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

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.

Odysseus

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.

Socrates

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.

I.

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.

II.

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.

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39 thoughts on “The Birth of a New Heroism

  1. well-argued, particularly since this definition fleshes out that subtle connotation of ‘hero’ as ‘paragon,’ an exemplary, almost platonic ideal embodied in specific humans–almost as if there’s a spirit of Heroism which possesses or manifests through the moment of heroism., linking heroic acts in disparate situations together.

  2. “…n a sense, Socrates’ values are closer to our Judeo-Christian values based on fairness and humility rather than courage and the pursuit of excellence.”
    The reason it may feel more contemporary or Christian (I don’t think Judeo- applies in this instance) may well be because that early Christianity was profoundly influenced by Greek culture.

    • I think that makes some sense, Phaedra. I also think that every ethics system, including the virtue ethics of ancient Greece and Rome, has its downsides…. different critics of the same or a similar system (like Socrates and Jesus) are likely to point out the same flaws. In that sense I believe Socrates essentially put forward a “fix” to one of the problems of Classical ethics.

  3. Kenneth W. Johnson says:

    Wow. You have certainly done your research on this. To use your definition to select heroes, wouldn’t you need to define “better people”. 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, CEO’s who maximized unbelievable corporate profits by viciously doing away with employee pensions and firing old timers to replace them with less costly and more desperate unemployed, etc. Maybe a definition of “better people” is more important than a definition of “hero”.

    • Yes, this is something that needs to be covered in more detail. In this piece I left it out intentionally, not to get bogged down in a debate about which ethical system is best. But absolutely: heroes aren’t just people who inspire folks to do any old thing, and justify it as “better” later on; they have to inspire people to do real good, to make a positive change in the world.

      I personally don’t think that morality or “good” is totally subjective, so I don’t think we need to include terrorists’ role models as heroes.

  4. 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.

    If everyone is a hero, the bar is set below sea level. It starts to feel like giving all the kids trophies just for showing up. Giving money to a homeless person is compassionate and virtuous, but heroic? “Oh, you did something at the level of ordinary human civility? Wow, you’re a hero–here’s a cookie!” On the other hand, “Wow, you gave something to a homeless person even though it means you’ll have to do without yourself because you’re having hard times but you still understand that some people have it even worse than you do”? That’s shows empathy, kindness, and compassion, and while I think those qualities are virtuous, admirable and noteworthy, I don’t think any or all make you automatically heroic. Goodness, if mere compassion or ordinary kindness are enough to mark us heroic in this day and age, our culture is in sad shape.

    • Thanks for this Phaedra. I understand your position because it’s the one I held for years. I think there are two important things I need to say in response.

      First, even under this new definition not everyone who is vaguely inspirational is a hero. It’s specifically those who inspire someone to strive to be a better person. On a person by person basis all heroes create positive change; this definition just accepts that that means different things to different people.

      Second – and I think this is important – the “everyone gets a trophy” examples you give don’t reflect how people actually talk about heroism. Pretty much everyone is against the idea that we’re all heroes just because we’re all special snowflakes. Most people want a hero to be something more, something above average. Usually, what inspires someone – and thus becomes heroic – is the type of action that they don’t think they could do personally. So, the person who gives $10 to charity? No one’s going to call them a hero. The person who donates their $8,000 used car to charity instead of selling it? People recognize that this is a real sacrifice most of them wouldn’t make, and folks are going to call it heroic.

  5. My favorite part: “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.

    It is often the first thing people sacrifice rather than the last. This really hit home. We should not assault our own honour so easily. I have been reading (the rather romantic) Outlander novels of Diana Gabaldon and it is this sense of honour that speaks to readers so strongly. In an age where flexibility is often valued above all else, sticking to your own sense of honour is often ridiculed. The quintessential hero in Outlander is always described as stubborn, pursuing a hopeless cause namely the prevention of the Battle of Culloden of which he has foreknowledge. And after inevitable loss, trying to hold on to an heroic ethics which is no longer appreciated or understood. I love your take on stubbornness

    It is not just striving to do honourable things… it is the understanding of honour as part of ourselves. And understanding it is something which you can damage if not loose. We sacrifice bits of ourselves, often casually, when we are too flexible about these matters. (though stubbornness can cause its own problems naturally).

  6. Bingo. You’ve made my intuitive notion of heroism very explicit. Beats my theory; A HERO is one who responds to his fascinations—wakes up his creativity—and shares his adventure.

