Private I: The Genealogy of Heroism

Private I: The Genealogy of Heroism

8 Mins
March 25, 2011

September 2007 -- The tradition of heroism runs as deep as any the West possesses. And that can be a problem for individualists—especially for secular individualists who maintain that a man’s life is his supreme moral goal. For what can a morality of self-preservation say in the face of behavior like the following? “At the water’s edge, one of the men, Mike Thornton, looked back and saw Tom Norris get hit. As the enemy moved in, he ran back through heavy fire and killed two North Vietnamese standing over Norris’s body.

He lifted the officer, barely alive with a shattered skull, and carried him to the water and then swam out to sea where they were picked up two hours later.” (Peter Collier, “America’s Honor,” Wall St. Journal, May 28, 2007.)

What some individualist philosophers say—and I respect them for their frankness—is that Medal of Honor–winning behavior like that is misguided and should not be extolled. They take to heart the words of the war-poet Wilfred Owen, who berated the eternal glamorizer of war, telling him that if he could see a poison-gas attack, “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest, / To children ardent for some desperate glory, / The old Lie: Dolce et decorum est/ Pro patria mori.” The life of the military hero, these individualist thinkers assert, is nasty, brutish, and short. And indeed Owen himself, so full of promise, died at the age of twenty-five while leading a charge against the German lines, just seven days before the armistice. To what purpose?

One individualist philosopher I know takes this attack on heroism further still and maintains that a portrait of the true egoist is to be found in George MacDonald Fraser’s picaresque anti-hero, Flashman. For those who do not know Fraser’s clever novels, Flashman is a Victorian soldier dedicated only to survival and pleasure, with no regard for conduct becoming an officer and a gentleman. Wrote Richard Boston in an October 1970 New York Times book review: “Flashman is in the thick of things, one eye on the main chance, the other eye on the exit in case he should need a quick getaway. His dishonesty and lechery constantly land him in danger, from which he is only saved by his cowardliness and a highly developed instinct for self-preservation.”

Well, if Flashman is the model individualist, then I say something is very wrong with individualism. One ought not glamorize the ghastly suffering of war, certainly. But to dismiss the concept of martial heroism as mere idiocy is to reject the perceptions of the West’s greatest thinkers and the sifted common wisdom of twenty-five centuries.


The West’s original concept of a hero was simply this: a man of exceptional efficacy, either in strength or skill. Historically, that core element probably arose during Greece’s dark age: 1200 B.C. to 800 B.C. According to classics professor Elizabeth Vandiver, the people of that time, seeing the impressive remains of abandoned cities such as Mycenae, may have attributed the construction of those monumental works to an earlier race of extraordinary men. At any rate, a couple hundred years later, the farmer-poet Hesiod gave voice to the idea of a heroic past when he described five successive ages of man, ranging from an early golden age to the present iron age. Prior to the current era, Hesiod declared, was “the age of heroes,” inhabited by the Greeks who had fought at Troy and by their contemporaries. At approximately the same time as Hesiod, Homer described these heroes as being marked out first and foremost by extraordinary strength and prowess. Thus, when Diomedes wounds Aeneas by throwing a boulder at him, it is “a huge thing which no two men could carry / such as men are now, but by himself he lightly hefted it.”

Heroism can be hazardous to your health.

Yet even these earliest literary portraits of heroism included more than sheer might. Heroes usually played either the constructive role of founding a city (Theseus, Aeneas) or the defensive role of fighting a city’s enemies (Hector, Odysseus). In both those roles, it was possible for a great man to win honor (timé) and, even more importantly, glory (kleos). Timé was measured by the material tribute a man received from his contemporaries; kleos was measured by the praise spoken of a man, now and hereafter.


But how does the quest for timé and kleos produce what we now think of as heroic behavior? Perhaps the most famous statement of the matter occurs in the Iliad, when Hector’s wife, Andromache, pleads with him not to risk the dangers of battle but to stay behind and adopt a prudent, defensive strategy for the city. Hector refuses, saying:

All this weighs on my mind too, dear woman.

But I would die of shame to face the men of Troy

and the Trojan women trailing their long robes

if I would shrink from battle now, a coward.

That goes to the heart of the difficulty raised by the “survival”-minded individualist. Heroism can be hazardous to your health, and neither fortune nor fame will be of any use to you if you are dead. In the circumstances, shouldn’t the prudent man seek his values by means that are unheroic or even anti-heroic?

Our Western tradition rejects that line of thought, and the reason, I believe, is its understanding of the self. Look at it this way: At one time, the stopping of the heart was considered the point of death. Today, the stopping of the brain marks death. But can a person’s self be lost at some point prior to death? The notion sounds contradictory, yet the example of Alzheimer’s shows it is not. Before killing the brain and body, that disease can strip away memory and personality. What is that but the death of self? Just as existence cannot be separated from identity, so personal existence cannot survive the loss of personal identity.

But that raises the question: What is personal identity? Is it only the mind and will? The West’s heroic conception of man says that it is more. It says that one’s identity includes also those deeply ingrained habits of character that have become an integral part of oneself. In the case of Hector, or any Greek hero, the very deepest part of his personal identity is the pursuit of honor and glory. Something of this attitude still comes through when we say of a person who is winning fame and fortune that he is “making a name for himself.” His name, his very identity, is created by his accomplishments and the virtues by which he achieves them. For Hector to dishonor himself by shunning battle would thus be to lose the very essence of himself. The person that is Hector would, in a very real sense, cease to exist; he would die of shame, just as he declares.


