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The other day, I was doing one of those “getting to know you” things and one of the questions was “If you had a time machine, when and where would you go?” Without any hesitation, I chose the old West. I’ve been watching a lot of Westerns lately, specifically Clint Eastwood Westerns, and today I’ve been thinking about why I like them so much.

The old West was a much simpler time. Most people lived off the land, stayed close to their family, got up at sunrise, and went to bed not too long after sunset. There was no TV, no radio, and entertainment was simple: people just danced, told stories, whittled, and generally just relaxed.

I’m a simple man. I’ve often thought of packing everything into a storage unit and living out of a VW Westfalia Camper with nothing but the essentials: no computer, no internet, no TV. I think I could do it. That’s what I love about camping. It’s just you and nature, no distractions. I think my love for Westerns goes beyond this internal minimalism though.

The Clint Eastwood Western generally follows the same format. The story is centered on one lone wanderer with no apparent past. He’s smart, crafty, reads people well, and most importantly, he’s the fastest draw anyone’s ever met. He speaks only when necessary, and says more with his eyes than most people do with their mouth. He’s noble, honest, and stoic, a man of the people. He always stands up for what he believes in. He is a defender of truth and justice and a protector of all women everywhere. In short, he lives by a higher law.

I think this higher law is what draws me to these westerns. The hero in these stories lives by a certain code that is generally agreed upon by the public, only the hero never strays from it. The villains are those who violate this code, lying, cheating, stealing, killing, and generally mistreating women. The public wants to see an end to the villainy, but is powerless to do anything until the hero comes along and reminds them of the code and the power that comes through its strict adherence in large numbers. He unites them under a common goal.

We live in much different times today. There are very few signs of any sort of code generally accepted by modern American society. People lie, cheat, steal, and mistreat women without any hesitation. It’s okay as long as you don’t get caught. Our celebrities go from partner to partner, as if they’re climbing some invisible ladder that takes them to greater fame and fortune. These are our heroes. The only thing that unites us as a culture is our love of money and thirst for fame.

Joseph Campbell speaks of this,

[…] Another reason for the high level of violence here is that America has no ethos. […] In a culture that has been homogeneous for some time, there are a number of understood, unwritten rules by which people live. There is an ethos there, there is a mode, an understanding that, “we don’t do it that way.” […] But in America we have people from all kinds of backgrounds, all in a cluster, together, and consequently law has become very important in this country. Lawyers and law are what hold us together. There is no ethos. […] What we have today is a demythologized world. (The Power of Myth, 10)

That is what I love about Westerns and the old West. It was a time when America was united under a common ethos, a common code. There were living heroes back then, like Wyatt Earp, who lived by this code as best as humanly possible and defended it to their death. We live in a society with very few heroes. Children have no one to look up to but those faces they see on TV or at the ball game. The family as a unit is failing constantly and children are left to come up with their own ethos, their own code of values.

I was raised by two parents who gave me an ethos very early on. They taught me how to recognize true heroism in a society without heroes. They taught me what was truly important in a society, and more importantly, in my own life. As I watch these Westerns, I am reminded of this ethos, and as I continue on that inward journey of self-discovery, I find more and more that the qualities I value most in a person and in myself are those same values possessed by the Western Hero. He has become a part of my subconscious and the more I try to grow, the more he surfaces.

A society needs heroes. A society needs myth. A society needs an ethos. Without them, it will fail. Every member of a society is on his or her own journey of self-discovery. Without heroes to anchor us to a common ethos, I fear what will come out of the subconscious. More than this, I fear the fruits of such a society.