Klugewicz – Hungry Souls and Brave Hearts
Souls and Brave Hearts: The Need for an American Heroic Myth
The Bill of Rights Institute
Extended Version of
Speech Delivered at the Panel on
“Keeping a Republic:
Transmitting the Torch to the Younger Generation”
at the Fall 2003 Regional
Meeting of the Philadelphia Society
October 3-4, 2003
© 2003 Stephen M. Klugewicz. All
Rights Reserved. Not to be quoted or attributed without
greatest challenge we face today as a society in trying to pass on the torch of
republicanism is the unprecedented level of cynicism among young people.
Television and movies hammer the young relentlessly with the nihilistic message
that everything is relative, that nothing is sacred, that there are no taboos,
and that heroes and principles are outdated ideas. Meanwhile, most popular music
diminishes the ability of the young to reason and rots their very souls. As a
result, as Allan Bloom has noted, students usually enter school as clean slates,
which makes them nearly uneducable.
Too often, classroom
teachers encourage this nihilism, for they too are products of a relativistic
culture. Even if a teacher wants to take a stand on an issue of morality or make
an aesthetic judgment, he is often cowed into silence by the educationist junta.
To suggest, for example, that the music of Mozart is objectively superior
to that of Eminem is to be called “judgmental”; to assert that homosexual
behavior is immoral is to be deemed “intolerant” or a “hate monger.” The
former pronouncement may earn only a reprimand; the latter may well result in
dismissal. Alexis de Tocqueville’s assessment that America harbors “little
independence of mind and real freedom of discussion” holds true today.
We as a society have
lost the true purpose of education, which, as Aristotle argued, is to teach the
pupil “to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought.”
Young people must be taught to love truth, goodness, and beauty, and hate
falsehood, evil, and ugliness. Yes, we need to teach students to think, but
reason must always be subservient to truth. This is the very essence of free
inquiry. Yet today to insist that there are objective answers to aesthetic or
ethical questions is to be considered narrow-minded and bigoted.
All this has nearly destroyed the ability of the young to believe in anything,
especially in the unseen and the abstract. Popular culture has groomed the young
to be, in C.S. Lewis’ term, “men without chests,” their souls adrift,
believing in nothing, following only the whims of desire.
So, how do we encourage students to believe in “the permanent things”? And,
specifically, to address the concern of this panel, how do we inspire among them
a devotion to something so intangible as “republicanism”? Part of the answer
lies in making this concept tangible to the young. The best way to accomplish
this is to personalize republicanism—to associate the concept with real
people. Students relate better to people than to ideas.
In order to nurture in the young, then, a love for America’s republican
institutions, we must foster in them a love for the people of this country,
particularly for those people who shaped the institutions of this country—a
group that we can call “Founders” in the broadest sense. Some might ask
whether it is possible to foster such strong feelings for such distant people.
The affection we seek to encourage in the young is not, of course, the equal of
the love they feel for relatives and friends. But we can approximate instead the
love they feel for, say, a favorite author or composer. “I love
Shakespeare!” a student might say. He ostensibly means that he loves the works
of Shakespeare, but in some sense he is saying that he loves Shakespeare the
person too. By reading Shakespeare’s works, he believes that in a sense he
knows the man himself.
Thus people can be loved in a real sense despite the fact that they are
physically distant or even entirely absent from this world. Indeed, in some ways
it is easier to cultivate admiration for historical figures than it is for
contemporary ones. Greatness is usually perceived from a distance, usually an
historical distance. Heroes are rarely honored in their own time.
What we must give the young, then, are heroes and, more broadly, a heroic myth.
In spite of the corrosive influence of much of popular culture, young people
retain a sense of imagination. And perhaps because of the vacuity of popular
culture, they possess now more than ever, in Carson Holloway’s term, “hungry
souls,” eager to be fed.
More than adults, children are receptive to myth. And so the cynicism of
modern-day youth presents us with a great teachable moment. We must tell the
story of this country—particularly the stories of the winning of independence
and establishment of a new government—as a great myth.
Myths, as J.R.R. Tolkien observed, are often the best way of expressing truths.
They are also the lifeblood of civilizations. It would be difficult, for
instance, to overstate the importance of the Homeric epics in shaping the
culture of Ancient Greece or the impact of the story of Cincinnatus on
generations of Roman soldiers. Modern nations, too, are the products of their
myths. The stories of the Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution, for example,
have done much to mold modern Britain. Perhaps the decline of the nations of Old
Europe can be explained partly by a loss of the power of their myths. The story
of Joan of Arc’s courage and religious devotion, for example, certainly seems
to affect the French hardly at all these days. When a civilization loses its
myths, it is nearing its demise.
The outlines of the American heroic myth are already there. Many kids today will
say that the Revolution was fought because liberty-loving American colonists
resented the tyranny of British rule. Though this interpretation of events is a
simplified one, and can and often has been challenged wholesale as well as in
its particulars, it is undeniable that the leaders of the patriot movement in
American sincerely believed this version of events.
In telling the story of America, we have a decided advantage over the Left.
Liberals are simply not temperamentally equipped for the task of myth-making.
They have lost the sense of the heroic. To them American history is either
depersonalized—full of the faceless evils of sexism, racism, industrialism,
and dozens of other “isms—or at least full of evil people. The Left has a
hard time finding heroes among the dead white men who most influenced the events
of America’s past. In the eyes of liberals, for example, George Mason was
first and foremost a slaveholder, John C. Calhoun was first and foremost a
slaveholder, Robert E. Lee was first and foremost a slaveholder, and, if he had
been alive prior to 1865, George W. Bush would have been first and foremost a
But we on the Right recognize that it is possible to admire flawed human beings.
