Hero, Standing

Allan Guelzo
Professor, Gettysburg College

Allan GuelzoAllen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and Director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College. A two-time winner of the Lincoln Prize, his books include Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America and Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America.

The following are excerpts from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College on May 8, 2009, at the dedication of a statue of Abraham Lincoln by Hillsdale College Associate Professor of Art Anthony Frudakis.

Heroes have become invisible. Their virtues have become unexplainable in the language we now use to explain human actions . . . . Great deeds somehow keep on being done, but we have lost a capacity to see them as great. Biographies grow to ever-greater and greater lengths, while the subjects of them shrink into the shadows of the pedestrian, the ordinary, and the relentlessly disclosed secret. And no history textbook can to-day pass muster unless it highlights the insignificant, reduces absolutes to local accident, and eliminates grand narratives in favor of a collection of tales, full of sound and fury, whose chief goal is to elicit pity, sympathy or guilt.

The hero is the story, not just of a good deed, but a great deed—a great deed which climbs the unclimbable, endures the unendurable, holds fast to the lost. But who can be a hero when climbing is so routine that Mt. Everest has become littered with discarded bottles and cans? The dark side of our bottomless wealth and comfort is a cynicism which disarms any motivation for sacrifice, and a suspicion that, in a world of comforts, heroes can only be play-actors. Something other than the heroic must be motivating the heroes, we seem to reason, because there is so little need for heroism. . . .