian era was the time of power worship and the late 20th/ early 21st century is that of victim worship. The wittiest and most succinct illustration of this I can recall, and one that often reoccurs to me when I witness the phenomenon, is from an early episode of The Simpsons:

Homer: That Timmy is a real hero!

Lisa:  How do you mean, Dad?

Homer: Well, he fell down a well, and… he can’t get out.

Lisa:  How does that make him a hero?

Homer: Well, that’s more than you did!

(Season 3, Ep. 13, “Radio Bart”)

It’s perhaps funnier seen in context than read, but nevertheless… On such flimsy evidence is this blog basing the thesis of the present post regarding the evolution of hero-worship in western culture. We no longer draw our heroes from among the powerful; indeed, they tend to becomes scapegoats and objects of opprobrium in times of trouble – we now tend to believe implicitly the dictum that “power corrupts”. Perhaps a corollary of this for 21st-century man and woman is that powerlessness sanctifies, or at least prevents corruption. Who, though, would wish to be a hero on such terms? In the process of becoming recognized as “heroic”, heroism itself is inevitably sacrificed, leading inexorably to the fall from grace.  Thus is the state of hero-worship in the 21st century, in this blog’s humble (or is it, in fact, heroic?) opinion.

On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (Chapman and Hall, 1869).

Sartor Resartus, ed. Kerry McSweeney  and Peter Sabor (OUP, 1999).