The Anatomy of Heroism
By: J. Marlando
We do not know when heroism evolved as a necessity to the human psyche but we can guess that it began in prehistory when one person demonstrated greater strength and courage than others in the band or tribe. Stories of such men were no doubt passed down from one generation to another, perhaps being exaggerated with each retelling until they became mythological gods of early civilization. By the time we reach ancient Greece for example, we have, Achilles, the Trojan War hero who was unconquerable until the gods guided Paris to shoot an arrow into his heel—the only vulnerable spot on his body.
There were many heroes for the Greeks Odysseus, Hercules, Perseus and so on, all men except for the female, Atlanta, who sailed with Jason on his search for the Golden Fleece.
Every culture has its heroes and myths. Certainly the warrior/god/hero, Alexander the Great, of the 300s in B.C., remains praised today for his quest to conquer the entire known world of his times.
Continuing our quick jaunt throughout early times, even before we reach the12th century A.D. we have numerous stories of King Arthur and his knights of his round table—the first romantic hero (that I know of) whose motives were clearly honorable extending the typical conquering hero tale and including a more humanistic flavor with the apparent weaknesses of Lancelot and the beautiful Guinevere.
Only a few hundred years after the rise of the King Author myth (it is still debated if the story is based on actual history or not) we have Robin Hood and his band of merry men in Sherwood Forest. Robin Hood is not only a love/adventure story but a story of a hero who defies authority, becoming an outlaw and fighting against corruption of the Normans while defending the impoverished Saxons. There is also a fairytale quality in the story as Robin and his men dare to storm Nottingham Castle to rescue the lovely Maid Marion who has been gathering information against the wretched Prince John. The story itself is quite daring since it is extremely political commenting on the unfair and heavy taxation on the poor townsfolk. It is a story that is obviously against the elitism of those times and still carries a strong message into our own modernism.
As a quick aside, religion has not been aloof from mythological heroes either: In Catholicism, for example, there is Michael the Archangel, said to have led God’s Army against Satan’s forces during the Great War in Heaven. The Church of Latter Day Saints has Moroni who is said to have been a warrior who died in a fierce battle between pre-Columbian civilizations and was thereafter made into an angel. As an angel he was given the task of guarding the golden plates that were finally given to (the chosen) Joseph Smith who claims to have written the book of Mormon from them. Certainly the legendary Moses qualifies as a hero of Judaism, also a warrior (and favored by God). We note that nearly all earlier heroic archetypes are warrior types; the dragon slayers so to speak. Who, for example, represents heroism more than David in the Bible who slews Goliath—a “little guy” standing up against a “big guy” and winning against the odds? Heroism does not get much more archetypal than this.
In view of the above (we will be talking more about female heroes later on) we note that what we might call classical heroism, at least in most instances, lacks rational substance leaning far more on fable than fact. Nevertheless, it seems that we human beings have always needed to have images to look up to and be motivated by and when we have not had any flesh and blood heroes we have created them in our mythologies. Many of these myths have been far more destructive than constructive to human action and more enslaving than freeing to human will, however, although presented in heroic images. Religious martyrdom is a classic example of this as is the heroic ideal of dying for a cause. But before we explore the negative, we will explore the positive and so the noble icons of modern heroism.
The Rise of the Modern Day Hero
The motion picture industry has always been a major influence for social engineering. Hollywood became the master propagandist during the War Years which not only stirred patriotism but love for and loyalty to the United States. Motion pictures such as Casa Blanca (1942), Bataan (1943), The Fighting Seabees (1944) Back to Bataan and They were Expendable (1945) served to uplift us both collectively and individually during challenging times.
In the meantime there was a constant stream of western movies in our theaters with an all but constant theme of good against evil in all its blatancy—indeed, adults left the theaters feeling a little better about their world and kids rushed home to play cowboys and feel great about themselves. What had permeated the hero by then was, most simply, “good, honest character.” John Wayne was the icon of such character from Stagecoach (1939) to The Shootist (1976).
