By Ari Kohen, University of Nebraska
What do you call someone who helps someone else? What about someone who inspires you? What about someone who overcomes a health challenge or an obstacle to personal or professional success? Or someone who does a difficult or dangerous job?
Too often, we just call all of these people heroes. For a great many people, all behavior that’s seen as distinctly difficult or unusually impressive is classified as heroic: everyone from firefighters to parents to freedom fighters are our heroes. And, too often, individual assessments of heroism are all that really matter. “This person is my hero,” someone will say … and that’s all we need to know to conclude that the person is, in fact, a hero.
But, I’m going to be a little bit controversial and argue that a fair number of our heroes aren’t really all that heroic, and also that we might be missing out on some heroes. Our thinking about heroism is, at once, too broad and too narrow.
“A” hero vs. “your” hero
The first distinction I want to draw is between someone who is a hero and someone who is your hero. Most of the time, your hero is someone you admire, a role model or someone you idolize. This is, of course, purely subjective. Your role models will almost always be different from my role models because of our very different life experiences. If we ask people to list their heroes, we’ll get all sorts of answers. We might agree with some of those answers; we might disagree with all of them. But that won’t really matter for a discussion of heroism because all we’ve learned at the end of the day is that our respondents all have different reasons for admiring or idolize people.
If I love basketball, I might admire LeBron James. If I’m a tennis player, I might admire Roger Federer. As a philosopher, I might idolize Plato. Unquestionably, I look up to and want to be like my terrific parents. In order to convey to others how much we truly admire these people, and because the word “idolize” comes across negatively, we use the best-sounding and most powerful word we can to describe our feelings. So – instead of saying that these are our role models, or that we admire or idolize them – we call them our heroes. And then, if anyone attempts to denigrate or even question our choices, we claim that heroism is relative.
But heroism isn’t relative; it’s our decisions about how to dole out our admiration and respect that are. We might respect someone at one time and then withdraw our respect later: I might have been impressed by John McCain’s “maverick” political positions and unorthodox campaigning against George W. Bush on the Straight Talk Express in 2000, but not at all impressed by John McCain’s recent arguments against the DREAM Act or the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” If I previously admired McCain, I might be disillusioned and choose not to admire him any longer. This, though, is quite different from arguing that John McCain was not heroic in his endurance of torture during his imprisonment in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Whether or not I admire McCain doesn’t impact whether or not his endurance was heroic.
What heroism looks like
And this leads to my second (and very much related) point, about what heroism actually looks like. While some people are content to call anyone who does anything noteworthy a hero, other people require heroes to do something that assists other people. But in my book, I argue that we have some difficulty separating one sort of hero from another and this leads to confusion about what to expect from our heroes. We would do well to untangle one kind of heroic behavior from another to give ourselves the ability to consider the full range of heroism.
John McCain is, once again, a great example of our problem. Consider the wide-ranging discussion of McCain’s Vietnam war record throughout his 2008 campaign against a series of challengers for the Republican nomination and, eventually, against Barack Obama for the presidency. The prevailing sentiment amongst the electorate was that John McCain was a war hero, but the truth of the matter is that he was a very different sort of hero from someone like John Kerry, whose war record had also been very publicly scrutinized. Whereas Kerry’s heroic stature is derived from actions he undertook in the midst of battle, McCain’s heroism arose as a result of his imprisonment. To put a finer point on it, McCain was not particularly successful as a warrior: though he was injured in the line of duty, like Kerry, he didn’t successfully complete his mission as Kerry did. Instead, his plane was shot down, and he was captured and tortured, suffering a great deal at the hands of his Vietnamese captors over several years. Rather than accomplishing particularly impressive deeds on the battlefield, McCain’s heroism is that of a survivor, one who has the ability to endure terribly difficult conditions or challenges.
Interestingly, McCain’s image has been tarnished a great deal in the years that followed his twice-unsuccessful presidential campaigns, in large part because of mistaken assumptions about his heroism. A article about McCain in Vanity Fair, for example, makes the argument that he stands for no principle in particular but simply shifts with the prevailing political winds. Implicit in this argument is that there is nothing heroic about the way that McCain has always conducted himself:
It’s quite possible that nothing at all has changed about John McCain, a ruthless and self-centered survivor who endured five and a half years in captivity in North Vietnam, and who once told Torie Clarke that his favorite animal was the rat, because it is cunning and eats well. It’s possible to see McCain’s entire career as the story of a man who has lived in the moment, who has never stood for any overriding philosophy in any consistent way, and who has been willing to do all that it takes to get whatever it is he wants.
