There are no heroes

Elie Wiesel (courtesy David Shankbone)

Heroism. What a simple and innocent concept.

My idea — how simple and innocent of me — was to explore the concept of heroism by re-telling the great and timeless stories of heroes from the past. (So it was really just an excuse to do some good storytelling.)

Well, it turns out that nothing about the idea is simple or innocent.

With a self-deprecating smirk, I therefore postulate the Kluth Uncertainty Principle from the well-known realm of Quantum Intellectualism. The law says this:

The more thoroughly you examine an idea — any idea — the more quickly it seems to disappear, leaving behind only a vague sense that you are crazy.

This, moreover, we call learning.

I) The problem of context

In this thread, the idea of heroism probably started fading — ie, we started learning — when Chris intervened in our fantastic debate about Joan of Arc.

Before we knew it, we were re-examining our notions about gender (or should that be sex?), then our notions about heroism, and then our notions about Jungian archetypes.

Chris has now (heroically?) taken up the thread on his own blog, and this promises to get interesting.

As Socrates might do, Chris begins by … complicating matters. He

  • questions whether we can known anything at all about stories from the past,
  • reminds us that all stories (and heroes) were born in a specific context, and
  • suggests that we cannot willy-nilly import stories into our own context without damaging them.

I can’t wait to see where this goes. That said …

Foucault

… this does remind me of my college days, when everybody was suddenly studying Foucault one year — or was it Derrida?

A few beers into our keg parties, we usually agreed that words (“signifiers”) really only had meaning (“signifieds”) within a context, and out of context we could not know what those meanings were. The underlying logic never sounded quite as good the next morning.

Derrida

Most of us, over the years, grew out of all that (Foucault, Derrida, keg parties…). But it was a good time.

So let us proceed, but with caution.

II) Elie Wiesel

Which brings us to Elie Wiesel, a hero of sorts just for surviving the Holocaust with dignity (rather like Viktor Frankl).

Jim M., in that same great debate about Joan of Arc, pointed us to a site that takes a very different approach toward heroism. Here, heroes are to be understood simply as role models.

As in: Do something admirable → Become a hero

And on this site, we find an essay by Elie Wiesel in which he dismantles the very concept of heroism:

I am deeply skeptical about the very concept of the hero for many reasons and I am uncomfortable with what happens in societies where heroes are worshipped. As Goethe said, “blessed is the nation that doesn’t need them.” To call someone a hero is to give them tremendous power. Certainly that power may be used for good, but it may also be used to destroy individuals. Which societies have proven to be the most fertile fields for the creation of heroes, and have devised the most compelling reasons for hero worship? Dictatorships.

This is a fascinating point of view. It would never have occurred to the ancient Greeks, for example.

The Greeks did not live in dictatorships and yet viewed their heroes as ideals toward which to aspire. But to Wiesel, heroes do not inspire but rather intimidate us ordinary people.

Then there is the devastating problem that heroes are often unheroic. What do we do about that? As Wiesel asks,

Is a hero a hero twenty-four hours a day, no matter what? Is he a hero when he orders his breakfast from a waiter? Is he a hero when he eats it? What about a person who is not a hero, but who has a heroic moment?

Between the lines, you can probably read Wiesel demanding what Chris is demanding: context.

III) More definitions

Wiesel then attempts various definitions of heroism, as we have been doing in this thread.

1)

Here is his first:

In my tradition, a hero is someone who understands his or her own condition and limitations and, despite them, says, “I am not alone in the world. There is somebody else out there, and I want that person to benefit from my sacrifice and self-control.” This is why one of the most heroic things you can do is to surmount anger, and why my definition of heroism is certainly not the Greek one, which has more to do with excelling in battle and besting one’s enemies.

Aha! Now Wiesel is sounding a lot like the yogi who met Alexander the Great: Heroism as self-control, as inner peace, as conquest over anger and fear.

The Indians, however, went one step further than Wiesel and used the “Greek” battle image of heroism as a metaphor for the internal heroism Wiesel describes, and that gave us the hero Arjuna.

