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The heroic life in the 21st century

Automedon, charioteer of Achilles
Automedon, charioteer of the Greek hero Achilles

Drew Jabob of Roguepriest.net has offered a blueprint for the heroic life.  In this post, I want to respond to his blueprint, and put forward one of my own.  We have been collaborating on what such a life might look like in the 21st century, and this represents the beginning of what will hopefully be a fruitful dialogue.  It is my hope that together we may pound out something of lasting value.

In his post, Drew offers a simple four-maxim guide for the would-be hero:
1. Know your purpose - set goals for yourself
2. If you don't know your purpose, travel - a journey changes the mind and opens possibilities
3. [Live by] ideals, not rules - choose your values, prioritize them, and stick by them
4. Do amazing things - cultivate an uncanny mastery of something, whatever it may be, and put it into action

Finally, there is a fifth point which defines the context of the first four: the heroic path is meant to change the world.  Successes should benefit those around you, in addition to yourself.  Drew indicates that a way to ensure this is to prioritize ideals over goals.  This is a tricky point.  If I understand Drew correctly, the ideals referred to are specifically socially-responsible ideals, and these temper potentially self-serving or destructive goals.  The single-minded drive of the hero toward goals can be fraught with difficult choices, and it is necessary to have a guide to avoid selfish decisions.  Ideals provide this guide.  For example, fame or wealth may be worthy goals.  Yet their social dangers are plain to see - they may be accomplished by less than noble means.  But if priority is given to ideals, such as respect or peace, then reproachable means can be avoided.  In other words, if your ideals are socially responsible and given priority, then the path to your goals will be socially-responsible as well.

This is a crucial point that makes all the difference between hero and villain in this day and age.  After the terrible wars of the 20th century, it is no longer possible to conceive of a hero as merely accomplishing great things.  The Julius Caesar of the past is the Adolf Hitler of the present, and the Nietzschean ubermench slides too easily into selfish egotism.  The hero of the 21st century must change the world, and change it for the better.  Yes, the hero accomplishes great things, but those things must be socially responsible.  Else the would-be hero is none other than a villain.

This is what makes the path of the hero different from that of the corporate cutthroat.  The latter will do whatever is necessary to attain the goal, sacrificing all to reach the top.  But the hero does whatever is necessary to maintain the ideal, even sacrificing the goal to preserve honor and integrity.  The hero is even willing to sacrifice herself rather than compromise her socially-responsible ideals.  In a very real sense, goals are quite simply secondary.  They provide direction, they provide the quest.  But ideals are the true measure of a hero.

With these simple maxims, Drew provides a "hero's handbook" for the 21st century.  The advice given is as applicable to the present as it was to the Heroic ages of ancient Ireland or Greece, while being particularly sensitive to the demands of our day.

Now, I'd like to build on Drew's blueprint by delving deeper, exploring the heroic path in relation to two fundamental attributes: arete, or excellence, and kleos, or deathless renown.  These are the two key characteristics of the ancient Greek heros, from which our modern word "hero" is derived (Kendrick, 2010).  While the concept of the hero has changed much between the Homeric age and now, these two still shape the 21st-century hero.  My blueprint breaks down into the following outline:

1. arete - excellence
excellence of character
ideals: choosing your values
mortal power: wisdom is action, heroic action is wise action
excellence of craft
goals: to be the first
goals: to be the greatest
goals: to transcend oneself

2. kleos - deathless renown
in the eyes of the community
ideals bounded by those of the community
limits determined by specific relationship to the community
the giver of good things
salvation from danger
the inspirer
role model
overcoming adversity
technical expertise
1.  Arete

The hero is principally admired for his arete.  This Greek word can be translated as "virtue" but also as "excellence", and the latter translation encompasses much more than the former.  While virtue is certainly a kind of excellence, there are many other kinds to be attained.  One may be excellent at something, for example, such as war or poetry.  This leads to two basic kinds of arete: excellence of character, or virtue, and excellence of craft, or skill.  The hero is thus praiseworthy for two things: who she is, and what she can do.

