Andrew Bernstein is a philosophy professor and novelist, a contributing editor to The Objective Standard, and the author of numerous articles and books, including The Capitalist Manifesto: The Historic, Economic and Philosophic Case for Laissez-Faire and Objectivism in One Lesson: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Ayn Rand. I got to know him while editing his TOS articles “Heroes and Villains in American Education” and “Heroes of Great Literature.” His stirring prose in defense of towering figures kept me glued to the page. So, I was excited to learn of his then-forthcoming book Heroes, Legends, Champions: Why Heroism Matters.
Recently published, the book explores the nature of heroism, zeros in on the essential characteristics of heroes, and distinguishes them from antiheroes, villains, and others. We spoke recently about the genesis of the book, the conceptual tools it provides, and heroism more broadly. Dr. Bernstein will be speaking on “Heroes of Philosophy” at TOS-Con 2020: Philosophy for Freedom and Flourishing.
Hersey: With Heroes, Legends, Champions, you’ve created a fascinating hybrid of useful philosophy and inspirational vignettes about outstanding men and women. What motivated you to write this book? Why does heroism matter?
Bernstein: From early childhood, I have always been a hero worshipper. I come from a severely dysfunctional family and weaned myself on the sight of heroes. I learned from both real-life and fictional heroes that human beings can achieve great things and that life can be an adventure. Being a hero worshipper helped me to become a hero emulator. That is, my great admiration for heroes motivated me to become more like them—not that I wanted to be a gunfighter like Shane (in the eponymous novel), or a secret agent like James Bond, or an agricultural scientist like George Washington Carver. But I strove to be as dedicated as them to life-supporting goals, to develop intellectual prowess to the best of my ability, to manifest courage in the face of daunting obstacles, and to never surrender a life-serving ideal. I let myself be inspired by heroes.
Today, such attitudes of hero worship and emulation too often are drowned in a dismal sea of antiheroism. Serious literature and film are permeated with sad stories of people suffering with alcoholism, drug addiction, dysfunctional families, and unbearable ennui. The arts are full of dark stories crawling with morally challenged creatures, unrecognizably human—stories lacking a single morally upright character.
Heroes generally are relegated to the field of popular culture, where they shine as secret agents, detectives, and costumed, super-powered champions, the popularity of whom speaks volumes about humanity’s desperate yearning for the sight of heroes.
In history and biography, writers generally feel the need to “balance” their account of a hero’s achievements with a detailed litany of his flaws. God forbid that we might celebrate the human capacity for greatness.
But the fact is that human beings need heroes for inspirational value and for the practical, life-enhancing advances they bring about. Our need of heroes is rooted in the nature of reality, regardless of the depravity of various societies throughout history. But today, in a dismal culture that largely eschews heroes, this need is redoubled.
I wrote this book to reignite interest in and appreciation of heroes, to stimulate more hero worship, and to inspire people to lead heroic lives.
Hersey: Often, I’ll read a hero’s story and be inspired, but that feeling fades with time. How do you keep that inspiration alive, and how do you continue leveraging the benefits of a hero story throughout your life?
Bernstein: To a great degree, I live in a self-created cocoon.
I am a bookworm, and I read mostly stories by or about heroes, whether fiction or nonfiction. So, recently, for example, I have been reading Brad Thor’s series about former U.S. Navy SEAL Scott Harvath. I regularly revisit the Sherlock Holmes corpus, the James Bond books, and Rex Stout’s series about Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. In nonfiction I reread Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. I recently read Joseph Ellis’s books about the American Founders, and I look forward to reading Brad Thompson’s new book on America’s Revolutionary period.
I am also a movie hound. I go to the movies at least three times a week. Recently, I saw Midway seven times; I saw Ad Astra numerous times; I saw Star Wars; I saw The Last Full Measure twice, and so on.
Like many inveterate hero worshippers, I often ask myself what one of my favorite heroes might do in a given situation. For example, reflecting back on how I handled an irrational person verbally abusing me in the Q and A of a lecture, I asked myself how Howard Roark, from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, would have handled that nastiness. (The answer is that he would have manifested more calm confidence than I did.) But also, I have given my conscious and subconscious thinking a standing order: Learn from the sight of heroes—and improve myself. For example, speaking of Roark—my all-time favorite hero—I learned from him that one can disagree with others—whether individuals, or groups, or an entire society—in a calm, reasonable way that eschews nonconformity and angry rebelliousness for its own sake.
