"Every Hero Becomes A Bore At Last"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Emerson believed in the importance of great men, and this volume, a collection of seven lectures he gave during the 1840's, illustrates his views on the subject. As representative men he selected Plato, as philosopher; Swedenborg, as mystic; Montaigne, as skeptic; Shakespeare, as poet; Napoleon, as man of the world; and Goethe, as writer. Each of these was, for Emerson, representative of a kind of greatness, and greatness was, for Emerson, a necessary ingredient of the nature of mankind. He says in his opening statement in Representative Men, "It is natural to believe in great men." He goes on to comment, "Nature seems to exist for the excellent. The world is upheld by the veracity of good men." And he notes a little later in "Uses of Great Men," "The search after the great man is the dream of youth and the most serious occupation of manhood." But Emerson also warns that we must learn to think for ourselves, that the domination of a great man over others' minds can degenerate into idolatry, and then the influence of the great man becomes evil, rather than good. Nature, suggests Emerson, is a help to us, as she, through death, provides a necessary rotation of great men, so that one is replaced by another of a different kind. The best kind of great man that lives in our own time, suggests Emerson, is one from whom we learn "almost through the pores of our skin, pulling ourselves up to the level, or trying to, of the great one." But though a great man is an indemnification for a whole population of lesser men, there is always some danger from him:

. . . a new danger appears in the excess of influence of the great man. His attractions warp us from our place. We have become underlings and intellectual suicides. Ah! yonder in the horizon is our help;–other great men, new qualities, counterweights and checks on each other. We cloy of the honey of each peculiar greatness. Every hero becomes a bore at last. Perhaps Voltaire was not badhearted, yet he said of the good Jesus, even, "I pray you, let me never hear that man's name again." They cry up the virtues of George Washington,–"Damn George Washington!" is the poor Jacobin's whole speech and confutation. But it is human nature's indispensable defense. The centripetal augments the centrifugence. We balance one man with his opposite, and the health of the state depends on the see-saw.