Excellence of Character

Ghandi, whose excellence of character is world-renowned

Excellence of character is the fruit of cultivating exceptional personal integrity.  The hero is governed by an internal compass that points to the right course of action.  Rules and laws may be followed insofar as they uphold justice and make possible cooperative effort, but the hero is also sensitive to exceptional circumstances.  Situational ethics apply, in which priority is granted to the ideals of which Drew wrote.  Recall the crucial importance of social responsibility in this area.  Whenever a situation calls for an ethical judgment, the hero follows his internal moral compass, pursuing goals while producing the least harm and the greatest benefit for the community.

As Drew indicates, the hero's ideals must be chosen and prioritized.  In choosing ideals, the present-day range of options is wide open.  The ancient world, beginning with Plato, prioritized four cardinal virtues: courage, prudence, justice, and temperance.  Later, the Christian tradition, exemplified by the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, added three more: faith, hope, and charity.  These virtues were deeply entrenched in Western culture, received by the hero rather than chosen.  Then, in the nineteenth century, Nietzsche broke with tradition by demolishing inherited values and demanding personal choice in morality.  While Nietzsche's program ultimately proved isolating and destructive, it presaged an important development in Western culture.  We in the 21st-century West are now confronted by what he demanded: we must choose our own values. The vast amount of information available to us, combined with the freedom of individualistic society, make it possible and indeed necessary to choose one's own values.  It is therefore all the more pressing for the hero to choose wisely in the realm of ideals.  They comprise the guide ensuring that goals do not lead into selfish cul de sacs but toward social benefit.  They distinguish the hero from the villain.  They are the highest priority of the hero; what she lives for.  The choosing of ideals is thus a crucial aspect of the heroic way of life.  True, it may not always seem like a choice, as experience builds character and values emerge from within.  And true, challenges along the path will surely test ideals, perhaps making it necessary to go back and revise some of them in a constant process of growth and development.  Yet the key point is that actions be guided by a core of ideals to which the hero is personally and consciously committed, and to which the hero may always refer.  The hero's motto is, in the words of Shakespeare, "to thine own self be true."

A further aspect of excellence of character is encapsulated in what I have called "mortal power": the human capacity to act based on limited and uncertain resources.  As mortal beings, we are beset by limitations: frailty of body, frailty of mind, shortness of life, uncertainty as to the outcomes of our actions, and so on.  But the hero does not allow this existential condition to debilitate him.  He acts, in spite of limitations, in spite of adversity.  Despair is the enemy of heroism.  One fundamental aspect of the heroic character is thus the embrace of power.  At the same time, the hero does not simply act for the sake of action, fumbling in the blind hope of doing good.  On the contrary, the hero endeavors to comprehend the situation as fully and sensitively as possible, utilizing every resource of personal knowledge and outside aid in order to determine the best course of action.  Yet there are also limits on preparation.  The hero cannot train forever.  The moment comes when action is needed, and the hero then moves decisively.  At the moment which balances preparation with timeliness, the hero acts.  Heroic action is wise action, and wisdom is action.

Excellence of Craft

Albert Einstein, whose excellence in the craft of astrophysics made him Time's Person of the Century.

In addition to virtue, there is also skill.  Drew's fourth maxim is "Do amazing things."  The champion basketball player cultivates his craft to the point of awe-inspiring skill.  The astronaut trains arduously to be able to go where none have gone before.  The humanitarian tirelessly works to provide welfare to those whom no one else is able to help.  Whatever the craft, the hero advances in it to levels worthy of admiration, levels that may truly be called excellence.

With craft, the hero moves from the realm of ideals to that of goals.  Skills are realized in deeds, and heroes aim to perform great deeds.  They set their goals, and pursue the skills necessary to achieve them.  Ideals determine the moral realm within which goals may be pursued, and skills provide the ability with which to pursue them.  If it is true that wisdom is action, then craft is the necessary complement of character, for only in realizing goals through the use of skills is character actualized.  Furthermore, craft and character form a feedback loop, mutually amplifying each other: through deeds is character built, and through character are deeds done well.  There is a symbiotic relationship between the two forms of excellence.

