The Moral Component of Inspirational Heroism

Art by Kasia Rosińska

I’m continuing to explore my new ideas about heroism as a force of inspiration. Today I’d like to tackle one of the biggest objections to heroism as inspiration: the moral angle.

So far this has come in two main forms. The first one was presented neatly by longtime reader Phaedra Bonewits:

“I’m not entirely willing to wholesale accept anyone who is idolized is a hero. I might have said ‘he’s my hero!’ about many a pop star in my youth, but I simply can’t see that celebrity fascination, even if it has inspirational components, as enough to make anyone an actual hero.”

I think this is a common reaction. How is Lady Gaga a hero? How is Freddie Mercury a hero? These kinds of stars don’t teach us how to save lives.

But this is where the power of inspiration takes on a very personal nature. For Phaedra, her teen idols obviously didn’t inspire such a personal transformation that she’s willing to consider them heroes. But to someone else, they may have.

We don’t get to tell anyone who does or does not inspire them to be better people. This is a personal choice. To me, Freddie Mercury is just some singer who was in Queen maybe? But to someone else his struggle with AIDS may be pivotal. It may make them contemplate how much he accomplished in a short life and whether their own life will measure up. It may even make them strive to accomplish more than they otherwise would have.

We don’t have to pretend for a moment that every celebrity is a hero, nor do I have to treat someone as heroic because you were inspired by them. But we should understand that any time an individual achieves something beyond what most of us achieve, it has the potential to move others to do the same—and this is a glimmer of heroism.

The second version is more direct. Another reader, Ken, wrote in part:

“Using your definition as is, you could come up with heroes according to the selectors’ values who were accomplished, dedicated, and effective terrorists, wealthy and ruthless corporate raiders…”

In other words, what about individuals who inspire people to do bad things? Are they “heroes” now too?

Definitely not. Not every influential person is making the world a better place, and not all of them are heroes. Let me put my definition out there again for clarity:

A hero is someone who inspires others to strive to be better people.

There are two parts to that definition. They don’t just inspire, they inspire us to become better people. Or at least to try.

This rules out a lot of types of inspiration. If a violent dictator inspires a group of extremists to become terrorists, that dictator fails the heroism test. And if a shock-value entertainer inspires 14 year old boys to act like twits, they fail the hero test too. You might be famous (or infamous) enough to have followers, but that doesn’t make you a hero.

This can easily lead to a discussion of what counts as being a “better person.” (Which, in fairness to Ken, was what he was really driving at with the full text of his comment.) I’m intentionally not addressing that, for a few reasons:

  • Most people like to say it’s all subjective. I disagree with that and I don’t enjoy having this argument.
  • I think it’s fair to leave it up to individual readers to decide what constitutes becoming a better person. I doubt any of my readers are terrorists or criminals, and I trust you guys to use your own judgment.
  • Becoming a better person doesn’t strictly speaking mean becoming a more moral person. It can also mean personal development writ large. For example, if a hip hop artist inspires my daughter to get serious about her love of singing, that’s a positive development and a form of inspiration heroism.

Without getting into theories of ethics, suffice it to say that there are certain behaviors we all recognize as wrong and others that have been agreed upon broadly, even in international law, as never acceptable. These include acts that are dehumanizing, acts of unusual cruelty, unprovoked violence and attacking civilians or non-combatants in order to make a political point or score a military victory. No one who commits these acts is heroic, ever. And no one who inspired them gets hero points for doing so.

The seemingly simple act of inspiring someone can be heroic, but only if the inspiration brings about momentum toward positive change. When somebody does that it almost always seems heroic to those affected, and we ought to acknowledge and accept that kind of heroism.


Different Levels of Heroism

Cú Chulainn. Art by Katie.

Recently I presented a new theory of heroism (short version here). The idea is that the uniting characteristic of all types of heroes is their ability to inspire others—not just whether they take big risks in doing so.

One of my readers, Calluna, wrote a great response that shows why this kind of heroism is so valuable:

“I think the idea of broadening the definition and introducing levels of heroism is smart. If I can only jump from hero Level 0 to Level 10, and… Level 10 is unachievable, I’m likely to give it much less thought than if I can progress up from Level 0 to Level 1, and maybe some day Level 5 or 6, even knowing that Level 10 is highly unlikely.

“If I train every day, for my entire life, I will probably never ever be Cú Chulainn-awesome at ANY thing (and certainly not all things, in the true Cú Chulainn-awesome sense). George Washington Carver-Awesome seems more likely–still unlikely, but closer, so that I can actually reach towards it. At the very least, maybe I can be Grandfather-Awesome. And then maybe someday someone I’ve done good for will be trying to be Calluna-Awesome, whether that be Hero Level 0.5 or Hero Level 5, whatever I can manage.

“We have to start from somewhere, and most of us can’t start at 10. I probably won’t bother with pursuing 10, to tell you the honest truth. But if there is an attainable Level 1, I’m much more likely to put serious thought and consideration into it. And who knows. Once I climb some levels, trying for 10 will seem more reasonable.”