2)

Clearly unsatisfied, he tries again:

If I had to offer a personal definition of the word, it would be someone who dares to speak the truth to power. I think of the solitary man in Tiananmen Square, who stood in front of a column of tanks as they rolled in to quash a peaceful protest, and stopped them with his bare hands. …

Speak truth to power: Isn’t that what Theseus did (the Minotaur representing power) or even Jeanne d’Arc (the English)?

Wiesel seems to be backtracking from his opening thesis, that he is “sceptical about the very concept of the hero.” It appears that he cannot help himself — ie, that the hero is, after all, … an archetype;)

3)

Wiesel tries a third definition. This time he “gets modern” on us, which is to say he brings it home, makes it small, makes it un-Greek:

Maybe heroes can simply be those people who inspire us to become better than we are. In that case, I find my heroes among my friends, family, and teachers. …

Sure. We’re all heroes. Sort of.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Wiesel follows the same exact arc of reasoning that we have been following in our debate here. And he always ends up, as we do, in the same cul-de-sac. He opens his essay by saying he does not believe in the concept of the hero, but then cannot let it go. If it’s not there, what’s not to let go? Something is there, and he’s not satisified until he finds it.

4)

So Wiesel tries a fourth definition (by my count):

When I was a child, my heroes were always anonymous wanderers. They experienced the wonder of the wider world and brought it to me in my small village. These men were masters. A master must give himself over to total anonymity, dependent on the goodness of strangers, never sleeping or eating in the same place twice. Someone who wanders this way is a citizen of the world. The universe is his neighborhood. It is a concept that resonates with me to this day.

Did you spot it? It’s the yogi again. Or perhaps the Zen master, or Lao Tzu. Wiesel, in other words, is trying another variant of the Arjuna definition.

5)

My biggest suprise was to learn from Wiesel that Hebrew does not have a word for hero.

But there is a concept that Wiesel thinks comes close, so this may be his fifth and final definition. This is the Hebrew tzaddik:

A tzaddik is a “righteous man,” someone who overcomes his instincts. In the ancient texts, this would mean sexual instinct, the life force, but of course it can be extended to all the emotions connected to that force: jealousy, envy, ambition, the desire to hurt someone else–anything, essentially, that you want to do very much. There is a story about a tzaddik that says a great deal to me about the character of the true hero. This man came to Sodom to preach against lies, thievery, violence, and indifference. No one listened, but he would not stop preaching. Finally someone asked him, “Why do you continue when you see that it is of no use?” He said, “I must keep speaking out. In the beginning, I thought I had to shout to change them. Now I know I must shout so that they cannot change me.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but for a man who is “sceptical about the very notion of the hero,” for a man who insists on seeing the hero in his proper context, Wiesel, in his meandering musings, has traced a remarkably similar path to ours in this thread.

Sounds like an archetype to me.

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22 thoughts on “There are no heroes

  1. who wants to live in a world without heros?

    why do the stories endure?

    we long for heros in the same way we long for each of weisel’s five ideals, (or map of heroes).

    “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.” – Oscar Wilde

  2. Andreas–Despair not! Your exploration of heroes is unfolding just as you expected it to. I quote from your introductory post:

    “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.”

    It seems like we are accomplishing that, so I’m not sure it is yet time to apply the Kluth Uncertainty Principle. Although it may be time for a giant matrix to summarize the development of the discussion.

    PS–Why is it that the people who didn’t grow out of Foucault and Derrida are all teaching at universities?

    • “Why is it that the people who didn’t grow out of Foucault and Derrida are all teaching at universities?”

      Teaching because those who can, do; those who cannot, teach.

      At universities, because who else would take (or understand) them? 🙂

  3. Ha ha ha … I can always tell when you link to my blog, because my “Views per day” stats spike by about 500%! Thanks for the shout-out.

    Hmmm … so many thoughts, so many thoughts … I think I simultaneously agree and disagree with Wiesel when he says, “I am deeply skeptical about the very concept of the hero for many reasons and I am uncomfortable with what happens in societies where heroes are worshipped.” Or rather … it’s more like he problematizes the whole idea of heroes by linking their acts to dictatorships, which I appreciate (redefining the context, as it were).

