A World Without Heroes

6 min readSep 26, 2020

“Men do not learn much from the lessons of history and that is the most important of all the lessons of history.” — Aldous Huxley

The most influential teacher in my life growing up was my high school history teacher. I had already had an interest in world history, but through his teaching I became really excited about American history. The fact that I can still recall many of the concepts I learned in his class is not so much a testament to my memory, but of the quality and passion he had for teaching.

As I progressed through life, I continued to delve into American history. Having been introduced by my high school history teacher to Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” (and was fortunate to see him speak before he died), I discovered that there were several narratives to many of the historical events that I had learned about. I learned about some of the reprehensible actions by traditionally celebrated American heroes that textbooks and curriculums left out. From there I read “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.” As I went down that rabbit hole I took a more pessimistic view of the history I had learned up until that point.

In fact, the more I delved into the people I admired most, the more I was able to find flaws that threw them from the pedestal in my mind that they once occupied. Ayn Rand took social security. Martin Luther King Jr. was a known womanizer. Numerous heroes had slaves, were racist, or committed some other form of modern injustice. I went through a phase of disillusion.

But after many years of going through this constant cycle of learning more about history and finding more “flaws” of the people that I learned about, I realized that on some level all history is a narrative of some sorts, be it good or bad. If we take the view of finding the flaw, we will find the flaw in every historical figure. No one escapes this scrutiny. It’s just a matter of when based on what the current standards of purity become. What are we left with then? All that remains is a postmodern purgatory of individuals; listlessly blowing into the wind of the future from an anchorless present and a rejected past.

Human beings are complex and rarely embody the virtues that one idolizes without some form of nuance, flaw, or contradiction. That’s not a bad thing, for it’s what makes us human. What I learned after emerging from a place of abandoned heroes is that if you only go searching for the flaws, then that is exactly what you will find. The fact that some may come to mind as a protest to this argument is more so a function of not digging deep enough rather than actually finding an exception.

The danger when we moralize history through a contemporary lens is that it lacks the necessary context of the past. Separating ourselves from what is morally accepted today versus what was acceptable then is essential if one is to parse apart an individual’s actions that may be questionable now. One of the things that really helped me get past my disillusion was thinking about how someone I thought was a hero from another time in history would act today. If they knew everything that we knew and had the benefit of hindsight, would their actions be consistent? This exercise forced me to think about their philosophy in a way that removed the actions or attitudes of the past and instead analyzed from first principles how they would act now. If they were to act in ways that were consistent, then it was tough for me to judge actions they committed then with the luxury of how we act now. It’s also a humbling reminder of actions and morals that we have today that may be abhorrent to future generations. This should give us pause when thinking about the righteousness of our own decisions.

Dystopian Destiny

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” -Orwell

I say all of this because of what feels like a complete and often vitriolic disregard for the lessons of history. History itself is deeply flawed with it’s bias towards being written by the victor or interpreted by a specific individual or group to support a narrative. In spite of this, there is something profoundly important about history. It’s not just about the facts and memorizing a timeline, it’s about human behavior. History is arguably a form of psychology; one that gives us the benefit of observing cause and effect while standing from a higher vantage point. The way that many people in modern society cast off this subject full of wealth is disconcerting. In many ways, history is our only semi-reliable source for predicting the future. The cliche about history not repeating but rhyming is true because the subjects of history have not changed much in the last 10,000 years. We would like to think that new technologies, religions, and governments have made us substantially different from our distant ancestors, but it is humbling to remember that this argument could be applied seemingly at random to any other point in history. The printing press was a revolutionary technology in powerful ways similar to the internet. A man from that era may have had the same notion of being substantially different from his ancestors for the same reasons that we feel today. Would he have any less ground to make that claim than we do? Despite all of our efforts to separate ourselves from the continuous reel of film that history represents, we are still a part of it.

I am not an apologist for the bad actions of history. There are many events and choices of individuals that would be considered morally repugnant in any era. But there is a struggle that should be wrestled with when looking at figures of history. The contradiction of vice and virtue based on good and bad actions in a person’s life must be held together if one is to evaluate them honestly. The admission of mistakes should count for something. The changing of one’s mind, even more. The past should always be approached through the lens of humility.

History is a mixture of improbable events with profound effects, highly probable events that never occur, and everything in between. It is a story of action. With action comes the personal torment of considering how difficult decisions will be judged by future generations. One has no control over this judgement, only over their actions. In a society where judgement is meted out in an accelerating and zealous fashion to erase history, the message internalized becomes clear: avoid judgement by avoiding action. This notion is anathema to life, and begs the question of how history will judge this cultural phenomenon.

There are many statues and busts in Rome of certain emperors and politicians from antiquity who were by all accounts atrocious people. The beauty in the preservation of these monuments is their ability to spark the curiosity in the person viewing them. Millions visit the concentration camps in Europe every year. These are not happy places, but they are powerful landmarks that evoke painful questions about the nature of human cruelty. The physical reminders of history cause us to ask the questions of what happened and who was involved. That curiosity is what bridges the gap between the past and the present. In that gap lies the possibility to create an understanding of history; villains and heroes alike.

For the disgraced heroes in recent history, we must try to give them the same level of dispassionate inquiry that we would give individuals from far away lands and times. The question we must ask ourselves is can we hold the nuance, flaw, or contradiction of the heroes called into question? Some will pass muster and others won’t. But if we can hold ourselves to this standard, then I believe we can redeem a place for heroes in our minds and see the human beings that they were — imperfections and all — while learning the lessons their actions can teach us.