Calluna raises several important points here:

  1. There’s a big gulf between taking a huge risk to help others and not being heroic at all. If the only people we can regard as the least bit heroic are all the way across that gulf, then heroism is inaccessible. It’s too far away for any of us to realistically be heroes-in-training.
  2. Her heroic imagination is actually more driven by the “low level” heroes like her grandfather.
  3. Treating her grandfather as a hero isn’t at odds with understanding high level risk-taking heroism. To the contrary, the low-level heroes are what get her thinking about chasing high level heroism at all.

This is a very different way of looking at heroism than evaluating the amount of risk involved. Instead it focuses on the net impact of a role model’s actions on the people around them. And often, it’s the small but impressive acts that get us wrangling with our own moral compass.


The New Heroism: TL,DR Edition

Image by Jack Dyson

Recently I released a 6,000 word draft of my new theory of heroism. 6,000 words is pretty long. Here’s a short version for those who just don’t have all the time in the world to read philosophy (I know I don’t).

The definition of heroism has changed a lot over the centuries. Originally a hero was very strictly a successful warrior. In ancient virtue ethics, this meant not only someone who was victorious but also someone who embodied a society’s values. Achilles is a great example of this kind of hero.

But with time the definition of heroism changed. Heroes became not only those individuals who risked their life in battle (for their values or a good cause), but anyone who took risks for their values or a good cause. Thus, for example, we view Martin Luther King Jr. is a hero. And the risks don’t have to be physical: people who blow the whistle on dangerous and illegal corporate practices are heroic too.

My suggestion is that the meaning of heroism has continued to change. Today, we use the word “hero” for a wide range of inspirational figures from performers to athletes to artists. These people rarely take risks of the kind a whistleblower or warrior takes, and yet we view them as heroes nonetheless. This upsets many people who believe strongly in heroism, because it seems like heroism is being “watered down.” But I believe it’s an important type of hero and one we need to recognize.

That’s for two reasons. First, because this type of hero creates positive change by inspiring us to strive to be better people. And second, because recognizing this type of hero improves the discussion around heroism and allows us to build on people’s existing excitement and inspiration. In other words, it’s more relatable.

This form of heroism is accessible to the average person in a way that Achilles or Martin Luther King are not. We can all imagine living up to the example of small heroes who found charities, work tirelessly for a cause, or dedicate themselves to their art or passion. They go above and beyond what most of us do for good causes or our values—but not so much above and beyond that they seem unattainable. And these heroes certainly do make sacrifices in order to achieve their goals.

For many of us these role models don’t fit the idea of a hero because they aren’t extreme enough. But it must have once been similarly disappointing when non-warriors, who didn’t stake their lives in battle, were first called heroes. The word has changed over time and always to reflect a wider array of example of admirable behavior. These examples always go beyond the norm and always inspire others.

Ultimately, I propose defining heroism not by specific acts, like taking risks for others or enduring great suffering, but by the one thing all heroes have in common: the ability to inspire. A hero is someone who inspires others to strive to be better.

There are many ways to do that, on many different levels, from global to personal. This definition covers them all.

I’m going to write a lot in the next few days about this version of heroism. After that it will be back to road logs for those of you following my adventure.

Heroism, Spotlight, The Heroic Life

The Birth of a New Heroism

Note: this is an initial draft and represents an idea that I’m still working out. I’m asking for your feedback and your help making it better. 

For a long time I’ve used a simple definition of heroism:

A hero is someone who takes extraordinary personal risk to help others, with no personal stake.

I arrived at this definition on my own but it’s essentially the same one used by most scholars of heroism. Almost all of the formal discussion of heroism is based on the idea of taking selfless risk. But over time I’ve come to believe this definition of heroism is a problem. It’s inaccurate, failing to cover all the behavior that we consider heroic; and it’s become a wedge that drives hero scholarship away from creating real heroism.

Art by Hypnothalamus.

Why the Change?

Anyone who’s read my past work on heroism knows that this is a big turnaround for me, and it’s not a realization I’ve come to lightly. I intend to go into detail as to what exactly is wrong with this definition of heroism, why it’s not expansive enough, and what kind of a definition we should use instead. But before I do that I want to look at why defining heroism is so important—why it matters and what the consequences are of using a bad definition.

Our current definition of heroes, as people who take risk to help others, is relatively recent. It has its roots in work on the psychology of heroism by Phil Zimbardo and Zeno Franco. They wanted to know why some people will act in extraordinarily altruistic ways in bad circumstances, while most of us will keep our heads down and do nothing, or even follow unethical orders. Thus, the original scholarly discussion of heroism was already rooted in clear-cut situations where both risk and altruism were present.

But as this definition coalesced it came to be used for another purpose as well: to draw a hard line between who is and is not a hero. Zimbardo and Franco never said that the heroes they studied were the only kind of hero; they were just interested in the psychology of extreme selflessness. Nonetheless, the definition that grew out of their work has become a dividing line.

For a long time I thought this was a good thing. I have a deep respect for the extremes of human self-sacrifice, something I believe all hero researchers share. Accordingly, we get uncomfortable when the word “hero” is bandied about too lightly, when people who didn’t make much sacrifice are casually called heroes. Having an official definition to fall back on, one that sets the bar high, is extremely convenient.

