Heroes and Anti-Heroes
“Hero: a person distinguished by courage, noble deeds, outstanding achievements, etc.” Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002.
On November 11, 2018, Canadians commemorated the 100th anniversary of the end of ‘The Great War’, ‘the War to End All Wars’. Solemn ceremonies took place throughout Europe and in many other nations such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The United States marked it on ‘Veterans’ Day’, recalling their 110 000 war dead of WW1 and honouring the 25 million military veterans still alive in the country, as well as all those who have died in the US’s numerous wars over the last century.
In Canada, November 11 is a solemn day. Polls show that about a third of the population attends a ceremony. We especially honour our military dead from all our international conflicts of the last 100+ years – World Wars 1 & 2, Korea, Peace-Keeping missions, Afghanistan.[i] We also honour the survivors of these conflicts.
Some people believe that all this attention to the wars and recognizing the heroism of those who served and died in the services during these conflicts somehow glorifies war and violence. They worry about romanticising war as a path to renown or ‘a great adventure’. However, they are illogically confusing the entertainment world’s too frequent portrayal of war as glory and adventure populated by heroes and anti-heroes of great daring-do with the real life remembrance of terrible pain and tragedy. They somehow cannot compute the ‘lest we forget’ factor.
In real life, recognizing the heroism of someone is not a glorification of the act(s) they performed. Someone honoured with a Governor General’s medal for an act of exceptional bravery does not yearn to return to the icy, swirling rapids from which they pulled a drowning soul, or of re-entering the blazing inferno from which they carried out an unconscious victim. Neither do we who applaud these deeds from the sidelines ever wish to ‘go and do likewise’. Yet, as a culture and society we somehow conclude that the horrors of war may stimulate a desire to return to the carnage for the sake of some supposed glory and renown won posthumously by a recipient of a Victoria Cross, for example.[ii] Paradoxically, those who have been there are usually those who most desire to see an end to war.
If real-life heroes can even be convinced to tell their stories (and many prefer not to talk about it), more often than not they will say there was no romanticism, glamour, or glory involved, but rather determination, grim resolve, and a reaction to an immediate, urgent need with death lurking on every side. They overcame their fear, recognizing that survival was very much in the balance for those around and themselves. Most heroes bear the psychological, emotional, and often the physical scars of their experience for the rest of their lives.
Yet there is still an awkward ambivalence about heroism in our culture. It stems from the impetus to make everyone feel special, valuable, and equal. If we recognize some as genuine heroes who have done amazing and specially courageous and selfless deeds, we fear that others may be slighted or diminished in their self-worth unless they too are recognized as heroes for having gone or been willing to go. After all, perhaps some of them would have done equally heroic deeds given the ‘chance’.
But here is the antithesis of that position: if we deem everyone who died, regardless of how, and everyone who returned, regardless of their role, and everyone who would have ‘gone into the breach’, given the chance, a ‘hero’, what is actual heroism? Is every police-person walking or driving a beat and every fire-person wearing a badge automatically a hero? By so cheapening the idea, have we effectively debased heroism? Should everyone be celebrated as a hero for just being a ‘normally good’ human being who is actually selfless from time to time? Or is that just what everyone should be but not that many choose to be?
We have created a culture which prides itself on inclusivism and avoiding even the appearance of slighting anyone lest we damage their fragile sense of worth [as the social-psychologist inform us]. Thus, every kid wins a prize; no one fails a class. If one wins a medal, all must have a medal as recognition of having competed.
We all know that in the adult world many, if not most, things in life do not work this way. If we try and don’t win, or come in near the top, will we all succumb to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Are we that far gone? We wonder why our youth seem so ungrateful and ‘entitled’. Not all qualify for the Olympics. Not all win scholarships. Not all get the job or earn a promotion. Not all are equally gifted in musically or mechanically. We cannot have 37 million Prime Ministers. We cannot all aspire to be brain surgeons or aircraft pilots, and we know very well that only the very best should do those things. Professional athletes are not recruited for being mediocre; entrepreneurs succeed because they are hard-working and excellent innovators, not because clients pity them for having tried but failed to better the competition.
