Heroes and Villains

Heroes and Villains
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Stretchers bearing the bodies of three soldiers and a military working dog were tied down to the deck of a C-130 transport aircraft. An American flag covered each. Another soldier from the unit boarded with them, the first of several whom, in relays, would accompany the dead all the way home. The plane took off into the night sky. As it climbed rapidly, the pilot fired its flare pods, creating a spectacle of light in the darkness. The American military calls this a “hero flight”—in this case, carrying three heroes to their final rest.

Heroes remain among us, as Tod Lindberg writes in his new book, The Heroic Heart. We continue to recognize and honor the traditional heroic ideal, despite a century of intellectual assault on the concept. For heroism, which Lindberg defines partly as the willingness to risk death in pursuit of a greater good, is essential to any human society. Facing enemies human, meteorological, bacterial, viral, or terrestrial, some must risk all so that others may survive. A society in which everyone looks only to his or her own welfare and refuses to sacrifice for others is doomed. Such is not even a society, in fact, but rather a collection of atomized individuals, soon to die.

Some might argue that modern society is tending this way, or, indeed, has already arrived there.

The steady erosion of the concept of heroism that Lindberg chronicles in his 200-page essay could be seen as the ultimate proof of this decadence. It may seem that we spurn or dishonor those who offer to give their lives for us, preferring to venerate instead the athlete, the pop singer, the powerful and profligate, the famous-for-being-famous, and those who pander to our basest passions. Lindberg acknowledges this cultural momentum and regrets it, but he refuses to despair.

For as Lindberg reminds us, we stand awe-struck and admiring before the pilot who set his crippled plane down safely on the Hudson River; before the passengers of a doomed flight who rushed the cockpit rather than allow terrorists to fly it into its target; before the fireman who risks all because there might be someone in that burning house—and before the soldier who gives his life for his country. Our culture is not so degenerate that we no longer value heroes; it is just that we no longer distinguish between heroism and greatness or even simple fame.

The Heroic Heart thereby performs an important service. It rejects the absolutist notion that the dilution of heroism equals its destruction. Frequently invoking the example of Achilles, “great in his greatness,” which did not depend on the perceptions of mere mortals, Lindberg suggests that heroism is partly inherent. That is, a hero risks—or gives—his life for others, whether they honor him or not.

Heroes also challenge their societies. If self-sacrifice is one element of heroism (and the dominant one in modern notions), superhuman or at least extraordinary performance is another. The earliest Western heroes were demigods whose powers couldn’t be matched by humans. Later, fully human heroes such as Alexander and Caesar nevertheless stood far above their fellows in the gifts of command. Lindberg might have noted in addition the rituals that the classical Greeks required of victors in the Olympic games to reintegrate themselves into the society from which their special athletic prowess had estranged them. The hero’s superiority has always led to tension with his community.

Thus, the delight with which we tear our heroes down, exposing their sins and foibles and rejoicing in their falls, seems to bring them nearer to our own level. Such rejoicing demeans us more than its object. The tragic hero, whose flaws lead to his demise, remains a hero nonetheless. His achievements are not lessened by his failures. Everyone fails and everyone has flaws, but few achieve truly great things. And that is why even the fallen hero remains distinct from the normal run of humanity.

It is a good thing, Lindberg reminds us, that we still have heroes and still honor them, even if confusedly. For the world does not lack villains—people with extraordinary capabilities that they use for evil, such as Hitler, Lenin, or bin Laden. The moral relativism of our day leads many to reject the notion of evil or to question whether Lenin or bin Laden were any less heroic than those “on our side” who fought them and whom we venerate.

Here, The Heroic Heart gently makes perhaps its most important contribution by noting the fundamental difference between heroes and villains. It contrasts “the sense of others ‘like us’—not in the sense of ‘us’ versus ‘them’…but of human affinity that is in principle…universal” with the “us” of Hitler, Lenin, or bin Laden: “To the extent their visions were universal, it was not in the sense of voluntary affinity but of conquest and the elimination of the ‘other.’” Lindberg rightly concludes: “This, I believe, makes them villains.” 

To many, the very notion of heroes and villains seems atavistic. The hyper-sophisticated, postmodernist reader finds the idea that we could be heroes absurd. In almost every story we tell about ourselves today, we are the villains. This self-maligning mythos is fundamentally wrong. More than any other culture, ours values freedom, human dignity, human flourishing, the primacy of the individual, and the ethic of helping others and sacrificing ourselves. We have made many mistakes, for which others and we have paid dearly. We should not conclude from these failures that we are as base as any other villain, but rather exhort ourselves to greater heights. That is what true heroes do. That is the essence of the heroic heart.

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