American mythology loves nothing more than the reluctant hero: the man whose natural talents have destined him for more than obliging obscurity. George Washington, we are told, was a leader who would have preferred to have been a farmer. Thomas Jefferson, a writer. Martin Luther king, Jr., a preacher. These men were roused form lives of perfunctory achievement, our legends have it, not because they chose their own exceptionalism, but because we, the people, chose it for them. We seeing greatness in them that they were too humble to observe themselves-conferred on them uncommon paths. Historical circumstance became its own call of duty, and the logic of democracy proved itself through the answer.
Neil Armstrong was a hero of this stripe: constitutionally humble, circumstantially noble. Nearly every obituary written for him has made a point of emphasizing his sense of privacy, his sense of humility, his sense of the ironic ordinary. And yet every aspect of Armstrong’s life made clear: On that day in 1969, he acted on our behalf, out of a sense of mission that was communal rather than personal. The reluctant hero is also the self-sacrificing hero.
And so Armstrong was an icon fit for America’s particular predilections: one who made history, yet one who recognized the ultimate contingency of his own history making. One who, Washington-like, preferred quiet retirement over continued fame. “Nothing is more typical of Armstrong, or more estimable,” Anthony Lane put it, “than his decision not to go into politics; heaven knows what the blandishment, or the invitations, must have been. That is not to deprecate the service rendered by, say, John Glen, but simply to remind ourselves that political ambition, like our other passions, is in the end a low sublunary affair; and that Armstrong, by dint of being the first man to tread not upon terra firma but upon the gray dust of terra incognita, rose above the fray and stayed there.”
It’ hard, now, to find heroes who seem motivated, in some deep and cosmic way, by something more than themselves. It’s hard not to imagine that many of the cultural figures we’re meant to look to for inspiration-sports stars, movie stars, writers, business leaders-will one day end up as characters on reality TV.
And so Armstrong’s loss is not merely a loss for all the obvious reasons, but also because it signals a small shift in American mythology. If Armstrong’s was the age of the reluctant hero, ours is the age of adamant heroism. Our familiar figures are people who, whether or not their talents entitle them to it, explicitly sought their own fame.
That is largely to the good. It means a democratic culture, a culture where systematized notions of merit-based on race, based on class-dissolve into the broader culture will. But it also means a shift in how we see success and ourselves as seekers of it. The tension Armstrong embodied so succinctly-publicity on the one hand, humility on the other-is dissipating. The humility factor is dissolving into a culture that often equates fame with power. Our current icons are less the people who have been called to duty, and more the people who have battled their way into it-the subjects, rather than the predicates, of their own greatness. The reluctant hero is diminishing. Armstrong’s passing signals an end to that myth.