    So I see him as saying that this idea we have of heroes as these paragons of virtue and awesomeness don’t exist, because no one in the world is that simple (let alone “good”). And the kind of person who seizes and displays the kind of power we think of when we think of heroes already showcases attributes that are morally questionable. And you notice all of his (attempted) definitions highlight lower-class, more common people.

    At the same time, and I don’t think you’re wrong in sensing this, Andreas, heroes do clearly exist. I mean, Akhilles exists; Arjuna exists (or “exists” as in “denotes a person/idea(l) within our linguistic context” (oh, don’t get me started on Derrida)). So I think Wiesel makes some really good points, but he still has to account for this notion we have of the heroic. Why do we have this impulse to idolize; why does the heroic have such a sway on us?

    Is it an archetype … you won’t hear that from me 🙂

    But, actually, his quote starting with, “Is a hero a hero twenty-four hours a day, no matter what?” brings to my mind the idea that perhaps a hero is not a thing but a function. And it becomes a question of how an individual can function as a hero. A question of—you guessed it—context 😉

    Really, really good post….

    • It’s interesting that you just made me think of his (Wiesel’s) context: When I put myself in his shoes, as somebody who has suffered and seen what he has suffered and seen, I can empathize, sort of, with his scepticism towards the idea of heroes. Perhaps the Greeks were just way too innocent for us.

  4. The Greeks did not live in dictatorships and yet viewed their heroes as ideals toward which to aspire.

    Of course they did. They had kings, they had an Age of Tyranny (650-510 BC), and many other periods when they were ruled by invading forces (under some dictator/king) or had a dictator imposed upon them.

    We seek heroes because we are insecure and believe we are incapable of controlling our own destinies. We are especially open to them in times of trouble. Once we have them (elect them to lead us or accept their control over us), we start looking for their flaws. Perhaps we should look for those flaws before we give them control?

    • You have an eye for precision, Douglas: I should have said: “The Greeks did not ALWAYS live in dictatorships….”

      The Athenians under Peisistratos (the tyrant) had heroes, but the Athenians a century later in the (democratic) age of Pericles still had those same heroes.

  5. Children have no trouble identifying heroes.

    As we age, and we see the crumpling of our childlike notion of heroes ( like going to Disneyland as an adult and being surprised at how it has shrunk in size and grandeur), so if we are thoughtful and curious, we begin a search for a new definition.

    Sure, we can parse the word, so that by the time we are done with the chopping, we aren’t sure of any definition. A hero loses all initial meaning and we assign (with common parlance) whatever meaning fits our needs.

    I go through this dialogue with my students when they come to one particular essay prompt about heroism, to which some students write things such as “my friend Hilda is my hero because she listens to me…”

    Hilda is not a hero; she is a good friend.

    What then, is a hero?

    “A hero is an imaginative mythological being, possessed with the powers and inclinations we humans desire. Occasionally, a human acts in one or many instances, like a mythological being and can be called a human hero. Heroism is a word that is still shiny and human heroes (if only for an instant) still radiate. At the end of the day, the heroes we can depend on are in fiction and myth and are products of our longing for such attributes.”

    In other words, as we approach mid-life, or find ourselves older than we thought we were, sometimes staying with our childlike definitions of words, is the most accurate.

  6. I am not entirely sure which question is being asked here. Is it the very existence of heroes, which is implied in the title of the blog, or who falls into this category of heroes? In this comment, as in most of your blog, I will focus on the 2nd question (assuming that heroes do exist). To do this, it seems necessary to define the characteristics of a hero, so that it is clear who falls into this category, and you quote many definitions by Elie Wiesl in your blog. This is a top-down, analytical approach to defining heroes.

    If we try to go bottom-up, then you can follow Phil’s approach, and without any definition, list your heroes (or heroines), using the “you know him, when you see him” approach. If we each individually listed our heroes (or heroines), I am quite sure each list would be different and reflect to some extent our cultural background and other external influences on our individual lives, as well as our own personalities. Of course, some heroes (or heroines) will appear on many lists.

