„Kui kõik pirrud kahel otsal”: eepilise poliitika tagasitulek / “When All Spills at Both Their Ends”. The Return of Epic Politics
After a brief decline of the heroic in the second half of the 20th century, the hero is back in Western culture and politics. If Lyotard claimed in 1979 that the time of “great heroes, great dangers, and great goals” is over, then in the new century they all seem to be back with a vengeance. This essay will explore some of the reasons, premises and implications of this heroic renaissance.
Western concepts of the hero and heroic hark back to ancient Greece, where heroes were not only characters in epics and myths but also cult figures who were worshipped and venerated. The ancient Greek view of human nature was grounded in the concept of arete¯ that is usually translated as “virtue”, but in its original context it refers to a broader notion of excellence, according to the nature of a thing or being under discussion. It was by their superlative, god-like virtue that Greek heroes were distinguished from other mortals, as they exemplified the human limits of divine excellence. Although the exact and particular meanings of what constitutes a virtue constantly changed throughout antiquity, the basic premise of “the unity of virtue”, as well as how it constituted human nature, carried on into the Middle Ages and beyond. It was only with the emergence of modern ethics that this explicit link started to fade.
However, the implicit relationship between virtues and heroism has survived to the present day. Our contemporary heroes are likewise embodiments of our own modern virtues. They articulate the framework that Charles Taylor has referred to as our “moral topography,” within which it is possible to conceive what it means to be human. Our heroes represent that which we value in ourselves as well as in others; they give us the means of self-understanding and self-creation while conflating the seemingly distinct categories of ethics and aesthetics.
The beginning of the new century has been marked by an uneasy constellation of steadily increasing existential anxieties (along social, environmental, cultural and economic lines), and a corresponding widespread disenchantment with the existing social structures’ ability to respond to the challenges they face. Consequently, politics has once again acquired a distinctive epic dimension in the Western world. Turning to heroes (be they political leaders or cultural icons) lets us envision our current predicaments as cosmic struggles between good and evil. It enables us to see setbacks not as our collective failures but, instead, as challenges, as tests of spirit and determination in which we are ultimately bound to prevail.