But sometimes a high bar doesn’t do its job. I witnessed this firsthand at the 2013 Hero Round Table. I was one of about two dozen speakers; a few of us were dedicated hero researchers, but many were not. They were drawn from many different fields and disciplines to offer their views on how to create heroism.

Obviously, most of these speakers were not familiar with the formal literature on heroism and many had never heard of the “taking risk for others” gold standard. The talks strayed about as far from this message as possible. Everything from giving $5 to the homeless to working as a public school teacher was christened as heroic.

Sitting in the audience, the other “heroism hardliners” and myself looked at each other anxiously. Here was a conference dedicated to heroism, and the speakers were using the wrong definitions. They weren’t setting the bar high at all!

But then the most amazing thing happened. The audience came alive. While the talks meandered farther and farther from the official definition, the message seemed to land with more and more people. By the second day there was a buzz in the air, a shared hum of creativity and desire to create change. People were truly asking themselves: what can I do to create heroism in the world?

I had written about heroism for years and never seen this. I had always been so careful to focus on “real” heroism, the loftiest form of heroism, the power of selfless risk. But that wasn’t what got people ready to act like heroes. It was the power of inspiration.

That’s when I first began to wonder if there was something more to heroism.

The Odyssey. Art by InfernalFinn.

More than Risk

Let’s talk about how good our existing definition is. For clarity, here it is again:

A hero is someone who takes extraordinary personal risk to help others, with no personal stake.

Most people can agree that this definition represents heroism. If you take a major personal risk to help someone, or to advance a just cause, and you don’t get anything out of it, that makes you more than just a good person. You’re a hero.

But to most people other things also fit into the idea of heroism. We may all agree that these selfless risk-takers are heroes, but our vision of heroism is much wider than that. Focusing in on one narrow type of heroism and using it as the metric for all heroes is, I believe, misleading.

To explain why I’m going to offer an example, and that example is my friend Ari Kohen. Ari is a brilliant hero researcher and an advocate for promoting real-life heroism. He’s also someone I admire deeply because of his strong moral compass. If there’s anyone in the world likely to act heroically if needed, I imagine it’s Ari Kohen.

Ari’s work also provides a clear example of how the conversation around heroism has narrowed down. By rights, Ari should be the loudest voice clamoring for a wider theory of heroism. In his excellent book Untangling Heroism, he looks at the history of hero archetypes and argues that there are three distinct types of heroes. Only one of those, he suggests, is the one who takes selfless risks. Clearly, then, our official definition is lacking.

Yet in all of Ari’s other work two of these three types of hero disappear. He sticks close to the definition of heroism as risk-taking, so much so that he’s willing to chide people who use the word differently (here are five good examples). He’s definitely not the only hero scholar who does this, but he may be the most public about it.

Thus, the case for expanding our definition of heroism starts with the work of one of its staunchest defenders—the three Greek celebrities that Ari Kohen calls out as heroes.

Socrates. Art by Yuujin.

Two and a Half Classical Heroes

In Untangling Heroism Ari provides us with several definitions of heroism: one based on Achilles, one based on Odysseus, and one based on Socrates. Let’s look at each of these definitions and see how they stack up against the risk-based one.


Achilles is in many ways the template for the risk-based hero. At the Trojan War, he chose to fight to avenge a friend even though he knew it would cost him his life. He was by far the greatest warrior of the Greeks at the time, and yet he had a fatal weakness which would cost him his life the moment he fulfilled his mission. In other words, he took the ultimate risk for the sake of another.

Or at least, that’s my take. Ari argues that Achilles did not do this selflessly, and to a degree he’s right; Achilles was after the eternal fame that comes with being a great warrior. But there are two things worth remembering about that fame:

  • In the ancient Greek worldview, fame was earned through excellence, and excellence was one of the moral virtues. Achilles wasn’t just after some selfish vision of glory, he was fulfilling his duty and mastering his art as a warrior, to a degree that most warriors cannot match. In other words, he performed extraordinarily and was admired for it.
  • Although Achilles craved the fame in question, that alone wasn’t enough to get him to sacrifice his life. When glory is all that’s at stake we see him withdrawing from battle and struggling with whether to go to the final encounter. He considers just leaving. Only after his friend Patroclus is killed and needs to be avenged does he commit to his famous death.

Thus, Achilles presents a prototype of the risk-taking hero, but one who is hard to relate to today. Our Judeo-Christian ethics emphasize humility, not fame or glory, and the idea that pursuing excellence and fame is a moral good is hard for us to accept. But, viewed in a Classical Greek context, Achilles was not only the warrior par excellence, he was a moral exemplar, a symbol of the kind of fateful courage that everyone should aspire to. He was the original hero.


Like Achilles, Odysseus was a Greek warrior in the Trojan War, but one with a very different attitude. With Troy conquered, Odysseus set off for home with his ship and his men, eager to see his wife and family, but was blown far off course. Navigating unknown waters, he faced a seemingly endless string of deadly challenges.

Unlike Achilles, Odysseus does not give his life to accomplish his mission. In fact, since his mission is to reunite with his family, he has to struggle to live—often against terrific odds. And unlike Achilles, who takes every opponent head on and gloriously, Odysseus is willing to cheat, lie, trick and outmaneuver. He doesn’t want to go down fighting, but to drag himself through the mud and escape. Ultimately, he dresses himself in a humiliating disguise to get close enough to kill his wife’s new suitor and take his rightful place at her side.