Several hundred years after Homer, the Greek dramatists gave new depth to the concept of the hero. Although the heroes they wrote about still bore the names of the Homeric warriors, those figures were infused with a new moral perspective. For example, in Homer, Odysseus lies even when he has nothing much to gain. For him, deceit is one of the martial arts, and it is an art he excels at. In fact, when he tries to deceive the goddess Athena herself, she congratulates him for being such a good liar: “Any man—any god who met you—would have to be some champion lying cheat to get past you for all-round craft and guile!”

But in the Philoctetes of Sophocles, the deceit of Odysseus is evaluated quite differently. Here is the plot: As the Greeks sailed for Troy, their comrade Philoctetes was wounded and became a burden to them. Odysseus undertook to maroon Philoctetes on a desert island, with only a miraculous bow for protection and hunting. Years later, the Greeks learn that they need Philoctetes’ bow to defeat Troy. But Philoctetes naturally hates his former comrades and will not assist them. So, Odysseus goes back to the island with a scheme to steal the bow. Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus, will pretend to be leaving Troy, having been insulted by the Greeks’ refusal to give him his father’s armor. That will allow Neoptolemus to befriend Philoctetes until he can snatch the bow away. The plot succeeds, but Neoptolemus is immediately ashamed of having tricked Philoctetes and decides to return the bow to him, despite the consequences: failure for the Greek army and disgrace for himself. At this point, Odysseus enters and threatens Neoptolemus’s plan:

Odysseus: There is someone who will prevent its execution.

Neoptolemus: Who will that be?

Odysseus: The whole assembly of the Greeks and among them I myself.

Neoptolemus: You are a clever man Odysseus, but this is not a clever saying.

Odysseus: In your own case neither the words nor the acts are clever.

Neoptolemus: Still, if they are just, they are better than clever.

Odysseus: How can it be just to give him again what you won by my plan?

Neoptolemus: It was a sin, a shameful sin, which I shall try to retrieve.

Odysseus: Have you no fear of the Greeks if you do this?

Neoptolemus: I have no fear of anything you can do, when I act with justice.

Clearly, Sophocles has created in Neoptolemus a non-Homeric, deeply moral hero. He forswears all the possible gains of martial honor and eternal glory; he condemns his comrades-in-arms to death and failure; and he accepts upon his own head all the ignominy that the Greek world will bestow. That is the very reverse of the course Homer’s heroes pursued. Yet Sophocles’ Neoptolemus is no ascetic for whom the values of honor and glory are meaningless. He would not be a hero if they were meaningless. But his understanding of honor and glory has become much more principled and expansive, and much less tribal.

This, I believe, is basically the notion of the hero as we have received it from the classical world. Heroism is the choice of a highly efficacious man to preserve the characteristic habits of virtue that constitute his personal identity, in the face of great opposition or temptation.


Naturally, this classical concept of the hero has undergone considerable modification since the ancient world yielded to the medieval world and then to the modern world. But those modifications have been refinements, not negations. And in any case, we cannot now trace that long course of development; we can only look briefly at the results.

“The readiness is all.” “Let’s roll.”

Temple University psychologist Frank Farley, following an intensive study of modern heroism, divided heroes into three types. First are the soldiers, policemen, firemen, rescue workers—what Farley calls 911 heroes (referring to the emergency telephone number, not September 11). They are, in a sense, professional heroes. Like Greek warriors and knights of the Round Table, they struggle against foreign enemies, criminals, and natural disaster, facing grave risks to preserve the foundations of civilization. But they undertake this risky work as part of their daily job.

The second type of contemporary hero is the sustainer, and he might be considered the equivalent of those earlier heroes who promulgated a new society, such as King Arthur. Today, this type of hero could be the breadwinner for an extended family or the indispensable man of a corporation. These roles reach the level of heroism, however, only when the struggle involved becomes intense and the efficacy required titanic—in short, when nothing less than an Atlas will do.

The third sort of hero Farley calls “the situational hero.” This is a person who is not a hero by either profession or position. On the contrary, he lives an ordinary life and seeks no great adventures. Circumstances alone contrive to make a hero of him. His efficacy is elevated to the heroic level purely by context: He is the man of the hour, because he and only he can do what must be done.

Adolescents—“children ardent for some desperate glory”—may like to fantasize about the pleasures of being thrust by chance into a situation that will demand and display their heroic qualities. But the prudent man knows better. “Bring us not to the test”—the literal meaning of “Lead us not into temptation”—expresses his sentiment perfectly. It is a sensible and worthy prayer. “Our nature lies in escaping,” says Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons.

Of course, Flashman would agree. Indeed, he’ll do anything to escape. But it is just at this point that the cynical individualist goes wrong and the heroic tradition goes right. For the cynic assumes that so long as a man preserves his reason and will, he succeeds in escaping. Our heroic tradition says otherwise. It declares that a man is more than a featureless ego; that the “I” of a mature man embraces the values and character that he has won and holds dear; that if those precious assets and attributes do not survive, then the man—the man who was—does not survive.

Just that is the first step for a situational hero: to pass through the dark night of acceptance whose name is Gethsemane; to realize that, given his love for what he is, he can no longer escape. His task thus embraced, the situational hero must then come to the point of utter commitment, where he declares with Hamlet: “The readiness is all.” And ultimately, in the end, he must say with Flight 93’s Todd Beamer, “Let’s roll.”