In his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes that “mankind’s common instinct for reality … has always held the world to be essentially a theater for heroism.” The quote undoubtedly captures a vital aspect of human existence: From ancient children’s tales to contemporary religious beliefs to modern Marvel movies, we have always had a deep inclination towards a good hero story. Preceding this observation, we can find a deep-rooted desire to live out the role of a hero found within us all.
“The search after the great man is the dream of youth and the most serious occupation of manhood.”Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Uses of Great Men
Consequently, we would expect the world to be filled with heroes, constantly encountering people living up to their Godly potential. Yet, this doesn’t seem to be the case, or in Ernest Becker’s words:
“When we appreciate how natural it is for man to strive to be a hero, how deeply it goes in his evolutionary and organismic constitution…then it is all the more curious how ignorant most of us are, consciously, of what we really want and need.” ~Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
With the yearning to fulfill one’s heroic fantasies deep within us, it seemed curious to me that we seem to avoid pursuing our inner hero at every corner of our lives. But before I could begin to tackle this question, I had to find satisfactory answers to the following: ‘What is Heroism?’, ‘Who is a Hero?’, ‘Why do most reject the path of the Hero?”, and “How do they go about doing that?”.
Perhaps paradoxically, I’ll start examining these questions in backward order.
We shall begin to try and untangle the problem of the hero by looking at mankind’s most imminent concern: death. The fear of our demise seems to haunt our every decision. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Mesopotamian poem dating back to before 2000 BC, King Gilgamesh laments: “How can I rest, how can I be at peace?”, “Despair is in my heart. What my brother is now, that shall I be when I am dead…I am afraid of death.”
Upon learning of our looming departure from the Earthly realm, mankind has the tendency to frantically start scurrying for a remedy. And much akin to Qin Shi Huang, the Chinese emperor that presumably ended up dying from mercury poison after drinking wafts of mercury laced wine thinking that it was an immortality elixir, so do we look to transcend our mortality by aligning ourselves with ideas of religion, ‘immortal’ values, ‘being remembered’, and ‘leaving a better world behind’. All very noble pursuits as we seek to align ourselves with a greater purpose. In fact, in The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker states that “…heroism is first and foremost a reflex of the terror of death”. Nevertheless, the world is filled with power-driven individuals that have learned to exploit our fear of death for their own personal solidification of power. Our inner drive for heroism has for the most part been abused in a bid to manipulate the masses into conformity. Have someone believe they’re fighting for a higher cause, and their loyalty shall blind them to their leader’s mishaps. The political philosophy of populism is a perfect example of the misdirection of our heroic tendencies for a minority’s gain. Playing on the aforementioned, all one needs to do is depict a common enemy (such as immigrants, blacks, Muslims, drug users, or atheists), and then portray themselves as the savior against this simulated threat.
“Man earns his feeling of worth by following in the lines of authority and power internalized in his particular…social group and nation…Each human slave nods to the next, each earns his feeling of worth by doing the unquestioned good… ‘I only followed orders!’ is the phrase that rankles in the breast of modern man.”Ernest Becker, The Ernest Becker Reader
Furthermore, sometimes we don’t need a mysterious other to deceive us, sometimes we do a good enough job of that ourselves.
“We disguise our struggle by piling up figures in a bank book to reflect privately our sense of heroic worth. Or by having a little better home in the neighborhood, a bigger car, brighter children. But underneath throbs the ache of cosmic specialness, no matter how we mask it in concerns of smaller scope.”Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
In our attempt to hush our inner hero, we tend to either seek outer validation from others or inner ego-centered validation by fervently pursuing synthetically standardized goals. The excessive accumulation of money, fame, power, or adoration: all hollow attempts at fulfilling our heroic aspirations. I deeply respect people’s work ethic, we are an untiring species, but I can’t help but feel that these poor souls are wasting their energies on ill-picked pursuits, doomed to be forever trapped in an exhaustively unsatisfactory cycle.
We now reach the ultimate questions regarding the definitions of heroism and heroes. There’s no clear-cut answer, but I’d like to walk you through some fun ideas I encountered.
In Heroes, Legends, Champions: Why Heroism Matters, Andrew Bernstein asserts that “Loyalty in action, regardless of obstacles or challenges, to one’s most cherished values—this is the essence of moral rectitude—and it is the foundation of heroism.”
