Heroes, saints, messiahs and monsters
THE English idiom “devil’s advocate” originates from a beautiful ancient practice of the Catholic Church.
Whenever the Church had to canonise a new saint a lawyer or an advocate among the believers was engaged to oppose the canonisation by as much as possible assassinating the character of the candidate.
The advocate would aggressively question the holiness of the candidate, call out their fake miracles and expose their immoralities. This beautiful practice ensured that pretenders, charlatans and opportunists did not make it to the exalted position of sainthood. George Orwell put it beautifully when he, in reference to the saintly Mahatma Gandhi said, “saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.” In this short piece I posit to explore the important subject of heroism in politics and sociality to observe and argue why heroes need to be questioned, suspected and watched closely as potential traitors and monsters.
The poetic saying that “another man’s hero is another man’s terrorist, and another man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” hides the fact that heroes are much more dangerous to their followers, than they are to their opponents and enemies who invest no trust in them in the very first place. “A man’s hero today is his monster tomorrow morning” is a much safer understanding of heroism and heroes in the present political system in the world. A hero is a monster just waiting for the right time to properly eat us, with forks, knives and other sharp objects.
Kinds of Heroes
In world politics and sociality heroes have appeared in three major shapes. There is the warrior king who comes into prominence and earns his heroism and following through military prowess, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar come into mind, although Alexander was also a brooding philosopher who came from the academy and tutelage of Aristotle.
In present Africa Paul Kagame would be such a hero, someone who from the position of an underdog marshals some forces and, against great adversities, shoots himself into power and does great developmental work for his country.
After the warrior king there is the Mafioso king, a tycoon and also a scoundrel who bribes his way into power using either money or violence, or both. Niccolo Machiavelli described the Mafioso kings as “those who come to power through their crimes.”
These are mainly dubious and scandalous politicians and celebrities who are glorified for their dare-devil practices and never say die attitudes to life and power. Society secretly admires the scoundrel and finds relish in MacGyver and Macavity characters.
Roughly, the four-term Prime Minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi was such a hero, a terrible naughty uncle, a winking malume with bags of money, tricks and weapons that people mysteriously get to love and follow in spite of his financial and sexual misdemeanour’s.
The third and in my view most dangerous kind of hero is the political and social saint. This one appears as a philosopher king, humble and thoughtful. Orwell described Gandhi as a “humble, naked old man, sitting on a praying mat and shaking empire by sheer spiritual power.”
In his famous or infamous book, depending on where one stands, Christopher Hitchens exposed Mother Teresa as such a kind of heroine. The book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, is not for the uncircumcised as the British philosopher and polemicist collapses the saintly heroine to a religious fundamentalist who hid her crimes behind mountains of humility. Political and social saints might not murder people in masses or squander billions of money but they remain very violent characters in their vanity.
Their humility is their pride as they become self-loving and indeed self-eating prophets who advance personality cults and all sorts of personalised political and social religions around themselves. Curiously, Gandhi became so beloved by the British Empire builders that he was fighting against as much as the poor Indians that he was supposed to be fighting for, he became a hero of both warring sides and also a traitor of both, and therefore his own personal hero and kind of god. Saints are idolatrous in the way they compete with God for following.
The later Mandela became as such, a hero of reconciliation, healing and forgiveness and therefore a pacifier of black victims of apartheid and protector of white supremacists. There is a thin line between a hero and a traitor or should it be said that there is a traitor in every hero or even a hero in every traitor. Whether they appear as warriors, gangster or saints, heroes are potentially monstrous personages.
It is George Orwell again who said “whenever saints are named” people “must doubt the saintliness” and “question the intentions of the saint makers.”
Heroes are characters that should always be regarded with utmost suspicion lest societies are thoroughly betrayed or simply misled. Anyone who commands support and popular following, however, well-meaning and intentioned has the power to tragically lead people in their populations to hell, if not watched vigilantly.
