Heroism for the 21st Century

Rosa Parks

What society is and always has been,” wrote Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death, is “a symbolic action system … designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism.”

Each culture has different scripts for achieving heroism. It might be the heroism of a liberator like Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi. There is the scientific heroism of Charles Darwin, or the literary heroism of Virginia Wolf. Not least of all is the mythic heroism of figures like Christ, the Buddha, or Odysseus.

Besides these grand forms of heroism, there are also modest forms. Becker writes about the “heroism of the coal miner, the peasant, or the simple priest; the plain, everyday, earthy heroism wrought by gnarled working hands guiding a family through hunger and disease.”

The cultural scripts for heroism are myriad. They can be secular or magical, political or artistic. But all hero-systems, says Becker, are symbolic systems that allow individuals to “earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning.”

Today, a quick-witted entrepreneur could find her heroism in Silicon Valley by founding a hot new tech company that forwards the promise of never-ending progress. Activist may find their heroism in a perpetual quest for an ever more equal society. Meanwhile, an Evangelical missionary finds his or her heroism in the impossible but imperative goal of saving each and every person from damnation.

It’s not an accident that the most powerful social movements of today are the ones with the most clearly defined hero-systems. The “crisis of meaning” of modern society might be re-framed as a “crisis of heroism.” Nietzsche’s famous pronouncement that “God is dead” may have put too much emphasis on the “God” part. I believe the crisis of meaning doesn’t so much have to do with the collapse of metaphysical religious systems as it has to do with the collapse of earthly hero-systems.

As societies have grown larger and more globalized, there’s been a failure to meet a growing demand for individual heroism the world over. In small societies, a man might become the best hunter or story-teller in his clan. A woman might earn her fame as an oracle, singer, or healer. The leader, the shaman, the artist, the dancer, the musician all had a relatively high chance of achieving, or growing-into, one of the heroic roles of their community. These roles were in turn reinforced and upheld by a cosmic system that upheld their value even beyond death. But today there are more of us. By the law of large numbers, someone is going to be better than you; if not today then tomorrow. True greatness is difficult to achieve. Meanwhile, the societal hero-systems of religion that offer cosmic specialness to anyone who submits to their worldview are atrophying. It’s not clear where we’re supposed to get our sense of heroism.

I don’t think it’s an accident the anti-hero became a prominent feature of 19th century European literature around the same time Nietzsche was diagnosing the malady of nihilism.

In America, the dominant hero-system has become aligned with wealth-acquisition. Success—even in fields like art and many branches of American religion—is often measured in terms of financial gain. You might even say there’s developed a heroism of hedonism where individuals are celebrated for their excesses of luxury, sex, fame, or drug use. Needless to say, these forms of societal status or achievement, however, do not provide a stable sense of primary value and meaning that a genuine societal hero-system would.

We cannot afford to wait around for society to provide us a better hero-system. We must take this responsibility into our own hands. While we can rarely expect to change society on our own, any one of us can change which hero-system we identify with. But rather than switch from one societal hero-system to another, we can instead found our worth on a personal system of heroism.

Ask yourself: how are you currently gaining your heroism? In other words: where have you sought to gain your sense of worth? Who or what determines that worth? If the answer is another person, symbolic societal status, or a material thing, then that worth can always be taken away (even if it appears relatively stable). On the contrary, if your heroism resides in who you are—in your way of being—then no matter what you gain or lose, your sense of primacy is secure.

Nietzsche wrote that “one thing is needful: that a human being should attain satisfaction with himself.” For this, he recommended an ennobled self-styling of one’s being: “One must give value to their existence by behaving as if ones very existence were a work of art.”

What is your vision of your heroic self? Odds are you know what that person looks like—how they speak, move, and act. Is your heroic self accompanied by trumpet calls and shows of courageous justice? Does it consist of a devoted motherhood and fierce love? A stewardship of knowledge or a long life of cloistered contemplation and humble service? There is no single answer, but for each of us there is a right answer.

Not all of us can start a revolution, write a great novel, or lead a country. But through dedicated self-work and service on behalf of others, all of us can live into a personal heroism that dignifies our lives in our own eyes. If we can achieve that, it will show in our walk, it will sound in our voice, it will glint in our eyes; the world will know what we know: that we have earned our heroism, and it cannot be taken from us.

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4 thoughts on “Heroism for the 21st Century”

  1. Daniel, interesting article, though personally, I can’t really relate to the idea of wanting to be a hero, as I’ve never desired that. I can relate to the idea of wanting to be thought of as special in some way or another, and I wonder if that isn’t saying the same thing. And your principle of large numbers would hold, as its hard to feel special when I am only one of billions.

    Perhaps another way of saying the same thing is that we all want a degree of status within whichever social group we belong to. The desire for status seems to be an instinctive desire of all the higher social mammals, with the wolfpack being a good example. Higher status within a social group is often advantageous to survival and reproduction.

    The desire for status is a huge motivator for humans.. I think some of our most irrational behavior is tied to that instinct. An old book by Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, provides interesting examples of some of that irrationality.

    Thought of in terms of an instinctive want of status, the solution I would offer to the problem of wanting to be special, is rather different from yours. When I feel that desire, and I often do, I try to be very aware of what I am feeling until the feeling passes. I have an ideal of acting rationally, and acting on instincts, even such socially acceptable instincts as the pursuit of status, doesn’t fit in with that ideal.

    Reply
    • Thank you for engaging with the piece Thomas. Substituting a synonym for “heroism” is a good way to clarify what I mean. “Social status” doesn’t quite work as an equivalent for what I mean, though. “Excellence,” might be a better substitute. While a societal hero-system would reward societally-affirmed forms of excellence with social status, the point Im making is that we do not need to (and sometimes shouldn’t) try to fulfill a society’s notion of heroism and thereby gain social-status.

      The more durable form of heroism I advocate for in the conclusion of the piece is one that is not founded on societal norms but rather chosen norms. (Though I don’t think we can really create values that are ever completely divorced from our biology or wider society. There will always be some relation.)

      Ultimately, if your version of personal heroism (read: excellence) is of calm rationalism, embodying a lived archetype similar to that set out by Buddhism – that is one of the forms of heroism (excellence) Im talking about.

      It is not a stereotypical notion of heroism.

      Reply
    • Thanks for that link Tony. I’ve read about TMT before but this is getting me to go back and go deeper into that elaboration of Becker’s thought.

      Reply

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