As in so many things, to understand heroism we need to go back in time. The ancients ‘immortalized’ exceptional people in legend and myth, sometimes even divinizing them. Then, as now, courage was ranked as a virtue, along with complementary qualities such as loyalty, honesty, integrity, respect, compassion, and courtesy (this is not an exhaustive list). One virtue could not be isolated from the others. A hero was not just someone who ‘saved the day’ in an emergency, but someone whose character demonstrated the seamlessness of a good life that regularly manifested at least some of those other virtues. Their courage did not spring out of nowhere, just as, to them, cowardice flowed from a flawed character which focused on self-benefit above all else.
In the ‘classics’ (including the Bible as the major source for our culture’s traditional values and virtues), we find great consistency in ‘heroic’ ideology. For starters, let us consult another great source for the ancient understanding of heroism, Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey. These twin epics were the closest thing to a Bible for the ancient Greeks. Homer’s portrayal of heroes and villains is not so far from the Biblical perspective.
The most heroic figure of all in those tales was Hector, the tragic Trojan hero who was on the losing side in the war. Hector appears only in The Illiad, killed by Achilles close to the end. Odysseus, the protagonist of The Odyssey, is a more sympathetic character than the other Greek leaders, but does not match Hector’s noble character. Hector was not just a ‘simple soldier’ who excelled in battle. Only the Greek demi-god Achilles could defeat him, and Achilles had a supernatural ‘cheat’ on his side – invulnerability except for one obscure spot. Hector worked selflessly and tirelessly for his family and his country, keeping up their morale and inspiring them all with his integrity, intelligence, compassion, love, and constancy.
Achilles, the Greek champion, is a poor figure by comparison – self-absorbed and petty, letting his friends die at Hector’s avenging hand until his honour is personally challenged. Achilles’ shamefully violates all the protocols of honour by refusing a decent burial to Hector after he slays him. Achilles enjoys a charmed life, unlike Hector who is fully mortal but by far more noble. In vengeance for Achilles’ disgraceful treatment of Hector, Hector’s brother, the despised Paris, puts a poison arrow into Achilles’ vulnerable right heel – an amazing feat of archery guided by Apollo, the Archer-God. Homer also includes a tragic heroine, Hector’s valiant and virtuous wife whose character far outshines that of Helen, the kidnapped Greek beauty foolishly taken by Paris. (Homer’s including a truly sympathetic ‘leading lady’ for his epic was quite daring in that culture – perhaps a little personal heroism on Homer’s part).
Israel’s ancient heroes are quite human. They manifest courage and other noble virtues but display serious character flaws: Abraham lacks courage in defending Sarah’s honour, twice. Isaac does the same thing with Rebecca. Gideon has to be cajoled repeatedly before he will act, and after he wins, he lets his sons run wild oppressing the people themselves. Samson cannot forego his need for sex with foreign women and settle down to judge the people as a true leader should. Samuel is a just judge and powerful prophet but fails as a father despite his prophetic prowess. David is all over the map – full of zeal, pluck, and generosity, and an adulterer and murderer!
True heroes are all flawed people like the rest of us, sometimes writ larger. So why, in very recent times, have we of the West found this ‘need’ to turn so often to rebellious anti-heroes who somehow prove the whole world wrong, or simply defy law and convention with glee? Why have we come to admire (if only secretly) Bonny and Clyde, Billy the Kid, Al Capone, the Godfather? If not them, we fantasize many others (with ourselves in their roles) who run rampant and wreak havoc on the stodgy world and universe of law and order and peaceful quiet life. Let justice be rough and ready, even if it leaves behind a trail of bloody dead bodies and smoldering, stinking wreckage so long as ‘the bastards who done me and my special people wrong get what they deserve’. Our new breed of anti-heroes and heroines with super-powers do what the pitiful agents of normality cannot and even save us all from our worst fears!
Who started this elevation and veneration of the likeable scoundrel who is really just a poor, repressed, misunderstood victim of injustice? The prototype came from the 17th Century English epic poet, John Milton. He was Satan-qua-Lucifer in his masterpiece as found in Paradise Lost.