Throughout his ordeals, Odysseus never takes a risk for someone else’s sake—certainly not without a stake in doing so. His goal is profoundly self-oriented: to reunite with his wife and kids. This is a very noble goal, but it is fundamentally different than righting a wrong or avenging a comrade or confronting someone who commits an injustice. Odysseus does not go on his long journey to help anyone but himself and his own family. Indeed, his loyal friends and companions die one by one in horrible ways as he pushes stubbornly onward. And yet he’s considered a hero.

So what’s heroic about his actions? We can admire Odysseus for many reasons, his cunning trickery among them. But mostly Odysseus is a hero because he was so thoroughly determined to make it home. He suffered challenges that would break most people, but survived them and kept going. His is the heroism of endurance, of suffering; we think of Odysseus as a hero for the same reason we think of POWs as heroes. They have endured something most of us cannot imagine, and their ultimate victory over their suffering is as inspiring as Achilles’ victory over his enemies.


Ari presents Socrates the philosopher as a third sort of hero. Socrates, like Achilles, willingly sacrificed his own life. But Ari suggests that Socrates has superseded Achilles, that “battlefield” heroes like Achilles are increasingly irrelevant to our lives today and that civic heroes like Socrates are closer to home. More than that, Ari suggests the two have a different function: that Achilles gave his life for selfish reasons (glory) while Socrates gave his for selfless ones (justice). Thus, he defines Socrates as a new type of hero altogether.

I disagree with that analysis. Both Socrates and Achilles are characters who take risks (indeed, the ultimate risk) for the sake of doing what they feel is right. The fact that they come from different backgrounds  and value different things is not, in my opinion, particularly relevant; risk comes in many forms. These days we encourage people to prepare to act heroically whether that means blowing the whistle in the workplace or rescuing someone from a burning car wreck, both under the risk-taking definition of heroism; in the same way we can allow for battlefield and non-battlefield variants on selfless heroism in the ancient world.

In Achilles’ case, the good that he was after was both justice (avenging his friend) and the virtue of excellence, which leads to eternal renown. Seeking renown requires becoming greatly skilled, which benefits not just yourself but those around you; and it requires living up to a whole set of warrior virtues that are markers of a good person. Thus, fame may be selfish in and of itself but the quest for fame was something considered worthy and admirable in ancient Greek culture.

Socrates, on the other hand, risked his life for something more alien to his society’s mores: his conception of a selfless good. He is convicted on trumped up charges and sentenced to death, mostly because he was a nuisance to people in power; but when his friends try to break him out of jail he refuses, insisting that it would be unjust to break laws just because it suited him. He refuses to set a double standard by breaking the laws of Athens when they’re against him, after benefiting from Athenian citizenship for so many years. He goes to his death with his principles intact.

In a sense, Socrates’ values are closer to our Judeo-Christian values based on fairness and humility rather than courage and the pursuit of excellence. So Ari argues that Socrates is more relevant to contemporary culture and represents a new kind of hero, the “other-regarding” or selfless hero.

But both characters essentially risked their lives for something they believed in. And Socrates’ actions, to most people, seem as baffling and alien as Achilles’. If you were wrongly sentenced to death on false charges, and given a sham trial, wouldn’t you accept your friends’ help when they came to set you free? Why would you go to your death for a crime you didn’t really commit? Most of us, if given Socrates’ choice, wouldn’t just think it an easy decision—we would think that breaking out is the right thing to do. In this way, Socrates’ values are as strange to us as bloodthirsty Achilles’.

Most importantly, whether we can relate to Socrates, Achilles, or neither of them, both acted based on either their own ethics or the dominant ethics of their time. Thus, however alien either set of ethics may seem, both made essentially the same choice: to give their lives in order to do what seemed right.

Thus, with respect to Ari, I’m going to combine Socrates and Achilles into a single kind of hero: the selfless risk-taking hero. Both gave their lives to live up to their values and we admire both for strikingly similar reasons.

To Risk and to Suffer

So that leaves us with two different archetypes deeply rooted in Western myth: the hero who takes selfless risks and the hero who endures great challenges or suffering. Even today we think of both of these types of people as heroic.

So it seems like there’s more to heroism than taking risk. we have two kinds of well-established heroes, not just one. Already it seems odd for any hero scholar to use just one of those types as the entire definition of heroism. But we aren’t done yet; while Ari gives us only two types to consider, there are other definitions of heroism that have just as much historical momentum behind them.

Art by Heydi.

A Heroism of Honor

So far we’ve looked at individuals who take extraordinary actions that could be universally considered heroic. But that’s not the only way we talk about heroism, nor the only way it was defined historically. In the ancient world there was a sort of cultural heroism: the idea that anyone who does an exceptional job of living up to certain values is hailed as heroic, whether or not they helped anyone.