Excellence of craft is itself comprised of two kinds, defined in relation to goals: being the first to do something, or being the greatest to do it.  The former is the province of explorers, pioneers, inventors, and innovators.  They hone their skills in order to achieve what no one has achieved before.  Others may come after who improve on their accomplishments, but they will always be called excellent by virtue of being first.  This kind of excellence takes great power of character: clarity of vision, confidence in oneself, and perseverance.  And it takes a certain kind of patience and humility, for the merits of the hero's deeds may not be recognized by those around her - she may be ahead of her time.

The other kind of excellence of craft is aimed at being the greatest.  Though many have done it before, there is yet room for improvement.  This kind of hero must be willing to stand on others' shoulders, to absorb the body of tradition or endure the established training, in order to do her trainers one better.  It takes patience, perseverance, and determination.

These two bleed one into the other, insofar as the greatest is also the first to achieve such a high degree of excellence, and the first to achieve a thing may be considered greater than those who stay within established tradition.

Beyond the first and the greatest, there is also another great excellence of craft to be achieved: to transcend oneself.  Apart from being the first ever to do a thing, or the one to do better than any other, there is the goal of going beyond what you yourself have ever done before.  Indeed, this may be the deepest and most motivating goal of all, the one most dear to the heart of the hero.  To transcend personal limitations, to strive against the very mortality of one's being, is a goal in itself.  Those who achieve it are certainly worthy of a kind of excellence, perhaps recognized only by the hero herself, but excellence nonetheless.

2.  Kleos

Cu Chulainn, Irish hero who chose kleos, or deathless renown, over long life

Hitherto, we have taken a more or less first-person perspective, examining the heroic life from a hero's-eye view.  We have seen who the hero is, and what the hero does.  Now, we must take a different perspective, looking from the point of view of the hero's community.

Kleos is ancient Greek for "deathless renown."  The heros of the ancient world sought fame, a name that never dies.  This was more than mere vanity; it was a transcendence of death.  A kind of immortality was offered to the one who achieved undying glory.  In the Iliad, Achilles is prophesied to either live a long life but die in obscurity, or die in the Trojan war but win kleos.  He chooses the latter.  Likewise, in the Tain bo Cuailnge, a priest augurs that any who take up arms that day will live a short life but win great glory, and the hero Cu Chulainn seizes the chance.  Deathless renown was a powerful goal for the heros of the ancient world.

It may be argued how much this goal remains meaningful in the 21st century.  The tabloids teach us how fickle fame can be.  Furthermore, we now live in an age of awareness of prejudice: racism, sexism, ageism, and so on.  It is no longer conceivable that fame could be doled out in a purely meritorious fashion, however much we may strive to make our world equitable.  Fame no longer appears to us as it did to those of the ancient world.

Yet there is a place for kleos in the 21st century, and it lies in the hero's relationship to his community.

In the Eyes of the Community

The hero is always situated within a community.  Indeed, there is no hero without a community, for to be a hero is to be somebody's hero.  One who is only a hero in their own eyes is no hero at all.  This is another reason why Drew stresses the benefit of those around you, and why I have been at pains to stress social responsibility - only through such deeds does one gain the esteem of others which may be considered a modern form of kleos.  This attenuated, modern form might be summed up as "recognition."  To gain recognition, the deeds of the hero must at least do no harm to, and would do well to benefit, one's community.  People esteem those that give them material aid or immaterial inspiration.  On the other hand, those who cause harm to their community, or inspire only jealousy, become not famous but notorious.  The community speaks of them as villains, not heroes.  To win kleos from the community, the hero should be eager to work not just for her own benefit, but for that of those around her as well.  Her excellence of character and excellence of craft should manifest in deeds that change the world for the better.  If it does, she may expect some measure of recognition in return.

The community confers the status of hero, so to a certain degree the hero is constrained by the ideals of the community.  If the hero's ideals are grossly at odds with those of the community, it is unlikely that he will be considered a hero by them.  A communist in capitalist America, for example, would have to overcome quite a bit of resistance even today, twenty years after the Cold War (if it were not so, Che Guevara tee shirts would not have such counterculture appeal).  To this extent, the choice of ideals discussed above is not completely open, but is bounded by the ideals of the community.  This is another way of stating the necessity of social responsibility, seen from a different angle.  Social responsibility is defined in relation to the values of the community.