We do not expect our heroes to be saints. We have the sense to look up to the
Founders despite their sins. Yes, sadly, many of the Founders owned slaves. Less
often remarked upon is that nearly all were staunchly anti-Catholic. Does that
mean that a Catholic cannot admire, for example, Sam Adams, who said that
“much more is to be dreaded from the growth of Popery in America than from
It would be churlish to blame these men for accepting many of the racial,
social, and cultural conventions of the their time. The wonder is that they went
so far at times in challenging them.
How do we convince the young, as enlightened as they imagine themselves to be,
of the relevance of the Founders, particularly the relevance of those who were
slaveholders? James DePriest, the conductor of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra,
said it well. DePriest, an African-American, was once asked in an interview what
relevance the music of white Europeans—such as Bach, Beethoven, and
Brahms—could possibly have for him. He replied that the music of these human
beings had meaning for him inasmuch as he, an African-American, was part of
humanity. And as much as we are part of humanity, and in particular the American
experience, the Founders, despite some of the moral blinders they wore, have
meaning for us.
We must use all the tools we can in conveying the heroic myth to the young.
Teachers must inspire students with stories of the bravery of George Washington
and the brilliance of men like Alexander Hamilton. Writers must pen historical
novels and popular biographies. Scholars must compose sweeping narratives of the
past that will appeal to a general audience.
But we must do more. We need to appeal to the emotional as well as intellectual
nature of the young. In doing this, we must turn to the example of Richard
Wagner. Though many conservatives consider music’s founding father of
anti-intellectual Romanticism an enemy, Wagner correctly understood that a
people need a cultural-national myth presented to them through a medium that
acts upon their emotion at least as much as upon their reason. For Wagner this
meant creating a new synthesis of music, verse, and staging. What we need is a
new Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.
I speak of cinematic portrayals. We must appreciate and utilize the power of
dramatic films to influence society. Kids believe—truly believe—only what
they see. If it is not on video, it is not real to them. Films that deal with
historical figures and events are for young people the primary source of
information about the past. Mention Mozart in a class, and they will describe
the childish behavior depicted by Tom Hulce in Amadeus. Mention the
Romans, and they will eagerly recount Russell Crowe’s exploits in Gladiator.
And what student—or adult, for that matter—can think of Scottish freedom
fighter William Wallace and not picture Mel Gibson?
Indeed, it is Gibson who has most recently provided us with several great
examples of heroic myth-making on film. Nineteen-ninety-five’s Braveheart
was his first foray into the genre. He followed this up with The Patriot
in 2000 and We Were Soldiers in 2002 All three movies have as their
central character a heroic soldier fighting for the liberty of his people. And
now Gibson is producing and directing The Passion, the story of Jesus’
trial and crucifixion, the most dramatic and powerful of all myths.
The outcry against The Passion and against Gibson himself suggests that
the Left is keenly aware—perhaps more than we have been—of the power of film
to shape belief. The mainstream media is simply in a tizzy about the fact that a
traditionalist Catholic screen idol is about to release a film that faithfully
depicts the passion and death of Jesus Christ. Behind the familiar accusation of
anti-Semitism lurks alarm that the central story of the Gospels might be told
more powerfully than ever. The Left knows well that this film has the potential
to influence more people than a thousand theological tomes. We cannot cede this
ground to the likes of Martin Scorsese or, worse, Oliver Stone.
Some may argue that the medium of video is inherently inferior to the written
word and even deleterious to the imagination of the young. It is also claimed
that video is incapable of conveying ideas to the audience. But this is
nonsense. Though it is true that video should not be used to the exclusion of
the written word in telling stories of the past, the visual presentation of myth
and story has been used throughout history to inspire, influence, inform, and
entertain. The plays of Shakespeare, for instance, were written not to be read
on the page, but to be performed in the theater, where their power is greater.
Likewise, merely reading the libretto of a Mozart opera affects the intellect
and soul of a person far less than seeing a full production in the opera house.
By advocating the paradigm of the historic myth, I am not calling for
fictionalizing history. Facts must be respected. But as every historian knows,
facts do not speak for themselves. History is an art as well as a science.
Neither does the historic myth dictate a monolithic interpretation of history
from which there can be no dissent. Rather, the historian may choose his heroes
and viewpoint. In telling the story of the writing of the Constitution, for
instance, some conservatives may select Federalists like Alexander Hamilton and
Gouverneur Morris as the great protagonists of a tale of the building of a great
nation. Others may turn to the Anti-federalists George Mason and Patrick Henry
as the central characters of a story of liberty. Historians must simply remember
that their job is at heart storytelling, which requires having opinions about
the story. So-called “objective” history, if not impossible, is at the very
Historical novels and film, the most powerful means of telling the heroic myth,
must especially be allowed artistic license. The novelist or director must be
true only to the general outlines of the story and the character of the heroes.
For example, it matters little that Braveheart invented a love affair
between William Wallace and a French princess, but it matters much that a recent
miniseries about George Washington depicted the Virginian making a crass joke
about Henry Knox’s weight to get a cheap laugh from the rank and file of the
Continental Army. The former story correctly highlights the charisma of Wallace;
the latter scene paints a false picture of Washington’s character.
And, finally, let us not forget to include humor in telling the story of America
to the young, which will help to avoid boring them. Kids like people who can be
funny. In telling the story of this nation’s founding, we ought to include
humorous episodes as well as the occasional witty barb uttered by famous men of
the past. For example, I look forward as I grow older to having the opportunity
to employ George Mason’s retort to a federalist at the Virginia Ratifying
Convention. This younger gentleman was so angered at Mason’s opposition to the
Constitution that he accused the aged Virginian of having lost his wits. To this
Mason responded: "Sir, when yours fail, nobody will ever discover it."
What a great line for a movie.