Psychology, Self-Development, Videos

The Psychology of Heroism

The following is a transcript of this video.

“We need a great rebirth of the heroic in our world. Every sector of human society, wherever that may be on the planet, seems to be slipping into an unconscious chaos.”

Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover,

The 19th century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said that “Fame is the fragrance of heroic deeds.” (Tales of a Wayside Inn), but this is no longer the case in the modern world. Fame, in our day, is foisted primarily upon celebrities and politicians, two classes of individuals for whom the word heroic rarely applies. And so, if as the Ancient Greeks believed, a people are known by the idols they worship, then it is safe to say the spirit of heroism has all but vanished from the modern world. If on the off-chance a true hero does emerge in the public’s view, many respond with envy and fixate on the hero’s flaws and weaknesses, on the fact that their “feet are made of clay”.  

“Ours is not an age that wants heroes. Ours is an age of envy, in which laziness and self-involvement are the rule. Anyone who tries to shine, who dares to stand above the crowd, is dragged down by his lackluster and self-appointed “peers”.”

Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover,

But in choosing to venerate celebrities, politicians, or else comic book and movie characters, and not real heroes of the flesh-and-blood, we do ourselves a great disservice. For not only do we inhibit the rise of the heroes that could help push back against the chaos the world is slipping into, but we also diminish our own urge to heroism, an urge that is fundamental to psychological health. Or as the 20th century cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker put it: 

“In our culture anyway, especially in modern times, the heroic seems too big for us, or we too small for it. Tell a young man that he is entitled to be a hero and he will blush…if everyone honestly admitted his urge to be a hero it would be a devastating release of truth. But the truth about the need for heroism is not easy for anyone to admit… In the more passive masses of mediocre men it is disguised as they humbly…follow out the roles that society provides for their heroics and try to earn their promotions within the system…allowing themselves to stick out, but ever so little and so safely…” 

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

In the hopes of witnessing a rebirth of the heroic and to push back against the envy ridden who desire to keep us all on the same petty level of insignificance, we are going to examine the psychology of the hero. Specifically, we are going to investigate what true heroism consists of, how the potential to be a hero exists in each of us, and how we can satiate our own heroic urge. 

To understand the hero we must first understand the role of values in the hero’s life, for above all else a heroic life, is a life lived in the service of values: 

“To live a valued life is to act in the service of what you value. It was Bob Dylan who wrote, “You’ve got to serve somebody.” The question is: Who (or what) will you serve?”

Steven Hayes, Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life

We all have to live in the service of something, if we don’t we are like a ship without a rudder and the course of our life will be pushed and pulled by forces external to us. We can live in the service of another person, we can live in the service of an institution or ideology, or we can construct a self-chosen value system and live in the service of it. To choose the latter course means to make a judgment as to what we deem to be worthy of struggling for and protecting. It requires that we reflect on the question: “what does the good life consist of for me?”. To arrive at an answer we can build on the wisdom of others, we can look to role models for inspiration, but ultimately we must select what it is we believe will move us in the direction of a greater life. The things we settle upon become the components of our value system and as a few examples, we may choose to value freedom, truth, beauty, friendship, temperance, love, we may value a specific pastime or craft, or in the words of the author Andrew Bernstein: 

“An individual might value education, or career in a specific field, or a particular man or woman, or children, or any and all of the above, or one of numerous other possibilities—but whatever his/her values, these are the things, persons, or activities he considers most important in life.” 

Andrew Bernstein, Heroes, Legends, Champions: Why Heroism Matters

Values advance life; they never obstruct or harm it. But as fallible creatures, we can be misguided as to what we judge to be a value. The drug addict, for example, believes he values another hit; the alcoholic, another drink; the tyrant, more power over others; the envious, destruction for its own sake. But in such cases, the object of desire is harmful to our well-being or to that of others, and so, it is not a value but an evil that tends towards suffering and or death. Values can also become corrupted with time. Some things that are valuable at one stage of life lose their life-promoting quality at another stage. And so, in constructing our value system we must be critical regarding what we choose, for as Socrates noted long ago, ignorance is in many cases a greater cause of suffering than evil intentions.  

Building on this brief elucidation of the nature and significance of values, we can now integrate this knowledge to better understand what it means to be a hero, or as Bernstein explains: 

“Loyalty in action, regardless obstacles or challenges, to one’s most cherished values—this is the essence of moral rectitude—and it is the foundation of heroism.” 