It is also defined with respect to the hero's specific relationship to the community.  While some, such as American presidents, may be held to strict norms of conformity, others may face radically different standards.  Rock heroes like Jim Morrison or Marliyn Manson, for example, seem to have a license to transgress at will.  Part of the inspiration with which they benefit their admirers derives from their unrestrained freedom - a value held by many Americans but exaggerated in rock heroes to a near-grotesque degree.  Freedom of choice is thus determined by the hero's specific relationship to the community.

It should also be noted that the hero's community may not be the hegemonic culture, but a subculture or even smaller unit.  In the example of the communist above, the would-be hero may fare poorly among mainstream Americans but well within small like-minded enclaves.  On an even smaller scale, the hero may simply be a hero to her own family, and this may be enough.  This point underscores the specificity of the community-hero relationship.  Rarely is a hero a hero to all people.  Indeed, the possibility that a hero should even strive toward reaching a cosmopolitan community comprised of all humanity, without distinctions of culture or nationality, is an open question.  Perhaps the time has come when the whole human race, united against such planet-wide dangers  as global warming, overpopulation, or economic globalization, is ready for a truly cosmopolitan hero.  Or perhaps not.  It remains to be seen what scale and scope is appropriate for the hero-community relationship in the 21st century.  If nothing else, the old addage applies: think globally, act locally.

The Giver of Good Things

So the hero provides the community with some kind of benefit.  She is a giver of good things.  As for the specific good things the hero provides to the community, there are two kinds: material benefits and inspiration.

Material benefits come in the form of goods, expertise, and salvation from danger.  The ancient Greek heros, for all his marauding of enemy communities, ultimately brought back fabulous wealth in the form of plunder to his own community.  In this sense, he was a provider of goods.  He also provided the expertise of leadership and governance, and defense in the event of attack.  In these ways, the heros was a giver of good things to the community.  Heroes of the modern age are likewise givers of good things.  Thomas Edison provided the light bulb, John F. Kennedy provided expert leadership, and the firefighters rushing in after the 9/11 World Trade Towers attack provided salvation from danger for many trapped in the rubble.

The other kind of good thing that heroes may give is inspiration.  The ancient heros filled this role as well.  As Drew points out, Alexander the Great looked to Achilles for his model, and Augustus Caesar looked in turn to Alexander.  The hero is a model of character, a model of fantastic skill, and a model of how to overcome adversity.  This sense of the role model is very much alive today.  Athletes such as Michael Jordan, who display extraordinary excellence of craft, show the way to achieve great skill.  At the same time, the urge to emulate skill bleeds over into emulation of character.  Public service advertisers are by no means ignorant of this, and sports icons are plastered all over anti-drug and stay-in-school posters.  Through the model of character and the model of skill, the hero provides the community with inspiration.

These examples of the hero-community relationship, wherein the hero is the giver of good things and the community confers hero status upon him, betray the continuing power of kleos.  It may not be immortality exactly, as the ancient Greek heros envisioned, but it is a kind of social recognition that makes the hero what he is.  The question of kleos links the hero to his community, which in turn provides the social context of heroism, guides the choice of ideals, and offers goals or even quests in response to the community's needs.  Without the community, there is no hero.  A hero is always a hero in someone else's eyes.  Thus, it can be said that while arete makes one worthy of hero status, kleos confers that status.  Kleos makes the hero what he is.


Susan Retik, 9/11 widow awarded the Citizens Medal for humanitarian efforts on behalf of widows in Afghanistan

This post has delved deep into the heroic way of life, with particular attention to how it might manifest in the 21st century.  The simple blueprint provided by Drew Jacob has been examined, and its core concepts explored in fine detail.  We have found that although a great expanse of time separates the ancient heroes from those of today, the key attributes of the hero remain: arete, or excellence, and kleos, or deathless renown.  Arete comes in the twin forms of excellence of character and excellence of craft, while kleos manifests today as a kind of social recognition at the heart of the hero-community relationship.

