Presidential elections have a way of turning grand pronouncements into banal tropes. The more I hear phrases such as “We must be on the right side of History” or “History will judge us,” the more I want to shield the horse of History from any further beating.
How long must we tongue-lash History in the public square in hopes of goading it in the direction of our own conceits and ambitions?
I think that history cares little for our hopes. It is, of course, we who care about history – not the other way around – and by saying we wish to be “on the right side of history,” we often mean we hope to find favor in the minds of people not yet born.
You, Not History, Are the Master of Your Character
But why should we judge ourselves by this standard? History’s story may be an alluring shadow standing tall before us, but the light of the present shines brightly on everything we do.
For instance, if you are like me, you may believe in the cause of liberty. We may hold an informed conviction that liberty is the best way to bring about prosperity and flourishing. Such a faith should always be a bit uneasy. Doubt, or intellectual humility, is the friend, not the enemy, of a hardy and healthy faith. If a society founded in liberty is ever to blossom and be sustained, it must be based on humble uncertainty about the course of human history while maintaining a zeal for one’s convictions.
So, rather than chasing shadows of an uncertain future, we should focus on what we do with our fleeting time in the spotlight.
Heroes in the Face of Uncertainty
I have of late been spending my time in quiet study and introspection. With the world caught up in chasing the shadows of political history, it seems appropriate to meet the clamor and babel of our current politics with the calm and tranquility of reading between the book covers.
In particular, I have been reading Larry Reed’s new book Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character, and Conviction. This book is truly an oasis in this arid political season of resentment and discontent, and I was lucky enough to tell this to Mr. Reed himself the other day when he joined me as a guest on my radio show.
History's story may be an alluring shadow standing tall before us, but the light of the present shines brightly on everything we do.Throughout our hour-long interview, Reed shared stories of heroes from many a time and culture – from Cicero to Augustine to Gladstone to Pilecki – with each chapter of his book serving as an example of what it means to be a hero. According to Reed, a hero is a person of character, and a person of character is someone who possesses “uncompromising honesty, boundless courage, unflinching responsibility, uncommon vision, steadfast self-discipline, and compassion that springs from one’s own heart rather than from another person’s wallet.”
My biggest takeaway from Real Heroes is the idea that one can still be a hero despite the uncertain course of human events. As Reed writes of St. Augustine, “His life was proof that even as the world you know crumbles into dust, you can still make a difference for the betterment of humanity’s future.” This proof also applies to the first two Romans in the book, Cicero and Cato the Younger, both tragic heroes.
Despite their lifelong efforts to save the Roman Republic, Cato ended up taking his own life rather than be ruled by a tyrant. A few years later, Cicero’s neck would eventually be slashed by Mark Antony’s assassin. Yet their heroic examples have carried on through the ages despite Rome’s tragic fall into empire and tyranny.
Whereas Cicero, Cato, and Augustine lived in tragic times, other heroes in the book, such as Adam Smith and Thomas Clarkson, saw their ideas brought to bear upon the world within their own lifetimes. Smith’s calls for free trade and economic freedom were ripe for implementation in his classically liberal era. Clarkson’s ideas were just as ripe – his mission to end slavery in the British empire was accomplished within half a century of his first being gripped by the abhorrent cruelty and evil of the slave trade. Both men serve as a testament to the power of ideas and moral zeal to bring about progress swiftly.
Overall, the lesson is this: whether one is to live in a time of great hope and progress or a time of decadence and decline, it should make no difference to one’s character. Whether one becomes a lonely martyr or a thrilling success story, one can always be a person of honesty, humility, integrity, courage, conviction, and responsibility. No matter the course of history, one can always be a hero, and Larry Reed has provided many heroes for us to emulate in his book.
Your Character is Worth Fighting For
So take the time to step away from the sound and fury of our politics. Relax in the oasis that is Real Heroes. Do not let the hubris of thinking history is either for or against you cloud your mind. Be a person of character for its own sake rather than any vain hopes of future glory. These are some of the lessons I have learned for myself from reading Mr. Reed’s fine book.
That said, I would like to conclude with a speech written by another man of character who created his own history through literature, J. R. R. Tolkien. I wish to share this especially for young people who, upon witnessing this bleak political landscape full of competing evils, may be saying to themselves, “I can’t do this.”
From Tolkien’s The Two Towers:
Frodo: I can’t do this, Sam.
Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo … and it’s worth fighting for.
Yes, there is some good in this world worth fighting for, and that struggle begins with you. Live a life of conviction, day by day, and even though success is not guaranteed, you will soon find no one, not even the tall shadows of history, can make you forsake the goodness of your character.
Your character is yours, and yours alone, to fashion.