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Personal Heroes, Religion, and Transcendental Metanarratives

Author(s): Douglas V. Porpora

Source: Sociological Forum, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Jun., 1996), pp. 209-229
Published by: Springer
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Sociological Forum, Vol. 11, No. 2, 1996

Personal Heroes, Religion, and Transcendental

Douglas V Porporal

With the increased sociological interest in popular culture, many studies have
examined the hero types lauded by the media from situation comedies to
movies, books, and magazines. Few studies, however,have examined who, if
anybody, actual individuals identify as personal heroes. To the extent that the
hero identification of individuals has been examined at all, it has generally
been the hero identification of children and adolescents that has been studied.
The study of heroes is important because heroes are one indicator of who we
are and what we stand for That is partly what motivates the recent attention
to the media's identification of heroes. Yet while the media representa very
visible aspect of culture, who individuals privately cite as their heroes is,
although less visible, just as much a part of who we are as a culture.
Accordingly, this paper reports on findings from two telephone surveys
conducted in Philadelphia that, among other questions pertaining to the
meaning of life, asked adults over 18 whether they had any heroes and if so
who those heroes were. The tendency to identify with heroes was found to be
related to transcendentalconcerns with the meaning of life and to religiosity.
Overall, the patten of findings discloses an unstudied dimension of cultural
KEY WORDS: personal heroes; religion; transcendental metanarratives; moral meaning; identity.

Do people today have personal heroes-figures with whom they identify as personifications of their values and ideals? If so, who are these he'Department of Psychology, Sociology, and Anthropology, Drexel University, Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania 19104.
0884-8971/96/0600-0209$09.50/0 e 1996 Plenum Publishing Corporation

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roes, and what do they tell us about the values and ideals of the individuals
who identify with them? While considerable scholarly attention has been
paid to the macrocultural heroes promoted by the media, there has been
little research on whom, if anybody, individuals identify as heroes at the
microcultural level.
In the absence of data, conventional wisdom has been divided on the
extent and nature of personal hero identification in contemporary society.2
Some commentators (Becker, 1973; Fishwick, 1983) assume a universal
need for heroes. Others (Glicksberg, 1968; Schlesinger, 1968) lament modernity's putative loss not just of heroes but of the whole larger sense of
heroic calling often associated with hero identification. Still others (e.g.,
Boorstin, 1968; Lowenthal, 1943) believe personal hero identification has
largely devolved into empty "celebrity worship."
Which of these views is correct, if any? The research presented in this
paper represents an initial exploratory attempt to find out. Specifically, two
phone surveys were conducted in 1993, one in April and one in October.
Each survey (n = 277 and n = 350) asked a random sample of Philadelphia
residents whether they have heroes and, if so, who their heroes are. On
the basis of the data collected, this paper will examine (1) how prevalent
personal hero identification is; (2) the types of heroes identified by those
who have them; (3) who is more or less likely to have personal heroes;
and (4) what light the nature and extent of hero identification sheds on
contemporary values and ideals at the micro, individual level of analysis.
It turns out that personal hero identification is bound up with broader phenomena relating to religion and transcendental metanarratives. Thus, as
will be seen, each of the four aspects of hero identification that will be
examined bear on these broader phenomena as well.
Heroes have been studied more by scholars in communications, folklore, and American studies than by sociologists, perhaps because until,
fairly recently, sociologists have neglected the study of popular culture. It
ought to be noted at the outset, therefore, that hero identification need
not imply either hero worship or a "big-man"theory of history (Schlesinger,
1958; Schwartz, 1985), although Carlyle (1895) and Hook (1943), with
whom the notion of heroes is often associated, were committed to both.
One may have personal heroes without worshiping them. In such capacity,
heroes are like moral beacons. They function in much the same way as,
according to Eliade (1959), sacred space and sacred time function for homo
religiosus. For homo religiosus, sacred time and sacred space center the
2According to the New American Dictionary, the word hero is now gender neutral and can
refer to women as well as men. Hakanen (1989a), moreover, confirms that female respondents in particular hear the word "hero" as gender neutral. Thus, throughout this paper, the
single word hero is used to designate both male and female heroic figures.