This concept of heroism is known as a heroic ethics. It is largely absent from Ari’s work, but has been covered in detail in Brendan Myers’ book The Other Side of Virtue. Instead of commandments or rules, a system of heroic ethics offers only a set of virtues or ideals for each individual to aspire to. This was the kind of ethical system used across ancient Europe—by the early Greeks and Celts and Germanic tribes. The virtues were traits were considered admirable, traits like being courageous or truthful or ferocious to one’s enemies. Everyone was expected to live up to the virtues as best they could, but a rare few individuals would pursue them to perfection, becoming heroes. Thus, the line between being a moral person, being a talented person and being a good warrior was blurred; a hero embodied all of these notions. And more importantly, in a culture that lives by a heroic ethics, everyone is in the process of becoming a hero; every citizen is a potential hero who could emerge at any time.

Yet a hero was still an extraordinary individual in those cultures. Everyone will find, at some point or another, that following our ideals (the virtues) conflicts with everyday life. It’s not so simple as being tempted to lie or cheat or steal; it’s much more complex than that. For example, what if you made a promise to a friend, but they’ve since proven to be a pretty poor friend? Should you live up to your word, even though they wouldn’t do the same for you, or will you leave them hanging? These are the moral quandaries of an ethics that promotes positive virtues (“always be honorable”; “always be brave”) rather than rules against negative infractions. It takes a rare individual to continue living by these virtues even when they become inconvenient, or onerous, or contrary to one’s own benefit. After all, being a little less virtuous doesn’t necessarily hurt anyone else—it’s not like murdering or robbing. It only reflects on your own character, something that most of us are willing to compromise. And so the great hero tales of the Celts or the Vikings or the early Greeks focus on individuals who are almost inhumanly stubborn, who continue to live by the virtues when it’s insane to do so.

As an example I’ll choose the Irish warrior Naoise. Most of us don’t know the Irish tales the way we know the Classical ones, so a brief retelling is in order. Naoise had the misfortune of becoming the apple of the eye of Deirdre, a young woman kept imprisoned by King Conchobhar. Conchobhar planned to marry her, owing to her exceptional beauty, but she wasn’t interested. When she caught a glimpse of Naoise, however, she saw a man she could love.

Initially Naoise turned her down. Deirdre had to shame him into breaking her free and eloping with her, and after he reluctantly did so he found himself falling in love. The two of them fled to Scotland where they lived in exile for many years, happy together.

At first King Conchobhar sent warriors to kill Naoise and bring Deirdre back, but they were unsuccessful. As time passed Conchobhar quieted down. Eventually he sent a messenger to say that all was forgiven and that the couple could return safely to Ireland. The offer may seem dubious, but Conchobar sent a very well respected warrior along, who gave his word they would not be harmed. (This warrior had been misled, and did not know the offer was a trap.) Eager to see their families after so much time, the young couple agreed to go back.

At this point Naoise did something that none of us would consider doing today: he took an oath. An unnecessary oath. He was so excited to return home that he swore he wouldn’t eat until he was back in Ulster (northern Ireland). While this is bizarre to today’s audience, it was a very powerful cultural expression in ancient Ireland, a formal statement of his exuberance about returning home. In other words, it was not considered odd.

Sadly, it would also be Naoise and Deidre’s joint undoing. As they got closer to home, it became obvious that no warm welcome awaited them. They found out that Conchobhar was waiting with a large contingent of warriors to kill Naoise and take Deirdre. This is the point at which they should have turned around and gone back into exile.

But they couldn’t. Naoise couldn’t eat until he returned home—that was the oath. The only fate that awaited him, if he ran away, was not another idyllic romp through Scotland with his sweetheart but a slow death by starvation. Naoise never seems to seriously consider discarding the oath. When Deirdre begs him to turn around he refuses, and his companions seem to understand. (So would a medieval or ancient Irish audience.)

The inevitable happens. Naoise, Deirdre and their companions meet Conchobhar’s forces. They put up a valiant fight but Naoise is run through with a spear. Deirdre, recaptured by Conchobhar, is carried off in his chariot but refuses to submit. She kills herself by dashing her head against a jagged rock as the chariot speeds past.

Like most Irish stories, it is an utter tragedy.

But it also inspires awe. In ancient Ireland, a warrior’s word and honor were the basis of his reputation and his value in the community. Even so, most individuals would not have kept their hunger oath—nor gone to their deaths. There is possibly no single circumstance in all of Irish lore where it would be more acceptable to break an oath than the one that Naoise finds himself in. Anyone hearing the story must think to themselves no way would I do that.

But to Naoise, the heroic virtues of truth, loyalty and honor were not up for bargaining. He chose to go to his death rather than controvert the virtues he was raised with. Thus, he was the epitome of his culture’s ethics, and is considered an Irish hero.

At this point it’s tempting to say that Naoise is just another variant on the Achilles and Socrates type, but I’m not sure that’s the case. True, he gave his life for what he believed was right, but it’s more than that. Achilles and Socrates ultimately achieved their goals—Achilles avenged his friend before dying, and Socrates made his point about selfless morality, effectively founding the tradition of Western philosophy. Naoise on the other hand failed in his goal. Whatever it was he wanted—to defeat Conchobhar, to see his parents, to live happily with Deirdre—he didn’t get it. He didn’t even save his lover’s life. But he lived up to his culture’s highest ideals.

