Tolstoy’s War and Peace is not about hedgehogs and foxes as Isaiah Berlin would have it. It is about whether history is made by great men or, as Tolstoy preferred to think, providence arranges things including creating opportunities for exceptional people who may then fall because of hubris. Napoleon’s apologists were inclined to say you need to crack some eggs to make an omelet and excuse his autocratic rule. What ended his conquest of Europe was an opponent who refused to engage with him and instead let nature and Napoleon’s ego be his undoing. This was not lost on the Soviets who beat Hitler by enduring him.
During the 19th century, one of the big ideas that floated around was Thomas Carlyle’s version of romantic idealism, which he evolved from the thinking of Fichte, Goethe and Hegel. He believed that truly special people dragged the rest of us along on their trains. Carlyle’s heroic ideal comprises the style template, story and plot driver for Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged; and not her oddly juxtaposed neo-Aristotelean naïve realism, or whether sloppy thinking results in bad social outcomes. Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra took this idea further and the Twentieth Century saw the working out of the worst man could do as a result, or at least so said Ernst Cassirer and a great many who didn’t realize that totalitarianism, the development of the welfare state and all modern forms of socialism are tied to the Tory notions of noblesse oblige shared by Carlyle, his friend Charles Dickens and his admirer John Ruskin. It was Nietzsche who saw this most clearly and he had little use for Carlyle or the cheap sentimentality of those who would later be known as “googoos” for the paternalistic and globalist version of imperialism they would promulgate under the guise of compassionate good government. During the late Victorian era liberalism in Britain and America transitioned from the 1.0 version, which was libertarian, to the 2.0 version which was both Tory and statist. Matthew Arnold was notable among the 2.0 liberals. Pretty much all modern liberals don’t know that most of what they espouse that didn’t come from Engels and Marx came from Arnold, who referred to the middle class as Philistines; and Ruskin, who hated 1.0 liberals like Wilhelm von Humboldt, J.S. Mill and Herbert Spencer because they distrusted government and wanted people to be allowed to do as they please most of the time. The 1.0 liberals believed that checks and balances in an open society have a more salutary effect than the supposed leadership of great personages who can’t be expected to give a fig about all the little people wandering between the legs of Caesar as he bestrides the narrow world like a Colossus. The anti-liberals and the 2.0 liberals became unified in their common support of more active government that was supposed to shape the morals of society including curbing the crass materialism of the middle class Philistines. It is ironic that in this way upper class snobs and academics were transmogrified as communists first out of artistic sensibility. Of course Marx and his associates looked down on these dilettantes and had a variety of pejoratives for them.
Otto von Bismarck and Theodore Roosevelt had welfare statism in common, though Roosevelt was more comfortable with Kaiser Wilhelm who had fired von Bismarck for not being enough of an imperialist. TR’s self-promotion and projecting ideas about the strenuous life and physical culture were informed by the Anglo-German romantic ideal but this was only part of the picture. Roosevelt echoed the elder von Bismarck on the need to at least seem to have the interests of common folk at heart because without their support there could be no empire. When Roosevelt set out to build a world class navy, so that the nascent American Imperium could project power everywhere, the Federal Government was relatively small and taxes were relatively light. In order to increase the scope, budget and authority of government it was necessary to actually show people that government was doing something for them. Social programs and theatrical “trust busting” therefore garnered both a popular mandate and support from the moneyed elite and emerging industrial mandarins. At that time the railroads, banks and energy business were in the hands of Morgans and Rockefellers whose interests aligned with a government that was increasingly powerful but obtained most of its money from little people and ultimately skimmed what they had on behalf of monopolists who were symbionts. Positioning as moral virtue government theft of the earnings of the middle class and wealth re-distribution from those who are honest to those who are not, along with military aggressiveness abroad, were of a piece. This was the birth of fascism which was from the start a joint project of the Americans, British, Japanese, Italians and Germans. It is not coincidental that this era spawned the modern welfare state, the Federal Reserve, the IRS, the FBI and what would become The Pentagon. It also gave the USA a national anthem and Pledge of Allegiance, saw The Boy Scouts encamp in Britain, America and Germany, and left us Uncle Sam, who was a recruiting gimmick used when President Wilson, who was elected to keep us out of war, needed willing grunts for the meat grinder of WWI.
