Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Heroism: Why Heroes are Important

Heroism: Why Heroes are Important

"....The term "hero" comes from the ancient Greeks. For them, a hero was a mortal who had done something so far beyond the normal scope of human experience that he left an immortal memory behind him when he died, and thus received worship like that due the gods. Many of these first heroes were great benefactors of humankind: Hercules, the monster killer; Asclepius, the first doctor; Dionysus, the creator of Greek fraternities. But people who had committed unthinkable crimes were also called heroes; Oedipus and Medea, for example, received divine worship after their deaths as well. Originally, heroes were not necessarily good, but they were always extraordinary; to be a hero was to expand people's sense of what was possible for a human being.

Today, it is much harder to detach the concept of heroism from morality; we only call heroes those whom we admire and wish to emulate. But still the concept retains that original link to possibility. We need heroes first and foremost because our heroes help define the limits of our aspirations. We largely define our ideals by the heroes we choose, and our ideals -- things like courage, honor, and justice -- largely define us. Our heroes are symbols for us of all the qualities we would like to possess and all the ambitions we would like to satisfy. A person who chooses Martin Luther King or Susan B. Anthony as a hero is going to have a very different sense of what human excellence involves than someone who chooses, say, Paris Hilton, or the rapper 50 Cent. And because the ideals to which we aspire do so much to determine the ways in which we behave, we all have a vested interest in each person having heroes, and in the choice of heroes each of us makes........

The best antidote to this cynicism is realism about the limits of human nature. We are cynical because so often our ideals have been betrayed. Washington and Jefferson held slaves, Martin Luther King is accused of philandering and plagiarizing, just about everybody had sex with someone they shouldn't, and so on. We need to separate out the things that make our heroes noteworthy, and forgive the shortcomings that blemish their heroic perfection. My own hero Thoreau had his share of blemishes. For instance, although he was supposed to be living totally independently out by Walden Pond, he went home to Mother on the weekends. But such carping and debunking misses the point. True, the false steps and frailties of heroic people make them more like us, and since most of us are not particularly heroic, that may seem to reduce the heroes' stature. But this dynamic pulls in the other direction as well: these magnificent spirits, these noble souls, amazingly, they are like us, they are human too. And perhaps, then, what was possible for them is possible for us. They stumbled, they wavered, they made fools of themselves - but nonetheless they rose and accomplished deeds of triumphant beauty. Perhaps we might do so too. Cynicism is too often merely an excuse for sparing ourselves the effort.

Again, the critical moral contribution of heroes is the expansion of our sense of possibility. If we most of us, as Thoreau said, live lives of quiet desperation, it is because our horizons of possibility are too cramped. Heroes can help us lift our eyes a little higher. Immanuel Kant said that "from the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made." That may well be true. But some have used that warped, knotted timber to build more boldly and beautifully than others, and we may all benefit by their examples. Heaven knows we need those examples now.
by Scott LaBarge
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