‘Heroes’, by Paul Johnson – review

Heroes: From Alexander the Great & Julius Caesar to Churchill & de GaulleHeroes: From Alexander the Great & Julius Caesar to Churchill & de Gaulle by Paul Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We live in a paradoxical culture of hero-worshipping and anti-hero admiring. Hence, the idea of heroism seems to belong to an antediluvian ethos of the misty past when heroic mortals became divine immortals enshrined in pantheons of gods and goddesses. In fact, the ancient Greeks regarded a hero as a paragon of Arete, a prized quality in the Homeric hero, a blend of soldiery valor and moral integrity, a perfect union of moral and physical virtues. However, human heroism is constant of every age, universal of every culture and boundless of race and gender, which the public will always find it appealing and compelling because it shows how one can transform the impossible into the possible with a shot of gusto for courageousness in a cloak of confidence. That said, Heroes by Paul Johnson bears the witness to historical heroes and heroines whose dauntless spirits flew over the mountains of obstacles and brings them close to us with their human sides of fallibilities and follies.

From Samson and King David of Israel to Alexander the Great of Macedonia, to Julius Cesar of the Republic of Rome, and to Joan of Arc to Margaret Thatcher of the U.K., what these people have in common is not supernatural feats of magical physical power or omnipotent knowledge, but natural courage winged by the independence of mind arising from the ability to think things by themselves against dominant waves of compromises of their times. In this regard, heroes, as we generally define per se, are anti-establishment, anti-totalitarianism, and anti-supremacy in the sense that they challenge the subjectivity of popular beliefs or received norms to unpick the validity of truths, even if doing so will require their sacrifice and cruelty at the same time. It’s a sacrifice that they should endure the pains of persecution, and cruelty that they should vanquish the signs of human frailties to act upon their resolution without fail. Alas and alack, it sometimes results in pyrrhic victory, not only of the hero but also of those the hero intends to bring the triumph of the collective glory. Being a hero is akin to being  a Hamlet whose mental pendulum vacillates between “To be” or “Not to be.”

This is my fourth reading of Johnson’s books on history elaborately ornamented with his trademark natural wits, deeply saturated with his dazzling erudition of subjects, and deliciously narrated in a common language that always invite all, learned or novices, all of which are the essential key components of being a great writer who can share his knowledge and put people before ideas. In this book of heroes, Johnson is a sage raconteur of the heterodoxic history of mankind whose goal is to educate the public to illuminate the parts of our human history in the context of regarding the universal principles of reason and taste. With his scintillating story-telling skills, Johnson pivots deftly from the unknown interesting truths about his heroes to the cosmic principles of heroes that hold true today. If you are a history buff who always hungers for those unknown truths about famous people in history that are known to a few backstages of history, this book will satiate the appetites of your senses and nourish the mind married with pleasure.

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