I learned from Atticus Finch that kindness can be a form of strength. I learned from George Washington Carver that perseverance, the sheer refusal to quit, is a profound virtue. And Amelia Earhart’s story taught me that—despite the stereotypical view that femininity entails meekness—an attractive woman can exhibit sublime courage and unflinching mental toughness.
One of my real-life, living heroes is motivational speaker and life coach Tony Robbins. Years ago, he jolted me out of partial lethargy with his claim that in his twenties, he thought his life was going nowhere and so made the bold decision to improve every aspect of it—and then proceeded to do so. I remind myself of that wisdom all the time: Some part of my life may not be as good as it can be—the amount of my savings, for example, or the untidy state of my apartment, or the amount of junk food in my diet—but I can and should alter my habits and situation for the better.
Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography is perhaps the first and certainly one of the best self-help books ever written. In it, he tells us that (1) he decided to perfect his character, (2) he devised a bold plan for doing so, and (3) he put that plan into action. How many persons ever even think to do such a thing—never mind do it? This is extraordinary!
I try continually to put this into practice. For example, my daughter is now seventeen. It occurred to me, a la Franklin, that I could improve myself as a dad. Do we really need to go to the mall every Saturday? No, I can do more for her than that. We live in the New York suburbs, after all: So, I started taking her to the Broadway theater, to the observation deck of the Freedom Tower, to the Frick, to the Met, and so forth. I got her motivated to read Ayn Rand’s novelette Anthem. We talk about these things. I taught her to drive. I can add real value to her life.
Franklin’s emphasis on strengthening his character combines in my mind with Tony Robbins’s great insight that “The only true security in life comes from knowing that every single day you are improving yourself in some way.” Inspired by the wisdom and perseverance of these heroes, I strive to do exactly that.
I fill all of my reading and entertainment time with the sight of such heroes—or, at least, with stories of human beings overcoming intractable difficulties to make progress. I avoid stories about monsters, creeps, lowlifes, jerks, murderers, or sad-sack losers. There is a simple reason for this: They do not add value to my life.
Further, on most days, I let the news filter in only sparingly. The latest gaffe by Trump, or the most recent socialist scheme of the Democrats: Those I generally tune out. I know only the bare headlines. If some third-world dictator murders innocent civilians in his country or a powerful earthquake kills thousands of human beings, again, I know only the headlines. I do not follow such stories. The details either break my heart, enrage me, or both. Unless I have some specific reason not to, I tune it out. I thereby keep its intellectual/emotional impact on me to a minimum. Only if a news item is life-promoting do I follow it closely. So, for example, when Communism collapsed across Eastern and Central Europe, or during the heyday of the U.S. space program, or the capture and execution of Osama bin Laden: These are the only kinds of news stories I welcome and investigate.
I create a hero bubble—and I live happily in it. This way, I keep the inspiration stream flowing. It is definitely true that the inspiration from a particular hero’s story might fade in time. This is why it is imperative to keep the stream perennially flowing with new instances—and never let it run dry. For anyone who seeks to counter depression and embrace more joy in life, I recommend doing the same.
Hersey: Franklin’s Autobiography is so rich with lessons on self-development! I’m glad you mentioned it.
In your book, you say that heroes pursue life-serving values, sometimes risking their lives to achieve them. American revolutionaries, for instance, would rather have died on their feet than lived on their knees. You mentioned Amelia Earhart a moment ago. She risked her life—and, sadly, lost it—not in order to counter dangerous foes, but because she wanted to circle the globe in an airplane. Is there any crucial difference here? If heroes pursue life-serving values, what sort of life bets disqualify one from being a hero?
Bernstein: Things, activities, and people that objectively promote a person’s life and that he personally cherishes are legitimate values. Liberty, as in the case of the American Revolutionaries—and pioneering aviation, as in the example of Amelia Earhart—unquestionably qualify on both counts as authentic values for the individuals discussed.