The war movies were positive in that they deconstructed the image of the classic warrior who had historically been made heroic because of his brute strength and daring. Quite suddenly he had become a man of deep moral and human values; He stopped being a warrior motivated to conquer and began being a warrior against those who would be conquerors; the tyrants and dictators of the world, the unscrupulous and dishonest. This was the modern day hero; the defender of the weak, the vulnerable and the defeater of bullies.
This too was the comic book hero, Superman. In 1938 he was suddenly on his way to defending “truth, justice and the American Way.” This motto began ringing in the hearts of countless children who read the comics, listened to the radio show and later watched the superhero on television. And, a great deal of those children grew up taking those same values with them. Indeed, truth, justice and the American way became the paradigm for Americanism itself…at least in the ideal.
At this juncture and before continuing I will focus on the reasons that I am talking about heroism almost exclusively in terms of maleness. This has not been an oversight: Historically, and even in our own times, few females are depicted as heroes regardless of their acts of heroism. A major reason for this, I believe, is because few women have fulfilled the warrior image; she is simply less visible on the battlefields of life.
In the United States, most certainly there have been histories of untold (sometimes unnoticed) female heroism. Susan Brownell Anthony (1820-1906) was heroic just as was Harriet Tubman (1820-1913), Mary Harris (Mother) Jones (1830-1930) and Mary, Amelia Earhart (1897-1939) but these are names we have all heard.
There are of course countless heroic ladies that, for example, served to settle this country, who crossed the plains and faced those same dangers and hardships with the same courage and determination as the menfolk. For that matter, there were no doubt courageous, brave acts by women at the famous fall of the Alamo (1835) that has been left unsung by history. But then again, how many women worked and fought courageously in the underground movements during the major wars or served in the major war zones? I ask this question only to emphasis how much the image of the warrior (and his brute force) remains at the core of what we call heroism with so few women in their ranks. There was Joan of Arc of course but she was burned at the stake before her 20th birthday, not, incidentally, for her heroics or daring but because she held opinions that were not of the norm of her times. If you will she died merely because she lived outside the center of the church/state.
Putting socio-political demagoguery aside, however, my major point here is that while we hail the dog that saves the drowning child, the woman who stands bravely in the face of danger and the pilot who brings down a troubled aircraft safely, heroes, the psyche-image of heroics remain primarily with the warrior on the battlefield much as it did in ancient times. After all, we are a species that seldom praises the peace maker or credits acts of kindness as heroic. We are instead a species that calls for blood and guts as opposed to life promoting acts of generosity and love when it comes to celebrating heroic human action.
With this in mind, we recall that the movie cowboy was, nevertheless, given conscientious morality while on the battlefield between good and evil. His image broke from the historic warlords such as Alexander and Napoleon and became the seeker of justice and fair play with a code that said never to explain or complain. This strong silence became the cornerstone of his character as he accomplished his good deeds and he was adored for it by young and old alike.
As a result he became the ideal individualist with his uncompromising morality—and as such, a mythical hero of America’s past living in the present; a superman in chaps and boots fighting evil and rescuing the good. And this is how America, by and large, mirrored itself, forever at the forefront of good intentions.
While Americans have just about always butted heads politically, children, at the same time, were also raised to trust, honor and admire the politicians of the country; presidents, congressmen and senators were placed on social pedestals; schoolteachers promoted the heroics of the forefathers as did parents; schoolteachers, and history books created goodwill as the principle motivation of government. It didn’t matter if we were democrat or republican the general consensus was that we were a country ruled by, for and of the people grounding us in freedom. While we argued politics—which was our right to do—we felt cared about by the leaders and therefore cared deeply for those who led.
Our social memes included “Jefferson-ism” and “honest Abe-ism” and we, most basically, saw them reflected in the very personality of our political leadership—so we had another kind of heroism, a heroism of social duty and responsibility. Yet, as Americans we never saw ourselves in the collective, only as a collection of individuals, the heroic defenders of truth, justice and the American way.
Where Did All the Good Guys Go?