But why is it problematic that someone should be “willing to do all that it takes to get whatever it is he wants”? What exactly is the problem with being “self-centered,” especially if that quality contributed directly to McCain’s survival? And why not choose the rat as one’s favorite animal – what’s wrong with being cunning and eating well? These are precisely the attributes that allowed McCain to accomplish his heroic feats of endurance in Vietnam. What’s more, it’s a mistake to assume that McCain’s endurance would somehow not be connected to the way he conducts himself even now. That is not to say that we ought not to criticize John McCain, the politician, because he is related to John McCain, the hero who suffered and survived. It is, instead, to say that we ought to realize that those things that allowed for his heroism might not make him the most noble politician in all of our eyes. We ought not to be surprised – or to assume that it would somehow be an obvious critique – that McCain continues to privilege the experience of the rat, who endures whatever life throws at him and who attempts to take care of himself at any cost.
But our problem is that we assume McCain’s heroism is the heroism of the battlefield hero, the one who puts himself in harm’s way, who fights bravely, and who is straightforward in doing these things. That is to say, the traditional heroic categories have become muddled, resulting in the diminution of one sort of hero when judged by the standards of another. Of course, to argue that traditional categories have become confused, I’ll need to present a detailed case regarding those categories.
Three categories of heroism
In my book, I make an argument for three distinct categories of heroism that can be traced back to the earliest Western literature – the epic poetry of Homer and the dialogues of Plato – and that are complex enough to resonate with us and to assist us in thinking about heroism today. These are the battlefield hero, personified by Achilles, the suffering hero, exemplified by Odysseus, and the other-regarding hero, Plato’s Socrates.
Achilles, the quintessential battlefield hero, is the most excellent of the Greek warriors who sail to Troy, and his actions win for him eternal glory while also demonstrating the limits and the consequences of human action: he can’t simultaneously earn a glorious name as a warrior and live a long, contented life. It’s got to be one or the other.
Now, it’s a fairly straight line to draw between the great deeds that Achilles accomplishes on the battlefield and the image of him as heroic. But Odysseus is singled out for his decidedly unheroic behavior: he makes use of unseemly disguises, employs trickery rather than fighting straightforwardly, and is well-known as someone who is willing to lie to achieve his objectives. Odysseus’ distinct heroism lies in his will to survive, to suffer and to endure all of the challenges that beset him. The lesson we should take away from reading the Odyssey and thinking about the life of its hero is that “life is full of toil and suffering, but man should be able not only to endure but also to transform this toil and suffering into supreme achievement. ‘To make of this suffering a glorious life’,” as Hercules says in one of the plays of Sophocles.
Finally, Socrates highlights the third form of classical heroism that stands alongside the great Homeric heroes. Plato succeeds in putting forward his own heroic vision for two reasons: first, he suggests that Socrates has an intimate understanding – and perhaps even an appreciation – of his mortality and actively chooses to die. Secondly, he demonstrates that – in choosing to give up his life – Socrates sacrifices himself for the good of others, both his friends and even the Athenians at large who seem to be his enemies. He explains his decision to several of his students in ways that set an example of proper decision-making and also encourage them to continue to see the life of the philosopher as choice-worthy. In his depiction of Socrates’ trial and execution, Plato establishes him as a hero whose actions are distinctly other-regarding while, at the same time, like Homer’s heroes, Socrates effectively demonstrates that the kind of life one lives – rather than its duration – is of primary importance. But unlike them, he chooses to give up his life not to attain some personal good but in order to do some good for others.
There are, then, these three different categories of heroism in antiquity. We’ve largely decided that the most heroic behavior – that which casts the best reflection back on the life of the hero – puts a premium on providing assistance to others, even when doing so puts the hero’s own life directly at risk. Of the three classical archetypes, we see it as the most difficult to undertake because it divorces one’s own preferences from the actions one feels ought to be undertaken. It is also, seemingly, the type of heroism that could be undertaken by anyone; one need not be born a demigod or fall victim to something particularly awful in order to be this sort of hero.
That said, it would be a good idea for us to remember that heroism can encompass more than the relatively rare case of other-regarding behavior that we seek to cultivate, even as we rein in our desire to use the word “hero” to describe all of those whose actions impress us or make us feel good. Then we might find that the conversation about heroism and heroics in the news media, in popular culture, and in our daily lives will start to make more sense. Gone, I hope, will be the lack of interest in any heroism that isn’t other-regarding, along with all of the hero inflation we’ve seen of late. That way, we might push back against the danger of meaninglessness that has begun to threaten the word “hero.”
Ari Kohen is Schlesinger Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Forsythe Family Program on Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln. He teaches courses in the history of political thought, as well as on topics related to human rights and restorative justice. Kohen also co-hosts a weekly podcast on heroism, the topic of his current research.
The above is re-posted with permission and the original post, among many others, can be found on Ari’s popular blog: “Running Chicken.”