But some people defy death for, what seem to me, whimsical reasons. They are daring souls who derive an enormous adrenaline rush from surfing one-hundred-foot waves, or helicoptering to remote peaks and then skiing for their lives in front of the avalanches, or engaging in other such daredevil sports.
In this regard, I had a good conversation with Craig Biddle, an experienced rock climber, about Alex Honnold’s staggering feat of successfully free solo climbing the sheer three-thousand-foot surface of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. To climb this gigantic rock scape with no ropes, no safety net—just man against rock—constitutes one of the greatest athletic achievements in history. Craig said he thought about writing a review of the documentary Free Solo, which beautifully tells the story of this feat, but he ultimately decided against it because he did not want to promote a film that likely would encourage people to rock climb without ropes. I understand that and completely agree. I generally keep my mouth shut about Honnold for exactly that reason.
But, as Ayn Rand identified, values are highly contextual. If dangerous rock climbing is Honnold’s life passion, if he burns for it, if he knows the risks, takes every rational precaution to minimize them (as he does) and then consciously pursues the sport that brings meaning into his life, who is anybody else to tell him this is wrong for him to do? If he were my friend, I would try to persuade him to find a lower-risk vocation that would provide him equal life meaning. But, ultimately, only he can decide or discover what ignites his soul. If rock climbing is the primary or sole source of meaning in his life, then, at the end of the day, I would support his efforts in any way I could.
If someone risked his life on a bet or a dare, I would condemn it as irrational. But if one risks his life in an extreme sport that is the main source of joyous meaning in his life, then I think it is a legitimate value.
There is certainly great courage in such extreme sports. And those who master them are remarkable human beings. Nevertheless, in terms of rationality or heroism, I regard them as borderline cases.
Notably, there are cases such as Peter Strelczyk and his family, who in 1979 risked their lives by flying a hot air balloon over the Iron Curtain to escape East Germany and achieve freedom in West Germany. That was unquestionably heroic. And if some individual loves values that very clearly support human life—let us say, being a U.S. Navy SEAL and fighting for freedom, as an example—there can be no rational disagreement. But if an individual loves extreme sports, we can debate whether it falls within or without the borderline of legitimate human values. I think it can; others might disagree.
Hersey: Yes, I understand. I definitely regard Honnold as a hero in the sense that his achievement illustrates what people can accomplish if they devote themselves to their passion. So, there’s a sense in which I’d want to ask myself, “What would Alex Honnold do?”—and another more concrete sense in which I wouldn’t!
Free Solo is among today’s rare examples of art that celebrates heroism. Despite the dearth of heroes presented within the arts, though, people seem to be generally good at finding heroes within their professions, whether by getting to know them through work, hearing them speak at conferences, or reading about them in trade magazines. For instance, many aspiring e-commerce entrepreneurs—though they may know nothing of the feats of George Washington Carver, properly esteem Jeff Bezos. I presume we agree that this more industry-specific approach to admiring heroes and learning from them is valuable. But what, if anything, do you think people are missing if they acquaint themselves only with heroes within their own fields?
Bernstein: For one thing, they miss an understanding of and appreciation for the various ways in which heroes have improved human life. Most persons value human life—certainly in the Western world they do—and it is right and proper for such valuers who pride themselves on being educated to know and savor the achievements of the great life givers. There is great joy in knowing this—a joy that is absent in ignorance of it.
Further, as discussed above, it is too easy for inspiration from a hero’s story to fade. This is why it is of vital importance to keep the hero stories coming, to spend one’s reading and entertainment time in the presence of heroes, a perennial procession of them in all shapes and sizes, in every form—whether the heroes are ancient or modern, male or female, black or white or Asian, or biracial, whether American or non-American, whether in one’s field or not. Live as fully as possible in a hero’s world.
So, by all means, know the heroes of your field, like I know Socrates, Aristotle, and John Locke. But my life is immeasurably richer for also knowing the stories of George Washington Carver, Maria Montessori, James Madison, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, William Shakespeare, Louis Pasteur, Ferdinand Magellan, George Washington, and many others.