This may seem like a very alien idea of heroism, one that’s long since dead in the 21st century. It’s true that contemporary Western societies do not live by a heroic ethics. But the idea of this kind of hero is still resonant with us, and appears often in our heroic fiction. How often does a movie hero grimly choose to march to the final confrontation thinking it will be their death? It’s become a trope: a true hero makes a stand even when theres no chance of winning. Naoise’s story is the story of Helm’s Deep, of assaulting the Death Star, of facing off with Voldemort. These days we prefer a happy ending, of course, and so an ally appears at a crucial moment, new powers are discovered, or the hero finally figures out the villain’s weakness. This drains the tension out of a scene that should, by rights, be hopeless; but there is no doubt that that moment of grim determination still awes us.

The concept of a heroic ethics, then, establishes something very different than those who take a risk for others, or those who endure terrible suffering. It establishes a heroism of honor—it says that anyone who lives by the heroic ethics, who exemplifies them, is de facto a hero, whether or not they actually have a chance to do something heroic.

Gaga. Art by LLondon.

Inspiration Today

Now we have three kinds of historic heroes, but none of them quite dominate our view of heroism today. Instead, a fourth and final vision of heroism has taken over. As I experienced at the Hero Round Table, most people use the word hero to mean “someone who inspires.” Often there is no clear moral component to these heroes at all, and sometimes no component of risk. All they have to do is impress us.

That’s why we canonize our mothers as heroes, or our favorite singers, our athletes or our first black president. And this has become a point of extreme frustration to hero scholars—as it has been to me at times. When I picture a hero I see someone who saves lives, who makes great sacrifices to create change. Not just someone who seems admirable. But I’ve learned to check this grandiosity, this elitism in my vision of heroism.

Lady Gaga does not meet the mold of an Achilles or Socrates, an Odysseus or a Naoise. But when people name her as their hero, it’s not without reason—and it’s worth asking them why. Some might say because she is so talented (the pursuit of excellence, like Achilles). Some might say it’s because she insists on determining her own creative direction, maintaining control over music, lyrics and costuming and refusing to lip sync (echoes of Naoise). And still others might say it’s because she’s endured and overcome so much as a female performer (a sort of pop culture Odysseus). In other words, the qualities that make Lady Gaga a hero to some of her fans are the same essential qualities of the great heroes, scaled down. Even when we name our mothers as heroes we aren’t just offering them the title because we love them; we’re thinking of all the sacrifices they made for us (Socrates, Achilles) and all the difficulties they endured (Odysseus). This is key to understanding these seemingly-minor heroes: they represent a more relatable, more attainable version of the same qualities that make the great heroes so great. There is a distant unity between pop culture idols and savers of hundreds of lives.

And these idols, above all else, inspire us to make improvements in our own lives. From sports heroes and celebrities to firemen and charity volunteers, when we say that they’re heroes we mean these people had a positive influence on me. To the extent that we want heroism to create a better world, these “inspiration heroes” are a hundred times more effective than Socrates or Achilles—simply because more real people relate to them.

Of course, who’s an inspiration and who’s not is highly subjective. Does that mean that anyone is a hero, as long as someone else calls them one? I don’t think we need to go that far. But I do think we need to acknowledge that the way the word hero is used reflects, far more than risk or selflessness, the act of inspiration. People who inspire us become our heroes, especially if they inspire us to strive to be better people. That doesn’t just mean striving to be more selfless; it could mean striving to believe in ourselves (Lady Gaga) or pursue great dreams (Barack Obama) or to train hard at something we love (famous athletes).

We don’t have to treat all heroes as equal, and we don’t have to pretend that Lady Gaga is on a level with Gandhi. But it’s time to admit that inspiring others is a form of heroism—a fourth, separately valid kind of hero, the inspirer of the masses.

Muses. Art by Vaahlkult.

The Case for the Fourth Hero

The fourth kind of hero, the inspiration, is usually seen as a problem by hero scholars. It’s not that any of us are against inspirational individuals or role models. It’s that these figures don’t seem to meet the moral test that we want all of our heroes to pass—they aren’t making huge selfless sacrifices for others. So when people call them heroes, it seems like the whole idea of heroism is getting watered down.

But I think we need to warmly embrace this hero type and adjust our definition to include it. There are two reasons for this: one has to do with the accuracy of the term and the other has to do with its importance to heroism research writ large.


First of all, this isn’t the first time the meaning of heroism has shifted. A hero was originally a great warrior, and that was pretty much the entirety of what it meant. It was only later that moral courage in a civic setting was given the same laurels as bravery on the battlefield. The fact that we count philosophers and whistle-blowers as heroes testifies that we don’t need to be puritans about what heroism means.

Occasionally I still run into someone who thinks that only tough, brave warrior types are heroes. To them, Gandhi is no hero because he was too meek; a real hero would’ve faced the British head on. This kind of attitude is so out of touch with reality that it almost seems deluded. We risk being just as reactionary in disregarding the most common usage of hero today. If seeing pop stars called heroes offends our sensibilities, it’s because our sensibilities are out of date.

Ultimately, what defines a word is how it’s actually used. Language doesn’t work well if we pretend that only the older, narrower meaning of a word is accurate. Aside from creating communication barriers, ignoring real usage harms our ability to study heroism in the first place. Our job as hero scholars should not be to declare a definition and enforce it, but to investigate and discover what’s recognized as heroism already—then use that data set as a starting point for understanding the phenomenon behind it.

