The Philosophical Foundations of Heroism

by | Sep 25, 2004 | Psychology & Living

What, the first question must be, is the distinguishing essence of heroism?

Every rational person, growing up, had his favorite childhood heroes. Maybe it was a John Wayne character in a Western action movie, leading the cavalry over the hill in a last charge against vicious bandits or marauding Indians. Maybe it was a swashbuckling swordsman who, ever loyal to his King, saves the Queen from a nefarious plot, like d’Artagnan in Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. Maybe, as one grew older, one’s taste ran to more intellectual heroes, such as an uncompromising young architect who stands by his own judgment against an entire society in a book stressing the virtue of independence. Or maybe one found one’s heroes not in fiction but in the great men and women of real life, such as: George Washington leading his battered troops across the Delaware to surprise the British Army on Christmas Eve–or Thomas Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence, risking “life, fortune and sacred honor” to establish the fledgling republic on the principle of individual rights–or a scientist/inventor like Thomas Edison or Marie Curie or the Wright Brothers devoting years of effort to discover new knowledge or create new products. Whatever one’s individual tastes in heroes, one fact is abundantly clear: the great men and women whose achievements provide inspiration for millions come with an assortment of specific characteristics. Some are predominantly physicalistic heroes, some primarily intellectual, some are excellent examples of the principle of mind-body integration; some are grand-scale characters towering through a work of fiction, whether on the printed page, stage or screen–while some perform their great and notable deeds in actual existence. More prosaically, some are male, some are female; some are white, some black, some Oriental; many are Americans, many are not; some lived in the 20th century, many lived in the past, hopefully many are yet to come.

And yet, through the teeming multiplicity of individualized differences, there runs a recurrent thread, a distinguishing essence that unites them all into a common classification, as differentiated from their antipode, from the mundane, the trivial, the everyday, the pedestrian, the non-heroic–or worse, from the evil, the villainous, the monstrous, the anti-heroic.

What, the first question must be, is the distinguishing essence of heroism? What characteristics must one possess to qualify as a hero? What is it that unites Achilles, Cyrano, Isaac Newton, John Galt and Ayn Rand? What is it that differentiates them from: both the folks next door, and from Iago, Ellsworth Toohey, Adolf Hitler, Hilary Clinton? In short, what is the rational meaning of the concept “heroism”?

Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary defines “hero as: a) “a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability, b) an illustrious warrior, c) a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities, d) one that shows great courage.” These attempts at defining the nature of a hero are woefully inadequate. Observe first the predominant emphasis on the physical, on great strength, courage and warlike prowess–second the absence of any mention of the mind or intellect–and third the attenuated reference to the criterion of a man’s moral character (“noble qualities” is listed as one of the term’s meanings). The American Heritage Dictionary, though endowed with such a promising name, provides a set of definitions essentially no different. Based on this definition, one might conclude that an Arnold Schwarzenegger character is a hero but that Howard Roark or Ayn Rand are not. Sadly, this is a common perception in our culture.

The philosophical causes are instructive. The Platonic-Christian tradition in philosophy trumpets two claims: 1) that man is a being severed into two parts, that his body belongs to this dimension of reality and his consciousness to a higher, spiritual realm–and 2) the logical consequence of this mind-body split, the belief that this world is utterly material and carnal, that brute, bodily means are effectual, but that the intellect, since it belongs to another world, is helpless to deal with this one, that the mind is ivory-towered, inefficacious, helpless, that its constructs may be sound in theory but are futile in practice. Just as Jesus is the perfect moral expression of this view–the weak, pacifistic, cheek-turning “lamb” in this world, but the omnipotent deity ruling the next–so Hamlet is its perfect literary expression–the brilliant philosopher-intellectual who excels in the theoretical realm but is helpless to deal with the practical.

Such a mind-body split is the necessary application to the theory of human nature of the belief in two-world, metaphysical dualism. As long as men are taught a religious metaphysics, they will hold that the spirit is a hyper-sensitive, hand-wringing weakling too fine for this world–and that only brute bodily means are efficacious and practical.