Hersey: Most of the heroes you mention are great historic figures. I got hooked on reading history and biographies in large part because these are such rich sources of inspiration and wisdom. Yet, aside from a few friends, most people I know don’t take much interest in history. They don’t seem to see it as a means of fueling their souls. Why do you think there is this disconnect?
Bernstein: Oh, man, you are preaching to the choir. I love history for many reasons and read in the field incessantly. And you are right. One problem as discussed in my TOS essay, “Heroes and Villains in American Education” (and in my in-progress book, “Why Johnny Still Can’t Read, or Write, Spell, or Understand Math—and What We Can Do About It”) is that American schools do not teach history much.
Many schools don’t even call it “history” anymore. More than one hundred years ago, so-called Progressive educators ushered in this weird hybrid called social studies, which includes some history, though not much—and this little bit often is extremely biased against the values that made America possible. At best, students graduate knowing way less than is necessary to understand the world and the way that past events still impact our lives.
As but one example, today almost no one knows that the Ottoman Empire (located in present-day Turkey), ruled by an Islamic caliphate, besieged Vienna for the second and last time in September 1683. Vienna, geographically, is roughly half way between Constantinople (Istanbul) and London; this is how much of Europe had been conquered by Islam. The decisive battle that lifted the siege was fought on September 12, 1683.
This means that 9/11/1683 was the high point of jihad in the West, the closest that Islamic warriors have come to fulfilling their long-standing dream of conquering Europe. After that, the West went through the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution and its power increased, while the Ottoman Empire and the Islamic world more broadly declined. Jihad, for centuries, went quiescent. Osama bin Laden did not pick that date out of a hat. Christopher Hitchens wrote on this matter. He pointed out that the Battle of Vienna was a turning point in human history, noting that, although today this battle is little remembered in the Western world, it is widely remembered in the Islamic world, where it is regarded as a deep humiliation in itself and a prelude to subsequent ones suffered at the hands of Western infidels. Muslim fanatics, in particular, Hitchens pointed out, regard this battle and date of profound significance.1
Osama bin Laden picked September 11, 2001, to attack Americans because he wanted to make a statement to infidels: Jihad is back. Be afraid. Be very afraid. But he miscalculated: Most Americans are so ignorant of history that they did not understand his message.
What makes this profound ignorance of American history especially sad is that many people know little or nothing about George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and other towering figures who pursued liberty.
The modernist antihero mentality is another reason for little or no knowledge or appreciation of historic (and current) heroes. If heroes are discussed at all in school, or in biographies, or in the news media, the writer/speaker invariably feels compelled to “balance” his account of a hero’s noble deeds by pointing out the tawdry or ignoble misdeeds that he also performed. Thomas Edison, for example, may have invented the electric lighting system, thereby vastly improving human life, but it is morally imperative (on the modernist view) to point out that he neglected his children. This truly is a moral failing, but it should be quickly acknowledged and deplored, not granted equal weight with extraordinary life-serving achievements.
A final reason for the disconnect between many Americans and the great heroes of the past is the pronounced leftist bias of American schools and universities. For example, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is widely read in our schools. Zinn was a member of the Communist Party of the United States, he was a virulent America-hating, capitalism-bashing Marxist, and his famous book is “an execrable work of pseudohistory, full of mistakes, lies, half-truths, and smears” (in the words of Peter Coclanis, Distinguished Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill). And now we have the godforsaken “1619 Project,” which is pushing the nonsense that America was founded for the purpose of protecting slavery.
When kids are taught that the most important characteristics of leading figures of U.S. history are that they were slave owners, and/or racists, and/or imperialists, and/or exploitative robber barons, and so forth, why should they consider them heroes or feel motivated to explore their lives further?
These are the main reasons Americans have little knowledge of—or appreciation for—the great heroes of the past.
Hersey: Could you say more on the demands of objectivity in regard to discussing and evaluating heroes and on how you think we should acknowledge and address a hero’s flaws?
For instance, I’ve written about Thomas Jefferson—whom I regard as one of the greatest heroes who’s ever lived. Personally, I think I would have been doing readers a disservice had I not discussed his flaws—which, as you point out, are among the few things still taught by history teachers and thus are widely known.