The spirit of the hero is very much alive today and able to serve our modern communities.  Modern heroes about which I have written in other posts include Aung San Suu Kyi, Gretchen Steidle Wallace, Hawa Abdi, Liu Xiaobo, and Patti Quigley and Susan Retik.  These and many others show us that there is a place and a need for heroes in the 21st century.  And let no one overlook themselves in this matter, either.  Of all the beneficial roles of the hero, perhaps the greatest is that of the inspirer.  The hero is nothing if not a role model for the least and the lowest, the so-called ordinary person.  For the hero shows that it is indeed possible to aspire to excellence, to find the way to greatness.  Arete and kleos await those who dare to take up the heroic way of life.

Kenrick, Gregory M.  The Heroic Ideal: Western Archetypes from the Greeks to the Present.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2010.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Drew Jacob
Feb. 2nd, 2011 05:58 am (UTC)
Brandon, what a terrific writeup. You make many excellent points and expand a lot of the thinking that has to underlie the heroic life.

I like your use of the word villain. I've struggled with whether or not to include that term in my own discussion of heroism, because I worried it would start to seem too comic-booky. But it seems natural here. You show how a real-life villain can be very similar to a hero in approach.

I just want to give kudos on this passage which I believe perfectly sums up so much:

"But the hero does whatever is necessary to maintain the ideal, even sacrificing the goal to preserve honor and integrity. The hero is even willing to sacrifice herself rather than compromise her socially-responsible ideals. In a very real sense, goals are quite simply secondary. They provide direction, they provide the quest. But ideals are the true measure of a hero."

Feb. 2nd, 2011 12:11 pm (UTC)
Thanks. :-)
Feb. 2nd, 2011 12:19 pm (UTC)
The use of "villian" may be a bit comic-booky. I was using it selectively to make a point, but I wouldn't invest much in it theoretically.

I still feel like I haven't quite nailed the social aspect yet. I feel my linking of kleos with "recognition" in the modern world is a bit strained. Kleos was a goal in the ancient world. Recognition need not be a goal for modern heroes--they need not even care whether they are considered heroes or not. Caring about that is not essential to being a hero, really. Perhaps I should jettison kleos altogether in the modern context (except as a potential goal), and just talk about the hero-community relationship.
Drew Jacob
Feb. 2nd, 2011 05:57 pm (UTC)
I thought your treatment of kleos was very sensible. Kleos has always been linked to relationship with community in that it represents not immortality, but recognition. It may not feel spot-on to you but then you are not a fan of kleos to begin with.

I wonder what leads you to believe, "Recognition need not be a goal for modern heroes--they need not even care whether they are considered heroes or not. Caring about that is not essential to being a hero, really." I'm not saying you're wrong, but I am curious why you believe this. It is certainly a major departure from a classically-inspired view of heroes. Why?
Feb. 3rd, 2011 12:15 am (UTC)
A major departure, yes. Perhaps it snuck in during the Christian era with the virtue of humility. But in any case, why would a person have to want to be a hero to be a hero? For example, the firefighters that rushed after 9/11 were probably not seeking to make themselves nationally known, just to do their jobs and help people survive. But then their images were plastered all over billboards and they became heroes, as it were. I don't see any necessary connection at all these days to *desiring* to be a hero. It even feels like on some level, wanting to be a hero kind of detracts from it. Freud, for example, had a strong desire to be famous. When I read that, it sucked credibility away from his theories for me, because it then became possible in my mind that he picked the most provoking and controversial imagery (incest, castration, etc.) in order to get famous faster. It feels fake, dishonest on some level. Or rather, it introduces the possibility of it being fake.
Drew Jacob
Feb. 3rd, 2011 03:05 am (UTC)
It sounds like there are two issues at stake here:

1) Does seeking fame lead to unethical action? (Is it dishonest? etc.)

2) Does seeking fame enhance the heroic life. (If so, how?)

