The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense

By Michael Shermer | Go to book overview

9
PEDESTALS AND
STATUES

Freud, Darwin, and the
Hero-Myth in Science

THE ESSENTIAL DICHOTOMY of history's heroes as “great men” or cultural products is succinctly summarized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1839 poem “A Psalm of Life:”

In the world's broad field of battle, In the bivouac of Life, Be not like dumb, driven cattle! Be a hero in the strife!

Poets, being allowed to do more than merely reflect reality, can direct us to action, as Longfellow has done in his final couplet, which impels us to stand out as heroes amongst life's masses. Historians, however, do not share the poet's privilege. Their task is to understand the past “as it really happened,” not as it should have been. And historians have gone to extremes in the matter of the role of the individual in history—from hero as great man, a seminal thinker, political leader, or military general, to hero as myth, an artifact of a zeitgeist that thrusts the ordinary person into fame that might just as well have gone to another.

The cardboard pennant of the first polemic is typically represented by the English philosopher Thomas Carlyle in his Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History: “Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great men who have worked here.”

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