New thread: Heroes and heroism


I’m announcing a new “thread” on The Hannibal Blog: Heroes.

I’ve already written lots about heroes, of course:

And I’ve discussed how the hero or heroine is an archetype at the heart of almost any story, and thus crucial to storytelling. (This is why the new thread will overlap a lot with that on storytelling.)

Why a new thread on heroes?

Because I think there is a lot to say about them. As always with my threads, I have no idea where we will end up, but I’m quite curious to find out. I have a vague sense that I will discover quite a bit, from you more than from myself, as we get deeper into the thread.

A very tentative outline of future posts in this thread might run as follows:


First, the classical heroes of antiquity:

  • Hercules
  • Theseus
  • Perseus
  • Jason
  • Achilles
  • Odysseus
  • Aeneas

Then, some non-Western heroes, including my favorite:

  • Arjuna

(For the yogis among you, did you know that the Sanskrit word for hero is vira, as in the yoga poses virasana and virabhadrasana? It is related to Latin vir, man, and thus virile, virtue…)

Then some fictional heroes and heroines from our folk-tales, our movies, modern literature. Then some real-life heroes. And eventually, some anti-heroes, who are really modern heroes. (Albert Camus’ Meursault in The Stranger jumps to mind.)

Feel free to nominate heroes in the comments that you’d like to have discussed.

I’m interested in what makes these various heroes and heroines heroic, what makes them timeless. Why did some heroes enter our collective unconscious, and others not?

About threads

For those of you who are new to The Hannibal Blog, a thread is simply a mini-series of blog posts, not necessarily sequential or coherent, united by a common tag or category on the right. By clicking on the tag of a thread you get a list of all the posts in it, in reverse order.

And threads never really end. So all the previous threads–such as those on the great thinkers, storytelling, Socrates, Hellenism, Carthage, stuff, America, freedom, et cetera–will go on.

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128 thoughts on “New thread: Heroes and heroism

  1. Hero I’d like to have discussed? Winnetou!!!

    There must exist at least one hero-less story somewhere. Would a hero and an anti-hero in the same story cancel each other out?

    I’ve always wondered why the words “heroine” and “heroin” are so much alike.

    Attractive. Addictive. Same thing, I guess.

    • Winnetou! Consider him in the series. Along with Old Shatterhand.

      The rest of you (non-German speakers) have no idea what we’re talking about. That’s OK. In due course, you’ll find out.

      Re the hero-less story: I challenge you to find one. If you do, shout.

    • My other favorite hero: Wickie. (For our non-German speakers, both Winnetou and Wickie are pronounced with a Wagner “w” as in “vase.”)

      Woody Allen movies, in general, strike me as fairly heroless.

    • Well, the anti-hero, deprived of fame, glory, strength, endurance etc.. Men ohne Eigenschaften , without qualities, but often with so many of them. To me Allen is a hero of subtle humour and intelligence with a depth.

  2. That really is a lovely piece of information…I had no idea there was such a strong link between Sanskrit and Latin! Incidentally, the word vir is now used in Hindi, a language descended from Sanskrit, to mean “brave”.

    • I’m looking forward to it!

      Going slightly off-topic here, it would be great if you introduced Sanskrit words and quotes into titles and captions in The Economist (I notice there are quite a few Latin ones) to acknowledge your truly global readership?:-)

  3. I look forward to this discussion. I’m convinced that heroes do two things. First, they ease our fundamental fears by showing that they can be conquered (e.g, ancient heroes killing monsters, colonial heroes conquering territory and people, modern heroes conquering criminals and terrorists). Second, they show that we can overcome our animal nature and rise above (e.g., altruistic, self-sacrificing heroes).

    So we feel better having them around.

    If heroes are a reflection of our fears and aspirations, it is interesting and alarming to look at contemporary heroes, especially those of the youth. For that discussion we need a clear definition of ‘hero.’ Harry Potter and Shrek are easy. But what about Homer Simpson and rappers?

    Lastly, as far as looking at ficitonal heroes, it would be interesting to discuss the idea of heroes in William Faulkner’s books.

    Sorry to run on so long.

    • On the issue of contemporary heroes: could it be that today’s heroes in literature and television are people we can easily identify with? You mention Homer Simpson-a very flawed character who is loved by millions for the very reason that we recognise some of those flaws in ourselves and can empathize with him. Another example that comes to my mind is the character of David Brent from “The Office”-not very likeable, but very popular with audiences because of the ordinary existence he leads and because of the stoicism with which he suffers his misfortunes.

      Or are they not heroes at all, but merely protagonists, since they have no outstanding qualities which distinguish them from the rest?

    • @ Thomas Stazyk

      lets see if i can get 1 reply to go where it should?

      had i seen your attempt to define hero at the start, i would have only modified the word conquered/conquerer to “unconquered” by fear, authority, adversity and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune etc….

      the self-sacrificing /altruistic necessary attribute of the hero has simply been repeated, rephrased, refined by theses older posts.

  4. Although it’s now the done thing to despise the political figures who lead us, I think of at least two in living memory who were looked upon by their peoples as not just heroes, but almost as gods.

    The first obvious example is Winston Churchill who, by his very Bulldog appearance, his mastery of the English tongue, his ancestry (he was descended from the Duke of Marlborough, victor at the Battle of Blenheim) and well self-publicised history of youthful derring-do on far flung colonial battlefields, was an English (but not necessarily British) archetype.

    So Churchill was able to get the English people eating out of his hands until, with victory assured, they glimpsed the buffoon behind the heroic facade.

    The other example is………wait for it……..George W Bush. We forget that it’s a mere handful of years ago that apparently sane journalists spoke of him in the same breath as they did George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and……….Winston Churchill.

    And why not, since George Bush – the blue-jeans wearing cowboy clearing sage-brush on his ranch, speaking in a well-practised Texas drawl, and displaying a disdain for all that there book-larnin’ – was an American archetype, the ghost of Gary Cooper made flesh, who was all that stood between America and the barbarian hordes expected momentarily at America’s gates.

    Like Churchill, George Bush had his followers eating out of his hands until they glimpsed the buffoon behind the heroic facade.

    Are Winston Churchill and George Bush destined to be the last national heroes?

  5. After reading you fine insights, Thomas, I find hero and antihero in myself. I am not particularly adept or tested as either. Why do I seek to destroy those who have been gravely challenged and have overcome? Is it my antihero that does this? What is a hero-worshipper?

    • Andreas, if nothing else we’ve probably helped by demonstrating the need to define the term ‘hero,’ or at least set parameters around the discussion of a given hero. For example, Richard’s comment reminds me that I never did figure out exactly what an anti-hero is.

  6. A hero is stronger than the rest of us are, and we wish we had their strength, which may be mental or physical or spiritual or whatever. But it’s a strength in their character that we could only hope to have, to stand up to bully. Also, heroes don’t compromise. Most of us have to compromise and negotiate with authority in a way heroes seldom do. And third, I think heroes are fundamentally set against authority, the maverick cop, the whistleblower etc, it doesn’t really fit the heroic to have a hero who is an agent of the big banks. The hero would fight them.

  7. So, heroism: uncompromising strength in conflict with authority. And authority can be landed wealth or the mob or Zeus. But heroes fight authority.

