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.


15 thoughts on “Different Levels of Heroism

  1. Ymir says:

    This post is spot on. It’s time to move beyond semantic arguments and actually ground our understanding of heroism in the real world. The trouble as I see it is finding ways to describe different levels of heroism. If anyone has ideas on how to do that, I look forward to considering them.

    • Sorry for the slow reply Ymir. Your response really excites me. I like your attitude of inquiry.

      Here is my take. I’m moving toward saying that any action will be called heroic if it involves achieving something extraordinary in the pursuit of one of our values. It’s that act – the achievement in pursuit of something we value – that inspires us and gets us to strive to be better in the first place.

      If that’s the case, then I would propose this about the different “levels” of heroism: the most important heroes are those who achieve something great in service of values we all share. There’s your MLK types. And the lesser heroes are those who achieve something great in pursuit of more personal or subjective values. That’s why some people think of Drew Brees as a hero and others think of Lady Gaga as a hero (and why I don’t think of either of those people as heroes).

      What do you think of this idea?

      • Ymir says:

        While I agree with the substance of what you are saying, I still cannot call Lady Gaga a hero in any sense. In thinking about this, I’ve been considering the difference between “passive” inspiration and “active” inspiration. Passive inspiration as I’m using it here refers to a person that people find subjectively inspiring (Lady Gaga). Active inspiration as I’m using it refers to a person that takes action to inspire others and change the world while putting themselves on the line (MLK).

        I can’t consider passive inspirers heroes, but I do believe they deserve recognition and further study. In light of that, I’ve decided to call them catalysts. A catalyst causes or speeds up a change without being affected by it. A passive inspirer is much the same.

        Active inspirers are in my view absolutely heroes.

          • Ymir says:

            While I would not call Odysseus an inspirational hero, I still consider him a hero in general. As I see it, there are different categories of heroism (as you’ve touched on previously). Odysseus embodies the heroism of endurance, of the unyielding tenacity required to push the mind and body past the point where everything should collapse and fight to achieve an end no matter the risks.

            • Okay, that makes sense. So he is passive in a way, and he might inspire people, but his inspiring people isn’t what makes him heroic.

              So here’s a question: what is it about his endurance that is heroic, if not how inspiring it is?

              • Ymir says:

                Difficult question. I’m currently playing around with a set of definitions, one of which must be met for an individual to be called a hero. While the following is not a complete definition of heroism in any way, I think there’s something here: A hero must overcome the “natural” limits we as humans are constrained by (be it on a physical, mental, spiritual, or emotional level) Odysseus did so mentally and physically. I’d be happy to elaborate if you have a counter-argument

                • I think we’re in agreement except that I wouldn’t use the word “natural.” Assuming we’re not imagining supernatural powers, no human overcomes our natural limits. None of history’s heroes have done so.

                  But I get what you mean (I think). I often express the same idea by saying they must do something extraordinary. That is, more than most people do or more than most of us believe we could do. (This certainly can seem supernatural at times). So using my current definition, a hero is someone who does something extraordinary in service of something we value.

                  • “a hero is someone who does something extraordinary in service of something we value”

                    Yes. That is a great summary and a good starting point too. Though I’ve had this nagging concern that it may need something more. I keep getting the thought that this would also apply to some acts of violence as an extraordinary form of expression of ideological values that could be destructive to society. Shouldn’t that be countered and explicitly denounce acts of harm?

                    • So, here’s a question for you Rua. You like this definition, but you also liked the inspiration definition I gave earlier. They’re somewhat different ways of looking of heroism, aren’t they? So which do you feel is more accurate?

                      As far as the violence thing, I agree and that’s a whole other discussion. Short version: nothing that is unethical in and of itself is heroic, regardless of who it inspires or who values it. Period.

                    • I stipulate it frequently in my work, but it seemed outside the scope of this piece. I suppose it’s worth mentioning any time I write about this issue… I just hate sounding like a broken record :)

  2. Exactly! Otherwise what’s the point of a “heroic path” if there is no training regime to get you there? It’s like the Disney Hercules song, “From Zero to Hero” because that is the expectation – unless you face a do or die scenario, you’re not likely to make that leap. Which goes back to my comment on the previous post on this – that the “smaller heroes” are cultivators of the “greater heroes” wherein the more smaller heroes are present, the more likely you’ll have more greater heroes. All of it stacking upon one another creating a heroic culture. Its kind of comparable to how humans stack up knowledge and are now standing on a mountain of knowledge built up by or predecessors. Heroes could very well do the same thing with heroism.

    • I still hesitate about this. I don’t think any of the hero scholars I’ve met would disagree – of course there are steps on the way – but here’s what I think they might say in response. Why do we call those in between steps heroism? When a kid starts learning to drive, we don’t automatically hand them a driver’s license on Day 1. And we don’t call everyone who goes to any level of college “Doctor.” So why do these lesser, in between stages of inspirational action count as “heroism”?

      • How I see it, its learning Heroism, but not yet are a Hero. Just like someone in any other ‘ism’, they are students first aspiring to become a full blown example of that ‘ism’

Please share your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s