Andrew Bernstein on Heroism and Hero Worship, Part 2

by | May 24, 2000 | POLITICS

CM: Another question for you Dr Andrew Bernstein. Just as when a great artist portrays a simple piece of fruit in a distinctive, compelling way – so that after we’ve seen his painting we never look at fruit or color or texture in the same way – I wonder whether appreciating the heroic also, in […]

CM: Another question for you Dr Andrew Bernstein. Just as when a great artist portrays a simple piece of fruit in a distinctive, compelling way – so that after we’ve seen his painting we never look at fruit or color or texture in the same way – I wonder whether appreciating the heroic also, in a way, essentializes our view of our self and of others. That seems to be what’s coming through from what you’re saying in a way. So my question is really about the parallel between the effect that great art has and the effect of hero worship.

Andrew Bernstein: That’s an interesting question. To be perfectly honest with you I haven’t considered the question in quite that form before. It’s a very good observation you’re making. That great art, you used the example of an apple, stylizes something. That is, it stresses the characteristics that make it what it is. And similarly with observing a hero. It helps us pick out (the essentials) – from amongst all the diversity of somebody’s life – from all the various incidental details of who your parents were, where you were born, and what color your skin is – trivial things like that – trivial in certain ways at least – because it focuses on the human potential: This is what is possible to man, This is what is possible to the human species. We’re not just limited to criminals, dictators and gangsters and drug dealers and drug addicts . . .

CM: (interrupting) Sounds like Hollywood

Andrew Bernstein: (all laugh) Yeah Hollywood . . . That the human potential includes the capacity for greatness. And if we’re dedicated to pushing ourselves – to use the slogan of the US Army: ‘To be all we can be’ – If were dedicated to pushing ourselves ‘to be all we can be’ then we can achieve not necessarily great things – I may not have the talent to do great things – but I can achieve at the highest possible to me and be very, very proud and not ashamed and not feel like I’m a sinner or be embarrassed about myself. I can live a very, very proud life because I’ve earned it.


Andrew Bernstein: I’ll just say on this that I’m more interested, with my own thinking, in looking at reality, looking at facts, looking at some of the people like you mentioned before – Galileo and Socrates and Ayn Rand – and people like that. Looking at THEM – at real life heroes – and then INDUCING from them, extracting from the particulars what’s the essence of being a hero rather than studying scholarship on what other people have written about heroes.

CM: Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, is said to be a philosophy for living on earth. Would it also be true to say that Objectivism is a philosophy for living on earth HEROICALLY? In other words, my question is: Are Objectivism and heroism especially compatible?

Andrew Bernstein: Yes. Absolutely! The reason that Objectivism is so compatible with heroism is that a hero is somebody who’s committed in one form or another to either the creation of or the defense of life-promoting values. That is, the things that make man’s life on earth possible. So notice the people you mentioned before, they were achievers. Thomas Jefferson writes the Declaration of Independence and helps establish political freedom which then enables people to live their own lives and enables the United States to become prosperous. Edison with the lighting system. Galileo with his advances in Astronomy and in Physics. Or Bill Gates who created software that greatly enhances people’s life. A hero is somebody who creates and/or defends the values that make man’s life on earth possible.

CM: Which is exactly what Objectivism is on about too.

Andrew Bernstein: Yes! What Ayn Rand has identified, for the first time, fully, consistently and in a non-contradictory way is that the mind is the means by which we create those values. It’s not manual labor the way the Marxists think – although manual laborers do a good day’s work for an honest dollar – but it’s the mind that fundamentally creates those light bulbs, figures out the agricultural technologies of how to grow food, etc. It’s primarily the mind that creates those values – not manual labor and certainly not fate or going by your feelings. So what Ayn Rand did is she identified what enables man to survive on earth and that which makes heroism possible: a commitment to the rational mind and to the values that the rational mind creates.

CM: Could you talk a little bit about the mind/body split in today’s culture and what do you mean by it and the effect this has on heroism. For example does it undermine those individuals of heroic inclination?

Andrew Bernstein: The mind/body split is very prevalent in Western culture today. It’s the idea that the mind or the spirit comes from a higher dimension of reality, comes from Heaven or from some religious realm. – whereas the body is purely in this world and of this world. So under this world view, developed by the Greek philosopher Plato and certainly embraced by religion, the spirit is higher and better and the body is lower or weak. The way it effects heroism is that since people are taught that the spirit or the soul or the mind is other-worldly then it has no effectiveness in this world. It’s Ivory Tower, it just deals with a higher world ‘beyond’ this world.