To (1) I think we already have our answer. Heroes put their ideals or moral compass above all else. People who seek fame and don't use their moral compass aren't heroes. In this way fame is no different than any other desirable goal. Protecting your family, pursuing true love, saving up money for retirement - if you use unethical means to do these things, you are a villain. Not a hero.

Likewise for fame. If a psychologist writes about controversial stuff to get famous, and puts that ahead of actually healing people, he's not a hero.

To (2) I think there are some compelling reasons why pursuit of glory/recognition would actually lead someone to be more of a hero. BUT I'm not convinced yet, I'm still forming and testing these thoughts in my head. Sounds like a blog post in the works...
Feb. 3rd, 2011 12:11 pm (UTC)
I think that #1 does not necessarily lead to unethical action, and #2 can motivate heroic action. But the main question here is: 3) Is the desire to be a hero necessary to actually be a hero?

My only contention here is that #3 is ultimately irrelevant, except insofar as it may motivate heroic action, as in #2.

I think we are in agreement here, aren't we?
Drew Jacob
Feb. 4th, 2011 02:01 am (UTC)
Is it necessary? No, I agree it's not. But as I alluded above, I think there might be reasons why it's beneficial.
Feb. 3rd, 2011 04:03 pm (UTC)
I think a related question is, if your goal to attain fame is known, how might that damage the hero-community relationship in this age? In the past, there wasn't such a stigma on it, as has been mentioned. Cu Chulainn seeks glory? Of course he does! But now, we are conditioned to react the way Brandon has mentioned - if we seem someone pursuing fame as a goal, we expect a certain amount of duplicity. We expect people that have fame as a goal to put the goal over their ideas.

This is not always true, of course, but it is a stigma that most Americans carry around inside of their heads without examining it too closely. It's kind of like wealth - money, fame, and power are the goals that you "can't" pursue righteously. So, if your community knows that a goal of yours is fame, how does that potentially harm your relationship within that community? Does it make it harder to actually be considered a hero? Do you have to prove yourself for longer? If someone walks up to me and says "I'm going to be a hero!" I'm going to subject their actions to more scrutiny. This is all for the best for the hero - if he or she can survive the scrutiny, then they have my respect - but you start at a negative respect, not a neutral one.

While humility certainly isn't an ancient virtue, does it need to be taken into account when applying this model to the world we live in?
Feb. 4th, 2011 12:07 am (UTC)
Well put. That is what I was trying to get at.
Drew Jacob
Feb. 4th, 2011 02:15 am (UTC)
I suspect that what people actually dislike is arrogance. If you're a jerk, people will dislike you whether you are ambitious or not. But if you're a decent person, dreaming big ("I'm going to be a rock star/millionaire/famous") does not make people hate you.

It does seem like fame is a sore spot for a lot of people though. I find that interesting.
Feb. 23rd, 2011 12:43 am (UTC)
Great post and great conversation.

I think trying to be a hero is different to trying to be famous. I believe humility is a key attribute of heroes and saying, "I am a hero" is the ultimate way of showing you're not.

Every interview of what I call a Reaction Hero (burning buildings etc. - ie no time to consider the action) has some version of this statement from the hero: "I just did what anyone else would have done."
Feb. 23rd, 2011 01:08 am (UTC)
Re: Fame
>"I just did what anyone else would have done."

Good point. Such a statement seems to actively deflate the specialness of the heroic action. Of course it is usually factually false - very few would run into burning buildings, etc. But it demonstrates that our culture attaches value to a certain humility or at least show of humility by "heroes" of that kind.

I wonder if it has anything to do with our democratic culture of the middle class, with no one being inherently superior?
Drew Jacob
Feb. 23rd, 2011 02:27 am (UTC)
Re: Fame
I think that is an excellent distinction.

It's funny, even though the Classical heroes seem very haughty by our standards, they too were just doing what was expected of a warrior in their society - charging in bravely and fighting to the end were "just what any warrior would've done."

I suppose there is a relation between what society expects of a good person and what is going to be heroic. Just being a good person will get you lauded as a hero, because so few people do it when it counts...
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )