Heroic Behavior Now
Do We Any Longer Know What Makes a Hero?
I know that I cannot hit a home-run in the worlds series, or fight 10 rounds with a man twice my size, or fly around the world in my own plane, or even redefine the nature of the universe but knowing it can be done gives me the hope that one day I too can do what the modern heroes have done.We appear to be in a period of transition when it comes to what makes a hero. On almost a daily basis newscasters proclaim someone heroic. Maybe he was a ten-year-old boy who called 911 because his baby sister was choking. Maybe she was a teenage mother who graduated from high school with honors.
RIVRPATH [Ancient History Bulletin Board]
What is considered heroism depends on a society's values. For instance, in a society of nomadic marauders, the bravest pillager might be considered the hero. [See Gillian Bradshaw's Island of Ghosts] In Ancient Greece a draftee who refused to fight for his side in battle until the corpse of his best friend was brought to him -- that is, refused to fight despite a state of national emergency -- was named the greatest Greek hero. But that's not how Westerners live today.
While for Achilles, millennia of personal fame was an acceptable price to pay for a noble death, with the advent of Christ, the promise of an afterlife meant more to most Christians than the promise of such a written memorial. People have been willing to die for Christ or spurious related causes (Remember the sixties' "kill a commie for Christ?") all supposedly for the greater good.
In the United States the principle of individualism is about as strong as among the Greeks. We've built folk legends around independent self-sufficient frontiersmen like Davy Crockett, Johnny Appleseed, and Paul Bunyan. Individual rights are a big deal. While there's a lot of lip-service to community building we are essentially individuals who move far from our families and roots.
But at the same time we are a religious people, attending church more than in other Western countries and so, presumably, subordinating our egos to the will of God. Since well before the founding of the United States, we have been governed by Judaeo-Christian principles of the Ten Commandments which tell us not to steal, murder, covet, commit adultery, or defame, and instruct us to honor God and our parents. The U.S. legal system gives teeth to a few of the prohibitions, but the Legislative Branch is trying to replace God with The Flag, adultery has been dismissed as no one's business, and persuading us to covet is the name of the advertising game.
We're in a state of flux. Are we individuals or communities? Religious or secular? If the Ten Commandments are too religious for us, what will replace them? Does it matter?
It matters because we need a standard code in order to have commonly accepted heroes. And we need heroes to have people to look up to, to compare ourselves with, to provide incentive for us to improve and criteria for what we mean by improvement.
[Heroes] are expected to represent our values, as well. Hitting a home run is not enough for a baseball star to become a folkhero. He should also have other qualities, for example, honesty, good looks, a winning smile, a sportsmanlike attitude, even humility. Consider Joe DiMaggio, as opposed to Babe Ruth. People used to look to O.J. this way. It's a reflex, an expectation.
In the absence of a nationally acceptable standard, we're seeing soundbites. Heroism and fame are awarded to whoever makes the best news coverage. Like Agamemnon who was considered a hero by the Greeks despite his continual lapses into bad taste and behavior that pushed the morality envelope, our new heroes are the actors and sportsmen, whose excesses land them in the courtroom -- or morgue. We really should pause to ask ourselves what behaviors we're encouraging. Are winning smiles and handsome faces enough?
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This feature is copyright © 1999-2003 N.S. Gill.