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Personal Heroes


profane world around them. Similarly, heroes function to center the world
of moral space. They signal to what one is called or committed.
The word hero comes from the Greek heros, meaning "God-person,"
the person charged with the charisma of the holy and sacred, the very
ground of being (Hakanen, 1989b). It is from their connection with what
Tillich (1952) refers to as the ground and core of our being that heroes
derive their charismatic power to inspire (Weber, 1947). Thus, heroes are
not simply role models but charismatic role models (Fishwick, 1983). As
such, a person's heroes are better conceptualized not as idols of worship,
but as an idealized reference group. One seeks to stand with one's heroes
rather than to be one's heroes in actuality, and heroes thus are one mechanism we use to tell ourselves what it is we stand for. For those who have
them, then, heroes are an important inner marker of identity. They are a
part of the landscape of the soul.3
Considerable scholarly attention has been paid to the identity and nature of the heroes presented to us by the media (e.g., Bell, 1983; Hubbard,
1983; Miller, 1986; Rollin, 1983). While there have been some studies that
ask actual individuals who their heroes are, the individuals questioned are
usually children and adolescents (e.g., Balswick, 1982; Hakanen, 1989a).
Only a few previous scholarly studies have examined hero identification
among adults. One (Gardiner and Jones, 1983) examined hero identification among prominent figures in education and government. This study
found that such public figures often cite other public figures-both living
and dead-as personal heroes, public figures such as Anton Chekov, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Winston Churchhill, and John Kennedy
(whose Profiles in Courage likely identified his own heroes). For those who
had them, the heroes identified symbolized such values as humility, integrity, dedication, vision, and courage. Presumably, by identifying with such
heroes, public figures seek to embody the same virtues themselves-or at
least appear to others as seeking to embody them. Do ordinary adults not
in public life have personal heroes? That question never seems to have
been asked directly, and, accordingly, we do not have an answer.4
3People with personal heroes frequently have multiple heroes, forming what Keen (1994: 233)
in describing his own heroes refers to as a "pantheon." Each personal hero may be thought
of as a charismatic role model. Where multiple heroes cohere for a person, as they seem to
for Keen and Beiting (1994), they may form an idealized reference group.
4In the only scholarly attempt to answer this question, Patterson and Kim (1991) asked a
large random sample of adults whether they thought there are any living heroes in America,
and found that only 30% of the population said yes. Unfortunately, we cannot determine
from this question, worded as it is, whether the other 70% of respondents identify with historical figures no longer alive, whether they identify with non-American heroes, or whether
they just have no personal heroes at all.
Since 1947 the Gallup organization has annually asked about the man or woman "living
today" whom respondents most admire. The cumulative results since then were analyzed by

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Why study heroes? For several reasons. First, our selves are constructed not only through their location in social space but through their
location in moral space as well. Our identities are always defined, as it
were, in relation to some sense of "the good" (Taylor, 1989). Insofar as
heroes are an embodiment of our values and aspirations (Lubin, 1968;
Warner, 1959), a personification of what we take to be "the good," who
our heroes are reflect who we are, both individually and collectively (Rickman, 1983).
The close relationship between heroes and identity is implicit in the
many studies of the heroes identified by the media. Those studies are considered to be important in part because of what our media's heroes say
about our identity as a culture. They are further presumed to be important
because of the impact of the media on individuals. There is, therefore, all
the more reason to find out who individuals in our culture identify as heroes. If the media present us with "befuddled" heroes (Bell, 1983; Miller,
1986), sexually stereotyped heroes (Hubbard, 1983), or just celebrities
(Boorstin, 1968), are these the sorts of people that individuals cite as their
personal heroes? We are here presented with a macro-micro question in
the realm of culture that parallels an issue frequently raised with regard
to social structure. What is the macro-micro link between culture as rep-

Smith (1986), who, as in this paper, was attempting to gain insight into Americans' ideals.
Contrary to the expectations of Boorstin (1968) and Lowenthal (1943), Smith found that few
people named entertainers or sports personalities as figures of greatest admiration. Nor, interestingly, did business executives or entrepreneurs figure prominently. Instead, domestic
political leaders were by far the prominent category (accounting for 45% of mentions), especially incumbent presidents (19% of mentions) and ex-presidents (8% of mentions). While
in 1986 personal acquaintances and religious figures were still minor categories, accounting
for less than 10% of total mentions each, Smith noticed that, over time, mentions in these
categories were on the rise and anticipated further increase in the future.
Although the people we admire certainly also tell us about our values and ideals, admired
people are not the same as heroes. We can admire someone without that person being a
personal hero to us. For a person to be our hero, we ordinarily have to identify with that
person more than we necessarily do with people we just admire. Heroes, therefore, are a
smaller subset of those we admire. How much smaller? It is difficult to say, but some initial
indication is provided by those answering, "Don't know." Throughout the years the Gallup
question has been asked, an average of 35% of respondents have been unable to name anyone
they admire most. In contrast, Patterson and Kim found that 70% could not name any heroes
currently living in America.
It seems likely that a person can admire many people without identifying heroically with
any. It seems likely as well that when we look at the smaller subset of admired people that
constitute our personal heroes, the distribution of responses across categories will be very
different. The sort of analysis that Smith conducted on those we admire still remains to be
done for those we consider our personal heroes.