Andrew Bernstein, Heroes, Legends, Champions: Why Heroism Matters

The hero is the individual whose commitment to values far exceeds that of normality and whose value system serves human well-being on a mass scale. The hero may dedicate his or her life to justice to ameliorate the effects of human evil, to innovation to enhance standards of living, to knowledge to alleviate suffering, or to freedom to combat tyranny and promote social cooperation.  

“In practical terms, heroes place mankind on their supportive shoulders and carry human beings into flourishing civilization.” (Bernstein) 

Andrew Bernstein, Heroes, Legends, Champions: Why Heroism Matters

Contrary to a common belief, heroism does not involve self-sacrifice. Heroism is not a zero-sum game in which the hero serves as a benefactor of mankind but suffers personally as a result. Rather, in remaining committed to the values that move human being towards greater flourishing, the hero simultaneously advances his or her own life goals and quest for self-realization. Or as Bernstein puts it: 

“…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

As the hero lives in a manner that tends towards self-realization while promoting the well-being of others, they are a rare specimen and in possession of some exceptional attributes. Foremost among these attributes is a dauntless commitment to their values. The hero is immune to the intimidation and discouragement that easily derails the unheroic. They face up to challenges rather than cowering from them and if powerful destructive forces cross their path, the hero responds with great courage, and if necessary, engages with these forces in an epic battle of David vs. Goliath proportions. 

“They may be exhausted but they persevere. They may be fearful but they face danger courageously. They may be both exhausted and fearful but they do not quail in the face of obstacle and/or danger. Heroes are undeterred by profoundly intractable problems and/or by dangerously potent antagonists. In the face of either or both, they are undaunted.” 

Andrew Bernstein, Heroes, Legends, Champions: Why Heroism Matters

The next attribute shared by all heroes is the possession of some form of extraordinary talent and skill, be it intellectual, bodily, or moral. But this towering capacity of ability possessed by the hero introduces a problem: If the unique combination of nature and nurture that drove our development did not bestow us with the intellect of a Carl Jung, a creative knack like Nikola Tesla, or the moral fortitude and resilience of a Socrates or Frederick Douglass, can we still be heroes? 

To answer this question and to save heroism from becoming a caste system one is either born and nurtured into or forever excluded, Bernstein introduces the concept of the demi-hero. For just as mythology is populated with gods and demigods, the latter being half-mortal and half-god, so too are there degrees of heroism. The vast majority of us may lack the motivation or ability to shape the course of history, but all of us have the potential to be a demi-hero within the sphere of our own life. And this can be accomplished by first cultivating a value system and then committing to staying on course, even when the obstacles that confront us are immense. Each day thereafter we will be faced with a choice that will determine the degree to which we will taste heroism. We can, like the Ancient Greek Odysseus, persevere in the midst of toil and trouble and respond to danger with courage, or we can, like the anti-hero, tap out of the battles of life, surrender to our inner demons, give up the values we hold dear and succumb to a meaningless life.  

“Heroism says: Integrate those shadows or slay them; put disaster behind you and get on with your life.”  

James Hillman, The Soul’s Code

Or as Bernstein writes: 

“Everyman or everywoman, in numerous forms and instances, seeks positive, life-enhancing values—is confronted by potent impediments and/or opposition—refuses to sacrifice his/her goals—proceeds to struggle vigorously to the utmost of capacity—and, in numerous cases, overcomes obstacles and carries an arduous quest to successful resolution. Such actions are indubitably heroic.” 

Andrew Bernstein, Heroes, Legends, Champions: Why Heroism Matters

To grant us the strength to make the daily choice in favour of heroism, we can engage in the practice of hero worship. To practice hero worship, we need to seek out individuals, past or present, who displayed a heroic commitment to values similar to ours, and then we learn the obstacles they faced, the inner demons they battled, and the powerful adversaries they fought and defeated. In moments of solitude, we can reflect upon their struggles and their victories, and allow our emotions to rise into the ethers of inspiration. 

“…a hero worshiper experiences the highest emotions of which man is capable: A sense of the exalted.”  

