The fall and rise of public heroism

The value of heroism is again on the rise, especially in countries where undemocratic regimes can no longer be relied on to deliver economic prosperity. The future may well lie not with politicians and diplomats, but with those men – and women – who are willing to die.

SOURCEProject Syndicate

Recently I watched The Man Who Was Too Free, a moving documentary about the Russian dissident politician Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down in front of the Kremlin in 2015. A young, handsome rising political star in the 1990s, Nemtsov later refused to bend to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism and went into opposition, where he was harassed, imprisoned, and finally killed. The film left me thinking about the diminished role of heroism and courage in modern life, and also about the fate of Russia.

Heroism is a product of extreme situations – classically, involving war and violence. Because today’s Western way of life is non-extreme, the value of heroism has fallen. But its stock is rising in most of the rest of the world, including Russia.

The hero is both noble and self-destructive. He or she not only prefers an honorable death to a dishonorable life, but also would rather die young and gloriously than spin out a long and compromised existence loaded with easily gotten (and forgotten) honors. Hector in Homer’s Iliad says: “’Tis true I perish, yet I perish great.” The heroic life is inherently tragic; immortality is its only reward.

Nemtsov was cast in this mold. According to some of those interviewed in the film, he believed that, having previously been a government minister, and once Boris Yeltsin’s preferred successor as Russia’s president, he would never be assassinated. Yet it seemed to me that he was challenging Putin’s regime to kill him.

Unlike heroism, courage isn’t necessarily tragic. But it has suffered a similar fate. War, the main arena for displaying courage, has declined in importance, and is now mechanical rather than labor-intensive. And although we rightly admire acts of personal courage, we no longer demand it as a public virtue. We do not expect our politicians to be like kings who once led their troops into battle, but merely skilled and suitably thick-skinned.

Moral courage, as distinct from physical courage, is a civic rather than a military virtue. A person may be afraid of physical harm, but morally fearless. But moral courage has always been less admired than physical courage, because it involves going against the grain. Rulers hate it because it “speaks truth to power,” and crowds are made uncomfortable by it because it confronts their prejudices.

From an ethical perspective, moral courage has been considered the highest form of courage in the liberal age, because it is deliberate, not instinctive. But its value has diminished along with the penalties for displaying it. Opinions once considered courageous are now merely “controversial,” and although they might lead to the loss of one’s job or friends, this is hardly the same as being burned at the stake.

In the 1660s, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes prefigured the decline of public heroism and courage when he wrote of citizens that “the less they dare, the better it is, both for the commonwealth, and themselves.” The growth of professionalism, and the spread of peaceful commerce and manufacturing, lessened the need for heroic or courageous acts. The overall tendency of modern science and social organization has been to create a world in which courage and other virtues will no longer be necessary. In the West, at least, acts of heroism and valor are now confined to stage and screen, where we can admire them without having to suffer their consequences.

Heroism and courage have always been regarded as masculine virtues. In her famous Tilbury speech at the time of the Spanish Armada, Queen Elizabeth I of England played to the stereotype, declaring that “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king.” Women with the hearts of men were thought exceptional. Conversely, Hobbes argued that “men of feminine courage” should be exempted from military service, owing to the risk that they might desert. And Adam Smith was not alone in fearing that commerce would make the population “effeminate and dastardly.”

The huge reservoir of largely untapped courage, especially of the moral sort, that women constitute, has been generally ignored by (male) writers. Yet the emancipation of women was the result of rising female courage. Hannah Arendt, who fled Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s, displayed exemplary moral courage in writing her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, about the trial of the Holocaust’s logistical mastermind. Nor should it surprise us that young women, most recently the teenager Greta Thunberg, have emerged as Green political leaders. Women are thus compensating for the decline in male courage in public life, something that many men find deeply uncomfortable.

This brings me back to Nemtsov and Russia. In 1996, Nemtsov was the only “liberal” Russian politician who argued that the recently overthrown Communist Party, then leading in the polls, should be allowed to compete in the country’s presidential election. He said that this was the only way to establish a tradition of legitimate transfers of power. Other Russian liberals thought Nemtsov was mad. In the event, Yeltsin’s re-election was corruptly bought, and his successor, Putin, has kept himself in power by a kind of “soft dictatorship.” But Nemtsov was prescient in advocating genuine democracy as the only legitimate modern form of rule.

Since 2011, Putin’s rule has looked increasingly fragile in the face of growing street protests in Moscow and other Russian cities. When such regimes can no longer be relied on to deliver economic prosperity, their future is bound to come under threat as new heroes rise up in opposition. This is the lesson emerging not only in Russia, but also in the Middle East and East Asia.

In much of the world, then, the value of heroism is again on the rise. The future may well lie not with politicians and diplomats, but with those men – and women – who are not afraid to die.


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Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is Professor Emeritus of Political Economy at Warwick University. The author of a three-volume biography of John Maynard Keynes, he began his political career in the Labour party, became the Conservative Party’s spokesman for Treasury affairs in the House of Lords, and was eventually forced out of the Conservative Party for his opposition to NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999.