A group of classical liberals whose email list I’m on got into an interesting discussion recently about the role of, and need for, heroes and heroism.
The best comment I saw was by Todd Zywicki, a law professor at George Mason University, who gave me permission to quote him. Here’s Todd, with a little chopping by me:
Yes—[classical] liberalism can bring out those virtues to people.
But, he is saying, the liberal thinkers of his time—and I would say our time—as a matter of actual practice and argument do not explain to people how one can be heroic in the liberal order. And one cannot simply assume that people will find these virtues when left to their own devices. Nor can those impulses simply be waved away as irrational, irrelevant, or whatever.
I think it is interesting, for example, that one of the appeals of Ayn Rand’s novels is she makes ordinary life heroic. And I think this explains much of Jordan Peterson’s appeal—he makes the task of day-to-day living heroic. Doing your duty, bearing your burden, tending to your family and community, raising good kids, making the world around you better on a day to day basis is a moral duty. I could elaborate, but that’s not the point.
Strauss’s point seems to be, “You really need to recognize this is part of human nature and you better take it seriously and figure out how to meet this impulse through the liberal order. Because if you don’t, people are going to look for it somewhere else.” How that’s done is a task for the liberal thinkers.
So Strauss’s argument, as I understand it, is not that the liberal order cannot meet those demands of human nature. It is that human nature makes those demands and liberal thinkers better figure out how to meet those demands if they want the liberal order to survive.
This discussion reminded me of a good point made by Charles Murray in one of his books in the 1990s whose name I’ve forgotten. Murray talked about how the welfare state makes it harder for normal average people to be heroic by helping those around them.
It also reminded me of the segments on CBS’s Sunday Morning that I like best: those done by Steve Hartman. Here’s his latest, from last Sunday, that’s one of his best.
I desperately wanted heroes when I was growing up. The pic above is of The Lone Ranger, one of my heroes when I was young. We didn’t have TV then, but I saw him in the movies.
I think we need not only to have heroes, but also to be heroic. At least I do.