    The fact that we would all have different lists,, leads me to the conclusion that you cannot have an analytical definition of what characterizes a hero (or heroine), when, in fact, we each have a different definition. Thus any analytical approach, or common definition of a hero (or heroine), is doomed to failure.

    • Amen. Which means, I think, that I could in theory go back to telling cracking old yarns of heroes and heroines, with swords and wings and boobs and horse-hair-crested helmets ….

      Your comment rhymes with Cheri’s. You’re talking from the heart. We were stuck in our heads for a moment…..

  7. Heroes with boobs and wings and helmets of all kinds make for fun stories.

    Still, Wiesel is not just a curmudgeon for (initially) preferring a world without heroes.

    For many East Europeans of a certain age, heroism–the word and the concept–has been sorely abused. You had your Hero of Socialist Labor, your “Mother-Heroines” (moms who had a lot of babies in Soviet Russia when low birthrate was a concern), child hero Pavlik Morozov (that charming little boy who turned his parents in to the secret police for insufficient devotion to the Motherland). Nothing but heroic tales of the Russian soldiers in the so-called “Great Patriotic War” with no mention of how they faced certain death at the hands of their own for the slightest hesitation at the front.

    Is it any wonder that Wiesel (and he is not alone) thinks that notions of heroism are imposed from above as a way of manipulating and intimidating us? (I think that’s why it’s hard to find ancient heroines that satisfy modern, thinking girls.)

    There’s a perfectly on-point one-act play by the Polish writer Slawomir Mrozek called “Out at Sea” about three men (Fat, Skinny and In-between) who are stranded at sea and must decide who among them should be eaten so the other two can survive. Fat and In-between convince Skinny that he will be a great hero if he sacrifices himself for the cause. Eternal life through heroic death! Poor sucker.

    Heroism was used in spectacularly unheroic ways in the 20th century, at least in some parts of the world. It leaves a tarnish.

  8. Previously, I indicated that my cat, Bertram, is a hero. This was really in jest. Now, however, I have a template to determine if Bertram is really a hero. Let’s rank Bertram on a scale of 1 to 10 on each of five criterion (10 now being the fantasy I never knew I had; boobs and wings).

    1.

    Bertram cannot open a milk jug or a bag on his own. But, he eats well and I think my efforts to feed him do not go unnoticed. He sleeps on a down comforter. If he notices that my legs are under the comforter and that I am uncomfortable, he doesn’t let on. Bertram was abandoned in an apartment for days. I think he’s grateful.
    Give Bertram 8.

    2.

    I could throttle him with my bare hands, yet he doesn’t fear me. Despite my urge to sleep past 4 am, Bertram will dare to tell me that it is time to get up, (because there might be something interesting outside that we missed seeing yesterday).
    Score: 9.

    3.

    When I come home, my first urge is to open a bottle of wine and drink myself to sleep. What do I do? I feed the cat. This is inspiration and leadership.
    Give Bert a 9.

    4.

    No one in the neighborhood knows Bertram by name. He wears no collar. He can watch a cobweb dangling in the sunlight or water drop from a leaf for minutes at a time.
    Another 9 (I’d give him a 10 here, but you know, it’s like I said)

    5.

    Here, Bertram staggers a bit. He is not as nocturnal as he should be. He has been ‘altererd’ so his life force is artificially muted. But, he often desires to hurt me during innocent games resembling ‘cat and mouse.’ For that matter, he desires to hurt mice in games of “cat and mouse.” He will run into the street without a second thought if he is preoccupied with chasing a prey or avoiding abduction. Give Bert a 7.

    Total score: 42 (out of 50)
    I call that a hero.

  9. I’ve changed my mind and yes, it is time to activate the Kluth Uncertainty Principle.

    And I may also be changing my mind about the applicability of Derrida as this fascinating discussion seems to be revolving around Derrida-eque issues with the “discursive context” around the definition of the term ‘hero.’ I don’t know whether we need and Alexander to cut the Gordian Knot or a Derrida to deconstruct the problem.

    Lest you think I’ve performed and auto-lobotomy, the reason for my new thinking is that last night I played “Guitar Hero” for the first time! I was the hero!

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