September 2007 -- Roger Donway’s opening column this month on “The Genealogy of Heroism” offers a definition of heroism as “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.”
It’s a good definition of heroism—at least as it has been traditionally viewed in the West. Or, for that matter, in the East. Joseph Campbell, the late scholar of mythology, wrote a justly famous book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he compared various incarnations of “the hero” across cultures and eras. His conclusion, reflected in the book’s title, was that the nature and “quest” of the hero—reflected and celebrated in countless cultural myths and stories—was surprisingly uniform around the globe and throughout history. Enamored of the ideas of Carl Jung, Campbell believed that there’s a kind of heroic archetype deeply embedded in human psychological wiring. Even though the hero had “a thousand faces,” the same essential character and quest-story kept popping up everywhere. You don’t have to buy Jung’s explanation, however, to concede the ubiquitous popularity of what Campbell called the heroic “monomyth.”
For many, the latter aspect of Roger’s definition—the fact that heroic action is frequently risky—constitutes the true measure of heroism. How much is a person willing to risk or “give up” in order to preserve his principles, the “habits of virtue that constitute his personal identity”? Roger notes, however, that this moral approach appears to clash with certain conceptions of individualism—particularly those which construe individualism narrowly, as a rationale for hedonistic self-indulgence or cynically pragmatic self-preservation. “Heroism can be hazardous to your health, and neither fortune nor fame will be of any use to you if you are dead,” he writes. “In the circumstances, shouldn’t the prudent man seek his values by means that are unheroic or even anti-heroic?”
Contributing to the equation of heroism with self-sacrifice for the sake of principle, and anti-heroism with selfish pursuit of values, have been the classical and Judeo-Christian traditions. It’s interesting, though, that in both the classical and the Judeo-Christian conceptions of heroic action, heroic sacrifices were not to be entirely selfless: the hero was to get some kind of reward for his pains. The classical heroes of Greece and Rome were willing to risk or sacrifice their well-being or lives out of loyalty to their nations or tribes; their reward was to be eternal glory in eyes of their fellows. Judeo-Christian heroes, by contrast, have been willing to sacrifice their lives or well-being for their religion—and as, as a corollary, for others, since such sacrifices are demanded by their belief-systems. Their reward for this sacrificial loyalty to their beliefs was to be everlasting life in the sight of God.
However, with the rise of capitalism, we have moved beyond the era of tribalism, where physical survival in a cruel natural environment required tight group cohesion; and, with the rise of science, we have also moved beyond the superstitions of mysticism, where deprivation and scarcity made eternal life and happiness beyond the grave a compelling hope.
Ours is a new era—an era of high technology and abundant consumer goods and endless new opportunities for self-actualization. Since the Industrial Revolution, if not before, the traditional morality, and the heroic model, began to lose its cultural relevance. This does not mean we no longer need heroes; we need them more than ever. But it does mean that our conception of morality—and the hero who embodies it—must continue to evolve.
Above the masthead of each issue of this magazine stands a quotation from Ayn Rand , and it begins: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being. . .” But what then follows is a different view of heroism: “. . .with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
Historically, this represents a revolutionary recasting of the heroic model, one in which the traditional element of self-sacrifice for something “greater” than oneself is completely expunged. For here, the “self” is conceived more broadly, akin to how Roger Donway described it: principles of practical self-realization are construed as part and parcel of one’s personal identity; and loyalty to those principles during one’s course of self-realization—regardless of the challenges or obstacles—becomes the essence of the heroic quest.
In a wonderful lecture, “Odysseus, Jesus, and Dagny: Ayn Rand’s Reconception of the Hero,” literary scholar Susan McCloskey distinguished the Randian hero from his classical and Christian ancestors. She focuses on Rand’s fictional model of an ideal woman, Dagny Taggart from Atlas Shrugged , in order to draw the essential contrast. McCloskey points out that “Neither a warrior-adventurer like Odysseus nor a noble sufferer like Jesus, Dagny is a producer.”
The heroic ideal that Ayn Rand proposes in Atlas Shrugged values intelligence and talent, the use of one’s rational faculties to make the natural world a place hospitable to human beings and their purposes. It finds the stuff of heroism in production. It holds achievement as its standard, achievement reached not by violence but through the exchange of value for value. And it proposes joy, not . . . conformity to the divine will, as the reward for and index of achievement.
Rand’s reconception of the hero entails the principled, productive use of one’s vital powers. This is an individualist outlook—but one that rejects hedonistic self-indulgence and pragmatic cynicism. It’s a new ethic and a new hero for a new age: a hero with a singular face.
This is the heroic model that The New Individualist is dedicated to promoting. And with this issue, I hope you have seen clear, inspiring examples of what that model holds for our future.