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Monday, January 18, 2016

Heroism–Is There Really Such a Thing? And If Not, Then Why Do We Need To Create Heroes?

The BBC World Service produced a program (1.18.16) on heroism, and a number of military and civilian experts offered their opinion about what it is and what characterizes it.

The consensus was that one who gives his life or puts himself in harm’s way  for others is a hero.   Such acts occur most frequently on the battlefield because there are simply more occasions to show valor, but heroism is not uncommon in peacetime as well.   Someone who, at great risk to himself, exposes those who have harmed others and in so doing stops them is a hero.  Speaking the truth – again at significant risk to oneself - to support those unfairly accused - is an act of heroism.

One commentator suggested that Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed a disabled passenger plane in the Hudson River was not a hero because he was acting to save his own life as much as the passengers aboard; and because it was his job and duty to react quickly and decisively in an emergency.


A woman who had recently sailed solo around the world and who like all such sailors had faced dangers unthinkable to most ordinary observers, said she was no hero.  Although she had to survive the punishing storms of the Southern Ocean but weather squalls, face the vast reaches of the Pacific with calm and resolve, and master her fears, anxieties and doubts, she demurred.  

She had undertaken the voyage voluntarily, she said, and as an experienced sailor, knew precisely what to expect.  Real heroes are those who face hardship, pain, and death through no choice of their own.  Young terminal cancer patients, for example, who despite their weakness and progressively failing health, never give up.

The missing element in the BBC discussion was the idea of courage.  Sully Sullenberger may not have been a hero, but a less courageous man cockpit might have panicked and sent the plane crashing into Hoboken.

The children mentioned by the former round-the-world sailor might have had courage but more likely an innocent optimism.  The were not old enough to have understood the finality of death, the profound sense of loss of a life never lived, or the absolute grief their parents would suffer until their own death.  They were neither courageous nor heroes.

Baron von Richthofen, the German WWI flying ace credited with 80 aerial kills was widely acclaimed as a national hero; but in fact he was simply a highly-skilled, well-trained pilot with an uncanny anticipation of the enemy’s moves, an ability to take evasive action when necessary, and return to surprise and destroy him.   In other words, he was no hero, but a man with a once-in-generation combination of intelligence, skill, reflexes, understanding of aerodynamics and human psychology.

Ronald Reagan is considered a hero by the conservative Right because he faced down the Soviet Union,  stood up to labor unions and the bureaucrats of Washington.  However, he was no hero to the progressive Left.  In their view he risked provoking nuclear war; he meddled unfairly in cherished labor rights, and in diverting the valuable resources for public stewardship into the hands of the avaricious private sector.

Was Reagan a true hero if only in some people’s eyes?  Given the classic definition of giving one’s life for others or putting oneself at serious risk for them, the answer has to be no.  The worst that could happen to him would be impeachment or dunning at the polls; but the worst thing that could happen to the world if he were wrong about the Soviet Union’s weakness would be incineration. 

Reagan took calculated risks based on moral and religious principle and was willing to take the consequences.  He was so sure of himself and his decisions that he never once thought that he might be leading America, Russia, and much of the rest of the world to a fiery end.   According to the strictest definition of heroism, Reagan was not a hero and perhaps not even a courageous man, but one of principle, rectitude, and absolute confidence.

George W. Bush, say some, was motivated say some by the same moral and religious beliefs as Reagan, and invaded Iraq to rid the world of a brutal, evil dictator, to spread the New American Enlightenment, liberal democracy, and free markets.  He was acclaimed as a hero for standing on principle, taking the fight to an evil emperor, and never hesitating to use the force of arms in a righteous cause.

Critics have concluded that both he and his NeoCon advisers were both steeped in American exceptionalism and were arrogant overreachers whose blind faith led the region into perpetual war.
Bush was no different from Ronald Reagan, only the results were far different.  Neither were heroes but men who acted on principles which result as often in defeat as victory.   Neither were heroes.  They took calculated geopolitical risks which, in the case of Bush, resulted in the death of thousands of Americans, untold civilians, and helped push the Middle East into civil strife.

Truman was considered a hero by most for dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki because his total and absolute commitment to American victory, ending the war, and saving American lives was worth of the nation’s highest honor.  To others he was a genocidaire. 

The term ‘hero’, therefore, is applied broadly and in most cases inaccurately.  We are all in need of heroes, said the BBC commentators, so there is a natural tendency to expand the definition.   In an age  in which the traditional values of honesty, responsibility, and ethical behavior are becoming increasingly scarce, any moral behavior is considered special and out of the ordinary.  A politician who confesses his adultery, faces the music and probable electoral defeat, is not considered a hero nor even a man of courage; but still admired for admitting error and expressing a willingness to be judged.

