November 26th, 2017

When I was in middle school I read a lot of young adult biographies. There was a whole section produced by the same publisher in the school library and I think I read most, if not all of them. I remember Thomas Edison, Booker T. Washington, Nellie Bly, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, Marie Curie and Gandhi among dozens of others. I carried the fascination into my teens and my adult years to this day.

From that reading comes many of the people who figure prominently on my Nineteen Books That Have Shaped My World list like, Carl Sagan, Clarence Darrow, Hunter S. Thompson, Rachel Carson, Malcolm X, Charles Hobbs, Naomi Klein and many, many others including Michael Jordan, Thomas Jefferson and Bernie Sanders.

Over the years I have, at some point, asked nearly all my students the question: Who are your heroes? Sadly, they all have answered either, I don’t have any, or they’ve mentioned some famous person who is mostly famous for being famous.

That’s a problem.

Last week, as I was reading How To Be A Stoic—Using Ancient Philosophy To Live A Modern Life by Massimo Pigliucci, I came to chapter nine: The role of role models and the chapter title gave me pause. Pigliucci writes;

As the public philosopher, and my colleague, Nigel Warburton asked me during an interview, “What about ordinary life, where people hardly have to face such extreme situations [as James Stockdale or Cato the Younger] or display such levels of courage and endurance?”

It’s a good question, but the answer is simple enough: it is by hearing about great deeds that we not only become inspired by what human beings at their best can do, but also are implicitly reminded of just how much easier most of our lives actually are. That being the case, it shouldn’t really take a lot of courage to stand up to your boss when your co-worker is being treated badly, no? I mean, the worst that can happen is that you’ll be fired, not put in solitary confinement and tortured. How difficult is it, really, to behave honestly in the course of everyday life, since we are not risking military defeat and the prospect of suicide to save our honor? And yet, imagine how much better the world would be if we all did display just a little bit more courage, a slightly more acute sense of justice, more temperance, and more wisdom each day. The Stoic gamble was that hearing about people like Cato, Stockdale and the others we have encountered here help us pout things into perspective—that is, to become slightly better humans beings than we already are.

How might our current national tsunami of sexual abuse and criminality have played out differently if more of my peers—and their children and grandchildren—had had the perspective of heroes like Stockdale and Cato The Younger; had known of the great deeds performed by real people and not just comic book superheroes.


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