CM: In other words what’s the point of trying so hard?

Andrew Bernstein: Yes, what’s the point of being a thinker when thinking is just dealing with ‘pure theory’ and not about practical matters.

Incidentally, a good literary example of this is Shakespeare’s Hamlet who’s a philosopher and who thinks and thinks and thinks and because he thinks so much he can never take practical action. Shakespeare is operating with that idea: that the mind is purely theoretical.

Consequently, what’s bunked our concept of heroism is that the human race, to whatever extent it believes in heroism any more at all, notice that almost all the heroes are purely men of great physical prowess – whether they’re mighty warriors like Achilles or Hector in The Iliad or coming right up to the Western movies that Hollywood turned out, the gunfighters like Shane and people like that – Arnold Schwarznegger films – and of course athletes.

The overwhelming majority of heroes that the human race admires have been men of great bodily prowess not of great intellectual prowess. And that’s because the religious world view has led them to believe that the spirit comes from another world and is only good to get you into Heaven – it doesn’t deal effectively with this wolrd. The mind/body split is also why the Marxists have been able to convince so many people, incidentally, that manual labor is the way that wealth is created – by physical, bodily labor.

CM: Is someone like Seinfeld a hero? Could he ever be seen as a hero?

Andrew Bernstein: Once again I have to plead a certain degree of ignorance. I haven’t seen enough of his work . . .

CM: (interrupting, shocked) You haven’t seen Seinfeld!!

Andrew Bernstein: (laughing) I know, silly me. I prefer books rather than watching TV. Well from the little I’ve seen of his show on TV — and my wife is a big Seinfeld fan — I have to say that I think he’s funny. He’s certainly humorous — I don’t know if he qualifies as a hero.

CM: I wouldn’t have thought he’s a hero, although we don’t know what goes on behind the scenes.

Andrew Bernstein: Exactly! That’s a good point you’re raising. I don’t know what kind of obstacles he might have had to overcome in his own life in order to reach the level of success that he has. He might well have overcome all kinds of obstacles and had to put forth tremendous, heroic effort.

CM: Well imagine everyone laughing at you all the time — that’s pretty tough.

Andrew Bernstein: (all laugh) That’s the trouble with a comic or a comedian being a hero. It’s that the comedian is making fun of something, whereas a hero is somebody who is serious about promoting the well-being of man’s life on earth. Where a comedian could really be heroic is if he stands up, say, in Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany or some dictatorship and makes fun of the dictator based on the rational principles that human life requires. If you make fun of Hitler in Nazi Germany that’s a very heroic action.

CM: I don’t know if ‘heroic’ is the right word there…

Andrew Bernstein: (all laugh) Yeah, it might be ‘suicidal’ – that might be better.

CM: Is there a time in life when having heroes is especially important?

Andrew Bernstein: I think it’s important all throughout life. Certainly for a young person. Of course a hero – as somebody who’s relentlessly dedicated to the values that make life on earth possible – is inspiring at any age, but especially for a young person who hasn’t yet decided what he wants to do with his life and hasn’t figured out yet how much is possible in life. Growing up now in the late Twentieth Century where Western culture is dominated by anti-heroes, by people who are drug addicts or their families are psychologically disturbed, they have all kinds of problems and they just kind of wallow in their problems and nobody ever gets anywhere…

CM: (interrupting) Hey, I’m getting depressed here!

Andrew Bernstein: Yeah, exactly! . . . Growing up in this kind of culture, this is what you see on television, this is what you see in the movies, this is what you read in books – it can be very, very depressing, just as you say. So all the more so, in our culture, for a young person, to have the sight of a hero, to read an Ayn Rand book or, one of my favorites novels, I don’t know how well known it is, the novel Shane by Jack Schaefer which is a Western novel. Shane is a great, great hero. I could see a young person reading a book like that and seeing Shane stand up against the evil for the good the people he loves and putting his life on the line – I could see that being enormously inspiring to somebody even if they don’t understand the intellectual issues that we’re discussing now. At the very least at the emotional level, feeling: Well if Shane can do that, then what might I accomplish in my life?

Prodos Marinakis runs an online radio show at

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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