The fact that he lied to his wife and his constituents, degrading public office, and eroding the trust and confidence his family and the people of his state had in him, seems to make no difference.  By admitting what he did, acknowledging that it was wrong, and accepting whatever punishment he deserved, he is raised above the ordinary cheat, liar, and philanderer.

The point is that in the context of political venality – not to mention the arrogant filching of the unsuspecting by Wall Street investment bankers – expected acts of contrition are raised to a level which was never intended.

Critics have also noted that Americans have become self-centered, overly ambitious, little interested in the works of art, literature, and philosophy that provide moral perspective.  Leon Wieseltier writing recently in the NYT Book Review lamented the decline of Humanism, a philosophy which could provide the moral and ethical context for decision-making.
[Humanism] consists in the traditional Western curriculum of literary and philosophical classics, beginning in Greek and Roman antiquity and — after an unfortunate banishment of medieval culture from any pertinence to our own — erupting in the rediscovery of that antiquity in Europe in the early modern centuries, and in the ideals of personal cultivation by means of textual study and aesthetic experience that it bequeathed, or that were developed under its inspiration, in the “enlightened” 18th and 19th centuries, and eventually culminated in programs of education in the humanities in modern universities.

     George Eliot, Writer and Humanist www.biography.com
If we are as selfish as Wieseltier suggests, then it is no surprise that we create heroes.  None of us are so ignorant that we cannot see the selflessness and principle as something missing in our lives.  No matter how we may dismiss these concepts, there is enough residual catechism or liberal finger-wagging in our past to respect them.

So John Edwards,  Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford and a hundred other politicians and religious leaders are given more credit than they are due for finally coming clean.  Of course, most savvy politicians know that the public has a short memory, and come the next election, they will have forgotten all about their peccadilloes.

Because we have lost the essence of heroism – the truly selfless act done to save others at the risk of one’s own life – we tend to raise the ordinary to unjustified status.  Political heroes are the best example.  To many George Bush was a hero for his moral integrity, recognition of evil, and decisive action to topple Saddam Hussein.  To others he was only vindicating his father, assuring hegemony over Iraqi oil fields, and acting out of arrogant ignorance.  Better not to use the term ‘hero’ at all if opinion is so divided; and divided it will always be if the definition of heroism has become so partisan and so far from its original meaning.

The more fundamental question about the nature of morality was not raised in the short half-hour BBC program; and yet it should have been.   Nihilistic, deterministic philosophers like Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Tolstoy might have a thing to say about the subject.
Tolstoy, for example, debunked the Great Man theory of history.  The actions of Napoleon whether in victory or defeat had nothing to do with the man himself but the tens of millions of events both big and small which determined his decisions.   The Battle of Borodino, said the French, unsuspectingly echoing Tolstoy, was due to Napoleon’s cold which clouded his strategic judgment.  He caught a cold because his valet, distracted by marital troubles,  had forgotten to bring his foul weather boots.  The Emperor got a chill, fell ill, and made bad decisions on the battlefield.  This line of determinism, suggested Tolstoy, could be traced back from the valet to his wife to her lover to his wife, ad infinitum ad nauseam.


Nietzsche like Tolstoy suggested that the world was amoral, random, and deterministic.  In such a world without spiritual or moral meaning, the only legitimate action to validate one’s existence is the expression of human will.  Nietzsche did not judge outcome, whether is was ‘good’ or ‘evil’.  The Superman was beyond both.

If one is secular, amoral, and atheist, what room is there for heroism? Is there any value in one meaningless life saving another?

Of course this distinction is meaningless in practice.  Most of us have been schooled enough in Christian Western values to help a child fallen in a pond, or to pick up an old woman who has fallen on a busy street regardless of our personal philosophy.

Not so in India, perhaps, where classical Hinduism teaches that one’s only purpose on earth is the attainment of personal enlightenment.  There is no obligation to help others because they, too, are suffering through their own cycles of rebirth, and they alone are responsible for their fate.  Hindu heroism does not exist.

In popular legend, of course it does.  Rama and Hanuman destroyed the evil empire of Ravanna in Sri Lanka.  Indian special forces acted courageously to liberate Bangladesh; and Indian politicians have acted decisively to rid the country of all traces of Soviet-style socialism.   All cultures act to protect their own communities, defend their perimeters, and defeat all comers.  ‘Heroism’ is simply one expression of a hardwired impulse to self-preservation.


Therefore we should not make much of heroism.  Either its definition has become so flaccid and imprecise that it means little; or it has no place in an amoral world; or it is simply an expression of an ineluctable trait of human nature – none of which qualifies anyone for pantheon status.

Yet no matter what our principles, philosophy, or character we all admire those who do what we could never do.   Even if we think that a soldier in Iraq is fighting for no good reason, sent as cannon fodder by arrogant politicians; or a volunteer who signed up for veterans benefits and job training, we admire him for taking a bullet for a friend.

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