There’s nothing wrong with directing people’s attention toward a small subset of heroes who took great risks, but if we pretend that these are the only real heroes we confuse the conversation. Our definition must be guided by real usage. A theory of heroism simply isn’t accurate if it disregards the single most common type of heroism that people recognize.


The other reason to embrace inspiration-as-heroism is much more important, because it has to do with the impact we want hero research to have. Every hero scholar I’ve met has shared a single hope: that we can create more real heroism in the world. And that’s going to take every tool we’ve got.

Whenever we talk about heroism our audience brings with them their own sources of inspiration. We should tap into those sources, tease them out, delve into what makes them heroic. Many of these inspiring figures won’t have made the kind of sacrifices that Harriet Tubman or Spartacus made. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t made sacrifices. Spending 20 hours a week building up a charity on top of a full time job may not involve risking life and limb, but it’s a sacrifice most people don’t think they could make. The same goes for training for long brutal hours at the football field every day for ten years, or dedicating one’s life to an unlikely career as a singer/dancer or an artist or an author. These are relatively small, relatively self-focused sacrifices; but they are the ones that have the widest motivational value.

When people get interested in heroism, whether it’s opening a book, reading a blog or attending a conference, one of the worst things we can do is refute their heroes. Refuting heroes immediately changes the conversation from a cultivation of heroic qualities to a deeply personal confrontation.

That doesn’t mean we have to put Lady Gaga on a pedestal, nor set aside the more impressive heroes who save lives. We certainly don’t have to declare that heroism is subjective. But we should affirm these heroes and work with them as examples to tease out what exactly real heroism means. There are several ways to do this:

  • We can focus on the similarities between what’s inspiring about these heroes and what’s inspiring about great, selfless risk-taking heroes.
  • We can ask people what it is about these individuals that makes them heroic, and let their answers move the conversation closer to the heart of great heroism.
  • We can compare these heroes to the great heroes and let the audience draw their own conclusions about the differences.

Celebrities and role models don’t have to be the center of any theory of heroism. But they provide a gateway, a stepping stone by which we can start conversations that drive at heroism as a world-changing force. To help people cultivate heroism, we should work with the momentum of the figures who already inspire them in that direction.

One of the only things we know for sure increases heroism is kindling a heroic imagination. It’s much easier for people to imagine starting a charity or doing small good deeds than it is to imagine plunging into a burning building or risking your career to rat out a crooked boss. And small good deeds are, in themselves, another of the things we know increases heroism. So all the inspirational stories, the acts of altruism, the “small” gestures that seem so heroic to those they touch, are truly part and parcel of a heroic life. They should absolutely be our focus.

An effective theory of heroism should affirm the enthusiasm people already have for the subject, the tiny spark of heroic imagination that can grow into a great fire. As their interest in heroism grows, as they embark on a quest to understand heroism themselves, they’ll naturally come to more lofty aspirations on their own. In other words, if people already canonize Michael Jordan as a hero, then start with Michael Jordan. Harriet Tubman can come later.

A New Definition

We now have four types of hero to include in our definition:

  1. Someone who takes extraordinary risk to help others
  2. Someone who endures extraordinary challenges
  3. Someone who puts their ideals above all else
  4. Someone who inspires others to become better people

Is there anything that unifies all four of these hero types? Can they even be summed up in a single definition, or are they so disparate that they shouldn’t even be listed together?

I believe there is a unifying factor across all four, and it’s one that turns our old definition completely on its head. Instead of defining heroism by selfless risk, and excluding inspirational role models altogether, I believe we should define heroism by the power to inspire, and admit that selfless risk is just one of the things that inspires us.

Risk is clearly not the unifying factor of heroism through the ages; neither is selflessness. The only thing that has been consistent from Gilgamesh to David Bowie is a hero’s power to inspire. This is the emotive force that heroism has over us and it’s the one constant at all in how we define heroes.

I tentatively suggest a new definition for heroism:

A hero is someone who does something so extraordinary it inspires others to strive to be better people.

And there are four ways to do that, by taking selfless risks, enduring great suffering, living strictly by your values or ideals, or becoming a role model for others.

Call for Comments

This is just an initial draft. What do you think? I’d like to refine this post into a paper and publish it more widely, but I need to make it as strong as possible. Please leave a comment and tell me how I can improve it. What parts do you agree with? What parts are unconvincing? Do I lose you anywhere?

My sincere thanks to all who comment.

Heroism, Spotlight

The Next Generation of Heroes?

Photo via Hero Round Table

As longtime readers know, last year I spoke at the Hero Round Table, the world’s largest conference dedicated to real life heroism. This year I wasn’t able to attend, but my friend Ari Kohen was, and by all account it was every bit as wildly inspirational as last year. Ari has some observations and a question that I think is very important:

I’ve just returned to work after a weekend in Flint, Michigan at the second annual Hero Round Table conference. Roughly 800 people filled a beautiful auditorium to listen to and interact with a very impressive group of speakers over the course of two days.