The Violence of Heroism
Jean Rostand is an interesting French intellectual, one of the few biologists in the world who also became a philosopher, true oil and water at the same time. Rostand was disgusted by political violence and the way violent heroes got away with their sins.
In his Thought of a Biologist classic, he remarked “kill one man, and you are a murderer, kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror, kill them all, and you are a god” in reference to how warriors become heroes by mass murder and how small criminals get punished while big ones walk free and are rewarded for their evil.
As a philosopher Rostand was sceptical and pessimistic of human beings especially those that wanted to be powerful, “my pessimism” he said “extends to the point of even suspecting the sincerity of the pessimists.”
In other words, Rostand’s political wisdom is that there should be no end to just how much people should distrust and suspect heroes. Almost all heroism is not innocent.
The warriors and the Mafioso that display some courage later use that to blackmail people and develop a sense of entitlement over countries and the world.
Throughout the world, warrior heroes from Caesar to Idi Amin are known to say because we did this, we risked those, we suffered that, and died then, for you therefore we must permanently be this. They literally steal the history and life of nations.
The Mafioso, be it a celebrity or politician, or both, becomes a hero by his crimes and must commit more crimes and sins to keep the power and influence. Much like the warrior hero he is not a role model but a wrong model who gives children the impression that crime and violence pay.
The wrong impression that money can buy heroism and power is essentially corrupt and evil because it makes ethics and honesty as foundations of all good look useless.
When power and privilege become commodities in the social and political market place society is corrupted and hooligans come to positions of influence and authority.
The warrior and the Mafioso heroes have given success and power in the world a bad name. Because of warrior and Mafioso celebrities, politicians and businesspeople, many young people grow up thinking that to be successful and powerful one has to be evil.
It is easy to think that if the warrior and Mafioso heroes are bad then we are safer following the saints such as the later Mandela, Gandhi, Mother Teresa and other warriors of kindness and humility. The non-violence of the saints is their very violence.
They cannot be true revolutionaries because they do not disrupt or confront the status quo in any way.
The appeal of the saints to both the oppressors and the oppressed, such as that of Mandela and Gandhi, makes them a waste of everybody’s time.
One cannot, for instance, become a hero of two warring sides without compromising one side or both. At the end of the day one might argue that the saints are not about communities, societies and nations but about themselves and their heroic legacies.
Some of the most deadly despotism comes dressed in soft, humble, sweet and saintly pyjamas. Radical young political activists in South Africa that are demanding transformation and decolonisation of the polity and the economy are told, not in so many words, to calm down and preserve the legacy of Madiba magic while inequality and coloniality continue undisturbed. Mandela’s saintly name is used to silence the youths and postpone liberation.
The name of the saint is used as a political symbol and metaphor that is deployed to dictate the actions and lives of a whole generation and in most cases this preserves the status quo rather than promote revolution.
In that and other ways, there is a monster in every saint. Saints make themselves martyrs and other victims who suffer prisons and persecution on behalf of the rest of human beings and then expect heroism and worship for it.
They use the power of their martyrdom and victimhood to change history to the favour of their sponsors and handlers, and their personal religions.
All heroes are traders in hearts and minds. Populations give them a following and some faith, and so are they powerful and dangerous. Messiahs, unless if they are like Jesus the Christ whose Kingdom was not of this world, are monstrous figures.
Even the Christ has had his name and philosophy used by monsters that are after the earthly kingdom. Anyone who does or pretends to do good in the world and expects a kingdom of this world for it must be suspected. Heroism has, in business, politics and showbiz been used as a beautiful mask that covers the face of a coward, scoundrel or true idiot.
Heroism should not be entrusted to individuals because they are too small and too weak for it. It should be given to institutions, systems and structures.
Communities and collectives of people should be given heroism because as a political and social resource it is too wide and too heavy to sit and be carried on the shoulders of an individual.
Otherwise, nje, we should, at hearing or catching sight of a hero, just run! Beware of the Greeks even if they carry gifts, is an ancient but still very fresh idiom in meaning and relevance.