    • Actually, much as i love Prometheus, I’m not considering him a Hero because he is a god (a Titan). The ancient heroes were mostly half-gods, admittedly, but it’s their humanity that made them heroic.

    • @Andreas

      The ancient heroes were mostly half-gods … but it’s their humanity that made them heroic.

      I also see it in this way, but if I wrote something on heroes I wouldn’t rule out their divinity, especially for Greco-Roman heroes. They often became stars btw. Sooo poetic. After Caesar’s burial he was numbered among the gods, not with a formal decree though, Suetonius notes, since the people really ‘believed’ he was a god. During the apotheosis games a comet appeard and it was seen as the soul of Caesar taken to heaven, and even the Roman Jews for that reason saw in him the Messiah.
      And even for today’s heroes … well, many believe Elvis is not dead, thing being, to them he just really can’t die.

      Excuse so much my verbosity Andreas.

  8. The only enlightenment I want is when I switch on. This blog’s not much use there. You’re on my list, Manchester.

  9. While the blog is, itself, full of information, the commentary is sometimes the most informative. I am glad the subject of definition of the term “hero” was brought up. I have a lot of trouble with it. The examples provided don’t represent heroes to me (those that I recognize, that is). To me, a hero is one who has no motive outside the altruistic. He does not have to struggle against authority but must fight against some overwhelming force that is easily capable of destroying him. Without regard for his own safety beyond the immediate need to survive to accomplish the goal. The soldier who willingly dives on the grenade would be a perfect example. The person who stays in the water to lift up the child so the sharks will not get him is another. These are easily seen as heroes. Heroism involves great sacrifice. It requires it. Great inconvenience does not qualify.

    But we have lesser heroes also. Those who sacrifice comfort or success to help others, particularly strangers. Those who inspire by selfless example. Mother Teresa comes to mind (until, I suspect, her fame began to overwhelm her altruism).

    Odysseus, for example, was not so much a hero as he was a man of determination. Certainly willing to take risks but for what purpose? The safety and/or betterment of others? Or the goal of returning alive and reclaiming his throne?

    Just my thoughts on the concept.

    • Fantastic thinking, Douglas.

      1) “While the blog is, itself, full of information, the commentary is sometimes the most informative.” Bingo. That’s what this is. An ongoing, evolving, unpredictable debate among thoughtful people. The blog posts are really just “motions” to get thinking started.

      2) Heroism = sacrifice. That seems to be your definition, overriding “strength” and “anti-authoritarianism” as alternatives.

      This is very promising indeed. It reminds me of the Filipina maids who were the subject of one of my Christmas specials in The Economist, my favorite piece ever. In the Philippines, they are considered “heroines” because, well, they sacrifice their entire lives and happiness for their loved ones at home.

    • Yes, I do consider sacrifice more important (in fact, a necessity) in determining heroism. One can be anti-authoritarian and have great strength (of purpose, of mind, of body, etc) without being heroic in any way. Motivation behind that sacrifice is also important. Sacrifice to advance one’s children may be admirable but not especially heroic, there is an underlying selfishness involved in that. I think we too easily apply the label of “hero” and “heroism.” These appellations should be granted sparingly.

    • Douglas,

      beautiful and well stated. i was awaiting this definition and am in total agreement. This definition undoubtedly comes from upbringing and how should i say it “learned moral perspective”.

      this may seem tangent, but who was it that posed the philosophical question about the sinking boat wherein the value of many lives is weighed against the value of one life, thus overweighing and sinking the boat? there are many variations on the question… philosophically and morally the correct answer is always altruism.

      its positively darwinian, in the true sense. in the short term, if we eat each other this behavior will allow a strong “few” to survive. in the long term if we exhibit empathy and cooperation then the many survive ensuring the survival of the species.

      and it sees pertinent to ask the question based on your definition of heroic, what is it in the human condition of some that allows them to overcome self-interest our basest instinct in order to rush into the burning building to save another knowing full well the risk they take?

      or for that matter what motivates the hero to self-deprecate and not go out in a blaze of glory (nelson mandela comes to mind) in order to “live to fight another day” and do a greater good?

      just my humble thoughts on the concept.

    • You two are hitting on all the right themes, but what’s interesting about this is that NONE of the classical heroes (Greece, Rome, Norse) would qualify as such.

    • The big challenge continues to be defining the boundaries of the discussion and with this topic that’s half the fun. Have a look at this slide show of 17 British Heros from the UK Telegraph Expat. I think this shows the modern tendency to use the term hero very loosely and to describe people who have made a significant accomplishment or exhibited admirable qualities.

    • The heroes and heroines depicted, with one (or maybe two) possible exceptions, are what we used to call great men (and women) but not heroic. These are more like the classic heroes of the ancient world, as Andreas might point out. They perform great deeds, they support lofty goals, they struggle against injustice. And, I might point out, often succeed.

    • Interesting list. I also like the quote under the opening shot of Winston Churchill:

      “the best we can do is to honour the moments when someone behaves well and try not to be surprised when they don’t”.

    • I was born in 1943 on the outskirts of London. As a baby I was thrust under the Anderson shelter whenever an air-raid warning was sounded. Years later, when the siren was occasionally used to signal a fire, it would send a chill of horror to my very core.

      When I was a very young child, my mother described to me what it was like to live through the dark days of 1941, and how Winston Churchill was for her and all about her the lone voice of hope.

      The Battle of Britain was fought above my home, the centroid of Biggin Hill, Croydon and Kenley aerodromes. Before the warning sounded, the Spitfires and Hurricanes would climb high in the sky to their position of attack. Then the Luftwaffe might inscribe a vapour-trail circle to mark the place to bomb. My parents mercifully escaped a direct hit. I was brought up on the story of how a Hurricane pilot bailed out, was shot in his parachute harness and fell to earth in my garden. My father went out, with a neighbour, the shrapnel flying round, to attend to him. I cannot remember a time I knew not those words “Never in the field of human history was so much owed by so many to so few.”

      At the age of six, I watched a builder dig a deep trench beside the house to where a stagnant pool of water lay. A V2 had fallen a mile away and shattered all the drains round about. The trench was filled with concrete to stop my home falling down.

      Not long after, my father took me to his beloved City and showed me the devastation of the Blitz and the destruction of Wren’s churches. He spoke of Churchill’s long and lonely warnings dating from Hitler’s rise to power, the Wilderness Years, and how he regarded Churchill as the saviour of our country, indeed the civilised world. Churchill never accorded victory to himself, but to the British people, averring that he merely “Supplied the roar”; the British people of those times knew otherwise.

      Not far from here, is Chartwell, Winston’s country home, now open to the public and cared for by the National Trust. It is for me and countless others a regular place of pilgrimage. I look across from there over the beautiful Weald of Kent, as he must have done, and relive the mortal danger he led us through. Yet he, more than any other, begged “Magnanimity in victory”. It is a betrayal of his spirit and all he stood for to prolong recrimination.

      “Hero” is not a big enough word for him.

    • Thank you, thecriticalline.

      Churchill is a great man. How would you describe what made him a hero? Courage, bordering on obstinacy? Individualism?

      Churchill is also of interest to me thought the incredible ups and downs in his life. He lived Kipling’s two impostors, triumph and disaster. But I decided not to include him in my book because he is so well known, and evokes such strong feelings, that I felt I had little to add.

