The Last of Our Heroes: Jeremi Suri on Nelson Mandela
Posted: December 16, 2013
This column first appeared on Global Brief.
Nelson Mandela’s death is more than just the death of a great man. It is the death of a hero. He lived a life that combined radical ideas about racial equality and social democracy with a willingness to work among others who had different points of view. Mandela suffered for his beliefs, but he did not make others suffer for theirs. He worked courageously to change a society, and much of the world, but he did not use intolerance or self-righteousness as tools for his purposes. For someone who lost so much to the hateful hands of human injustice, he resisted all temptations to revenge and vengeance. He was a leader who used attention to the ugliness of a dismal past to imagine a much brighter future.
Mandela’s greatness was not his eloquence, although he could speak and write with great power. He was not a warrior or a genius or a man of drama. He had the most classical of virtues, what the Ancient Greeks called “character:” the ability to set oneself apart from the normal human emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Max Weber would later refer to this rare quality as the “magic” of transcendence that made an individual seem as if he were part of his time, but not imprisoned by it. Mandela was an inspiring moral character because people around the world could identify with his humanity as they also stood in awe of his control and forbearance.
He lived his cause. As an activist lawyer, political prisoner, national leader, and global sage he stood for so much more than just himself or South Africans or dark-skinned peoples. Mandela embodied a vision of peaceful inclusion, reconciliation among adversaries, and cooperation for the common good. He defied the categories of East and West, white and black, rich and poor. He never spoke of “us” versus “them,” but of “we” the citizens of the world, in a way that resonated because it reflected who he was.
In his 1993 Nobel Peace Prize lecture Mandela defined his universalism, built on the local struggles against Apartheid: “The processes in which South Africa and Southern Africa as a whole are engaged, beckon and urge us all that we take this tide at the flood and make of this region as a living example of what all people of conscience would like the world to be.”
Mandela was the moral conscience of the late 20th century. He was the positive model so many of us clung to when we witnessed the depravity and despair around us. Despite the terrible genocide in Rwanda, Sudan, and the former Yugoslavia, there still was Mandela. Despite the brutal tyranny in North Korea, Myanmar, and Venezuela, there still was Mandela. Despite the deadly violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, as well as Europe and the United States, there still was Mandela. He made a better world seem possible. He reminded us, in Lincoln’s words, of the “better angels of our nature.”
We have no other heroes today like Mandela. His death leaves us ever more dominated by the cynicism, selfishness, and partisanship that seem so pervasive in our current world. We cannot go on this way. There are limits to the power of an individual, but Mandela’s life should remind us that acts of character, courage, and conscience move societies.
Moral examples can triumph over the guns and wealth of entrenched interests. Heroes move history. Mandela found his hero within during years of captivity. We must all search for a little bit of the same in ourselves if we wish, once again, to be “a living example of what all people of conscience would like the world to be.” To live without heroes, is to live without hope.
Photo by debris2008 on Flickr.
Mandela's Legacy - Jeremi Suri speaks with Fox Good Day Austin, Dec. 10, 2013. [Video]