Therefore, as long as men retain sufficient rationality to value their own lives, they will necessarily celebrate the distinctively-physicalistic attributes of man despite paying lip service to religion. If only physical prowess is efficacious, then their lives depend on it–and it is the body they will venerate. This is why the overwhelming majority of heroes admired by mankind, both historically and currently, are mighty warriors–and why the dictionary defines the concept “hero” in almost exclusively physicalistic terms. (For a fuller analysis of the Platonic-Christian tradition and its mind-body dichotomy as the cause of heroism’s construal in physicalistic terms, I refer you to my talk, “The Mind as Hero in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.”)

The concept of “heroism,” like so many others, is a high-level abstraction–it is primarily a moral concept–and requires a rational philosophical system, including the principle of mind-body integration, as it proper base. Without such a basis the concept can be neither rigorously-defined nor adequately-understood.

A hero is (this is my definition, not Webster’s): an individual of elevated moral stature and superior ability who pursues his goals indefatigably in the face of powerful antagonist(s). Because of his unbreached devotion to the good, no matter the opposition, a hero attains spiritual grandeur, even in he fails to achieve practical victory. Notice then the four components of heroism: moral greatness, ability or prowess, action in the face of opposition, and triumph in at least a spiritual, if not a physical, form.

Of these, the hero’s moral stature is unquestionably the most fundamental. An uncompromising commitment to morality is the foundation of heroism. Although the point can be stated simply–the hero is a “good guy”–its reasons are philosophical and apply to all instances of the concept.

The essence of a rational morality is a ruthless dedication to reality and to the factual requirements of man’s life on earth. Man’s life requires the achievement of values: he must build his houses, grow his food, develop the medicines that cure the diseases which afflict him, and discover the principles in logic, philosophy, science, that make possible all these accomplishments and more. The achievement of values is not guaranteed, automatic or effortless. Struggle, i.e. the act of strongly-motivated striving, the pursuit of goals involving great exertion, even difficulty, is inherent in the nature of life. Man’s nature provides him with built-in needs and the ability to satisfy them–but not with the goods their satisfaction requires. These are the product of his own effort, often prodigious and sometimes in the teeth of antagonistic forces, be they insentient, bestial or human.

The hero is the man dedicated to the creation and/or defense of reality-conforming, life-promoting values. Because of the culture’s mind-body split the defender of rational values has very often been recognized whereas their creator has not. But the truth is that the man who creates values is the primary hero; the man who defends the creator from evil is a hero because the creator has made human life possible. This distinction must be made because of irrational philosophy dominating the culture. Nevertheless, in fact, both the industrialist who creates a new product and the police officer who rescues him from kidnappers are heroes–and for the same reason: the actions of both exhibit an unswerving loyalty, no matter the opposition, to the values required by human life. This is the indispensable moral pre-requisite of being a hero. Lacking this, one need not apply.

It should be clear from this discussion that prowess or ability is a second critical component of a hero’s make-up. If we lived in a Garden of Eden, in which an omnipotent deity provided all goods and full protection, then no competence on the part of human beings would be required for either the creation of values or their defense. But since metaphysical reality requires that man’s values be created and produced, ability–above all, intellectual ability–is crucial to his survival on earth. Similarly, since evil men attempt to enslave the creators and survive as parasites off of their effort, ability–again intellectual ability especially–is required to defend the good against their murderous intentions. Where nothing is given to man and all must be produced–where implacable, unyielding foes or forces (be they animate or inanimate) may provide fierce resistance to the would-be producers–then a further quality, in addition to moral stature, is required to ensure survival: expertise, competence, power. Eddie Willers in Atlas Shrugged is as dedicated to man’s life on earth as is Dagny Taggart or John Galt–but he is unable to run the railroad, invent a motor, defeat the looters or even, in the end, repair a locomotive. “Those who can–do,” goes the first part of a famous quote and here, in a different context, we can draw a different conclusion–that those who do on the grand scale stand head and shoulders above those who don’t and are, therefore, the greatest heroes of the human race.