In order that the government could continue to count on the support of the many, increasingly sophisticated tools were used to feed and control the narrative of what was acceptable truth. Whereas the Spanish American War had been started based on a flimsy pretext with the help of a brash newspaper tycoon, it didn’t take long before Bernays and other masters of spin upped the game to the point where mass media and entertainment could be counted on to hypnotize and gain fervent support or at least passivity on the part of an increasingly duped and programmed populace, who were taught to believe that they lived for the state, that being something larger and better than themselves. This has been going on for a century and what we see now with the abuse of social media by social engineers is only a continuation and not a transformation.
While the romantic ideals of heroism and chivalry, combined with a pastoral artistic sensibility infused the novels of Walter Scott and the minds of 19th century Tory anti-liberals and others, it is not a sufficient cause for the development of the horrors of world war and wholesale death dealing in the 20th. On balance, hero worship is individualistic. While this can come with a host of problems, the ideas of Carlyle and Nietzsche especially run so counter to any kind of groupthink as to be an antidote rather than a cause of the ability to manipulate millions to accept slavery or work against their own interests on behalf of supposed great leaders or their betters. Rather, this comes from acceptance of authority and ceding of one’s own sovereignty and responsibility to the state, which they are taught to do by state run schools (which the original liberals warned against) and state sponsored media promoting groupthink everywhere possible. That the writings of some of the adherents to the anti-liberal philosophy contradict themselves, and none more than Ruskin, does not alter the fundamental fact: romanticism is individualistic and not uncritically accepting of rule by technocratic experts, whether billed as compassionate (left) or order seeking (right).
Luke Skywalker was a rebel and a hero, as were Siegfried and Lancelot before him. That average Janes and Joes want to be more like this archetype does not automatically make them fodder for sociopathic leaders. The influence and intent of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, the 20th century’s leading Anglophone fantasists, was to encourage personal responsibility and whole personhood, not tyranny. One of the 20th century’s best known teachers on the role of myth in human culture was Joseph Campbell, who directly influenced George Lucas’ vision for Star Wars. The upshot of Campbell’s work was to encourage individuals to, as he often said, find their bliss; not to become cyphers and robot servants for power-trippers.
What This Means for Ethics Today
The archetype of the hero transcends local folkways and nations. It is as old as human culture itself. To blame pre- or post-enlightenment myths for the extraordinary death dealing that has been the concomitant of recent totalitarian states is foolhardy. On the other hand, how we respond to and engage in myth making is highly relevant to the standards we have of rightness and goodness. The modern fetish of the state is a utilitarian Frankenstein fabricated from the worst of Hegel, Hobbes’ Leviathan and Rousseau’s General Will, and not attributable to Nietzsche or Carlyle. Nietzsche at least saw beyond this but was still addicted to futurity and the next step for humanity that would come about as a result of the appearance of the super man who would transcend mere good and evil. Nietzsche evidently saw himself as a sort of John the Baptist preparing the way for such persons. He certainly would have viewed the NAZIS as contemptible and retrograde, not least because they indulged in what he called ressentiment. No person who is capable of rising above his own cultural programming and handicaps has the need to tell everyone else how to believe or what they can and can’t do with their lives, particularly when such meddling is motivated by nothing other than envy. This kind of futurity is noticeably absent from most of what passes for ethics today. So too is the kind of sensitivity to the notions of redemption and honor that were so much a part of what comprised authentic nobility at various times and places where humans were reaching for their best selves and not just pandering to the mob or accepting the lowest common denominator as the measure of everything. Without heroic ideals combined with mercy and tolerance it is likely those who use Orwell’s 1984 as a manual for public policy, and P.K. Dick’s Minority Report as a standard for both how to conduct business and prevent crime, will continue to successfully make the worse seem the better cause.