As news came of the heroic actions of three Americans aboard an Amsterdam-Paris train last week, many voiced admiration and relief that yes, heroes still exist in today’s world. Granted two of the men were off-duty military. Still, civilians also braved the danger, risking their lives. We are proud to be Americans once again, proud to do the right thing at the right time, proud to be heroic, risking all. We wonder if, after all, virtue does exist and might even be alive and breathing. Virtue might even be something we should teach our children. Are ideals making a comeback?
Perhaps the antihero of the last fifty years is not such a wise role model.
The antihero has formed today’s sensibilities through the arts, literature, and media. In real life he has banded together with other antiheroes to form collectives, grievance groups quick to take offense and to demand entitlements. In stories, these characters are often morose, turned inward, bored with life, and anti-authority on principle. They are narcissistic, nihilistic, without direction. They do not possess moral qualities once called “virtues.” These victims blame the system and society, never themselves. Publishers have promoted the antihero, finding readers desiring validation.
The intent to produce and market antiheroes is actually a noble one, ironically, even perhaps a heroic one, encouraging one to empathize with the least in our society – those hurt by race, crime, drugs, divorce, poverty. We want our children to care (and rightly), but we give them dark novels with stories of rape, incest, and pederasty. In time, literature’s antiheroes, instead of becoming nobler and overcoming adversity, became darker, more ignoble. Novels must increase the terror and degradation, so that sexual sadism and violence towards women spans fifty shades of grey, with relative degrees of darkness, legitimizing the prurient experience.
Without ideals, standards of virtue, even right and wrong, the bar of civilized culture plummets. Civilization fragments and spills into a bestial world we call barbarism.
I was thinking about heroes and their welcome return to the public square when I came across Bret Stephens’ lovely column this week in the Wall Street Journal, “The Gifts of a Teacher.” In this tribute to Mrs. Amy Kass, his Literature professor at the University of Chicago, he describes how we have too many choices in our modern world. Mrs. Kass could see this and saw her vocation as one giving structure and direction to the chaos of those choices. In the past society supplemented law, adding morality, manners, and tradition. Today, we have no such rules, or few of them, so that students in those formative years of schooling that should move them from adolescence into adulthood often flail about undirected.
It was Mrs. Kass’s role to provide a framework of living through the great stories of an earlier time. As Mr. Stephens writes, “Jane Austen still offers the best advice on dating. Aristotle still has the last word on friendship.” The stories considered how to ennoble life, what and how to dream, how to grow a great heart and soul. Simply pondering how others answered, “What is the good life?”, a question I recall from my own two years of Western Civilization, is a start.
We need to train our children to be heroes in all walks of life, to be self-sacrificial rather than self-aggrandizing. We used to do this, assuming it was a necessary education for adulthood. Perhaps we should return to the old ways.
There is a morning prayer in our Anglican Book of Common Prayer that speaks of God’s service as “perfect freedom.” God gives us rules, a framework in which to live. He provides a recipe for happiness, rules for the road as it were. When we serve him we follow those rules, or try to. Once we learn the rules (like riding a bike perhaps) we have plenty of freedom, many choices within the frame of God’s law (we can ride all over the place). That is what we call free will: God… whose service is perfect freedom.
Just so, a culture (through government, schools, churches, temples), to survive, must provide a framework of ideals in which we can live our best lives, pursue our greatest happiness. Mr. Stephens describes the problem of choices without limit:
“We can satisfy our desires, but we have trouble recognizing our longings. We can do as we please but find it difficult to figure out what truly pleases us, or what we really ought to do. Limitless choice dissipates the possibility of fully realizing the choices we make, whether in our careers or communities or marriages. There’s always the chance that something (or someplace, or someone) better is lurking around the corner.”
The heroes on the train knew immediately what they needed to do and they did it. I pray that America’s teachers embrace the honorable and heroic role with which they are entrusted, just as Mrs. Kass did, giving students a framework for figuring out life, how to choose what’s right and what’s wrong, what to do and what not to do, when and where. Such an education will put our culture back on track.
Thank you, Mrs. Kass, and thank you, Mr. Stephens. Thank you, National Guard Specialist Alek Skarlatos, Airman First Class Spencer Stone, and Mr. Anthony Sadler. It is good to remember who we are and who we can become.