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Personal Heroes


resented by the media, which are macrosocial in effect, and culture as it

is lived microsocially in the shared consciousness of individual actors?
There is another reason why the study of heroes is important. The
fate of hero identification has been closely linked with the disenchantment
of the modern world. According to Taylor (1989), one of the salient traits
of modernity is the recession of an orientation toward transcendental horizons and the affirmation instead of "ordinary life." Up until modernity,
Taylor says, in one form or another, a distinction was always made between
our ordinary life of production and reproduction and a higher calling to a
life oriented around some notion of the transcendental good. Taylor notes
(1989:211) that while the ordinary life of family and work was always a
prerequisite for the pursuit of the transcendental good, a life devoted solely
to the affairs of human maintenance was never historically considered a
"fully human" life at all. Ordinary life was instead but the infrastructure
for the higher calling, distinctive to human beings.
What was considered to be the higher calling varied. In many societies,
it coincided with the honor ethic of a warrior class. For the Greeks, it was
a life devoted to contemplation and participation in the polis. For medieval
Catholics, it was a nonworldly devotion to God. In the enlightenment, it
was a commitment to truth.
Echoing Weber, Taylorargues that with the rise of capitalism and Protestantism, and also with a pragmatic, technological turn in science, all this
changed. Notions of the good ceased to be located in a transcendental
sphere and began to be considered immanent in ordinary life itself. By
modernity, if the good was to be found, it was to be found in commerce,
in work, in family, and in recreation. A distinctly bourgeois sensibility began
to take hold, and in the process, transcendental concerns began to fade.
It may well be that an heroic orientation is part and parcel of an orientation to transcendental notions of the good. According to Campbell's
(1968) heroic monomyth, for example, the hero is one who, in response to
a call, leaves the familiarity of ordinary life to enter a sphere of transcendental conflict; in returning from which, the hero raises the level of ordinary
life itself. The existential implication of this myth is that the hero's journey
is one we are all, in one way or another, supposed to take. Becker (1973)
is certainly of this opinion. According to Becker (1973:1), "our central calling, or main task on the planet, is the heroic." Hero identification, in this
view, is part of what helps lift us to the pursuit of transcendental horizons.
Thus, for Emerson (1940:1), the heroism of great individuals affirms the
potential for heroism in all of us.
Yet, if in modern times there is no transcendental sphere to enter,
then for us perhaps the hero's journey is not a metaphor of psychic significance. In that case, we might expect hero identification either to affirm

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the values of ordinary life or if hero identification truly is linked to ideas

of transcendental calling, to be infrequent and peripheral to modern culture. Perhaps today it will only be those in some sort of public life who
look to heroes for moral orientation.
Modern culture has frequently been indicted for its absence or trivialization of the heroic dimension. It is said to be a shallow, morally bankrupt culture without ideals (Rollin, 1983). "We still agree with Carlyle,"
says Boorstin (1968:325), "that 'No sadder proof can be given by a man
of his own littleness than disbelief in great men."' Schlesinger (1968:341)
seconds this judgment: "Let us not be complacent about our supposed capacity to get along without great men. If our society has lost its wish for
heroes and its ability to produce them, it may well turn out to have lost
everything else as well." "What is wrong with our age," says Glicksberg
(1968:357), "is that it has lost its faith in the greatness or the capacity for
greatness of man."
Perhaps, however, we have not so much lost our faith in human greatness as altered our cultural notion of what greatness is. According to
Lowenthal's (1943) analysis of popular magazines, we no longer value "idols
of production" or "doers" but rather "idols of consumption," who relate
to our leisure life. Along similar lines, Boorstin (1968) maintains that heroes in modern culture have been replaced by celebrities. Whereas heroes
were famous because they were great, celebrities, Boorstin tells us, are great
because they are famous. "The celebrity," says Boorstin (1968:334) in a
now well-known definition, "is a person who is known for his well-knownness." As such, celebrities, unlike traditional heroes, are morally neutral.
According to Boorstin (1968:334), celebrities are "human pseudoevents," mere "spectacles." A celebrity as a celebrity stands for nothing.
Thus, Boorstin (1968:336) maintains, celebrities are not moral beacons that
"fill us with purpose," but empty "recepticles into which we pour our own
purposelessness." Celebrities, therefore, would seem to be fitting heroes
for an age that, as Lyotard (1984) claims, is without "metanarratives."
Whether the claim is that we have gone from a veneration of moral
heroes to the celebration of mere celebrities or from an affirmation of transcendental purpose to an affirmation of ordinary life, the literature suggests
a longitudinal thesis. Clearly, that thesis cannot be evaluated by the static
data presented here. Consider, for example, Taylor'sclaim that whereas in
the past, some transcendental purpose was always valued, today it is ordinary life that is affirmed. In the past, the pursuit of any kind of transcendental good was afforded only to the elite few. Women and commoners
were usually excluded from the heroic call. Thus, even if Taylor's account
is correct, it would likely have been only the male elite, who, expected to
respond to a heroic calling themselves, geared themselves for such under-