Some of the speakers were honest-to-goodness celebrities, at least to this audience, like former Michigan State and NBA athletes Morris Peterson and Mateen Cleaves. Some were well-known academics, like Philip Zimbardo. And then there was Daniel Ellsberg, who blew the whistle on extensive governmental lying about the Vietnam War when he released the Pentagon Papers.

Looking at that list, I suspect you can guess who elicited the biggest reaction from the crowd.

It was Zimbardo, the 81 year old psychology professor.

If that wasn’t the person you would have guessed, then you are like me. I would have assumed that people at a heroism conference would have been standing in line to meet Ellsberg, an actual hero. But, at least in part, I think Ellsberg’s heroism is now too far removed from the public consciousness. Most of my parents’ generation (and — to a much lesser extent — my generation) would recognize Ellsberg’s heroism and would likely, if given the option, sit down to hear his thoughts on whistleblowing (especially considering how much whistleblowing has been in the news of late). But people who are younger than I am? Not so much.

So, the question is this: Who are the heroes of the next generation?

What do you think? On this blog I generally define a hero as someone who takes risk to help others. At the same time, it’s natural to think of anyone who inspires us as a hero. With those definitions in mind I would love to hear your take on who the big, memorable heroes of our time will be. Whose name, deeds or work comes to mind?

I need your help. I’m launching a 2,000 mile group bicycle ride across Mexico. More than a dozen adventurers are ready to join me, including men and women, 60 year olds and 20 year olds, experienced cyclists and total beginners. We’re asking for your help so that we can get the safety gear we need. In exchange we want to bring you with us every step of the way. Please check out the Fellowship of the Wheel campaign, contribute if you can, and tell your friends. Thank you.

The Heroic Life

The Wind of Fate

Image by Celeste

“While I do not know where my purpose lies, I know it lies in something bigger than me, bigger than a class room, bigger than a university and its diplomas. There’s this force in me that just wants to explore, and where I cannot explore with eyes unclouded, I suffocate.”

That’s a quote from Antoine, a reader of mine. In my novella, Lúnasa Days, I write about what I call the Wind of Fate. Antoine has perfectly summed it up here.

It is also, I believe, a sentiment that drives those who follow heroic ideals and seek to live a life of excellence. Antoine talks not only about pursuing a sense of purpose, but about pursuing it on the grandest scale possible. It is that exact ambition—the ambition to do great things—that can, I believe, lead a person to excel at their art and reach for a higher ideal.

That is the Wind of Fate, a wind that can be captured in the sail, propelling you forward; or simply to be weathered like a storm.

How do you catch your wind?

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Heroism, Spotlight

What Are You Doing in September?

Photo via Hero Round Table.

I don’t go to a lot of conferences. Of those I’ve attended, very few are what I would describe as life changing. In fact, I can only name two that had a major influence on me. One of them, the Hero Round Table, is happening again this September.

Last year was the Hero Round Table’s first year and I really didn’t know what to expect. It’s a conference on heroism, and specifically how to create heroism in today’s world. I was impressed not only by the high caliber of names on the speaker list (which made me a little nervous, since I was also on that list) but by the diversity of disciplines they represented: from psychologists and sports players to writers and public school teachers. None of them claimed to be heroes, but each one had learned something about heroism from seeing it up close.

Arriving in Flint, I was immediately struck by the lengths the Round Table went to to make sure attendees would have a blast. That’s no accident: organizer Matt Langdon is a veteran speaker himself, and has a veritable encyclopedia of conference horror stories to tell. He insisted on getting things right, from the venue to the perks for ticket holders to the mid-conference entertainment. Most importantly, he made sure the whole event, as sweeping as it was, focused like a laser on one issue: how people can take these lessons home and create change wherever they go.

In my opinion, it worked. I’ve never seen such a large crowd of people so engaged in heroism. People didn’t come there only to learn or hear cool stories, they came to understand what makes it possible for regular, everyday people to be heroic and then put it into action. I talked to everyone from a 17 year old figuring out her life to teachers fighting to reform our education system. In other words I think every attendee was trying to make a change either in the world or in themselves.

I’m sharing all this because this year promises to be even better and I really recommend going. A few highlights from the speaker list:

  • You’ve heard of Edward Snowden? Snowden can’t return to US soil, but his friend and fellow whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg will speak about the bravery and risk involved in stepping forward when someone’s doing something wrong—even if it’s your own government.
  • Edith Eger is one of the few remaining Auschwitz survivors. She speaks of “turning broken bones into dancing” and asks why some people become mired in adversity while others move past it. For her, forgiveness and letting go are the answer.
  • All world leaders need security, including the Dalai Lama. For years, Stephen K. Hayes served as His Holiness’ personal bodyguard, blending a variety of martial arts with authentic ninja training to keep the Lama safe.

That’s just a small part of a truly impressive lineup. The best part is that these speakers don’t just swoop in and swoop out—most of them will be hanging around the conference all weekend and, if last year is any indicator, happy to talk with anyone who comes up to them. To me, those conversations are the best part.

The Hero Round Table is happening in Flint, Michigan on September 19th and 20th, 2014. You can get more information and buy your ticket here. Tickets are going fast.

As always, I don’t run paid promotions on this blog. I just believe in what the Hero Round Table is doing. It was a great experience for me and, if you like what I write on this blog, it probably will be for you to. I hope you get a chance to go.