Since reality–and especially men holding converse goals–can, and often do, provide stubborn opposition to a rational man’s value quest, a third characteristic of heroism is an uncompromising commitment to one’s purpose(s) even in the teeth of powerful antagonism. Even the most ordinary of men may take a trip to meet his lover on a sunny day–and there is no heroism in this; but to win home to one’s love through a ten-year struggle against gods and man–this is the act of a hero. Of the essence of heroism is a grand-scale stature that towers above the ordinary like Everest over an ant-hill–and the key to it is this: no obstacle or opposition, no matter how daunting, can sway the great man from his chosen course. If Hannibal had thought, “The mountains are so high,” or George Washington had decided, “It’s too cold at Valley Forge,” or Howard Roark had said,” It’s such a hassle finding clients,” and then relinquished their respective ambitions, they would not be the inspirations they are. If one achieves at a high level, finding it easy and meeting no opposition, that is good–but one has not yet been tested by the full range of forces that a purposeful man might confront. But if one achieves at a high level, having fought the entire world every step of the way–like Socrates, Galileo, Ayn Rand–then it becomes abundantly clear that nothing can stop this man. When one can say this truthfully of a man, then one is in the presence of a hero.

The essence of this point is simple: nothing is given to man on earth–struggle is built into the nature of life, and conflict is possible–the hero is the man who lets no obstacle prevent him from pursuing the values he has chosen.

Which brings us to the issue of triumph. The question can be raised: must one achieve full success in one’s practical value quest–like Howard Roark–in order to attain the status of hero? In effect, must one win the battle and get the girl? Observe that if so, then an extraordinary man like Cyrano does not qualify. Cyrano does not succeed in achieving any of his practical values: his plays are not produced, he lives without the woman he loves, he is murdered by his enemies. And yet, he is a towering, larger-than-life hero. The relevant principle is this: if one remains true in action–come hell or high water–to rational values, if one strives mightily against any and all antagonists, never yielding, never betraying one’s soul, pursuing excellence relentlessly, if one embodies all this and never cries for mercy, then one is a hero even though one fails in practical terms.

The essence of heroism is an unbreached and unbreachable allegiance to the good in the face of any possible form of opposition.

Because he displays such virtue in action against concerted opposition, the hero embodies nobility of character, spiritual grandeur, the characteristic Aristotle deemed “greatness of soul.” He may fail in his specific value quest, he may be shot in the back or die, but his principled, uncompromised devotion to the good represents victory in, at least, a moral sense. Because of this, his life is an inspiration.

This is why Henry Cameron is a hero, even though he dies a drunk, a commercial failure and a man whose greatest buildings were never erected. It is why Howard Roark is, and would remain a hero, even if every potential client were to reject him and Dominique were never to correct the malevolent universe premise that keeps her from him. And it is why Peter Keating, from the first moment of compromise, has abandoned any and all hope of ever attaining such an exalted status.

A hero’s life is an unbroken and inviolable series of actions taken in accordance with his own principles in the teeth of any obstacle with which nature or other men confront him.

Because man is an integrated sum of mind and body, because his life requires a smooth causal flow between thought and action, no wedge can be driven into a great man’s nature; he cannot be sundered into mindless action hero versus purely theoretical, inactive mental giant. A hero is a man whose life is dedicated to the creation and/or defense of rational values. First, he must hold rational values, and to do this he must be a thinker. No matter the predominance of physicalistic prowess in a hero’s life or story, if he is a genuine hero he must be a thinker in at least a practical sense. The gunfighter Shane, for example, in Jack Schaefer’s beautiful novel, loves the Starrett family because he recognizes clearly their work ethic and productivity, their honesty and unbending integrity, and in defense of these virtues he’s willing to risk his life. Similarly, the rough-and-tumble, hard-boiled detective Mike Hammer hates all murderers and characteristically fills them with .45 dum-dums because he holds an impassioned commitment to justice. The recognition of virtue requires understanding, which requires thought. The rational valuer, by his nature and within the scale of his concerns, is a man of the mind. A physicalistic brute who rains destruction on equally-mindless foes in a conflict that involves no recognizably-human values–as in some violence–glorifying action movie–is not a hero because his life embodies the repudiation of the mind. A man who rejects his nature cannot possess virtue and can never achieve heroism. A hero holds purposes appropriate to man and is, therefore, a thinker.

