Sunday, 5 October 2014

Where are the giants?

Sometimes when I contemplate the awful problems that beset our world, I wonder why it is that the leading figures in society and politics today seem so puny compared with the colossal shadows cast by their predecessors. Where is the modern Churchill, Gladstone or Disraeli? Would the new Duke of Wellington please stand up?

For some reason the present generation seems to reach its pinnacle in people for whom the achievement of simple competence is regarded as a triumph. Has something gone wrong with our education system? Do we no longer breed statesmen and heroes or do we somehow conspire to keep leadership out of their hands? Has society itself become so open and tolerant that we are no longer capable either of making or accepting the strong and often upsetting decisions that are needed?

But when we look back to ancient society we find exactly the same sentiments of the degeneration of the human race. Greek heroes described in Homer could perform wonderful feats of strength 'greater than any two men born today'. The borderline between heroes and gods was tenuous and frequently crossed.

It seems probable that human beings have always looked upon their problems as huge and their own resources as feeble by comparison. Since we need to believe that the situation is not hopeless, we weave myths around the men of the past until in retrospect they achieve the stature of giants. "All we require," we say, "is another such hero to come along and his superior powers will get us out of this mess."

Unfortunately the prominent figures of today will always suffer by comparison with an idealised past that lives only in memory and from whom time has stripped away all shortcomings. Maybe we ought to cut the current generation a bit of slack. Who knows, some of them, when the next century looks back on this one, may turn out to be legendary giants.