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 …


… 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.


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.


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.


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;)


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.


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.


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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