Of course, the question arises regarding the ambiguity of ‘one’s most cherished values’, for is the aggressor, valuing power, as heroic as the freedom fighter?
Bernstein then echoes Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch by claiming that “In practical terms, heroes place mankind on their supportive shoulders and carry human beings into flourishing civilization.”
Again, the abstract concept of ‘a flourishing civilization’ is a dangerous one. For example, a hypothetical squared mustache German dictator could take this concept of the hero and run with it.
My favorite description of a hero comes from Joseph Campbell. Instead of a top-down, abstract, deductive approach, Campbell uses an inductive lens. In his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, Joseph Campbell dives into a deep examination of ancient and modern myths and stories. Campbell’s book captures the similarities of the human race’s most studied religious, spiritual, mythological, and literary classics. During his work, Campbell was able to notice a peculiar pattern found within all these classics, crossing the limitations of time linearity and geographical distances. Campbell jotted down this repetitive prototypical configuration and subsequently came up with the unified mythological structure of the monomyth, or in other words, The Hero’s Journey. The world’s most known classics all seem to follow the story of the archetypal hero, including the stories of Osiris, Prometheus, the Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, and Jesus. Campbell rationalizes this design with the notion of the Jungian Archetypes. Echoing the words of Carl Jung “Myths are first and foremost psychic phenomena that reveal the nature of the soul”, Campbell claims that:
“The symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche”Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
“These [mythological] symbols stem from the psyche; they speak from and to the spirit. And they are in fact the vehicles of communication between the deeper depths of our spiritual life and this relatively thin layer of consciousness by which we govern our daylight existences.”Joseph Campbell, Pathways to Bliss
Whether you are a believer in Jung’s ideas or if you prefer to stick with Freud’s stricter model of the psyche, the underlying structure behind every culture’s heroic myth appears to be the key to a proper understanding of the hero.
Act One: Separation
Every hero’s adventure starts with a calling, either implicit or direct, that shocks the protagonist into action. The setting here is the ordinary world, where our hero currently resides, as an average being still not having realized their potential.
A major event here takes place that sets everything into motion, forcing the hero to break away from the status quo. This can be represented by a negative event, such as when Florence Nightingale witnessed the suffering of the soldiers on the battlefield or when Rosa Parks had to give up her seat. Other times, the call to action is quite literal, such as in the old testament when God called Samuel by name, or in The Matrix when Neo got the message to “follow the white rabbit”.
It is in this moment that the yet-to-be hero is faced with the psychological dilemma of choosing to let go of the safety of everything they know in pursuit of the uncertain.
In our bid to understand the lack of heroes in our world, this may be seen as the first barrier. While it is unclear what percentage of people are called to take the hero’s adventure, what is more evident is that only a minority will ever choose to adhere to the call, as doing so requires an irrational, risk-rife decision, sacrificing the known for a chance at experiencing the unknown.
Nevertheless, the hero does not have to be the person that eagerly takes on this challenge at first, for they are usually too scared and inexperienced to do so. This is when the hero meets a mentor, someone to help teach them the skills they’ll use in their journey and ready them for the adventure to come. Such a figure can be seen as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, or how Gandhi and his Gandhian philosophy instilled the ideas of the non-violence doctrine into Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Ultimately, the hero has to cross the threshold from the ordinary world to the special world. This threshold is not usually easy to cross, as the hero must overcome an obstacle in order to enter the special world. In the Odyssey it was a towering one-eyed monster, in Game of Thrones Bran had to go North of the Wall, and Siddhartha (The Buddha) had to find a way to escape from the palace. This is when the hero’s adventure truly begins, when the decision is taken, and going back is no longer an option. This is when Neo takes the Red Pill.
Act Two: Initiation
After crossing the threshold, the hero must overcome a series of tests in the new world. Through challenges, enemies, and allies, the hero slowly gets accustomed to the special world and learns invaluable lessons along the way. This is well-portrayed during Harry’s struggles as he adapts to life in Hogwarts.
After a long journey, the hero finally has to enter the innermost cave. This is where the hero’s ultimate reward lies, but also their greatest threat. This is best depicted by the image of a Dragon guarding immense treasure, the hero has to slay the Dragon in order to obtain the prize, be it some form of insight, or secret wisdom.