    • You are right not to attempt a rational explanation since the response is not on that level. Yours is an excellent start to the list. I might add a few qualities such as a sense of destiny which was fulfilled, accomplishments in the written and spoken word, an inimitable, humane sense of humour and wit, the development of artistic achievements late in life, the acceptance of electoral rejection in 1945, living with mental illness (“black dog”, as he called depression), patriotism conditional upon the good of all mankind, his close feelings to the US (his mother was American) combined with a profound pride in his ancestors (his genius). He had a moral standard in his private life, too, as all political figures should. His faults were, of course, many: most important, perhaps, his evident failure as a father. Yet these do not detract from his qualities and it is these which show his humanity and enable us to draw example from him.

  10. Ok, the literal meaning of “hero” is “protector” or “defender”, yes? Yet, I found this in Wiki…

    The first Hero:

    Hero (mythical priestess), in Greek mythology, priestess of Aphrodite, goddess of love, at Sestos, a town on the Hellespont (now Dardanelles). Hero was loved by Leander, a youth who lived at Abydos, a town on the Asian side of the channel. They could not marry because Hero was bound by a vow of chastity, and so every night Leander swam from Asia to Europe, guided by a lamp in Hero’s tower. One stormy night a high wind extinguished the beacon, and Leander was drowned. His body was washed ashore beneath Hero’s tower; in her grief, she threw herself into the sea. (I am hoping for italics here)

    …which seems more like “hero worship” than “hero”. With a touch of selfishness self-destruction tossed in.

    I am fascinated by how meanings of words are transformed as they are adopted by various cultures.

    • As always, the truism… “The Greeks have a word for it” comes to mind. I thought the fact that “Hero” was a woman to be quite ironic since it became a masculine term.

      Reading some of the commentary, I wonder if we should separate “heroic deeds” from “heroism”. My own definition of hero requires some performing an heroic deed (a superhuman feat of strength, agility, or determination) at great risk of destruction. I implicitly add a motivation of altruism to the mix. After all, one can perform a feat of great strength and determination in saving one’s own life (or attempting to) but to do so for others… ah, that is (to me, anyway) the mark of a hero.

      So, would I place Churchill in the ranks of heroes? No. I see him as a great man who was in the right place at the right time. Someone of character to emulate.

      By the way, I might regard Thecriticalline’s father and neighbor as doing something heroic. They risked death and injury in a selfless act of assisting a downed and injured pilot. The pilot himself might see them as heroes.

      Sometimes we see people we look up to, that we admire, as “heroes” when they might be more aptly described as “idols” or “examples to follow.”

  11. Arjuna is an interesting choice for “favourite hero”, Andreas. I’d like to know why you choose him. Is it because he questioned the morality of his actions, unlike most other traditional mythological heroes?

    • You mean the poem, right?

      Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
      I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.
      In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
      Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.
      Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
      And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.
      It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
      I am the master of my fate:
      I am the captain of my soul.

    • yup. reminds me of the white rose. bloody but unbowed. and courage beyond endurance. unfortunately this heroism is indeed so very very rare. man is not yet so evolved.

  12. hmmmm….

    does simply doing the “right thing” now and again qualify as heroic? the gallery caption: “Each of the heroes and heroines in our gallery is included for at the very least one moment’s good behaviour – and in some cases much more.”

    is there an equation in a persons life that can be written to balance acts of “heroic quality” with acts of “less than admirable quality”?

    and what would that equation look like?

    1(A) = x number of LA

    A being equal to an Altruistic Act. LA being anything less than Altruism

  13. Very interesting topic and thread Andreas.

    One can wonder where this hero ideas come from.

    A sort of hero worship – exceptional figures we admire, idolize etc. not far from legend, myth – is common to all cultures, with variations, plus cultures evolve in time.

    It is often useful not to separate a conception from the history of conceptions, since our mind is like a museum bearing traces of past ideas, religions, philosophies, coexisting chaotically, and one should make an inventory, which I’m trying a bit in my blog, but, well, it is way beyond my means.

    Heroism is altruism, said Douglas – that, to me, is close to a Christian conception of heroism.

    On the other hand, heroes such as Odysseus or Achilles, with traits surely attractive, present though elements undeniably amoral within the set of Christian values: guile, homosexual love, an sense of honour (alien but for lost villages in the Mediterranean where they prefer to kill their daughter rather than understand her) etc.: all this much more important to the ancient than helping the neighbour or pardon.

    Aeneas, pious, self-effaced, is closer to us and was appreciated by the Christians. Although his obedience to Fate’s decrees in order to prepare Roman glory makes him even more alien in some way. The Romans were humane, but also a such disciplined, such a hardy folk – the Germans and the Britons not too far from them in this and other respects.

    So simplyfing we have the Christian hero and the Ancient hero, with some overlapping, and many other types of course.

    Are we all caught in between a bit, one foot in the present and one in the past? At various degrees yes, and our ideas float a bit. Which brings to definitions.

    I agree discussion is enriching and concepts are better defined along the way. But isn’t this after all another of those traces – traditions – on our Western mind?

    That dialogue is crucial, and that definitions come from it (and not viceversa, though the opposite is possible) is well ingrained and was given us by Socrates and Plato, who possibly invented dialectics 2,400 years ago.

    • Very interesting, Roma. I had not considered the aspect of altruism to be Christian in nature. I understand your point though I would not agree with it. It is true that Christian culture does rank that trait high in the order of things. I just don’t think it is solely Christian as an admirable trait. Myself, I often grapple with the concept and suspect that what is called “altruism” most often has a selfish motivation. I mused about this some time ago on my own blog.

      A weak, very weak, treatise on a complex subject. According to Wiki (et al.), the concept is a part of a broad range of beliefs and ideologies, most being much older than Christianity. I think Wiki has a great description for it:

      Pure altruism is giving without regard to reward or the benefits of recognition and need.

      Ironically, performing acts of altruistic nature thinking it a religious duty would negate the deed as altruistic. Well, in my view anyway.

      Still, I see it as important to the concept of “hero”.

    • Douglas, I read your ‘Boomer musings’ post on altruism – should ‘boomer’ be related to baby-boomers, we belong to the same generation.

      Of course true altruism can be a good trait of being a hero.

      Certainly Christianity, in its philosophy, is very much based on ancient philosophy, me not being such an expert though – I am agnostic. Focusing on the Romans only, Roman stoics like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius wrote about being ‘good’ to others (and were not dogmatic like the Christians.) Their influence on the West was immense. Tertullian called Seneca ‘often our own’. Many passages of Seneca remind the New Testament. Someone even thought he had intense dialogues with Saint Paul (which I don’t believe.)

      So altruism is not specifically Christian, but probably only Christianity made it so central.

      You write in your blog:

      As a cynic, I am suspicious of altruistic behavior … I assume people always seek a reward for good behavior

      True, which makes me sometimes admire the ancients more.
      Take the Greeks: their gods were amoral, whimsical and didn’t reward men for their good deeds. On the contrary they were envious, and hit men too fortunate. Given such unpredictable gods, when men were good they were such because they really wanted to, not for any other external reason.