He is also a doer. Some level of intellectual acumen is a necessary condition for great achievement, but the mere fact of its possession is not a sufficient condition. Heroism requires application of one’s knowledge, it requires practical steps taken in pursuit of one’s values. This is why Hamlet, despite his intellectual prowess, is ultimately not merely a tragic but a pathetic figure: he is paralyzed by indecisiveness in the practical realm and never employs his knowledge as a guide to action. Further, even so prodigious a thinker as Conan Doyle’s Mycroft Holmes, who solves the most complex murder mysteries from an armchair, cannot be considered a hero. One may gape, along with Dr. Watson, at the incomparable brain power of Sherlock’s brother, one may appreciate the grand-scale, heroic proportion of this aspect of his nature, but ultimately one is forced to conclude that a man who abdicates all initiative–who takes no self-generated steps to pursue values, and who must be prodded by others to prevent the full squandering of his genius–can never be considered a hero. A hero is a self-driven, value-intoxicated doer.

Observe the principle involved: since man is an integration of mind and body, since his life requires both mental and physical effort, there is a continuum regarding a hero’s nature: he must possess some quantity of both mental and physical prowess, but may do so in varying degrees. Mike Hammer, for example, solves a murder by a process of thought, but he is not the thinker that Nero Wolfe or Sherlock Holmes are; conversely, Wolfe takes practical steps to apprehend a murderer–Holmes certainly does–but neither is the hard-driving man of action that Mike Hammer is. A man’s heroism may take a primarily physical form or a predominantly intellectual one or may consist of a balanced integration of the two–but as a human being, his virtue necessarily requires practical application of rational thought. For a hero, as for any man, the principle of mind-body integration is inescapable.

This is the essence of a hero’s nature, these are the most fundamental of his characteristics. This is the metaphysics, in effect, of a hero’s make-up. But an important epistemological question needs to be raised as well, one regarding the means by which men come to form the concept “hero.”

What are the facts of reality which give rise to this concept? Why have human beings formed it? Which characteristics of men does the concept serve to identify?

The best way to answer these questions is to examine the lives of several heroes and then extract the explanatory principles from the facts.

In my judgment, Ayn Rand is one of the greatest heroes in the history of mankind. What makes her so? Look at the facts of her life: born, raised, educated in a dictatorship, she yearns for political freedom and, alone, defects to America. Raised in a culture dominated by Christianity, by the doctrine of man’s sinfulness, she rejects it and fights for the glory of man’s mind. Through years of exhausting effort, she writes two of the greatest novels in the history of world literature, struggles to get The Fountainhead published, sees Atlas Shrugged attacked by every major critic, without exception, but breaks through the hostility to achieve great commercial success. She formulates a revolutionary philosophy of reason and individualism, then gives lectures, writes essays and newspaper columns, appears on television and radio, publishes works of non-fiction and more–in an attempt to reach out to her fellow man with what she knows is a life-giving philosophy. But many of her fellow men are uninterested or antagonistic. The Humanities professors, the literary critics, the educators, are almost unanimously opposed to her books and ideas; they attempt to stonewall her, to shut her out of the universities by means of silence or virulent attack–but Ayn Rand’s words can’t be silenced and the philosophical movement she founded continues to slowly but surely grow in influence.

