What end do great men and great reputations serve? Each meets certain specific functions, depending on the era and place in which he lives; satisfies emotional and psychological needs of his admirers; and reflects commonly held hopes and beliefs. Public opinion, and hence reputations, change quickly. In one period there exists the tendency to dehumanize in order to exalt; in another, the hysteria of depreciation. Generally the expectations of the hero-seeking multitude is inordinately high. When disappointment follows, the victim is shunted off into limbo.
Of course, fallen heroes may rise again, for there are cycles in their popularity. In this century Washington is losing, and Lee gaining ground. The "ring-tailed roarers" of the last century's western frontier have gone into eclipse with the disappearance of that frontier. Reputations may see-saw with rivaling ones, as do Jefferson's and Hamilton's. This uneven evolution is by no means an exclusively American phenomenon.
Great men are more apt to be solid than subtle. Their aims are plainly put. They act while others think. Henry Adams, Charles Peirce, and Willard Gibbs have been America's intellectual giants. How many school children have even heard of them?
Eventually public idols are accepted and venerated on faith; their myth and their reality merge. They supersede mere facts. Every truth is a reshaping of life impressions. Hence, in the final analysis, it is a free creation of the human intellect. History's real bailiwick is not so much events as opinions. Most of us constantly overlook laws of evidence. We make what we would like to have happened into what did happen. To miss this point is to render the study of the heroic process impossible. "Who cares what the fact was," observed Emerson, "when we have made a constellation of it to hang in heaven an immortal sign?"
Thought is the alternation between collecting and interpretating data. But we believe many things that cannot be demonstrated, or fully documented. Some of these things we tag "legends." Legends can be more faithful and useful to the human heart than facts; many illustrations of this are contained in later chapters. Although scholars cannot endorse the notion that history is a pack of lies agreed upon, they realize there is truth in the quip about its being the propaganda of the victorious.
The reoccurrence of themes and traits in heroes has convinced some there is a magic formula. Joseph Campbell contends that all myths and worlds redeemed are alike. David Malcomson maintains that all heroes are contained in ten heroic types-namely, the Persevering Tortoise, Futile Searcher, Cinderella, Sly Fox, Escapist, Returning Prodigal, Golden Fly, Ugly Duckling, Patient Griselda, and Inconstant Lover. Other scholars have noted that six episodes are usually presented in Greek tragedy--the agon or struggle of hero and villain; the pathos or defeat of the hero; the description of death by a messenger; the lamentation; the recognition of the hero; and the theophany or insight which is the hero's epiphany.
In many Western European sagas the hero has a distinguished origin, and a birth surrounded by mysterious circumstances. Threats are made on his life, but he escapes and returns to win victories and fame. Tragedy, rather than comedy, dogs his life.
Undoubtedly, all heroes stand on somewhat common ground. The tall tales of America and the miracle tales of the Middle Ages have marked similarities. Comic books utilize situations as old as Homer or Beowulf. The favorite setting for heroes remains the battlefield, which provides the clearest test of strength and decision; but the testing ground may just as well be a country store, a lumber camp or the Yankee Stadium. Lincoln's walking miles to return a penny, Paul Bunyan's straightening out a river, and Babe Ruth's pointing to the bleachers where he intended to knock a home run are so many ways in which Americans have fulfilled their heroic roles.
World reputations swing between the poles of the saint (Buddha, Christ, St. Francis) and the soldier ( Alexander, Napoleon, Washington). The former stresses meekness, self-denial, renunciation; the latter aggressiveness, domination, and affirmation. Activistic America has honored the soldier more than the saint. The strong cult of individualism in America has affected our choice of heroes.
There is a difference between the eventful and the event-making man. The one is in the right place at the right time; anyone with a finger could have plugged the dike, as did the Dutch boy. Eventmaking people act so as to change existing conditions. Not everyone in Russia could have substituted for Lenin in the 1917 Revolution. Both types have a mission and acquire admirers. They are, in Thomas Carlyle's words, "the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators of whatsoever the general mass of men contrives to do or attain." To say they are always true to their age is not to say that their standard of values is ageless. "Reputations of the nineteenth century," said Emerson, "will one day be quoted to prove its barbarism."
Our heroes have become symbols, just as have Old Glory, the log cabin, and the skyscraper. Washington symbolizes the Revolution, Boone the Westward Trek, Lincoln the Restored Union, Lee the Lost Cause. Around them legends flourish--sometimes, as we shall see, involving supernatural power and insight. This situation emphasizes that, although they must have surface appeal, great men must also have large stores of inner power. "For behold," Jesus said, "the Kingdom of God is within you." The hero must turn within himself for the support and solutions he needs. Then, like the boonbringer, he can return to the outside world and aid those in it. The hero is a man first of self-achieved submission and then of action. His path is like that represented in the rites of passaage: separation, initiation, and return. This cycle is exemplified in the careers of Prometheus, Buddha, and Aeneas, as well as of many who have followed them.
The inward development of personality allows the hero to perform creative acts, and thus help human societies to grow. Before mastering the macrocosm he overcomes the microcosm. Tackling the outer world, he is faced by the inertia of his fellow-men; upsetting the social equilibrium inevitably brings conflict. Either his triumph or his defeat will restore the social equilibrium. As Henri Bergson says in The Creative Mind, the hero is one whose soul has marked the attainment of a certain point by the evolution of life, and has manifested in an original form a love which is the very essence of the creative effort.
Creative geniuses are "no more than a leaven in the lump of ordinary humanity; and this ordinary humanity is not different in nature from the human type which is typical of primitive societies." In trying to get the uncreative majority to follow him, the hero may use either force or mysticism. The mystic's soul passes out of action into ecstasy, then back into action again. This withdrawal-and-return is frequent in world mythology, as in the stories of Persephone, Adonis, and Osiris. It may be discerned in the spiritual life of mystics, the physical life of the vegetable kingdom, and in human speculation on immortality; in the lives of saints, statesmen, philosophers, and poets, as well as in the histories of nations.
Napoleon Bonaparte's empire has crumbled, his code is outmoded, but his legend survives. His own self-portrait of unblemished beauty fostered it. He did not hesitate to order the Pope to Paris for his coronation as Emperor in 1804. His appearance on battlefields was a masterpiece of heroic planning--the silhouette of the great general, on whom Fate hung, sitting on his charger. Wearing his two-cornered hat, he held the chart of the General Staff in one hand and a telescope in the other. He consciously shaped his reputation along lines that best satisfied him. French poets, patriots, and dramatists have done much to perpetuate the legend of Napoleon. An astute French historian has even demonstrated just how and why this has been done.
The most spectacular recent flare-up of hero-worship was occasioned by a woman in a relatively inconsequential nation: Eva Peron, first lady of Argentina. Born out of wedlock in a small provincial village, she was a dancer before marrying Juan Peron. As Secretary of Labor she developed and explained her "mission" so well that when in 1952 she died at 33, Argentina was thrown into despair. Business stopped, and even foreigners were required to go into mourning. A petition was cabled to the Pope in Rome asking for Eva's formal canonization. She had already become a saint at home, to be re-embalmed for "absolute corporeal permanence." Many walked across one or more provinces for a glimpse of the woman who spoke of herself as "just a sparrow in the midst of a great flock of sparrows." Churches displayed her picture in niches formerly reserved for the Virgin Mary. No one can study the "Evita" worship, even at a distance, without realizing its power as it swept over the Pampas.