However, there is always some form of death and resurrection the hero must go through before being able to overcome their ordeal. The hero will no longer be who they once were, with parts of their personality, soul, or even themselves dying, before ultimately being reborn as an evolved being. Neo has to be killed by Agent Smith before leaving the matrix again, Dionysus’ death and rebirth made him immortal, and Jesus had to be crucified before being resurrected and overcoming humanity’s sins.
Act Three: Return
The protagonist still isn’t out of the woods yet, they have one final tough decision to make before being regarded as a hero: they must elect to take all the insights, experiences, and rewards gained in the special world, and return back to the known world, using their newfound understandings to overcome whatever troubles they had back in the ordinary realm.
Once back, the hero faces the ultimate battle, the stakes of which will impact countless others. This is where the hero must draw from all the experiences gained on their journey, utilizing the immense power of their reborn selves to achieve great vindication over the enemy. This is when Simba had to go back to the Pride Lands to face Scar, or when Jon Snow, after being killed by his own men and later resurrected, draws from his experiences and kills the woman he loves (Daenerys) in order to save the realm from her acts of destruction.
Lastly, the hero must return with the Elixir, the lesson/secret/wisdom obtained throughout their journey, and start using it, and sharing it with, the world.
This represents another filter for common-day heroes. A real-life hero, having survived the adventure, has to then decide to come back to the ordinary world, intermingle with lesser minds, and choose a life where they shall always be misunderstood. After a hero has escaped from the forced-fed illusion of society and had their own insightful adventures, they face the ordeal of having to choose to come back and share their insights, often being met with heckles and great resistance. This struggle is well depicted in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra where Zarathustra, having spent ten years in total isolation deep within nature, comes back from the mountains to teach people about his discoveries regarding the meaning of life and the Superman, but instead finds that nobody is receptive to his ideas.
“To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders”Lao Tzu
In our contemporary day and age, there is no greater heroic journey than stepping into the infinite infinities within oneself. In choosing to leave behind the inconsequential noise of everyday life and exploring the special world deep inside your mind, the hero’s journey is thus hidden in plain sight. Yet this journey might be the scariest of all, for delving into one’s own soul puts them in direct collision with everything they fear. One has to overcome their mortality, insecurities, trauma, and all the demons they actively try to numb with daily forms of distraction. However, it is only in going on such a journey that one can ever hope to heal, evolve, and transcend into the superhuman version of themselves. It is only then that you can live with a mindset of bliss, and it is only when discovering the innate parts of your being that you are granted access to what seems to be a free-flowing vault of knowledge and wisdom, of which you can then be inspired from to truly create innovatively. For what else can please the soul but creation?
“(to) create beyond itself. That is what it (the Self) desireth most”Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
A concluding remark I’d like to make is that the journey of a hero doesn’t necessarily have to be a one-time linear event, nor even cyclical as some deem it to be. Rather, one ought to seek the hero’s adventure every time a call to action arises, such that the pattern becomes a fractal of sorts, a self-similar, recursive journey that allows us to keep evolving.
Heroism is then a miniature scale of this. While I don’t like the idea of limiting it to a definition, heroism can be understood as the acts driving our heroes in their journey. Heroism begins by responding to the call for adventure, it is nurtured every time the hero reaffirms their intentions to complete the journey and is finally fully realized when the hero is aligned with a greater purpose than themselves and acts in service to that purpose.
It is important to note that while the hero’s journey seems to be one of intense suffering, (and while suffering definitely is a rite of passage towards becoming a hero), the hero is the one gaining the most from their journey. Rather than being tormented with regret and the dullness of a mediocre life, the hero gets to ‘follow their bliss’, enjoying life to its fullest.
“…there is a widespread belief that heroism involves not self-fulfillment, but its antipode—self-sacrifice…Such a belief is false, even pernicious… Heroes are a sub-category of morally upright persons. Morally upright persons do not sacrifice themselves…As a practical point: It is an individual’s genuine self-fulfillment that benefits others, not his or her self-sacrifice.”Andrew Bernstein, Heroes, Legends, Champions: Why Heroism Matters