Virginians on Olympus: A Cultural Analysis of Four Great Men

By Marshall William Fishwick | Go to book overview

I
John Smith The Virginian as Colonist

'Tis ever thus, when in life's storm
Hope's star to man grows dim,
An angel kneels, in woman's form
And breathes a prayer for him.

POCAHONTAS, by George P. Morris

THE inner core of history comprising the events real and imagined, which a people hold most dear, may be called tradition. Within that core a few great figures are thought of as the real moulders of those events, and occupy positions of sacrosanct culture heroes. The twentieth century American is not so sophisticated, nor the historical time-span of the United States so short, as to defy these all-pervading cultural tendencies. We are no less intoxicated by the hero theory of history than our ancestors: we have but put the old wine in new bottles.

To get a clear notion of the meaning of "hero" in this context, we must consider it in its original framework. "Heros" for the ancient Greeks connoted the perfect man, or expressions of their composite ideals, and was first used in connection with the deified dead. An exemplar in whom they saw their values and dreams realized, the "heros" had, and has, a reputation directly related to the social and political structure of society. The result of election and selection, hero worship was and is always of great concern to public authorities and office seekers. But the great mass of the people, not the public officials, is the final authority on national heroes. The subject of the first historical legend, heroes become superhistorical in myth.1

One of the historian's most difficult tasks is to evaluate the symbolic function of history's great men. In one period there might exist what Alfred North Whitehead called "the hysteria of depreciation," and in another "that opposite hysteria which dehumanizes in order to exalt."2 Heroes

____________________
1
Cf. Gottfried Salomon, "Hero Worship," in Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, vol. VII, p. 337 f.
2
Alfred Whitehead, Symbolism, Its Meaning and Effect ( New York, Macmillan Co., 1927).

-7-

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