All over the world, conflict seems on the rise. Sometimes it shows up in armed violence. More frequently, it manifests itself in character assassination, cancel culture, and class warfare. We spend too much time fighting each other and too little time appreciating each other. Entire swaths of our culture, especially politics, are drenched in lies and deception and hostility.
None of this bodes well for our future or, most importantly, for our liberties. As I explained in Are We Good Enough for Liberty?, a free society depends on high standards of personal character.
We need a break from the nastiness, the polarization, the dirty business of accentuating faults in each other and claiming victimhood. We need a moral and spiritual lift. We need to feel good again, if even for a few moments, if we’re ever to regain confidence in ourselves and our future. We need to be inspired by the words and deeds of real people whose lives are worth celebrating, whose examples are inherently inspirational.
In my 2016 book, Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction, I profiled dozens of such men and women, from Marcus Tullius Cicero of ancient Rome to Anne Hutchinson of colonial New England to Major League Baseball star Roberto Clemente. Each rose above circumstance to display admirable qualities, proving that one man or one woman can make the world a better place by speaking truth to power, adhering to sound principles against the winds of prevailing custom, or by simply being a good person who takes charge of his life and offers a sterling example to others.
In the First Century B.C., Cicero defended the old Roman republic as its core values were being undermined by a growing welfare-warfare state. He spurned opportunities for great personal power and denounced the demagogues like Julius Caesar and Mark Antony who sought to snuff out personal liberties and constitutional government. He paid for his principles with his life but bequeathed the world a treasure trove of insightful speeches and letters. Nearly two millennia after Cicero challenged the authoritarians of his day, US President John Adams proclaimed that “All the ages of the world have not produced a greater statesman and philosopher” than him.
As America’s first feminist, Anne Hutchinson rocked the despotic, 17th Century theocracy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She organized public discussion groups that criticized both political and religious leaders for their errors and intolerance. That earned her a conviction in court, excommunication from her church, and banishment from the Colony but it planted seeds of liberty that would help form a new nation a century later.
Roberto Clemente, Major League Baseball’s first black Latino superstar, played for the Pittsburgh Pirates for 18 seasons that included two World Series championships (in 1960 and 1971). Along the way, he fought racial discrimination. He devoted much of his spare time to teaching baseball to young, poor boys in his native Puerto Rico. To help relieve the suffering of Nicaraguans after the devastating 1972 earthquake, he donated planeloads of supplies and, sadly, went down with one of them in the Caribbean. He’s still loved today by millions who remember him as a great athlete and a fine man, all around.
Great movements, countries, moments and achievements are marked by heroic individuals. Their heroism appears in many forms and is not unique to any sex, race, region or occupation. If we lack heroes today in our political life, perhaps it’s because we no longer celebrate as we once did the values that make a hero—values like 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.
Maybe we’ve allowed ourselves to be lured away from those bedrock values by the loud and flamboyant, the ephemeral and superficial. We seem more interested in the here-and-now and “what’s in it for me” than either the right, the good or the eternal.
No matter where you may be on the political spectrum—liberal, conservative, libertarian or something else—you probably say that you want men and women in government to be honest, humble, fair, wise, independent, responsible, incorruptible, mindful of the future and respectful of others. But those things are often in direct conflict with the sort of concentration of power and money that attracts the corruptible and the already-corrupted. We should be encouraging the pursuit of truth, personal initiative, independence, self-reliance and virtue. We should discourage lies, dependency, and the use of politics and force to run our lives.
If you look for them, you can find heroes of character in every country’s history, but at times it seems that we’ve forgotten more of them than we’re producing.
Who remembers Fanny Crosby, one of the most revered women in the world barely a century ago? Despite life-long, total blindness, she wrote more hymns than any person ever. She was so sought after for her character that she met and conversed with an astounding 21 US presidents. She rose above her handicap and left the world better than she found it.
On my website, www.lawrencewreed.com, I’ve posted numerous stories about the heroes all around us—entrepreneurs, homeschoolers, inventors, dissidents, etc., etc. Check it out for some daily inspiration.
Early in the period of tyranny and all-powerful emperors, the great Roman historian Livy lamented the decline of heroic values that once spawned and sustained the Roman republic.
“Rome is at the dark dawning of an age,” he wrote, “in which we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them.” Recovering the greatness of Rome, Livy believed, required an understanding of history and its heroes. “At least,” he offered, “it can remind us of what we once were and show us the depths to which we are now sinking.”
And that’s as true today as it was 2,000 years ago.
For Additional Information, See:
Heroes, Character and Freedom: An Interview with Lawrence W. Reed
Heroic Wealth Creators: A Speech at the Heritage Foundation
Character is the Gift That Keeps on Giving by Lawrence W. Reed
(A version of this essay appeared in ElAmerican.com in 2021).