"On a deeper level, however, his friend Martin is right. The people from whom Stewart draws inspiration spring from the dusty shelves of history, men such as Alexander, Babur, Lord Byron, and T.E. Lawrence. These figures not only achieved monumental things, but they did so according to a moral code Stewart finds irresistible, one that includes generosity, bravery, honor, greatness of soul, and magnificence in gesture.
Stewart has written quite a bit about heroes, and he maintains that past societies not only tolerated the vanity, violence, and godlike yearning of these men, but they viewed those qualities as necessary for heroism itself. For 2,500 years the notion of the superhuman hero shaped art, literature, and rhetoric and provided a model of how to live. But by the mid-20th century the social context had changed. Western society, with its industrialization, democracy, and new attitudes toward masculinity, stopped forgiving the ambition of would-be heroes. Today, Stewart argues, we are left with primarily one kind of hero, the "victim hero," an individual judged not on his accomplishments but on what happens to him, like the 9/11 firemen or like Pat Tillman, the football star turned Army Ranger who was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. Stewart, in a 2005 article he wrote for Prospect magazine, remains decidedly ambivalent about this evolution:
Nostalgia for dead tyrants and the longing for heroes are unhealthy and they can result in the deification of a Saddam as easily as a Havel or Mandela. But we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking we have lost nothing. The drive to be godlike and do the impossible is gone and we will see this loss in music, in novels, in painting, in architecture and the way we shape our lives. September 11th has produced only miniature heroes because our culture has freed itself from many of the old, dangerous, elitist fantasies of heroism …. But in so doing we have not only tamed and diminished heroes. We have risked taming and diminishing ourselves."
I think there is a very, very profound thought behind this. It connects to the broad case set out in Alan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. The idea that we have lost contact with heroism itself - along with evil, the sublime and any other concept too deep to fit into an Oasis album.
Mark Steyn wrote a brilliant article recently on music, another side of the Bloom case. Our new, unshakeable, faith in relativism made it impossible for us to see that Shostakovich was more valuable than in Supergrass. Supergrass are easier, quicker and less effort; Shostakovich couldn't compete on artificial terms of equivalence; people stopped listening to classical music. We lost the vital inspiration and meaning that high culture used to provide.