    • I’ll accept your premise. Still, is the Christian version of altruism in the purest sense of the concept? To be altruistic because it is a tenet of one’s religion suggests the motivation to be one of expectation of reward…. eternal salvation and life in heaven (not to mention the possibility of recognition of one’s great acts). And does that not negate the principle behind the concept? Is the Christian ideal true altruism?

      I am not an expert religions either, being atheist, but I have had a long standing curiosity about them that I have accumulated some knowledge along those lines.

      We find, throughout history, stories of men who do some good deed, some selfless act even though they have almost always acted in a selfish manner prior to (and sometimes after) that deed. I am thinking of a James Cagney movie, Angels With Dirty Faces, that epitomizes this. The immoral and amoral who find a bit of conscience, or show empathy, unexpectedly are seen as “heroes” primarily because they act out of character. It makes the selfless act seem so much grander.

      I often wonder, are there any living altruists? Or would we not know who they are because they are?

      Have I asked too much to make altruism an integral part of my definition of heroism?

    • Dear Douglas,

      i admire your ability to answer a question head on “So, would I place Churchill in the ranks of heroes? No”. have you missed the bit where i agree with you? not just there but in my view that heroism requires altruism. it is an “evolutionary” idea. (darwinian)

      however with a caveat, that altruism requires self-sacrifice Not self-destruction. it is not mutually exclusive.

      in the darwinian sense perhaps behaving altruistically is inherently an act of self-interest because could humanity evolve to this point it would be the best way to ensure survival of the species.

      i also agreed with your assessment of Churchill, but had not the desire to direct my response to thecriticalline who has such strong and justified feelings on the topic.

      and just before my last post i was wondering about a way to suggest to andreas to start a new thread elsewhere that included “faith/religeous” based definitions since it brings out even stronger and biased feelings in people. case in point man of roma who seems to be convinced that altruism and indeed morality itself began with Christianity – and where did Christianity begin? personally i take offense at such a narrow understanding of comparative religions and ideologies.

      however, douglas, you have dropped from your own definition “invictus” the unconquered “who sacrifice comfort or success to help others, particularly strangers. Those who inspire by selfless example.” surely mother teresa did not die from self-sacrifice?

      my only philosophical question to douglas would be how many act of altruism balance out a life of lass than altruistic behavior. does one heroic act by your/our definition negate a life of less than altruistic acts. (acts that can sink to the level of “evil”)

      @ roma indeed the paradigm of the time influences the definition, paradigms evolve and hopefully for good reason.

      @ cheri you might find this link interesting
      however, the concept of a vengeful old-testament god is very much misunderstood. for the sins against man, men must seek atonement from those they have offended (like the greeks) the eye for eye stuff is more widely believed to mean “let the punishment fit the crime” – it to has evolved.

    • Enjoying this discussion. I’d like to add a few tidbits:

      Odysseus represents the first nostos, the return home of the hero.

      In Greek mythology, there is no forgiveness, no instant penance after a quickie (sorry, couldn’t resist) visit to the priest. No clean slate without first apologizing to the person who needs to hear it.

      The Greeks believed that all of us are adults. If we meant to do something bad, we will pay mightily for it. Revenge is expected. Revenge motifs abound in these stories because the Greeks had a high opinion of free will.

      Christianity changed the values. Revenge is scorned (along with oiling and massage 🙂 ) and other forms of human gratification.

      Imagine how this philosophy might affect modern jurisprudence. Juries wouldn’t over think a Twinkie defense, OJ Simpson would be in prison for the murder he committed, and taxpayers wouldn’t be supporting the hundreds of convicted convicts on death row.

      When I taught American literature, I found a definition of puritanism that went something like this: Puritanism is the fear that somewhere, somehow, and sometime, someone might be having a good time.

      I realize these thoughts are not tied together well, but I wanted to share, nevertheless…

    • You have to be a bad person to understand about forgiveness, Cheri, and I’m afraid you know nothing about that.

      In the village we talk about “Titbits”. Was your spelling a typo or is it your puritan streak showing?

    • Oh your thoughts make a lot of sense, plus they are fun to read.

      Vinum et mulieres apostatare faciunt sapientes 😉 I am all for human gratification, and pls don’t worry, in some areas of our south feuds and revenges are still thriving, with other tidbits (titbits?) of gratification not entirely abolished, and, of course, the pardon quickies at the priest’s not to be forgotten. (I loved it)

      By the way, in Mezzogiorno there are still people who speak Greek in Apulia, Calabria and Sicily. Another time.

  14. @Dafna, I did note our alignment and appreciated your understanding. And I agree that altruism is an evolutionary impetus (that is what you meant, yes?). It is, I think, why parents sacrifice themselves to save their children and has been modified by cultures (cultures also have evolutionary trends) to create education, the concept of “women and children first”, and more. But when you look at it (altruism) in evolutionary terms, the romantic connotation is stripped away and the collective selfishness of the species (call it “survival instinct”) is bared. My basic theory of human motivations and “instincts” is that they all are derived from that one: survival of the species.

    Where, then, do heroes and heroism fit in? It is, no doubt, something to be culturally encouraged. And it is, through folklore, myths, legends, teachings of all sorts. It is rewarded with medals and positions of power and wealth and fame.

    So, if we make altruism a basic foundation of heroism and we then see altruism as not really selfless in a cultural and evolutionary sense, we have undermined our own (ok, my own) definition of hero.

    Note: I not only discuss and debate with others in commentary but also with myself… Often undermining my own positions and exposing flaws in my logic.

    Oh, and do not worry about typos. I sometimes find them weeks after I have committed them myself. We all execute them from time to time. It proves the adage… “To err is human.”

    @Roma, please drop by as much as possible. We are kindred spirits in Boomerism. I ride the face of that wave, having been born in 1946 (the starting year). I was a part of the TV generation but recall the radio shows with fondness, witnessed the changing of morality from the early 50’s to the turmoil of the 60’s and 70’s, enjoyed the most bountiful period of man, and dove headlong into the technological revolution. I believe we are the most angst-ridden and fortunate generation in centuries. Which is why I consider myself a cynical optimist (or optimistic cynic, I haven’t quite settled on that).

    @Cheri, it appears both “tidbit” and “titbit” are valid.

    To all… ignore me, I tend to babble.

    • refuse to ignore :0 i am the queen of tangent repetitive babble. thank goodness for the format that allows self edit!

      thanks for the note of appreciation but it is i that appreciate you writing what i was already thinking, yet unable to put succinctly. you have gone beyond andreas’s definition of “platonic” sharing and revealed yourself an atheist which i find ironic since you were the first to point out the what i would go so far as to call “the evolutionary imperative” of altruism as heroic.

      the irony being that so many equate atheism with immorality!?

      as for the pessimism surrounding the altruistic definition of heroism and humanity’s less than 1% that have evolved to this level… i would call it realistic.

      thank you, i had almost forgotten my own credo – there is beauty in “in-perfection”.

    • @Dafna, the ironic thing is that people do equate atheism with immorality. Ironic in the sense that atheists would more likely be amoral, without moral restriction, than immoral, or ignoring moral restriction. It’s a fine line, to be sure. I see myself as a “true” atheist, rather than what the common perception of what they are. That is, the definition of “atheist”, “without gods.” In that I do not accept the concept of any supernatural being or beings. The common perception of atheism is more closely described as “anti-theism”, or opposed to belief in a god. These are the ones who seem to have an axe to grind with religions, the ones who want “in God we trust” off of US money and sue to remove Christmas creches from city or state property and so on.