    • That’s not a bad concept of heroism, actually. In the sense that following your creativity is a form of living by your ideals, and that sharing your adventure is a way to inspire others, I’d say it’s a pretty similar idea. I like the way you put it.

  7. Calluna says:

    I think that the definition you have derived fits the way the word is used commonly, and brings the conversation into another direction which is… when is it wise to realize that the word is being used differently now, or in multiple ways, and when is it wise to refuse that new use by just saying those (hundreds and thousands of people) are using it incorrectly? I can see how, for purity’s sake, it is sometimes appropriate to refuse change, even when culture moves forward. But when do you change the definition, and to what… and this is when I usually step out of conversations, because arguing over definitions does not interest me.

    But it does mean this. People are going to use the word “wrong” or use it as per your new definition, no matter what academia and other professionals decides is proper. So when they do it, do we:

    a – correct them on their choice of vocabulary, and likely be ignored
    b – argue over what “hero” means
    c – admit that we understand the concepts they are trying to communicate, and move on with the conversation as though nothing abnormal happened.

    Philosophers aren’t the only ones who face this conundrum – my husband and I are scientists, and we deal with it frequently as well (e.g., the common use of the word “chemical”, oh my goodness…) – my guess is that many professions have these same questions. On any given word, when it really bothers me, I will sometimes correct them and let them ignore me as they usually do (Option A), but I normally go for option C because I want to know what they have to say. And I think that is what you are getting at when you talk about asking people why Lady Gaga is a hero, instead of arguing with them about being wrong. Because they know what they mean by hero. You know what they mean by hero. So even if you disagree, let’s communicate about it, and not argue over vocabulary.

    Even if you Smart Folk all agree that hero is the original definition, the Common Folk will keep using your new definition (or some variation). Can’t change that. So what do you do about it?

    • I love this comment Calluna because it reminds me of a side-note I cut out of the post during editing.

      I think it’s totally acceptable for any field to define its own technical jargon, and that technical definition does not need to match popular usage. In the sciences particularly it’s very important to have a precise and highly detailed definition of any important term. Heroism, on the other hand, is a concept that belongs to all of us and is not a jargon of any particular field. Even among those who study it professionally the point is to define it in a way that reflects a social phenomenon. In that sense, like “love,” it’s just not up to any set of professionals to intervene in the common usage.

      Outside of jargon, I think generally any time the popular usage of a word shifts then the meaning has shifted, period. This isn’t always a comfortable belief on my part but it’s one I try to stick to consistently. For example I am grudgingly giving up the battle for “literally” and I accept that its new meaning is just as valid as its old one, even though it confuses me personally. We did the same thing to the word “peruse” long before I was born and we all use its new, “incorrect” definition without any problem. Using it the old way would confuse people.

      Usually this is good for language. A really good recent example is using “they” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun. This is incorrect by old rules but became so common in usage that around 2000 or so the MLA even changed their ruling on it. (I’m not aware whether other style books followed suit.) You can now use “they” as a singular even in a professional context…. and if someone objects, they (!) are the one who is wrong (see what I did there?). This is an advance for the English language as it not only makes a handy shortcut, it’s a step forward for gender equality in the way we speak and write.

      How do people use “chemical” that’s wrong? Is it because technically everything is chemical, not just cleaning solvents and nuclear waste?

      • Calluna says:

        I feel the same way about language. I can pretend the old meaning still stands, but meanwhile everyone else will be using the word differently, and if I stick to my guns, at some point I’ll be the one people don’t understand anymore.

        With science, it is very important to have specific, static vocabulary – that is how we can understand research written years ago, and how we can ease communication across language barriers. But it also flies in the face of the way language works in the real world, and that is how you get the classic professor stereotype who speaks Science and not Common, and all the miscommunications that follow.

        With chemical – yes. Everything is a chemical. Chemicals are just… what makes up stuff. Like atoms. Like protons. I realize that Common Speak defines ‘chemical’ as “bad stuff” or, sometimes, “synthetic stuff,” but I can’t always hold back a giggle when people tell me that their products contain “no chemicals” or are “chemical free.” And when I’m standing next to a fellow scientist… I really can’t help it. We look at each other and then the giggles happen. And then we both have to explain why we’re laughing, and try our best not to sound arrogant… which is a sad state of affairs, really, but I’m working on it. Because it’s just rude. Especially when I know they just mean “no yuckies in here.”

