Mandela Day

Dean of Truro Cathedral, Roger Bush

I often hear it said, 'where are the great figures today, people we can look up to, to inspire us with their vision?’ I freely admit, I sometimes say this myself. Looking back over our recent past there are figures who stand out because of their iconic status: Mandela, Gandhi, Churchill to name but three. Perhaps we are too close to today’s politics to say which names will stand out, if any, in the future. There are a couple of things to say about this, though. Firstly, these names are prominent in spite of their history, as much as because of their history. By this I mean, Churchill’s reputation has been subject to a good deal of historical revisionism over the past ten years or so, but nothing will reduce the impact of his wartime oratory. He rises above his historical context, as it were, and will always be, as Mandela and Gandhi are, iconic for a particular reason. Then there is the fact that we need icons like this, and in needing them we are prepared to smooth over their limitations: Mandela, for instance, whose day is kept on 18 July, the date of his birth, was not a hugely successful president of South Africa, but his symbolic power will always have a resonance greater than his political legacy. We need these symbols to act as lodestars in providing that vision, to say what is possible amidst so much confusion and uncertainty. If we don’t seem to have anyone of this stature at the moment, it may be because that vision is not being articulated, or that principle is not being sufficiently expressed. Which is why we constantly go back to these and other figures (and I do note that I have only given the examples of three men in this short essay) for our inspiration. Historical reality may bring them down to size, but we are willing to pass over some of that reality in order for their symbolic importance to retain its hold on our imagination.