Democracy or Heroes?

Democracy or Heroes?

by Rev. Frank Julian Gelli


As a jolly Army coup knocks out Islamic democracy in Egypt, the priest wonders: is there an alternative to elections and parliaments? A system, a type of government better than democratic rule?

Thomas Carlyle, ‘the sage of Chelsea’, had no doubts. There is. It is the rule of the hero. The ablest men. Those driven by the divine afflatus. Superior minds and intellects. Born leaders: ‘Universal history, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones. The models and patterns, and in a wider sense creators, of whatever the general mass of men contrived to do or attain.’

Who were Carlyle’s heroes, his ‘great men’? An odd assortment. He exalts them in his essay On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. They include poets like Dante and Shakespeare; rulers like Cromwell and Napoleon; writers like Rousseau, Robbie Burns and Dr Johnson; religious reformers like Luther and John Knox; prophets like Muhammad; even a god, like the Scandinavian Odin.

According to J.L. Borges – my own and supreme literary hero – what inspired Carlyle to come up with his heroic paradigm was the history of the Arabs. Having delved into a translation of the Thousand and One Nights, he mused on the rough conditions of the idolatrous Bedouins of pre-Islamic Arabia. Pretty primitive. Until out of Mecca a man arose with a tremendous message: There is no god but God. That cry awoke Arabs from their barbarous torpor and launched them out of the desert into a conquering, worldwide adventure ‘that has not yet ended’.

Society is in sore need of heroes, Carlyle contends. Worthies whose key traits include utmost faith, a pure heart and righting wrongs. Men like prophets, who are possessed with the spirit of the Divine. To function properly, society must be founded on the hero cult. Giants before whom you feel ‘heartfelt, prostrate admiration, submission, burning boundless admiration for a noblest, God-like form of man.’ That may strike you as excessive bombast but consider, pray, the Nelson Mandela cult. Judging by the fawning heaped on him world media, the dying Mandela may well fit Carlyle’s bill.

‘But Mandela fought for democracy!’ Indeed. Carlyle would grant you that democratic procedures may be acceptable, insofar as they produce a hero. The crucial point is that Mandela created the new South Africa. He, the hero, is the cause, not the effect. Marxist theories of history claim that economic and social structures cause outstanding figures to appear. For Carlyle, it is the other way around: the hero is the real cause. It is the message of the Qur’an which created a certain economy and society amongst Arabs and in the world of Islam. Thus, we are back to the hero: Muhammad.

The hero is entitled to be obeyed by the people. ‘There is no act more moral between men than rule and obedience’, he wrote. Your hackles rise. Obedience? You kidding? The Nazis and all that. Must be the least popular virtue of post-modernity. But Carlyle qualifies his claim: ‘Woe to him that claims obedience when it is not due; woe to him who refuses it when it is due. God’s law is in that.’ You get the impression Carlyle is simply hedging his bets. What he really believes is that the hero as the stronger man is entitled to rule. But the ethical question is: does he rule justly? In reality strong men wax and wane. Is their worldly triumph the only criterion?

Take Napoleon, one of Carlyle’s heroes. A great leader, sure, but was his empire just? Borges astutely observes how Carlyle’s hero cult tends to assimilate success with justice. Fine in theory when the leader wins but what when he loses? Napoleon until Waterloo was a heroic exemplar but after it presumably not. Similarly, Hitler despised Christianity as a religion for women, weaklings and the defeated. Against that, he upheld the bracing cult of the strongest – a warped principle that, ironically, was soon to operate against him.

The word ‘hero’ is etymologically related to a Greek word for a divine figure, a demi-god. That brings out Carlyle’s underlying idea. The hero is no mere earthly figure. He comes with a divine mandate. The authority of Heaven. Consider Oliver Cromwell, God’s Englishman. He saw himself as guided from God to establish his commonwealth. Cromwell’s swaggering statue outside Parliament in Westminster suitably show the truculent fellow wielding a sword in his right hand and a book in his left. The book is the Bible. God’s word. A perfect combination of power and righteousness. That Cromwell also fought, defeated and beheaded God’s anointed, King Charles I, also claiming to rule by divine right did not trouble Carlyle. (A victor in life, Cromwell’s corpse suffered post-mortem indignities at the Restoration but that’s another story.)

A perfect example is that of the Prophet Muhammad. A very victorious messenger of God in his life. With an undoubted post-mortem success. ‘A great lightening out of Heaven’, that sums up the Prophet for Carlyle. (He was less positive about the Qur’an, whose style he found stodgy and tedious. Of course, he knew no Arabic.) But also Muhammad as a complete man. Husband, father, merchant, ruler, legislator, strategist, statesman. His rule in Medina embodied all those…

Back to the starting point. The Muslim Brotherhood’s short-lived government has collapsed partly because of mass protests but effectively through a military coup. The attempt to introduce rule based on Islamic principles peacefully via democracy has spectacularly failed. In the biggest and most advanced Arab nation. What next? I expect for some the khilafa, the caliphate, will be the dreamt-for alternative. The question is: where is the khalifa, the leader of the proposed Islamic state? Or maybe an Imam from the Prophet’s family? Might he perhaps be a hero after Carlyle? A divinely-guided person? Endowed with charismatic spirit? Another Saladin? Or a more fortunate Bin Laden?

Only God knows.

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FATHER FRANK’S RANTS — Rant Number 544   4 July 2013

Rev. Frank Julian Gelli can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  Type his name into the TAM search engine for many more articles.


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