  8. Calluna says:

    If the goal is to inspire people to become more heroic in thought and action, 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 I know or at least feel that 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 Cuchulainn-awesome at ANY thing (and certainly not all things, in the true Cuchulainn-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.

    On the flip side, if the goal is to differentiate “hero” from the average man, then, yes, your proposition muddies the line, because people like me will put their Grandpa, whom nobody has ever heard of, at or near Level 1. And I understand the concern that doing this will make the label less special. Or will it really? Like you said, no one will put all heroes on one level, but using the terminology “hero” acknowledges the life-changing affect of those who inspire people to become better people.

    The interesting thing about this definition is that there is no way to apply it *to yourself.* You can only apply it towards others. Because how will you know you are inspiring someone to be better? They’d have to tell you, but usually they will not. So all you can do, still, is just try to be the best person you can, and always better than before. And you can’t stop to call yourself a hero, you just have to keep trying to be one.

  9. So how does this refined definition of hero affect your beliefs about the Heroic Life/Path/Religion as you’ve called it at various times? And more specifically, how you apply it to your own practice? Or do you no longer believe in that philosophy?

    • Em, I definitely still follow that path. When I don’t write about it for a long time it’s usually because I have nothing new to say, or because I’m still pondering something. But yes, the heroic life is something I aspire to and try to live by.

      I’m sure this changing concept of heroism will affect it in some way, but the truth is I don’t yet know how. I’m still tentative on this new idea and allowing it to take shape and see where it goes.

      But let me ask you for your own take: if inspiring others is itself heroic, then how does that change the pursuit of a heroic life?

      • If inspiring others is indeed your goal, then you’ve already accomplished it. People have set out on journeys because of you. So the question then is, where do you go from there? What is your praxis? What are you actually aspiring to? Take away the word heroism, and what is it you actually want? (besides fame of course, which isn’t a bad goal, but I wouldn’t build a philosophy around seeking fame)

        • Thanks for the kind words Em. Although I’m curious about this:

          “If inspiring others is indeed your goal, then you’ve already accomplished it. People have set out on journeys because of you.”

          Have they? I don’t think anyone has told me they set out on a journey because of me. Not that it’s a yardstick or anything, although I’d always be interested in hearing from someone who decided to go out and give it a try. And especially to learn about their experiences.

          What is it I want? For now, I think I just want to understand heroism. And continuously, always, I want to keep working to cultivate those heroic qualities in myself. Fame really isn’t top of my list. All writers want to get famous, but I’m pretty confident I’ll get there eventually. I’m less confident that I’ve figured out what it means to live the heroic life, so for me it’s an ongoing search.

  10. Ymir says:

    Interesting exploration, but I would not define inspiration in and of itself as a form of heroism. I would consider it an important aspect of the other three types of heroism that must be present for the hero’s actions to change the world. When I think of people and characters I consider heroic, I find them inspiring because of how they embodied certain heroic archetypes. Fundamentally, I see heroism as an inner state that manifests itself through how the hero interacts with his world. Finding someone inspiring is subjective, and does not in any way prove the worth of ther actions.

    As an aside, I’ve considered the standard definition of heroism far too narrow, but have only thought about heroism in the context of willpower driven by ideals. I consider the extremes of either active (taking action) or passive (endurance) willpower to be heroic, but have never explored heroicism in the context of absolute steadfastness. While I certainly have to wrestle with my visceral disgust with those who will not break rules, you have forced me to reconsider my how I define heroism. For that I, I thank you.

    • Thanks for this Ymir. Funny, I had never thought of Naoise as being a rule follower per se. If he followed the rules he never would have run off with his liege’s bride-to-be. Would’ve just tipped his hat at her and went on his way. What he was doing was living up to his personal code…. kind of a different thing, I think.

      • Ymir says:

        He considered following his personal code of honor (a set of rules, even if they are self-determined and defined) more valuable than the life of the woman he loved. Had it merely been his own life in his hands, I would feel differently.
        Is an oath more important than taking the right action? I don’t think so. The source of the rules does not matter as long as following them interferes with what is right.

        • I think you raise a good point about Deirdre’s life, but a few things are worth mentioning in the context of their story.

          First, his sense of honor is part of why she loved him in the first place. (Well, originally it was because he had black hair, pale skin and blush cheeks, but during their time in Scotland as they fell deeply in love it was clear that she admired him and his brothers deeply for their virtue as warriors; and she only got him to run away with her in the first place by invoking a geas on him, which basically means if he didn’t have a sense of personal honor and put oaths before practical matters then they never would have gotten together). In other words, she admired him for the very qualities that took them to their deaths.