Something happened to the American heroic spirit during the early 1950s; it was the virtual death of the individualist. The Cold War between the superpowers made rational heroism obsolete. After all, by the turning of two keys the entire planet was to be destroyed—there were no knights on white horses or cowboys who could ride in and save the day. And heroism, by its very nature, counts on the future—the warrior fights for his tomorrows to come, saves a life so that he or she can live another day. The Cold War took away the importance of the unforeseeable future; the future was suddenly in constant jeopardy and in the hands of human whim.
Old institutions like saving accounts and even education seemed fruitless to especially youth; the authority in their world had created its own Frankenstein; weapons of extreme mass destruction and in the doing placed the rest of their lives, so to speak, out on a limb. It was one thing to face nature’s unknowns, if you were hit by lightning well that was “hard luck” but to have your life count on the decisions of governments—of other people—was to fall into existential despair and hopelessness. The old rule was if a person worked hard and struggled forward he or she would one day achieve; would be rewarded for his perseverance and persistence. Forward of course is futuristic and future remained in constant jeopardy.
The psychological response to this was revealed in a rather corn-ball of a motion picture with title, Rebel Without a Cause.” It was a weakly constructed plot that basically was about a teen’s rebellion against his parents and other adults. The feature, however, captured the deep seated angers and frustrations of the youth of the day and thus, the anti-hero was born.
Two years later Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was published in which she creates self-centeredness into heroism; a story in which her heroes are social-Darwinists—nevertheless, she impacted Americanism itself, legitimizing the heroics of me-ism in the guises of individualism.
At one level of consciousness or another youth began to see “centeredness” itself as a false reality. After all, the entire world was at high risk and the awareness of being in relationship with everyone else was slowly weaving itself into the youth movement of the 1960s.
Love and peace became the young people’s call to action of those times; “letting it all hang loose” became the new call to heroism with the deconstruction of historic sexism and racism in the roots of its motivation. For the first time in history, the battlefield warrior was no longer hailed as heroic but as a puppet on the strings of social engineering and in this light the values that had been the moral fiber of the country for centuries were suddenly challenged; even marriage was determined as mere social ritual and the ideals of Ayn-Rand Objectivism denied as self-serving, calloused humanism. While the love and peace motive waned and went away as soon as the Vietnam War was over, exposing a certain hypocrisy in the movement itself, heroism had been changed forever. The peacemaker had at long last been recognized as heroic.
In the meantime, the American political hero had fallen from grace—Jack Kennedy’s affairs would begin the disillusionment, Johnson’s lies about American ships being attacked at the Bay of Tonkin; Nixon’s “I am not a crook” announcement, Bush’s “No more Taxes,” Clinton’s, “I never made love to that woman” and young Bush’s weapons of mass destruction deception were major detriments to the political heroism in the American heart not to mention recognizing the nepotism, known bribes and other maladies that occur in the congress and senate. All this, added to the rise of the ultimate anti-hero Rambo who first appeared on screen in 1985 as the new warrior/god of modernism; a returning to the ancient celebration of brute force and mindless aggressiveness.
The anti-heroism of Rambo-mindlessness has persisted in media—except for formula police and lawyers shows on TV—since 1955, over a half century now. (One statistic says that children between the ages of 5 and 18 see over 15000 murders on television). The new wave, however, is our kind against mechanical/electric monsters such as “Men in Black” combat or “monsters” portraying heroes. An example of “the good guy” monster is the comic book hero, “Iron Man,” turned into a movie a star. The story of a billionaire engineer who defies the bad guys after an injury and builds a metal suit of armor instead of a weapon of mass destruction as he was ordered to do!
Iron man is typical of modern day anti-heroes. First of all, he is made of metal with his humanity concealed inside like indigestion. He is, after all, primarily a machine. Machines are “brute force” personified. Nevertheless, he has been in show biz since the 1960s before the computer became an extension of our minds and has done better than “nice” box office. Today he is merely one among other computer images on the screen fighting evil on imaginary battlefields with imaginary weapons in imaginary places. This is where we have traveled since the heroic Hollywood cowboy who actually had empathy and ethics. In overview we have simply retreated back to the barbarous days of old when brute strength was king and the surviving warriors collected all the prizes and accolades.