Perhaps you disagree, but my thinking is that failing to mention his flaws within the context of evaluating his character would be unjust. Further, without acknowledging his flaws and situating them within the proper context for readers, the counterarguments they’ve absorbed will flood their minds and wash away any hope that they’ll understand and agree with my conclusion: that despite his flaws, Jefferson was one of the greatest minds of his or any age. Thoughts?
Bernstein: Jon, I absolutely agree. In fact, Jefferson is the starring subject of my chapter on “Morally Flawed Heroes.”
The main error of the antihero mentalities is not that they discuss the flaws—moral or otherwise—of great heroes. It is that, in their assessment, life-harming errors are as—or more—important than life-giving successes, regardless of the scale of each. This belief is false.
It certainly is true that identifying evil or any failing that undermines human life—and honestly battling against it—is important to sustain life. But by and large, creating values is a more potent means of advancing life than is destroying evils. So, fighting evil, although good, is secondary in importance to creating life-enhancing values. For example, in some Asian countries in the late 20th century, mountain tribes fought against the communists. To fight against communist totalitarianism certainly is good—but simply triumphing in such a battle is not on par with identifying the principle of individual rights; composing the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, or the Bill of Rights; or establishing the United States of America.
Or to alter the example: During times of bubonic plague, many courageous persons attended the sick and dying, washed their sores, tried to nourish them and comfort them. This is definitely good insofar as it goes. But it is not on par with the achievements of Louis Pasteur, who formulated the germ theory of disease and stood up for the truth against the medical establishment that thought him a madman. Pasteur’s work enabled subsequent researchers to develop antibiotics and other medications that empowered mankind to wipe out numerous lethal diseases and greatly advance both the quality and the duration of human life.
If human life is the standard of moral value, then that which advances it should command our most devout attention.
Hersey: In your book, you take aim at a species of antiheroism propagated by novelists who used some of Freud’s ideas in fiction that focused on people crippled by psychological issues, such as the Compson family in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. You say that the characters are defined by sexual and murderous drives that are supposed to illustrate “complexes” deriving from id, ego, and superego problems.
You end the chapter with a call to authors to tap into a largely untapped reservoir of hero stories: those of people who overcome psychological ailments. Could you say more on the potential and how you envision it being actualized?
Bernstein: I’m not certain that Faulkner was influenced by Freud, although the timing is right, and the psychopathology of the characters about whom Faulkner writes is congruent with some of Freud’s theories.
In any case, these theories certainly have been supplanted by further developments in the field. Psychotherapy in our day has many variations—and a number of practitioners write books and essays describing the advances made by many of their patients (whose names, of course, are omitted to protect their privacy). It is a courageous undertaking to face painful truths that occurred in one’s childhood, to confront ugly transgressions perpetrated by one’s parents or other family members, to will oneself to break misery-inducing but long-established and familiar patterns, and venture, in effect, into a new world—into one that can be healthier and happier but that is utterly unfamiliar and, therefore, frightening. People who do this are heroes.
Consider this: I have read that, on average, something like twenty U.S. military vets per day commit suicide. Whatever the exact number, it is staggering and heartbreaking. And it’s notable that some people have the courage to face enemy gunfire but not to face tormenting inner demons. The conclusion must be not that the demons are fearsomely insuperable—but that there are different types of courage.
There are also different kinds of demons, some stemming from the gruesome horrors of combat (many afflicted vets in the past were described as “shell-shocked”), others from abusive parents, and so forth. For those who choose to face the demons—whether combat vets or otherwise—this is a heroic deed.
Like I said, professional psychotherapists (and some former patients) publish popular books and more technical journal articles about the great strides that some make. Joanne Greenberg’s classic I Never Promised You a Rose Garden is an excellent example, one written by a former patient, not a therapist.
In my book, I have pointed out to 21st-century fiction writers that there is a mother lode of heroic stories waiting to be mined. If they integrate a hero-worshipping attitude with a rudimentary knowledge of the practice and results of psychotherapy, there are an endless number of stories to be told of heroes who, in a multitude of forms, face inner monsters and rout them. I would love to read those stories or see them on the screen.