      I firmly believe that morals are not the sole property of religion. Most of the religious teachings are simply rules to live in harmony with others. Only a few are requirements to worship a deity and these aren’t, in my view, moralistic in nature. Therefore, I have little problem with believers of almost any type. Most faithful do not seem to have a problem with me, either. Maybe because I respect their beliefs and their ability to at least try to follow their religious teachings. It’s got to be a tough thing to do. There is a certain strength needed to maintain a faith. Not everyone can do it, including many who profess to be religious. The best of those admit to failing, to having doubts, from time to time.

      I have it much easier in comparison.

      I think (and I hope I am right) that there are a lot more than 1% who engage in altruism on a regular basis. Not all the time but often enough. When things are tough, they reach out to others and help. When they have very little to spend, they tend to use it to help their children or to make them happy. Sure, there’s a lot of selfishness out there and it seems overwhelming. Still, people have to be reminded on aircraft to put the oxygen mask on themselves before tending to their children. I think that says something.

    • I have to say that I do find you a little hard to follow, Dafna, (like now). But that’s my fault, not yours.

      See my name? That means you can say what you like to me. Everyone else does.

    • hello critical line,

      i find myself hard to follow! the last post was in direct reply to douglas and full of typos (again). however “in-perfection” meant to be a pun. also references being made to another thread on the blog.

      in regard to any reference to you – because of the (Churchill) quote “It is a betrayal of his spirit and all he stood for to prolong recrimination,” i felt it might be disrespectful to give my own opinion that although a great man he would not fit my definition of Hero.

      so i posted an implied response further down – a theoretical equation on heroism.

  15. Andreas forced me to consider voluntarily what might be the qualities that raise Churchill so high in my estimation. It was a painful experience. I discovered that, whatever the truth about the man, what I admire is a caricature, if a complex one, and one which I have moulded to my own aspirations. It can be nothing else since I never met him.

    So, let me try something. I assume, first of all, that it is possible to classify a whole nation as heroic. Certainly those are my feelings about he US, though I have never been there, and I have met few Americans.

    I will now start a list of those qualities which confer this status upon the nation. This is a hard and soul-searching exercise.

    My feelings toward the US are paternal, as of a father towards a gifted and accomplished, if independent, son. He says he rebelled against an unjust father. I dream that one day he may wish to return to the bosom of the mother-country. I recognise how, in my declining years, he is my guardian, and the guardian of the world, and this only increases my pride. In times of trouble or sickness, he has come swiftly to my side and been generous with his support. He is brave and strong, and physically much bigger than me. Sometimes he is insensitive and unduly critical and dismissive, but I put that down to the callowness of youth. He moved away to a land of beauty and wonders which I may never see and I speak fondly of him to my friends in his long absence. He has not been without his struggles, heavens no, and and at one time I thought he would fall apart altogether. Cynics here say he is just a foreigner now. I weep at that thought. I watch the movies, the westerns, and make believe I am part of his life. I pine for him. Will he rejoin the realm, or will all England one day join him on the star-spangled banner?

    Indeed a caricature, a two-dimensional one, but a true projection of myself, or what I would like to be. How often our children outstrip us!

    • Incredible! As I started to read, I found myself thinking “No, no, England is the one that is the brave and resolute example! How she stood, alone and defiant, against a great (and seemingly invincible) foe who pummeled her unmercifully.” And how Churchill embodied that spirit.

      And then I began to feel the emotions you expressed and empathized because I have those same feelings about my own son and wondered if my father felt that way about me as I returned to him and my mother in their time.

      Very inspiring, very touching, very much true.

  16. Boy, this thread has moved on. I’m holding back the new posts just to see where you guys are going.

    New topic that have been introduced, and that I might have to give a post to: atheism; special relationship btw England and US; national character…..

    • Yours is the moral strength, Douglas, to have a code of behaviour which you devise yourself and observe with altruism and integrity, without any expectation of reward. I take my hat off to you.

    • I suspect a touch of sarcasm. If not, there should be. You make me sound like some kind of saint. Trust me, I am no saint. I didn’t formulate my own code of conduct, I was raised by parents, I was exposed to cultural standards. I learned right from wrong, we all did. Still, there is a basic morality to life; the Golden Rule, attributed to Jesus but actually predates him and pretty much exists in every religion in some form. I don’t always live up to my code of conduct either but who does?

    • Then my apologies for thinking there was. I do not take compliments well (as my ex-wife often, and insincerely, told me). It’s the cynical part of my nature, I guess.

    • And my apologies for making you think it was necessary for you to apologise for making me think I had to apologise.

    • and so it sounded sarcastic to me also. wasn’t that the original blog topic? “what makes these various heroes and heroines heroic… timeless?” answer: a code of conduct.

      mine would also include the virtue of altruism. i did not however nominate myself! however i see the sense in it:

      1. Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.
      2. Zoology Instinctive behavior that is detrimental to the individual but favors the survival or spread of that individual’s genes, as by benefiting its relatives

      unfortunately heros of this kind are so rare which no doubt accounts for our fascination with them.

    • Very good, I especially like the second definition. I believe Desmond Morris got into this in The Naked Ape. And, yes, it is rare enough when it is done on a grand scale. I was thinking about this just a little while ago and thought about how easily we toss around the label of “hero.” Are firemen, for example, heroes? Certainly they risk their lives to help others (altruistic behavior coupled with risk to life and limb) but is there some reward they get that we don’t quite understand? Also, if they didn’t run into burning buildings, they would get kicked off the job, wouldn’t they? So, on some level, aren’t they just doing their jobs?

      The more I consider this, the more I think I really don’t understand the concept.

    • douglas your over-thinking it 🙂 read andreas new piece in the economist… you’re in there, and so am i somewhere. where do you see me?

    • Is his new piece not in the online edition? The latest I find for him there is from November and refers to California’s political struggles and that does not seem to apply. You piqued my interest because you mentioned an article that might help explain (to me) who I am.

      And I over-think everything, it seems. It even ruins my golf game.

    • Douglas, Douglas, Douglas.

      “The latest I find for him there….” You Googled my name on our site. You can’t do that, because we don’t have bylines. I write at least one piece a week, so I’ve been in every edition.

      Dafna, however, was referring to my Christmas Special on Socrates in America.

      (Basically, unless I tell you guys here what I have written, there is no way to find out. Frustrating.)

    • You are correct, Andreas, I searched the Economist for your name. I took the logical route and found myself lost (I do that often, just ask my wife; I call it “on the scenic route”, however, not actually “lost”).

      Fascinating article. Well done, as I hope you know.

      My problem is I eschewed formal, higher, education. I couldn’t learn everything so at some point I decided to avoid being frustrated. Now, I find myself having to look up things while reading articles such as yours. I call this “ad hoc” learning.

      I am tempted to get into a discussion about Socrates now. So I can learn more, so I am prodded to do more research into his life, his associates, his adherents (and detractors), but…

      There is one thing, however. Socrates use of the word “gadfly”. The connotation was different then, was it not? I like the connotation implied by Socrates.

