I recently began reading sociologist Barry Schwartz’s 2008 Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era: History and Memory in Late Twentieth-Century America. It is an argumentative and, to me, frustrating book which waffles deliberately on the question of whether what he refers to as a “weakening faith in human greatness” is a good or bad thing. “The moral and social leveling supporting the most congenial society in history, a society largely free of ethnic and racial hatred, inclusive of all peoples and solicitous of their rights, is precisely the kind of society in which great men and women and their achievements count for less, while the victimized, wounded, handicapped, and oppressed count for more than ever before,” he writes, and, later, “’The fading of the great man is part of a new moral order at once liberating and just, alienating and shallow” (8, 19). My suspicions are that this even-handedness is specious, that “alienating and shallow” expresses Schwartz’s deeper feelings, feelings which, as we know from recent eructations by eminent scholars, are becoming increasingly easy to state without the coy impartiality.
The question of the “post-heroic” or, as another recent book has it, “the end of greatness,” is, I think, little theorized and even less challenged among historians in large part because few historians any longer openly use the discourse of the heroic. Historians seldom respond to these insinuations that our world has lost something vital with our passing into a post-heroic era. Many historians tend to think that the Carlylean Great Man theory is essentially extinct. We understand that there is a cult of the Founders that requires our scholarly attention, but we regard the category of Great Men as an antique not worth the dusting off to disagree with.
But there is also a key ambiguity at the center of the term “post-heroic” which those who bemoan our society’s passage into the “post-heroic” are better off not resolving and which we ignore to our disadvantage. There is on the one hand a sense that, in a “post-heroic” age, there are no longer any Great Men (or women, when they’re remembered); that is, no one can rise to true greatness, to heroism in a world that, as Schwartz contends, celebrates victimhood instead. But there is another side as well to the term which suggests not that no one can rise to greatness, but that certain forces prevent broad public recognition of the Great Men who might still walk among us, unappreciated.
What this ambiguity permits is a subtle but devastating move: while under the cover of a social diagnosis—the “post-heroic age”—a direct attribution of blame is bruited: “there is nothing wrong with society, in fact, which wants heroes, wants Great Men,” it intimates. “It is only the [fill-in-the-blank: liberal elites, ivory tower intellectuals, postmodernists, multiculturalists] who enforce a false equality or tarnish good men and women with their accusations of racism, sexism, and so forth. They won’t let us have heroes; they just tear them down.” Or as William Bennett puts it in an introduction to his 2011 The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood:
In a recent survey of twelve hundred junior high school children, the most popular response to the question “Who is your hero?” was “None.” Nobody. Other answers far down the line in this and other polls have revealed the devaluation of the hero, at least. Students today cite rock musicians, Evel Knievel, and the bionic man and woman. This suggests—and my own informal poll and the reports of friends of mine who are teachers have confirmed my suspicion—that heroes are out of fashion. For some reason, perhaps for no reason, many of us think it is not proper to have heroes; or worse, that there aren’t any—or only shabby ones.
This nescient or plain passive-aggressive note is characteristic: we all know precisely what Bennett imagines are the reasons behind this “devaluation of the hero,” and it is in the preterition of it that the lesson is taught: they (the postmodernists, the feminists, et al.) have stolen our innate reverence for heroes, have fooled us into believing we shouldn’t have them.
This devious little turn shifts the field of battle from the heroic and post-heroic to the question of what Carlyle called “hero-worship,” but which is more often described today as a craving for stories of heroism. It is the impulse that we are being told is driving the extraordinary box office success of the film American Sniper: people want to admire heroes, they want to be reassured that the world is not leveled, that heroes still walk amongst us and merit our worship.
“Hero-worship endures forever while man endures,” Carlyle wrote. “We all love great men; love, venerate and bow down submissive before great men: nay can we honestly bow down to anything else? Ah, does not every true man feel that he is himself made higher by doing reverence to what is really above him? No nobler or more blessed feeling dwells in man’s heart.”
I am not sure that I have ever read a direct response by a historian to this kind of thinking, not in the way that Butterfield’s Whig Interpretation of History directly tackled, for all its many faults, questions of teleology and assumptions of inevitable progress, or the way that a host of studies have excoriated the stadialism of vulgar Marxism. Social history, we might agree, is an oblique answer to Carlyle, but an outright rebuttal of Carlyle’s assertion that “we all love great men”—where is that?
In monographs, in lectures, certainly in graduate school classrooms, we hear “whiggish” and “teleological” as still active terms of reproach; we worry deeply and sincerely about the form of the narratives we tell, the way the arc of our stories bends tidily around adverse evidence of progress or improvement, obscuring the power of reaction and the potential for true defeat. We correctly cherish contingency both as the watchword of lost alternatives to the present and as an admonition against believing that fortune favors the good; it helps us maintain that Gramscian equipoise: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.
But these are ideals about narrative, and when a Gordon Wood writes a Weekly Standard piece telling us that we are doing it wrong, we go to battle with him over narrative and over basically narratological meta-issues like presentism (which Eran laid out excellently). But aren’t we missing the other charge running through critiques like Wood’s, or Bennett’s, or Schwartz’s? We have picked the wrong protagonists, they say. We have chosen to honor not Odysseus but Thersites, not Alcibiades but the Melians, the “victimized, wounded, handicapped, and oppressed.”
We choose, I think, not to defend that decision and say, yes, these are our protagonists, and they challenge traditional notions of heroism and that is a good thing. We avoid saying directly that no, there is no such thing as an innate desire to abase oneself before Great Men, there is no inchoate craving for hero-worship. Perhaps we are more conflicted about these statements than we are about the impossibility of reaching objective truth or shedding our politics at the threshold of history-writing. But this ground—a debate about heroes and hero-worship—is also the one that figures like Gordon Wood are parading around on. We ought to meet them there.
 Bennett, The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2011), xxvii, my emphasis. The references to Knievel and the bionic man and woman betray that, as Bennett confesses, this part of the book was written “forty years ago.” Cut and paste.
 “In other words, unless the Indians became the main characters in his story, Bailyn couldn’t win,” Wood says. And historians from Vine Deloria to Ned Blackhawk say, “Yes—that is the point.”