Hersey: How else do you think what you’ve learned about heroes could inform the efforts of those who seek to promote a better, healthier, more rational culture?
Bernstein: People seeking to improve our culture will find that heroes are their greatest allies. This is true for three reasons.
First, epic heroes such as Louis Pasteur, George Washington, and Amelia Earhart immensely promote human life via practical achievements, whether by laying a foundation for antibiotics, fighting for liberty, pioneering aviation, or something else.
Second, by overcoming daunting obstacles in pursuit of life-affirming goals, heroes inspire us to similarly achieve the best that we’re capable of. For example, the successful survival story of Ernest Shackleton and his men is jaw dropping. A hero worshipper, aware of his exploits, and facing some dismaying problem—let us say, battling cancer, for example—can derive immense courage from Shackleton’s feats, inspiration that can help in the battle for his life.
Related, a proper and healthy form of hero worship can lead to hero emulation across the board, a commitment by every man and woman to strive to reach the outermost limits of their potential. We can do this not merely in regard to one specific project, but more: Like Franklin, we can seek to perfect our character; and a la Tony Robbins, we can strive to change every aspect of our lives. So, perhaps, we do not possess the genius, let’s say, of a William Shakespeare or a George Washington Carver or a Maria Montessori, or the athletic ability of a Michael Jordan, but we do possess some level of ability. What more profoundly benefits our culture than millions of human beings striving to actualize their highest potential in the way that many epic heroes have done?
Nothing else will so fulsomely advance individuals’ lives and our culture at large. After all, Michael Jordan did not become the GOAT—the Greatest of All Time—strictly on the basis of sublime athletic ability at birth. His work ethic was off the charts, as was his talent level. That’s how you get to be the GOAT in any arena of human life. By following the example of such an exalted achiever, this is how individuals can rise to the highest heights of which they are capable.
Hero-worshipping mankind’s greatest achievers—and then striving to emulate them—this is how we advance our lives and culture.
Hersey: Who are three heroes whose stories are not well known but should be, and, in brief, why?
Bernstein: I can cite many more than three. But off the top of my head, the courage of the White Rose was so off the charts that it is a shame they are not better known, especially in America. They were German students at the University of Munich in 1942–43. Hans Scholl, his sister, Sophie, Alexander Schmorell, Christoph Probst, and others, including their philosophy professor, Kurt Huber, stood up against Hitler’s regime in support of freedom. They wrote scathing leaflets denouncing the murderous crimes of the National Socialist Party and ringing ones exhorting their countrymen to stand up for freedom. They ran off copies on a hand copier and distributed them, first throughout Munich and then in other German towns and cities.
They must have been aware that their young lives would shortly be snuffed out by the Gestapo. But this did not deter them. When they finally were captured, their trial was a sham. The Nazi judge would not let them speak in their own defense. Nevertheless, Sophie Scholl made sure her voice was heard, denouncing the Nazis as cowards. Nor did members of the White Rose cower even in the face of death by guillotine. As the blade was about to fall on Hans Scholl’s neck, he cried out: “Long live freedom!” These young men and women were heroes beyond what most of us would expect. Everyone who loves human life should salute them across the ages.
My good friend Lawrence Reed, former president of the Foundation for Economic Education, alerted me to numerous little-known heroes in his excellent book Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character, and Conviction. One of those was Katharine “Kitty” Ramsey, a Scottish pianist and composer who became Duchess of Atholl when her husband succeeded his father as duke in 1917. The Duchess of Atholl, although diminutive and shy, became an outspoken defender of freedom against every version of totalitarianism that afflicted her generation.
In 1923, she became just the third woman elected to the House of Commons and the first from Scotland. Although many intellectuals and politicians of the era praised Soviet communism as “a noble experiment,” Katharine Atholl was not so easily duped. In 1931, she published a book, The Conscription of a People, in which she described the ongoing brutality of the Communist regime. Further, when Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, she immediately recognized the grievous threat posed by National Socialism.