    • I quite like the idea of having no bylines in general, but I do think its unfair for the writers not to have them in the Christmas issue,especially since you seem to write your Christmas pieces on the topics that interest you most.

  17. Why are so few great mathematicians household names? They are pioneers in murky and unfamiliar waters and many of our modern comforts rest upon their shoulders.

    Just to bring a few to mind, off the cuff, some well-known, others not:

    Archimedes, Euclid, …. Fibonacci, Cardan…Euler… Newton, Gauss, Dedekind…Ada Lovelace…Galois…Riemann, Poincare, Cantor… Ramanujan… Godel…

    Some are also heroes because of the tragedy which beset them, or ultimately beset them:

    Archimedes, Cardan, Euler, Newton, Ada Lovelace, Galois, Ramanujan, Godel …

    Is it the overcoming of the odds which is the common factor for the ordinary and extraordinary alike?

    I wish I were a mathematician, but then, I couldn’t bear the pain.

    • And yet… there is a fascination with them that permitted a popular TV show to be based on one. Mathematicians are scary. Can everything be reduced to mathematical formula? And common denominators for all human behavior and endeavor found through studious reduction?

      Is all human behavior dictated by the genetic code (which must be reducible to mathematical equation)? What do we then make of heroes and heroism? Where is individualism in all this?

      He said… possibly introducing yet another tangent.:)

    • This, I suppose, is something I have wrestled with all my thinking life. My inchoate conclusion is that mathematics is a human invention parodying the impenetrable mysteries of Nature and human consciousness. That is why it can predict Natural events. It is the consistency and flow of Nature which will never be explained. It is with enormous trepidation that I take a personal view contrary that of Plato. Nature is the ideal that we grope towards with a wonder that it holds together. Observation is the key, and we go astray when we try to fit Nature to mathematics rather than the reverse. Hence to dwell on the philosophy of Quantum Theory, or to conceive many universes is something which belongs to the human mind – a part of Nature.

      My best friend is an atheist. My character and intellect is meagre compared to his. He told me that he is, like Crick, a devout atheist rather than a militant one. How would you classify yourself – I think I can guess. He suggested my beef with Dawkins is his militancy. Certainly, I think it is very cruel to seek to deprive people of their faith.

    • Beautifully written. How could I disagree with it? I cannot. I like the term “devout atheist”, it has a certain contradictory ring to it that appeals. You see, I found a kind of spirituality in atheism. I can, therefore, identify with your friend. I often admire the devoutly, but not the smugly, religious. The Jimmy Swaggerts don’t impress me but the Billy Grahams do, for instance.

      I am not of great intellect. What little I have is unpolished by education. My problem with humanity, and my adoration of it, is its passion. We humans grasp an idea, embrace it, elevate it to “The Answer”, and then demand it be accepted universally. I would rather we be cynical about everything rather than just those things that do not fit within our perception of the universe at the moment.

      But I ramble. All to say that my questions only meant… “Is math also a religion?”

    • You ease my uncertainties and create some more. If we see ourselves as gods, or part of Nature, I suppose math(s) is a religion, yes.

    • I do not mean to add uncertainties (or even ease some), I just ask questions and offer theories and thoughts. And nothing I say or write should be considered anything more than opinion (and subject to change).

      Are we not part of nature then? Something separate, though similar to, the “lower” animals? I think of us (humans) as a part of nature. A position which puts me at odds with many environmentalists, ironically, as well as many of the religious (though these two are not always separate). If we are outside of nature, caretakers of a sort (as the bible says), then are we superior? If so, does that make us demigods, something between animal and God? My own take is a bit pessimistic and can be depressing because I see us as parasitic yet I do not see that as “inferior”.

      This touches on part of the debate I had with myself (over many years) before fully accepting my atheism. (There are many more parts to that debate, believe me)

      My own take on mathematics is that it can be religion to some… if religion is the search for answers to the question(s) of our existence (and the practitioner accepts that premise). It doesn’t have to be, of course, it can be merely a tool.

  18. @Douglas

    Your thoughts on mathematics are interesting.

    “Can everything be reduced to mathematical formula?” …. Is math just a parody of the universe? … “We go astray when we try to fit Nature to mathematics rather than the reverse…”.

    Cannot but agree with the parody. To me it is hard to understand how there can be a connection between our mind, part of nature of course, and the tremendous collapse of galaxies for example that look indifferently at us … “such a wondrous site, those heavens up there”, taken from a friend blogger from NYC. He very well added *here* that this immense and unfathomable mystery of nature is so well expressed “by the Greek goddesses’ terrible eyes. A beauty terrible to behold.”

    On the other hand the Greek legacy also concerns the opposite, a non horrible, harmonious, rational kosmos.

    I conduct curious, for-fun explorations of science and it seems evident this connection between Pythagoras (he probably used kosmos in this sense for the first time, his influence on Plato etc. having being immense) and the modern theories of the universe.

    We can ‘make sense’ of the universe, stated both Pythagoras and Einstein – and outcomes from Einstein’s musings such as the A bomb make us suspect this parody is not totally out of scope at times.

    So the Greeks had both the terrible (awe?) and the rational sense of nature.

    Personally I feel horror and some fascination in front of the pictures of the remote areas of the universe. Basically the universe scares me a bit. I see no divine order there, only ruthless indifference. My position on religion is the same as that of Lucretius (of course lol). Were out there superior beings (no matter what, even aliens) they couldn’t care a flip about us or are too far away.

    Could be the fault of our math high school teacher, a gigantic Sicilian female ogre who literally scared the hell out of us.

    And, of course, those supreme minds – reducing such enormousness to comprehension with mathematics – they are true heroes to me.

    • I like the concept of the “Big Bang”. It explains the chaotic nature of the universe (but implies a limit to it) while suggesting an order to it. And here we are, sitting on a tiny spec of dirt, rock and water (among other things) in a remote part of a remote galaxy (one of millions if not billions), and contemplating the nature of it all in terms of our existence. As if we mattered to it.

    • Oh yes, this whole thing about the universe, even more awe inspiring if we consider the possibility of a multiverse, the many-worlds hypothesis and so forth. Let me ask you, living on this tiny spec of dirt as you say, does it make you more cynical? Or pessimistic in some way?

      Offtopic, I was born in 1948 🙂

    • There is a song called “I hope you dance” which has these two lines in it:

      I hope you still feel small
      When you stand by the ocean

      How much smaller can you feel than when you try to imagine your physical place in the universe?

      And it begins with this line:

      I hope you never lose your sense of wonder

      So, no and yes, I try hard not to feel more cynical but often do. Pessimistic? Not at all.

      I was so tempted to just write “yes and no.”

    • It doesn’t make me cynical neither. I have other forms of cynicism. As for pessimism, I like to say I am pessimist via intelligence and optimist via will. But it is a hard path. It was what my mentor taught me at any rate. He was much more disciplined than I have ever been.

    • Oh, one question for you…

      Do you think we travel between these universes within the multiverse? That is, a decision made shunts us to another universe? It’s a concept I have toyed with many times. What if a near death experience is simply the point at which you shift into an alternate reality?