Over the last 350 years a great deal has been written by Milton’s admirers and critics, trying to understand what inspired him to ‘rehabilitate’ the devil as a sort of misunderstood, tragic figure in his own right. Milton did it very well, and, with his inimitable poetic gifting, very eloquently and persuasively. The English Puritan church authorities of that time hinted that he was flirting with heresy, although he did not deny Christ’s divinity or give Satan divine status.
Today, few besides English lit scholars know who Milton was, but the concept he created stuck and opened the door for later efforts along similar lines. A hundred years after Milton, Christianity had been largely debunked by the Enlightenment literati and glitterati and its influence in society and the culture shaken to the foundations. After Milton and Gibbon [cf. my previous blog ‘Progress’], writers could openly create new anti-heroes and use them to question ‘whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is worthy of repute and respect’. Tales such as Frankenstein and Dracula could be published and popularized.
It is a long way from Milton’s Paradise Lost to X-men, Batman and the shadowy, indistinct images of heroism today. Even heroes must have a deep, dark secret in the basement of their lives, just like villains. Even villains sometimes can behave with some honour (honour among thieves), but they just defy convention. Don’t we all know that morality is but a code of behavioural rules agreed upon by social convention so as to avoid social upheaval? Sir John A. needs to be dethroned across the board because he was a man with the typical values of his time, not ours, which are, after all, the only worthy ones.
We all know that success is reaching the top of the heap, winning riches and power, or prestige and influence, or just ‘evening the score’. Virtue just gets in the way. Better to be gorgeous, glamorous, and ruthless while smiling and charming everyone until ready to slit their throats. But of course I still want the other guy to be virtuous [honest, fair, etc.] in dealing with me. Justice is a still fine thing if it removes my enemies and obstacles.
Our elevation of celebrities to be counterfeit heroes and heroines, we demonstrate and reinforce the moral bankruptcy of our culture and education system. We offer our children illusions of meaning, to be achieved by financial gain, career ‘success’, and prestige among peers, and possibly by some winning of temporary acclaim – the Andy Warhol ‘fifteen minutes of fame’. But now notoriety will do as well as fame – hence the craziness of mass shootings and truly depraved gang behaviours.
But contrary to the impression left by our conventional and social media crazes and rages, real heroes and heroines actually still exist. They just don’t spend their time vaunting and flaunting their character and deeds in the public (or private) eye. Mostly, they prefer to go about their business quietly, obscurely, with no interest in fortune or acclaim. Here are a few genuine 20th century hero(in)es: Mother Teresa, Lotta Hitchmanova, Dag Hamerskjold, Ari VanMansum, Winston Churchill (with all his well-known foibles). You can name others. And we have the quintessence of the anti-hero in spades from the past century too: Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao.
Who we venerate and elevate as hero and heroine speaks volumes about the soul of our culture. Perhaps it is time we searched our own hearts and souls about the models we keep front and center as those we esteem and place first in our quest to emulate a worthy way of life. Do I really want to be like a Hollywood or sports superstar or a ruthless billionaire business tycoon? Do I want my kids and grandkids to be like them? If not, how will I give them something different to aim for? Why has our education system failed so badly in this? And, yes, it is OK to have a military figure as a hero; there can be selflessness and nobility there too.
If you are a Christian, your ultimate hero is Jesus. And there are many who pursue(d) Him and whose lives demonstrate that they do/did so nobly. If you are of another persuasion, but this resonates with you, choose some other worthy figure(s).
[i] Official figures for war dead can never be completely exact, particularly regarding the two World Wars. Thousands of Canadians served in the British forces and were recorded as British dead. Canadian World War 1 figures have been put at 61 000 dead during the war, and 66 000 within a few years after due to death from wounds and the war’s direct consequences on those veterans. World War 2 losses in dead are put at 43 000 or so, but more need to be added in the same way as they were for WW1. 542 Canadians died in Korea and 158 in Afghanistan, plus several dozen in Peace-Keeping operations. We may round our numbers up to about 110 000 all tolled.
[ii] About 80% of recipients of the highest Commonwealth decoration for valour in the World Wars died while performing their heroic deed – hardly something that can be repeated or inspire a wish for an admirer to imitate the example.