Winston Churchill has a just reputation for being an early and outspoken foe of Hitler—but it was Katharine Atholl who helped alert him to the danger. She read Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, with horror. She sent a copy to Churchill along with the English “translation,” showing that the English version was a mere one-third of the original and that it whitewashed all of Hitler’s evil intentions. She sent Churchill the full transcripts of Hitler’s speeches, which were not reported outside of Germany. In 1938, Neville Chamberlain, head of her own Conservative Party, returned from a Munich meeting with Hitler in which he agreed that the Nazis could forcibly take over part of Czechoslovakia. When he landed in England, he famously declared “peace in our time.”
Katharine Atholl, knowing it might mean her political suicide, nevertheless blistered Chamberlain’s accord as an act of appeasement that would only embolden a power-mad dictator. She made sure her pamphlet on this matter was widely distributed. Chamberlain was enraged by this opposition from within his own party. He bullied Scottish members of the Conservative Party to find a new candidate. She resigned from the party and ran as an independent. Chamberlain made sure her opponent had tons of funding, and he oversaw one of the dirtiest campaigns in parliamentary history against her. He made sure that no prominent member of the Conservative Party went to Scotland to campaign for her. Churchill himself did not appear, although he sent a written endorsement of her candidacy. She lost by a heartbreakingly thin margin. Chamberlain gloated . . . briefly. Nine months later, Hitler invaded Poland, precipitating World War II—and the Duchess of Atholl’s judgment was vindicated.
Katharine Atholl never returned to politics. She spent the war years trying to relieve the misery of innocent victims across Europe. She died in 1960, aged eighty-five. She is little remembered today. But all lovers of freedom should know of and honor her.
Sarah Breedlove is a third example. She was born in 1867 in Louisiana to a family that had been slaves. She was orphaned at age seven, married at fourteen, a mother at seventeen, and a widow at twenty. She worked as a washerwoman for one dollar a day but made sure that her daughter, A’Lelia, received a formal education.
In 1906, Sarah married Charles Joseph Walker and thereafter she used the name Madam C. J. Walker. She started her own company manufacturing beauty products for black women and sold them door-to-door. In 1910, she moved to Indianapolis, where she established the headquarters for the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company. She employed thousands of black women. Moreover, she was a strong supporter of economic power and trained thousands of black women to run their own businesses and attain financial independence.
As her wealth and fame increased, she became an outspoken supporter for the potential of black businesspersons. At a convention of black American business owners, she proudly pointed out that she was a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South, that she had been a washerwoman and worked other menial jobs—but that she had gone on to establish her own company and to build her factory on land that she herself owned. She went on to contribute scholarship money to Tuskegee Institute. She donated money to help support schools, churches, and YMCAs. She was an early member of the NAACP. She protested race riots against—and lynchings of—innocent black Americans. At her death in 1919, her estate was worth roughly $600,000. Because this is about $8 million in modern purchasing power, the young black orphan girl from the Jim Crow South is often considered the first self-made female millionaire of any race. Even if a stickler for assessing the value of money in its own day disputes this title, a related truth is undeniable: Sarah Breedlove showed all of us how much is possible in at least a semi-free country, including for members of a deprecated racial minority.
Hersey: Thanks for this fun and inspiring discussion. I think Heroes, Legends, Champions has the power to amplify people’s interest in exceptional and inspiring men and women and thereby greatly benefit their lives. Congratulations—I wish you best success, and I look forward to hearing you speak on “Heroes of Philosophy” at TOS-Con 2020!
Bernstein: Thank you, Jon. I greatly appreciate it. This has been a fun discussion—and I certainly hope the book has the effect of galvanizing more interest in heroes, more genuine hero worship, and many more persons rising to heroic heights in their own lives. And people better not miss out on my TOS-Con talk—the heroes of philosophy have enormously advanced our lives!
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1. Christopher Hitchens, “Why the Suicide Killers Chose September 11th,” October 3, 2001, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/oct/03/september11.usa2; see also Paul Fregosi, Jihad in the West: Muslim Conquests from the 7th to the 21st Centuries (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998), 343–48; historians disagree on whether the decisive Battle of Vienna took place on 9/11/1683 or on 9/12. It does not matter. Either way, this battle definitively ended, for centuries, Islamic hopes of conquering Europe. The pain resulting from that crushed dream certainly was enough to motivate a fanatic such as bin Laden.