Sidney Hook

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[In A Century of Hero-Worship] Mr. Bentley analyzes the theme of historical and aesthetic hero-worship in the works of Carlyle, Nietzsche, Wagner, Shaw, Spengler, Stefan George, and Lawrence. He shows that they left an ambiguous cultural heritage to the world and explains why they could be instructive and inspiring to democrats and why, at the same time, the fascists could exploit them for their own ends. What unites all the heroic vitalists is a repudiation of the ideals of democracy because of the degrading and vulgar democratic practices in existing culture, a refusal to go back to the past in search of an archaic system of values, and a fervent hope for a tomorrow in which new forms of excellence in art and life would be achieved by an élite.

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At the end of the book Mr. Bentley offers a positive philosophy of heroic vitalism, seemingly pruned of all reactionary elements, to serve as a leaven for modern democracy and socialism.

Mr. Bentley's treatment of his material is impressive in a number of ways. He does not spare his subjects—indeed, his exposure of their personal failings and his criticism of their irrational doctrines are merciless. None the less, the authenticity of their vision comes through. This is particularly true for Nietzsche, and in lesser measure for Carlyle, one of the most overrated figures of the nineteenth century. Not one of the men discussed appears likable even to a small degree in Mr. Bentley's account. But all are pictured as having captured some significant truth that challenges us to deepen our own ideas about man and history. Second, Mr. Bentley avoids the confusion of substituting sociological explanations of why ideas are accepted for an explanation of why they are generated in the life career of the individual. In a characteristic sentence in his discussion of Wagner he drily observes, "Hitler and Mr. Viereck are wrong if they think ideology or musical taste is the foundation of fascism." The problem of the generation of ideas in philosophy or art is primarily psychological. In approaching it the author reveals a deftness and suggestiveness that make the extreme solutions, the violent posturings, the inconsistencies, and the self-flagellation of the heroic vitalists intelligible to us. Third, Mr. Bentley's judgments, although refreshingly personal, are based upon a wide reading that pays more attention to the substance than to the reputation of scholarship. He would have strengthened his interpretation of Carlyle if he had explored the great influence of Carlyle on the early Engels and Marx—some of Carlyle's language is in the "Manifesto,"—particularly Carlyle's critique of capitalist culture, and their reasons for rejecting his Tory socialism. Finally, Mr. Bentley's style is delightful—clear, vigorous, and unburdened by its rich load of erudition.

And yet Mr. Bentley's book is marred by a moral flaw that goes to its very heart. This is already apparent in his chapter on Shaw, in which all Mr. Bentley's virtues are lacking save style. Despite Shaw's glorification of the regimes of Mussolini and Hitler, he is sharply dissociated from other heroic vitalists and defended as a protagonist of a new democracy. The reason boils down to the claim that although Shaw admires Mussolini and Hitler, he admires Stalin even more. In the light of his sympathetic defense of Shaw, one wonders what, after all, are the real grounds of Bentley's rejection of the heroic vitalists. Those he gives—their authoritarianism, their reverence for successful power, the ease with which their doctrines can be used to systematize terror—apply substantially to Shaw too. If anything, on Bentley's own showing, the case is worse for Shaw.

For Bentley pleads in extenuation of his other heroic vitalists that were they to return to earth and see what had been wrought by the professed practitioners of heroic vitalism, they would "weep" and "recant." But when Shaw praised Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin, he had already heard the "screams" from the concentration camps and seen "the flames from the burning books." Not even Wagner, the most bloodthirsty of the heroic vitalists, would have dared to say as Shaw did, "The majority of men at present in Europe have no business to be alive." Does Mr. Bentley believe that no vegetarian could really mean this? Hitler is a vegetarian, too.

Although Mr. Bentley recognizes the elements of diabolism in Shaw he does not assess them properly. To link together, as he does, the social philosophies of William James and of Shaw is an intellectual outrage. James was filled with a passionate hatred of cruelty; if he hated anything more than cruelty, it was an apologist for cruelty. Shaw has a passion for anaesthetic efficiency at any cost to human life and freedom. He does not see the masses as individuals but as material to be sawed and planed to fit a fixed pattern. He would have no objection to an efficient Hitlerism without heroics or race nonsense. But heroics are not, as Mr. Bentley fails to realize, elements essential to fascism.

I pass over Mr. Bentley's remarks about Stalin and Russia, which are on the same order as Carlyle's on Frederick II. But his sneers at Gide and other socialist critics of dictatorship and cultural terror reveal that he believes, not that power is a necessary instrument of morality and intelligence, but that it is sufficient for power to be successful to be moral. This he identifies with pragmatism! The whole problem of ends and means does not exist for him. Criticism which points out that certain desirable ends can be better achieved by other means, and that the use of some means defeats desirable ends, is airily dismissed as anarchism.

We can now better understand the defects in his formulation of the principle of democratic heroic vitalism…. His ideal is not some heroic work or principle of significance in the life of everybody but the discovery of an élite of professional heroes. He tells us that democracy must include aristocracy; more, it is justifiable only because it can produce an aristocracy of talent. Democratic equality is to give us the chance "to revere superiority—which implies inequality."

This is better than traditional heroic vitalism but not good enough for democracy, for it invites a new class society based on the dictatorship of the self-selected wise or good. Were Mr. Bentley consistent, he would accept Plato's "Republic" as his ideal "democracy," since it too provided for "careers open to talent." And if we are to "revere superiority," why not intrust the administration of public welfare to superior persons? No, this is a far cry from a democratic conception of the hero. To "revere" superiority is the first step to giving certain persons exceptional privileges at the expense of their fellow-men who are not superior but whose needs are just as great. If we refuse to draw a contrast between an aristocracy of talent and the masses of the untalented, and provide opportunities for individuals each to make his best contribution, we may diversify the patterns of excellence, quality, and heroism. There is no hierarchy of beauty in a garden; and we can recognize and appreciate greatness in men and their work without regarding the masses as fertilizer. (pp. 412-14)

Sidney Hook, "Heroic Vitalism," in The Nation (copyright 1944 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 159, No. 15, October 7, 1944, pp. 412-14.

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