Andrew Bernstein, Heroes, Legends, Champions: Why Heroism Matters

Experiences accompanied by strong emotions are deeply imprinted into our brain. And so, in experiencing a sense of the exalted while contemplating the lives of the heroes we admire, we fast-track on our own heroic education. In the process we add to our arsenal a great antidote to suffering. For whenever we are weighed down by the regressive forces within, we can choose a particular hero and ask ourselves the following questions: 

“How would this…hero respond to an intimidating obstacle in my life? After-all, even in absence of the epic hero’s degree of prowess, why cannot I respond with the dauntlessness and devotion to human life that a hero does? …Why not, indeed? The answer, of course, is that a hero worshiper can.” 

Andrew Bernstein, Heroes, Legends, Champions: Why Heroism Matters

To live a heroic life in the service of self-chosen values, is, in the modern day, to swim against the tide. For we live in an age when a widespread corruption of values has led the mass of men and women to gravitate toward distraction and empty pleasures. If we are going to be one of the few who counters this trend and rejects the sickness of modern day conformity we must be comfortable with going against the grain of the socially accepted.  

“When the whole world is running towards a cliff, he who is running in the opposite direction appears to have lost his mind.”

C.S. Lewis

To help us maintain our moral autonomy as we escape from the demoralizing hedonism of our age and move towards a life of heroic proportions, we can reflect on the wisdom of Arthur Schopenhauer who claimed: 

“A happy life is impossible, the highest that man can achieve is a heroic life.”   

Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena

In striving for heroism, in other words, we are not sacrificing a life of perpetual happiness, comfort, and pleasure, as such a life is not open to us. Instead, in dedicating our life to heroism, we are choosing the best life possible; a life that is meaningful, challenging, exciting. Or as Nietzsche wrote:  

“Alas, I have known noble men who lost their highest hope,And henceforth they slandered all high hopes. Henceforth they lived imprudently in brief pleasures, and they had hardly an aim beyond the day… Once they thought of becoming heroes: now they are sensualists. The hero is to them an affliction and a terror. But, by my love and hope I entreat you: do not reject the hero in your soul! Keep holy your highest hope!”

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Further Readings

Art Used in this Video

Boys King Arthur - N. C. Wyeth - p214
John Martin - Sodom and Gomorrah
Gesar Khan
The Prospector NC Wyeth
Hacker Arthur Percival with the Grail Cup
Caspar David Friedrich - Gedächtnisbild für Johann Emanuel Bremer
Ivan aivazovsky, la nona onda, 1850, dett
Gustave Courbet - Lovers in the Country, Sentiments of the Young Age - WGA05484
Emperor by Ivan Makarov
Nikolaj Alexandrowitsch Jaroschenko 001
Bergh Richard Nordic Summer Evening
Bert McCorrison by N. C. Wyeth, c. 1931, oil on canvas - Portland Art Museum - Portland, Oregon - DSC08682
Ernst Immanuel Müller Der Weinkenner
Brockhaus and Efron Jewish Encyclopedia e3 292-0
The Vanity of the Artist's Dream by Charles Bird King, 1830 - Fogg Art Museum - DSC02281
Caspar David Friedrich - Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon - WGA08271
Boys King Arthur - N. C. Wyeth - p16
Hercules Assisting Atlas MET DP822474
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot - Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld - Google Art Project
Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld målad av Georg von Rosen 1886
Leopold Munsch - Group of mountain climbers beside
Walter Crane - Race of Hero Spirits Pass
Boys King Arthur - N. C. Wyeth - p278
Osmar Schindler David und Goliath
Falcon the Hunter - Russian Fairy Book 1916, illustrator Frank C Pape
Boys King Arthur - N. C. Wyeth - p82
Charles Le Brun - Hercules (detail) - WGA12537
The Valkyrie's Vigil
Arnold Böcklin - Odysseus und Polyphemus (1896)
Johann Heinrich Füssli 054
Joseph Kutter Tête de Clown
Heroes of iliad by Tischbein
Heroes of the dawn (1914) (14750481494)
Inspiracion de Cristobal Colon by Jose Maria Obregon, 1856
Joseph Middeleer - Inspiration Enchanting angels
John William Waterhouse - Ulysses and the Sirens - Google Art Project
The Genius and the Crowd
Gustave Le Gray - Brig upon the Water - Google Art Project
Иван К. Айвазовский - Бриг Меркурий после победы над двумя турецкими кораблями (1848)