    • I have no idea, my knowledge of physics and mathematics being that of a baby. Yes, it seems a decision made shunts us to another universe, a ‘Sliding Doors movie’ type of thing, with infinite possibilities. I knew something more, but I forgot it.

    • Problem being a ‘physical passage’ of one person from one universe to another (the one where we have another wife, or are president of the US) could annihilate us. But I am improvising. Do me the favour to forget.

    • Not a physical shift, I wouldn’t think, at least in the sense we have of that term. And would we realize it? I wouldn’t think so. This being inferred by… it if happens, we are not currently aware of it. I toyed with a parallel to that concept when I considered the idea of transferring consciousness to achieve immortality. An idea triggered by the Gateway series by Frederik Pohl. Is the “me” that is transferred the “me” that I am aware of today? The concept lends itself to shifting to another universe/dimension where life continues in that reality. It falls to the question of what is existence?

  19. PS

    Maybe my Pythagoras point is more clear if we consider that he and his followers (up to Einstein etc.) postulated a substantial ‘affinity’ between our rationality (math etc.) and the universe, which I intuitively am dubious about.

  20. the idea of mathematician as hero was introduced at the beginning… i think the discussion has veered off but still interesting. in fact i introduce a balanced equation for a code of conduct that might be used to empirically “test” for Hero.

    “is that mathematics can be religion to some?” i myself find proof of god through math and science. (although i follow the organized religion in which i was raised)

    back to Neitche boys… “if matter is finite and time infinite” then throw in some physics “nothing is even created or destroyed, it just changes form” then add some John Donne (or Plato), “the microcosm that is the macrocosm” how can we not believe that even though all things tend toward entropy, (what man of romas calls “ruthless indifference”)
    that in the supposed chaos there is divine order?

    it is when we assume that this order is somehow meant to preserve humanity that the error in judgement occurs. i’m with douglas, history will prove or disprove that humans are simply “visiting parasites” – a blip in time.

    just because “man” may not matter to the cosmos does not mean the cosmos does not exist nor matter (pun intended). unless of course you are an existentialist, in which case flibertly gib hubba bubba to ay – i can say and do as i wish since i only exist in your mind!

    @ douglas, without the ability to look up things on the fly with the internet i would be unable to follow half the discourse, also did you find yourself in andreas piece? (i believe you are socrates, the atheist who searches incessantly for a definition of piety) where am i, in the piece. besides knowing that my tangent thinking can be enormously confusing, i am very unaware of how i appear to others.

    @ critical line, no worries. i understand you perfectly – use douglas post as a bridge to my mind, you understand each other and he understands me!

    • @dafna

      I am trying to reflect on your writings. They are tough to understand, but there profundity, not that I consider myself a judge, no, no. Yes, we are creating havoc in the hero discussion. So my conclusive statement will be this:

      I agree mathematics can be a religion to some (music and mathematics together were like a religion to Pythagoras), math’s tremendous power of description, explanation etc. can be seen as evidence of an ‘intelligence’, a rationality pervading the universe. Personally I don’t believe it. There no real evidence, no solid argumentation that can prove religion(s) is /are true. As Bertrand Russell put it (a great mathematician btw) the reason people embrace religion is based on emotional grounds. Of course religions are tremendous elements of culture, to be studied carefully, because they influence thousands of behaviours. Plus are fun. Emotions are so rich.

    • you have the gist of what i believe.
      when we see a clock we take it as evidence of a creator.
      but not so simple minded, the Fibonacci sequence and Pi recurring in Nature and other theories of chemistry, physics and time – their truth of which seems to be already understood (how to say it – we simply recognize its verite?)
      these things seem to me overwhelming proof of a rational force.

      i make no connection with my “organized religious” faith to my own “theories about a higher power”. i simple choose to believe that “i exist”, “that a reality outside myself exists”, and that when i cease to exist my matter will be converted to “something else” – like the shooting star in you story. (in my case maybe i will re-form as a dictionary so people can understand me better!)

      i find the philosophic alternatives “unbearable”.

    • @dafna

      You wrote (on religious belief), [I] find the philosophic alternatives “unbearable”.

      I think that fits within what Roma cited of Bertrand Russel’s thoughts. There is a strong emotional aspect to religious faith. I see us as a frail species, emotionally, afraid of much of the world and reality and we fear death most of all. Religion has always provided answers and assurances that help us cope with those fears.

      We also seek “order to the universe” and mathematics is useful in that search, don’t you think? If the Big Bang Theory is right (and it seems logical to me) then the math should be consistent. I do not know enough about physics (nor explosions) to affirm that. There is something about missing matter and “dark matter” and now they search for the “God particle” that may turn that theory to Law which seem involved. But, for me, I stopped worrying about these things early in my life. Though I occasionally toy with the idea that our universe is merely a nuclear explosion set off on some macro world in some other macro-universe.

      I remember a quote from The Brothers Karamasov that goes something like “If God is dead then all things are permissible.” Put another way, replace “God is dead” with “God does not exist” and the concept is the same. I don’t agree with that. I think that there is a part of human makeup that strives to be good, that strives to function together, maybe because of that fear I mentioned earlier.

      To bring this back to heroes and heroism, heroes put aside that fear. They go “above and beyond the call of duty” (as the military likes to phrase it) in the service of others. I wonder if there are any atheist heroes? That is, heroes who were also atheist and not heroes of atheists or atheism. (Nietzsche might be one of the latter.)

      Andreas’ classical heroes often battled the gods in their quests. Is that (a struggle with faith) also part of the equation of the “hero”? A belief in something greater than oneself from which to draw the strength needed?

    • thanks for the post. i fear death no more or less than any other. you may be correct that it is the idea that randomness in the cosmos causes fear to some people. Nietzsche offered an alternative to this randomness, the idea of “eternal recurrence”. something that gives our actions weight independent from religion.

      the reference to “unbearable” was to kundera’s book that draws on Nietzche’s philosophy. who is to say which is right? however, i find little comfort in existential philosophy. start out thinking you don’t exist and see how far that gets you?

      i adhere to the religion in which i was raised but find comfort in proof of a higher power/order through math, science physics. the more that is discovered the more it seems there is both entropy and Intelligent Design.

      my religion speaks nothing of hell (at least to my understanding) there is either something better when you die or nothing. it comforts me to know that the “matter” that makes up my form will simply be re-intigrated into the collective matter of the universe.

      you may be either over-thinking or being socratic at this point since in this post you contradict some of your earlier posts/convictions 🙂

    • I am unaware of any contradictions. You could help me by pointing them out. It’s easy for people to miss their own contradictions. The “we” I use has to do with the species, not the particular. I have toyed with a number of theories about our existence and death, a couple similar to what you describe as yours (return to the universe in some other form) along with various forms of reincarnation, and have always discarded them. One, because nothingness doesn’t upset me and, two, I have no real control over whatever happens (I know, religious beliefs, for the most part, claim otherwise). Some might see that as fatalism except I do not believe in fate.

      One of the things I have observed is that the vast majority of people adhere (practice, remain in, give lip service to, etc) to the religion of their parents or something closely related to it (Christians tend to stay Christians and so on). There is a lot of pressure to do this, of course, as well as a feeling of comfort in it. While people do jump to other religions, it is quite rare and often surrounded by trauma. At least, so far as I have observed.

