Sun, Jun 20, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Heroes and the cult of celebrity

From Buddha to Beckham, from Reagan to Arnie, throughout the ages we have always got the heroes we deserve

By Karen Armstrong  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON


Tom and Nicole are getting married again; Michael Jackson fends off child abuse allegations and we are regularly regaled with reality TV programs that scrutinize the behavior of minor celebrities in jungles and kitchens.

For many, these events are of more immediate interest than the catastrophically unfolding drama in Iraq. Is this simply harmless fun, a light-hearted diversion from the grim headlines? Or does it reveal a serious flaw in our culture?

Celebrity has political importance in the West. With immense pomp and pageantry, the US has just mourned former president Ronald Reagan, a B-movie actor who became the most powerful man in the world. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose film career exalted the values of brawn over brains, has become governor of California.

The upward political mobility of the popular hero of stage and screen is an interesting, if slightly disturbing democratic development. Increasingly, politicians have to display the kind of charisma that we associate with show business if they want to be successful in the polls. Senator John Kerry is likely to be more impeded by his lack of star quality in his race to the White House than by his political program.

The fact that we call people "stars" is itself significant. A star sheds light in darkness. Travelers once used constellations to help them to find the right path. We have always looked to exemplary human beings for guidance and inspiration. Throughout history, heroes and sages have become paradigmatic figures. They show us what humanity can be, they define our values and fill us with profound emotion, because they touch an inchoate but powerful yearning for human excellence.

Thus Socrates, who taught his pupils to question everything until they became dizzy with confusion and who was finally able to look death in the face with loving equanimity, evoked a kind of rapture in his contemporaries.

His disciple Alcibiades spoke of the "extraordinary effect his words have had on me ... For the moment I hear him speak I am smitten with a kind of sacred frenzy ... and my heart jumps into my mouth and the tears start into my eyes -- oh, and not only me, but lots of other ecstasy of fans today who weep, shriek and swoon in the presence of their idols."

But there is a crucial difference. Alcibiades continued: "[Socrates] has often left me in such a state of mind that I've felt that I simply couldn't go on living the way I did ... He makes me admit that while I'm spending my time on politics, I am neglecting all the things that are crying out for attention in myself."

A celebrity like Socrates demanded that his pupils fundamentally transform their lives for the better. It is unlikely that current pop idols will do the same.

Hero worship is one of the world's oldest enthusiasms, probably dating back to the Paleolithic period, when the hunters left their tribe, went out into the forest, and risked their lives to bring food back to the community. The myth of the hero has followed the same basic pattern in many cultures, and expresses a common ideal. The hero is motivated by a disinterested desire to fill a lack that he sees in his society; he turns his back on the familiar and sets forth on a lonely, frightening quest. But eventually he brings something of value back to the people.

Stories about Prometheus, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed all conform to this paradigm. They were essentially callers to action, designed to show followers how to awaken the heroic potential within themselves.

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