Take another example, because as we know from the Objectivist epistemology, from two concretes we can form a concept. Let’s take a fictional example this time, from one of my favorite novels, the character I mentioned earlier, Jack Shaefer’s protagonist, Shane.

Shane identifies that Joe Starrett has discovered a new and better method for raising beef herds, he sees that Starrett’s enemies are killers, he recognizes that, in this context, the good have no chance in a physical conflict with the evil, and he makes his choice. He intercedes on their behalf. In defense of the good, in protection of the honest producers, he rides into town alone to face the evil. He kills them, making the valley safe for the good.

Would you consider both of these individuals heroes? I certainly would. But notice the many differences. Ayn Rand is a real-life person, Shane is fictitious; Ayn Rand is a woman, Shane is a man; Ayn Rand’s heroism is largely intellectual, Shane’s largely physical, etc. Obviously, there are many differences. But what are the critical similarities by virtue of which we place them together in the same class and distinguish them from Bill Clinton, the Pope, Mother Theresa, Madonna–or even from the folks next door?

When the question is formed in this way, the answer should be clear. They hold rational, i.e., life-promoting values–and in the attempt to create and/or defend these values, they are willing to expend all their energy, engage in any struggle, take on every foe.

The hero is one who holds rational values and fights for them, if necessary, against every conceivable form of opposition.

Heroism is a moral concept. By its nature it is reserved for the man set apart–for the select few who tower above the rest. It is a sparsely populated classification. To attain this status one must reach the zenith of human morality–an undeviating commitment to rational values, in action, in the teeth of opposition that would dismay a lesser man.

A hero has faced it all: he need not be undefeated, but he must be undaunted.

Now we have a fuller understanding of my original definition: a hero is an individual of elevated moral stature and superior ability who pursues his goals indefatigably in the face of powerful antagonist(s).

A hero is related but is not identical to a moral man, to an achiever, to a role model. A moral man is one who possesses an unbreached commitment to reality and who never indulges whims. An achiever is a man who attains ends that are objectively life-promoting, one who fulfills reality-conforming purposes, whether to construct a home, complete an education or find a cure for cancer. A role model is a man who, as a rational achiever, is worthy of emulation.

A hero is all of these things and more.

These other great men are not necessarily confronted by opposition nor does the attainment of their exalted status require it.

But in reality some men pursue rational values in the teeth of every form of opposition. It is from observation of these men that the concept “hero” is formed; it is for these men that the special designation of “hero” is reserved. It is only because some men pursue values in the teeth of opposition that the concept “hero” becomes necessary–necessary to differentiate those who, like Ayn Rand, have battled every conceivable foe in pursuit of their values from those who have not.

It is not an accident that, historically, most of mankind’s heroes have been great warriors. This is so because men have recognized implicitly that there are a special few who take on all comers to achieve their ends. The designation “hero” is a moral approbation reserved for this elite.

It is the antagonism he faces that calls forth one of a hero’s most salient moral characteristics: his courage.

The dictionary defines “courage” as: “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear or difficulty.” It involves “firmness of mind and will in the face of danger or extreme difficulty.”

This is a generally-good definition but I would like to amend it in the light of a rational philosophy. Courage does not necessarily require the confronting of physical danger but it does involve more than facing extreme difficulty. The essence of courage is: standing up for one’s values in the face of some threat to them. Whether the threat is to one’s life, one’s mind, one’s loved ones, one’s work, one’s home, or whatever–whether it takes the form of physical danger, intellectual attack, financial ruin, etc.–the principle remains the same: one’s values are in danger and one fights to save them no matter the opposition or odds. Courage is integrity in a context: it is unyielding commitment to one’s values in the teeth of a force or foe that threatens them. The brave man is not necessarily one who is unafraid but one who performs whatever protective actions his values require, no matter the intensity of his fear. This bravery is the especial moral hallmark of the hero.

The hero is valorous because he stands up to every threat directed against his values. Heroism requires value conflict.

Andrew Bernstein holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the City University of New York. He lectures all over the world.

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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