      My mother was raised Catholic but left the Church to marry my father (raised a Protestant and who refused to convert or raise his children in the Church). Religious belief was not a major part of my family life and I felt little cultural pressure in the places we lived. I grew up surrounded by people of all kinds of faiths and chose “neutrality” (agnosticism… it seemed the least offensive to others) for a short period before I moved to atheism.

    • at first glance “I wonder if there are any atheist heroes?” seems to contradict an earlier post where you site “a basic morality to life” which even an atheist can espouse and a code of conduct that must be inherent to a hero. why wouldn’t there be heros who are also atheists?

      i have been pleasantly surprised that this thread did not pluck a long series of heros from religion (of which there are many).

      with your permission could we continue the dialogue on your blog, since our posts digress and contravene the hannibal blog by-law of platonic sharing? also we are taking up a lot of blog real estate!

      how about you post on your blog… nominations for atheist heros? an we can continue the discussion.

      i took the opposite route as you, faith in which i was raised, atheism, agnosticism, them back to original upbringing. i would like to think that by a certain age people can believe/be whatever they wish without the trauma you have witnessed.

    • Ah yes, the “atheist hero” question. I wonder if we would know? How many public figures are there that we know to be atheist? Certainly no elected officials. A person of almost any religion short of Satanism could get elected (even a Satanist in some places, I suspect) but an atheist? True atheists (not those I view as anti-theist) keep a low profile, it seems. It isn’t really understood, thanks in part to those anti-theists. I would guess the law of averages would dictate that some of those deemed heroes would have to be atheists. Of course, I do not subscribe to the belief that “there are no atheists in foxholes.” 🙂

      Yes, there are many heroes with religious overtones. Religions are alternately oppressed and oppressors, providing more opportunity for heroism. Martyrdom is seen as a form of heroism, don’t you think?

      I would be happy to continue this on my blog. I will think about a blog article that would be helpful and appropriate. Give me a couple of days to come up with something. I have something already planned for tomorrow. There is one in a less viewed blog I write that might work now… It’s from May…

      It’s more about the search for self direction in that aspect.

    • Dafna, I recognized something of myself in Socrates (which I hope does not lead to hemlock in the future) in that he was curious and asked questions and engaged in debate in order to learn and not simply to impress others with his knowledge. On the other hand, he also seemed to do the latter also. But I am no Socrates, not by a long shot. I would likely have opted for escape.

      We all search for answers and knowledge. Well, a great number of us anyway. Some do not and they seem to be very happy not to. Some accept the answers they have been given by various philosophers and/or religious leaders (and maybe a rock star or two). I had a friend for a short period many, many years ago who was incredibly intelligent and remarked how unhappy he was being smart enough to ask these questions. He said he envied the guy too dumb to question his existence. That guy seemed to enjoy life.

      I feel fortunate that I am smart enough to ask the questions but dumb enough not to worry about the possible answers.

  21. Back to the beginning of the Blog, i would like to formally nominate Woody Guthrie as “potential hero”. during ww2 and in his fight for the working class he often performed self-less acts (pun intended). also he truly believe that music had the power to save the world. hows that for an example of the beauty, power and heroic power of math?

    • Interesting choice. I wouldn’t view him as especially heroic. And not especially selfless. He abandoned his families for reasons that could have been noble (seeking work in tough times so he could send money back) or selfish (leaving to chase his own dreams). He seemed to have principles that he pretty much stuck to. And he uplifted spirits and inspired others. On the other hand, he seemed to overlook them in defense of communism (which he claimed to be but did not actually commit to) and the Soviet Union at a time when the Soviets had entered into a non-aggression pact with Hitler and attacked Poland. Later he lashed out at fascism but only after Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

    • actually, partially correct about guthrie. my son is reading his biography now – “this machine kills fascist” was painted on his guitar from his earliest years. he abandoned his first wife yet continued to support her financially. and although his father was a murderer and card carrying member of the KKK, woodie was for desegregation long before it was fashionable.

      “left wing, right wing, chicken wing…” one of his more memorable sayings – if anything guthrie appears to have been a socialist.

      one interesting and self-less act was guthrie as fellow marine performing to a desegregated group of marines just before the storming of Normandy to drown out the sound of german torpedos in song.

    • According to Wikipedia and the official Woody Guthrie website,, he served in the Merchant Marine and, in 1945, ended up in the Army. Neither of which would have put him in the Marines in June of 1944 (I am not even sure the Marines were involved in the Normandy invasion). There’s a lot of myths out there, it’s sometimes hard to filter the truth from the fiction.

  22. i think it’s just the two of us now (until andreas starts a new thread) – not to be offensively socratic in my correction

    this was the ship

    and here places guthrie at Normandy

    i am not sure about the type of ship but it did “disgorge troops at Normandy” and the troops were segregated but united by song by woody before their deaths. in a twist of irony, guthrie was refused by the Merchant Marines in 1945 for being a “communist” but accepted by the Army sometime in late 1945.. the last day of WW2

    it is his lyrics that speak for him.

    should i be worried that people find me confusing? we share the tangent thinking gene, if i were to try and connect all dots i would use the entire blog space. i am worried since i suffer from Aphasia.

    • From the site:

      Many of the recordings were made in marathon sessions during April 1944, when Guthrie was in between voyages in the Merchant Marine. (He made three voyages, including two in which his boat barely survived sinking.

      I see no mention of Marines, black or white, and no mention of torpedoes (Which, if I recall correctly, were not use din attacks on any ships of the Normandy invasion).

      Yes, he was in the Merchant Marine and he was refused retention when they decided he was communist (which seems odd to me since the furor over that didn’t start until much later). I got that from the official web site. No mention was made there of his being at the Normandy landings or of any ship he was on being attacked. You would think that would be mentioned. Things are often exaggerated at times. These stories seem to have originated with Jim Longhi and his book. There should be some official record of what merchant marine ships he served on and the voyages made and I would think that might be documented somewhere other than in one book (or maybe in that book).

      There were a number of landings at Normandy after the invasion date. I’ll have to see if I can find that book somewhere (as I am interested in that period), my local library doesn’t seem to have it.

      As far as I can tell, there were no Marines landing on D-Day (most were busy in the Pacific Theater). It was, by and large, an Army operation.

      I am not discounting Woody Guthrie’s accomplishments as a folk singer and songwriter. Nor his support for the downtrodden. He was a major figure and voice.

      Yes, it appears we’ve chased everyone away. Maybe we ought to get back to Socrates, Homer, and the Iliad.

  23. Elizabeth Partridge is the author of the biography.

    the first link gives the ship, attack date and location. the book references the events on board the ship and the inter-actions to which i referred… yes if the book is wrong how could it be so wrong? aren’t they required to fact check?

    if you are researching, use the first link as reference. i’d like to know also.

    i wouldn’t worry about chasing anyone away. they simply are waiting for new fodder.

    is my aphasia apparent? i have the luxury to re-read and edit here. my aphasia is apparent in real world.

    • That makes it harder to verify Longhi’s accounts, doesn’t it? I wonder why they destroyed the records? The site says it was intentional which probably means there was something to cover up or protect that was in those records. Maybe it was just to make insurance claims more difficult to document. A mystery to be sure.

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