          Second, and this is more important, she could have left. In the full version of their story, there are many omens that returning to Ulster would mean they’d be killed. She had bad dreams telling her as much. And at first she begged him to turn around. He refused multiple times. And, knowing what would happen, she stood by him and they went to their end together. It’s a choice they both made.

          Finally, there was a prophecy on Deirdre since before her birth that she would bring great tragedy to all around her. You could read the story as both of them believing they were doomed from the start, and choosing to live – and end – their lives in a way that they felt was right. That is, I think, the intended message of the story.

          You don’t have to agree with that message, of course. But it’s definitely not a story where bro is strong-headed and gets his lover killed. It’s a story where two people with a sense of honor have a short time together, and together choose honor and death over dishonor and life.

          Thanks for making me think so hard about this.

          • Ymir says:

            Thank you for the additional context. It has forced me to consider the story in a whole new way. I no longer think that his actions were dishonorable, though I still have to consider the merits of an honor system such as his.

            • That’s fair. I think, for the purposes of this discussion, what’s germane isn’t whether we agree with Naoise and Deirdre’s particular set of virtues. Rather, the important thing is distinguishing between a system where certain specific actions are heroic, versus a system where living a certain way is heroic.

  11. I think the problem with “A hero is someone who takes extraordinary personal risk to help others, with no personal stake” is that the “personal risk” is that some assumptions are made here that make the definition unrealistic, untrue (to the rest of us), and (maybe even) unfair. The first problem I see here is that “personal risk” seems to be interpreted as PHYSICAL risk. The second problem is that “help” seems to be interpreted as some (usually) direct PHYSICAL action made directly for someone good/innocent or against someone bad/guilty (generally on behalf of the good). The third problem (in the same vein) is that “no personal stake” seems to be interpreted as something that is something tangible and that (to some degree) it is removed from the hero–the person they save is a stranger, or they do something with reward, etc; its the idea that their action is some sort of true alturism (which just doesn’t exist). The problem (IMO) isn’t so much the definition itself, but the application and interpretation of the definition.

    I think the act of being inspiring in and of itself isn’t quite enough on its own…but I think there is room a more widely interpreted definition for those that inspire–inspiration is the sort of “help” that can save lives, just as much as pulling someone out of the way of an on coming train. I would say that a hero is someone who takes physical, emotionally, material, or social risk (etc) for the benefit of others before themselves. And, I would add one thing–consistency. No one is perfect, but being a hero is more than being a one act wonder. Inspiration can save lives just as much as anything else.

    • Thalassa, I really enjoyed your comment and I think it’s well thought out. I do have to respectfully disagree: I don’t think the risk definition suffers from those problems.

      I may not have made it clear in this piece, but hero scholars go out of their way to emphasize the risk and the herioc action do not have to be physical. I’ve done this in a few pieces myself. The example we usually give is a whistleblower. They see that their company is doing something illegal/unethical, and they risk their careers and income to report it. The risk they take isn’t physical (usually) but it’s very real and it’s a huge price to pay. But it’s very heroic.

      I would also say I’m not sure about the consistency requirement. I see what you’re saying, but if you’re working with a risk based definition, the reality is most people don’t get a lot of chances to do it. Most of us won’t winf ourselves in a position to blow the whistle or pull someone from a burning building. If we do it might be once in a lifetime. If someone does this over and over, it may indicate a streak of reckless behavior… or just really weird luck.

      However I really have to say this stopped me in my tracks, in a very good way:

      “but I think there is room a more widely interpreted definition for those that inspire–inspiration is the sort of ‘help’ that can save lives, just as much as pulling someone out of the way of an on coming train.”

      Honestly I’m not sure I’d thought of it that way and I think that’s an incredible point.

  12. Late to the table, I know, but figured you’d want all the responses you can get.

    “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.”

    I couldn’t agree more.

    “Every hero scholar I’ve met has shared a single hope: that we can create more real heroism in the world.”

    So now imagine if this forth form of heroism inspired the entire world to make the world just a little bit better – now wouldn’t that be a wondrous world?

    I think this is a much better definition by far because of the tangible impacts it creates in people’s lives is far greater than the other three combined.

    You’ve done a fantastic job teasing this out and I applaud your work and honesty in doing that.

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