Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Heroism: Why Heroes are Important

by Scott LaBarge

When I was 16 years old, I read Henry David Thoreau's book Walden for the first time, and it changed my life. I read about living deliberately, about sucking the marrow out of life, about not, when I had come to die, discovering that I had not lived, and I was electrified. Somehow he convinced me that living deliberately meant becoming a philosopher, and I have not looked back since. And I try as often as I can to remind myself of Thoreau's warning to all philosophy professors: "There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically." If - horrible thought - I should fail to earn tenure here, I would largely blame that damned quotation. But even if that disaster should strike, I know I would find solace by asking how Henry would respond to such a setback, and I know I would be a better man by following his example. Thoreau is one of my dearest heroes, and I do not know who I would be without him.

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.

That is why it is so important for us as a society, globally and locally, to try to shape these choices. Of course, this is a perennial moral issue, but there are warning signs that we need to refocus our attention on the issue now. Consider just a few of these signs:

o A couple years ago the administrators of the Barron Prize for Young Heroes polled American teenagers and found only half could name a personal hero. Superman and Spiderman were named twice as often as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or Lincoln. It is clear that our media make it all too easy for us to confuse celebrity with excellence; of the students who gave an answer, more than half named an athlete, a movie star, or a musician. One in ten named winners on American Idol as heroes.

o Gangsta rap is a disaster for heroism. Just this week, director Spike Lee lamented the fact that, while his generation grew up idolizing great civil rights leaders, today young people in his community aspire to become pimps and strippers. Surely no one wants their children to get their role models from Gangsta rap and a hyper materialistic, misogynistic hiphop culture, but our communities are finding it difficult to make alternative role models take hold.

o And sometimes, the problem we face is that devotion to heroes is very strong, but directed toward the wrong heroes. In the Muslim world, Osama bin Laden and his like still have a widespread heroic appeal. We can tell how we are doing in the struggle for Muslim hearts and minds by the degree to which this continues to be true.

So what must we do? How should we address the problem? Part of the answer is personal. It never hurts us to remind ourselves who our own heroes are and what they represent for us, and to ask ourselves whether we are doing all we can to live up to these ideals. Not long ago there was a movement afoot to ask always, "What would Jesus do?" I'd like to see people asking questions like that, about Jesus or others, all the time. I confess I get a little thrill every time I see a protest poster asking, "Who would Jesus bomb?" That's heroism doing its work, right there. Moreover, those of us who are teachers - and all of us are teachers of our own children at least - have a special opportunity to introduce heroes to those we teach. And teaching about heroes really isn't hard; heroic lives have their appeal built in, all we need to do is make an effort to tell the stories. I assure you, the reason those students didn't choose Lincoln and King and Gandhi as heroes was not that they had heard their stories and dismissed them. It is our job to tell the stories. Tell your students what a difference people of courage and nobility and genius have made to the world. Just tell the stories! We should recommit to that purpose. Start by going home tonight and listing your five most important heroes.

But part of the answer to our problem is broader. It is clear that the greatest obstacle to the appreciation and adoption of heroes in our society is pervasive and corrosive cynicism and skepticism. It was widely claimed not long ago that 9/11 signalled the end of irony, but it is clear now that the reports of irony's death were greatly exaggerated. This obstacle of cynicism has been seriously increased by scandals like the steroids mess in Major League Baseball, by our leaders' opportunistic use of heroic imagery for short term political gain, and by the Pentagon's stories of glorious soldiers like Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman that - by no fault of the soldiers involved - turned out to be convenient fabrications.

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.


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