Friday, January 30 is the fiftieth anniversary of Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral. Footage of ordinary Britons filing past Churchill’s casket and then lining the streets during the funeral procession show a public grieving for a great man. And yet, the same British public had unceremoniously turned Churchill out from office just as soon he had led them to victory over the Nazis.
The contrast between the evident regard for Churchill displayed at his passing and his prompt dismissal from office at the end of World War II points to one of the enduring features of democracy: its distrustfulness of great men.
The distrustfulness of great men could be seen in the earliest Greek democracies, the “demos” or people being simultaneously desirous of a great leader and suspicious of anyone who styles himself as being above the common rank of men.
Indeed, Athenian democracy developed the procedure of “ostracism” out of its distrust of great men. Athenians would annually consider whether it should “ostracize” (i.e., send into exile) hitherto noteworthy men. Our word “ostracism” comes from the Greek word “ostraka,” which were the pottery shards with which the Greeks voted (paper being far too expensive in those days). More than once, the Athenians would later vote to recall to Athens someone whom they had ostracized, showing how ambiguously Athenian democracy could view outstanding men.
Today’s young citizens in our democracy are similarly uneasy with the idea of great men. If you ask high school or college students who their heroes are, they will almost unanimously offer up examples of fine people but not ones who are heroic or great in the classical sense. They might mention their coach, a doctor who cared for a family member, or even a family member. Rare is the student who would say his hero is George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or Winston Churchill—indeed, such an answer would seem quaint, even naïve, and might well expose the student who would give such an answer to at least a gentle ribbing and perhaps genuine ridicule.
Today there seems to be a dearth of great men and women among our leaders—the rosters of possible 2016 presidential candidates from both parties certainly does not seem to include anyone of the likes of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or Winston Churchill.
That’s to be regretted for many reasons. But among them is the inspiring example and encouragement to support civil society that great men can offer to young people—indeed, to every citizen. Churchill’s speeches frequently mentioned duty, and he often deflected credit for Britain’s successes away from leaders and onto ordinary citizens. For example, his great speech on the eve of the Battle of Britain concludes:
Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.”
Surely his example, and his inspiring words, gave impetus the efforts of ordinary citizens pulled together for the War effort. This War Generation, having pulled together during World War II, maintained a high degree of civic involvement for the rest of their lives.
We often lament the declining strength of our civil society. Perhaps one reason, among many others, is the dearth of great leaders like Churchill to inspire the many ordinary people on whom the health of our civil society ultimately depends.