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 to the gods. But people who had committed unthinkable crimes were also called heroes. 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 as a hero is going to have a very different sense of what human excellence involves than someone who chooses, say, Madonna.
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 it is clear that the greatest obstacle to the appreciation and adoption of heroes in our society is pervasive and corrosive cynicism and skepticism. This obstacle of cynicism has been seriously increased by scandals like the steroids mess in sports competitions and by our leaders’ opportunistic use of heroic imagery for short term political gain.
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. We need to separate out the things that make our heroes noteworthy, and forgive the shortcomings that blemish their heroic perfection. 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 pulls in the other direction as well: these magnificent spirits, these noble souls, amazingly, they are like us, they are human too.
Again, the critical moral contribution of heroes is the expansion of our sense of possibility. Heroes can help us lift our eyes a little higher to build more boldly and beautifully than others, and we may all benefit by their examples. And Heaven knows we need those examples now.
SCOTT LABARGE www.scu.edu
The concept of heroism is central to human experience.
Nowadays, the choice of a hero results from:
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