The Heroic Conception of Civilization

3 May 2011


Theseus and the Minotaur

Theseus was an archetypal Greek hero.

… What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused. Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on the event,
A thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward, I do not know
Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do;’
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do’t.

Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV, scene iv

A few days ago in Counter-factual weapons systems I wrote the following:

Not only did these counter-factual scenarios fail to occur, but some of these possibilities were nearly extirpated from history. Churchill ordered the Colossus computers to be destroyed, broken into “pieces no bigger than a man’s hand,” and the blueprints were burned. Churchill obviously believed that this was a place that would not be re-visited. In this way, Churchill revealed himself as belonging to another era, to an era of pre-industrial gentility in which scientific discoveries could be as easily suppressed as earlier eras could stop the progress of an idea by burning copies of the books that explained it.

In this, Churchill was like Sir Edmund Hillary, who was quoted by the National Geographic as saying, “Both Tenzing and I thought that once we’d climbed the mountain, it was unlikely anyone would ever make another attempt.” Hillary went on to add, “We couldn’t have been more wrong.” It may sound like a stretch to compare these accomplishments, but I think it betrays a similar outlook about civilization. It is a conception of civilization in which an heroic feat — whether winning a war or climbing a mountain — once achieved loses interest, so that future heroes must look to other accomplishments. The unheroic character of our time, on the contrary, views accomplishments as a proof of concept, upon which an algorithm can be constructed and the achievement iterated for the benefit of the masses.

Heroic ages are ages of splendid individuals, and splendid individuals are products of social systems with weak institutions in which energetic and imaginative individuals can effectively assert themselves.

Splendid individuals may exist in advanced, mature civilizations, but they are unable to assert themselves to the extent that they might be able in less advanced and less mature civilizations, thereby losing their historical opportunity to master events and become the pivotal figure of their time. Splendid individuals are most likely to emerge in proto-civilization, and almost all mature civilizations are preceded by a proto-civilization often called a “Heroic Age.” The obvious example here is the Heroic Age of the ancient Greeks, with the most famous exemplar of this ethos being Achilles.

Heroes do not flourish in civilization, and they do comfortably fit in civilization. Civilization, in turn, does not encourage the emergence of heroes, and does not comfortably make room for heroes should they emerge despite the intrinsic disincentives to heroism structured into civilization.

Nevertheless, the idea of the heroism is transmitted from the myth and literature of proto-civilization (like The Iliad), and the idea of the heroic life continues to influence civilization even if civilization is hostile to actual living heroes. Thus there exists the possibility of a heroic conception of civilization, and this is what I was attributing to Churchill and Sir Edmund Hillary above.

A hero is a singular figure. According to my formulation of the singular in The Mind’s Singular Function, that means that the hero is inspired. The hero retains the consciousness of the singular imperative. Thus the hero seeks singular accomplishment. If someone else has achieved something, it loses interest for the hero. And the possibility that someone might later choose to mimic what has already been done by others is utterly foreign to the hero– literally inconceivable to the heroic mind.

Indeed, the heroic mind may loose interest even in its own accomplishment as soon as it has satisfied itself that it has mastered a particular problem. The achievement is utterly without interest: it is the struggle to attain the achievement, through which the heroic mind becomes what it is, that is of sole self-interest. It is the growth of mind and spirit and strength, and not the act of glorying in completed accomplishment, that interests the heroic mind. It is always the next accomplishment that is the interest of the hero.

There could be no form of thought more distant from the heroic conception of the world than that of the algorithm, and as our civilization advances, achieves ever-greater maturity, and the intellectual means we employ to formulate and express that civilization become more sophisticated and more rigorous, our thought becomes all the more algorithmic. Indeed, the Age of the Computer is in large measure the Age of the Algorithm.

The heroic conception of civilization is an idea that is at war with itself, and therefore intrinsically unstable. There can be no heroic civilization, at least under the conditions of civilization as we now know it. Perhaps this will be a future horizon of civilization: to bring forth a civilization that is not intrinsically hostile to heroism. It is a worthy idea.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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5 Responses to “The Heroic Conception of Civilization”

  1. So does this mean that civilization guarantees a sort of “Last Man?”

    Fukuyama almost laments about this in the often not considered last section of his otherwise very famous “End of History and the Last Man” where all anyone seems to talk about is his Hegelianism.

    I tend to think it does. Which raises questions about the purpose of humanity writ large. Once we lose heroism, does life lose just a bit of its overall meaning, even if its only meaning that we imbue it with through our own creative actions and thoughts.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Lawson,

      I’m not sure if civilization guarantees a “Last Man,” and in fact I don’t think that the contingencies of history guarantee anything at all. However, I do think that the institutions of civilization do select for the Last Man, and that if no proactive steps are taken that civilization will in fact issue in the Last Man, and even in the Last Civilization.

      I know the section that you mention in Fukuyama’s essay, and I believe that I have in fact quoted this elsewhere in this forum. There is a note of sadness in Fukuyama’s vision of a future of technocrats solving problems of micro-management. And, strange though this may sound, there is some similarity between Fukuyama’s lament and Russell’s lament over what he considers to be the likely scientific society of the future.

      The purpose of humanity writ large is a paradigm case of one’s vision of history: those who favor eschatological, political, cataclysmic, or naturalistic conceptions of history will each have their own answer to this question. Thus the meta-historical question (that is to say, the ultimate question for metaphysical history) is whether these conceptions of history are non-overlapping magisteria (in the terminology of S. J. Gould) or whether there is a rational (or other reason) to prefer one paradigm and its vision over another.

      Very Respectfully Yours,


  2. […] I believe, motivated at least in part by Churchill’s heroic conception of history (on which cf. The Heroic Conception of Civilization) in which computers could be treated as a modern parallel to Greek Fire. It would be another […]

  3. xcalibur said

    Concurrent with the “Age of the Algorithm”, we’ve seen the rise of epic/heroic storytelling (superhero comics, westerns, action movies, etc). Could these artistic expressions be an outlet for the heroic impulse, which is otherwise out of place in modern society? I think it’s more than a coincidence.

    • geopolicraticus said

      I completely agree with this. In fact, just today I was thinking of the disproportionate number of films with adolescents in eschatological and soteriological roles, i.e., apocalyptic films in which teenagers save the world. This theme has become so pervasive it is no longer amusing, but has become off-putting. But it probably serves a purpose of imaginative escapist entertainment in a thoroughly unheroic world.

      Best wishes,


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