The truth is that we don’t truly have heroes today. This is not to say that no one is heroic, we hear about human heroics daily but we have lost heroism as image and so as symbol. As a result, we (and the children) no longer have role models to admire and emulate. The last American ideal of heroism died in 1979.
The questions are, in view of all the above, has modern times eliminated the need for the symbolic hero and has the requirements of heroism changed with our changing world? I will attempt to give a reasonable answer to these questions next.
Heroes as Ideals
I am convinced that what we will call the “new” hero, that is, he or she who can be named “heroic” today, is the reverse of the ancient hero whose bravado was in its destructiveness—we have all heard of Alexander’s great conquests but in over two thousand years what historian or history book has reported the death, pain and human suffering he caused as domitor mundi (world conqueror)?
I believe that today’s “hero” must conscientiously develop an ethic of love and so a substantial character that is willing to stand firm against the adversaries of kindness, forgiveness and tolerance.
In this view, I believe that the hero begins by simply promoting good through one’s words and actions, without passing judgment values on goodness. And that the essential heroic act is to abandon all centers since all centers eventuate into self-centeredness.
As long as our kind continues to live in centers the world will never be at peace with itself. On an individual basis the best examples—at least in literature—is witnessed in the 1958 book, Atlas Shrugged (mentioned earlier) and Rand’s self-centered characters, Dagney Taggart and John Galt who precede the Wall Street centered Gordon Gecko in the 1895 movie. Greed and self-serving intellectualism rules both and these are the factors that have ruled since the advent of so-called civilization itself. Indeed, these are the very factors that have always given our world its most devastating poverty and hunger.
In this view, we quickly realize that the ancient city/state was founded on center-ism. That is, all those who belonged inside the center were called “us” and all those outside the center were called “them.” Nothing has changed over the last ten to fifteen thousand years except more and more centers have risen—corporate centers against other corporate centers, institutions against other institutions, religion against other religions, nations against other nations, neighborhoods against other neighborhoods, white against black, male against female, Japanese against Chinese, Arab against Jew, rich against poor and so on and so on. The point here is that each creates false heroes from their centers just as false gods were created in ancient times. In ancient times, as a matter of fact, nearly every “center” had its own gods. What the obvious is, however, is that the hero of one center might well be considered the traitor or evil-doer in the next. We cannot forget that there were many who called Adolf Hitler a hero in his day just as Alexander was deemed heroic in his times by those in his center and the Mongolian warlord, Genghis Khan, in his. We simply cannot overlook the fact that the Protestant in Ireland would be giving a totally different story to a Catholic tale of heroism, just as the old Scotsman would have another name for the English hero.
Where the seat of human conflict has always been is in the construct of center-ism. The new hero then must, in my view, refuse initiation into any and all centers.
If peace and freedom is truly our ultimate goal neither can arrive until one’s center is expanded to encompass the entire universe. This does not mean that we must create sameness but only that we should realize that we are in relationship with everyone else; that we are all the same and that our differences are only apparent.
And so yes, we need to reestablish a new symbol of heroism in the world community becoming he (or she) who openly abandons the egocentric-ism of label identity. The Nazi swastika serves as a reminder of where the aspects of such identity can lead.
In the traditional sense we will always have our heroes if what we mean by heroism is the courage to stand up again danger or potential dangers—indeed, we are populated with them, for example, the fireman, the coalminer, the steel worker and logger…the list is extremely long as it includes how honorably and constructively we each confront the day. Did we lend a helping hand, did we bother to encourage, were we kind, and were we generous…did we love today?
And yes, as long as the world keeps turning as it has always turned historically there remains heroes that, as these words are being written, are risking limb and life on the battlefield. These are our modern day warriors hopefully to become obsolete in our tomorrows to come and so at the dawning of a world of peace.