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Personal Heroes

taking through hero identification. It is likely, therefore, that had an opinion poll been conducted in the past, we would not find hero identifiction
any more widespread than now, when many more can respond to a heroic
If we cannot, using static data, evaluate theses that are diachronic, we
can, however, transform what were diachronic hypotheses into synchronic
ones. By examining the prevalence of hero identification today, we can certainly evaluate whether at least a felt need for heroes is universal. By examining who people cite as personal heroes, we can determine whether
the media's glorification of celebrities-about which Boorstin and Lowenthal complain-also manifests itself at the level of individuals. Similarly, by
examining people's personal heroes, we can determine (following Taylor)
whether it is ordinary life or transcendental purposes that people more
tend to value today. We can determine, in other words, whether people
tend to cite ordinary people as heroes more than they do transcendental
figures associated with encompassing metanarratives.
Taylor's hypothesis about the loss of transcendental horizons can be
framed even further synchronically. Cooley (1964), who was evidently fascinated by hero identification, wrote along similar lines himself from a more
synchronic perspective (see Schwartz, 1985). "Hero-worship is a kind of
religion," wrote Cooley (1964:314), 'And religion . . .is a kind of hero-worship." Cooley, thus, connects hero-identification with religion and other
transcendental metanarratives. For Cooley, hero-identification was precisely
a way for the individual to mark self-transcendent aspirations associated
with moral idealism. Cooley's hypothesis, therefore, may stand in as a synchronic proxy for Taylor's. If Cooley is correct, then we should expect a
relationship between hero-identification on the one hand and religiosity
and other indicators of an orientation toward transcendental meaning on
the other. This and the previously cited synchronic hypotheses are what
this paper will explore.

This project employed a questionnaire, which was administerd through
the university's survey research center. The center utilized random digit
dialing within each of Philadelphia's phone exchanges to secure a random
sample of city residents. To randomize responses further, the questionnaire
was not necessarily administered to the person who answered the phone
but to the household member over 18 who was to have the next birthday.
For both the spring and fall surveys, calls were made between 6:00 and
9:00 PM over four evenings.

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Calls were made by university students as part of methodology courses

in sociology, political science, and communications. In addition to class instruction, student participants were given an hour-long training session onsite on how to conduct the phone interviews. To ensure uniformity of
administration, the first evening's session was videotaped and shown to students participating on subsequent evenings.
On the fourth evening, follow-up calls were made to all phone lines
that had previously been busy, where no one had answered, or where the
respondent had requested the interviewer to call back. The final response
rate in the spring was 41% and in the fall 38%. These response rates
yielded a sample of 277 cases in the spring and 350 in the fall for a combined n = 627.
The response rates were below those associated with professional polling organizations, but even the response rates of the professionals have
been falling over the past few years as telemarketers increasingly represent
public opinion research as a way to make a sale (Spethmann, 1991). The
main problem with such low response rates is the possibility of bias. The
questionnaire was introduced as a "survey about issues of interest to members of the Philadelphia area," and the first two questions related to expectations about the future of Philadelphia and the United States as a
whole. Those refusing to respond, therefore, were not reacting to the specific subject matter discussed in this paper. Probably the main reason for
the low response rates was the inexperience of the student interviewers.
The demographic characteristics of the two samples are presented in Table
I. As can be seen, the survey underrepresents males-particularly AfricanAmerican males, those aged 65, and older, and those with household incomes of under $10,000/year. Most substantially underrepresented are
Philadelphia residents without a high school degree. Those with at least a
college degree, accordingly, are overrepresented.
Since the data from the two surveys closely coincided, since there were
no statistically significant differences between the samples on the major
variables, and since the time difference between the two was insufficient
to affect any of the hypotheses under consideration, the two samples were
combined where possible for purposes of analysis.
The third question in both surveys was, "Do you have any heroes that
you model some aspect of your life around?" If respondents said yes, they
were asked to name one, and if they named one, they were asked if they
had other heroes.
Heroes were classified under six different types, the first two of which
were directly suggested by the hypotheses. Specifically, "celebrities" encompass sports figures and popular entertainers, those whom Lowenthal refers
to as "idols of consumption." Similarly, "local heroes" are heroes of ordi-

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Personal Heroes
Table I. Demographics: Combined Survey Data vs. 1990 Philadelphia Censusa

Survey (%)

Census (%)


Survey (%)

Census (%)

N = 589

16 +

$50k +


Survey (%)


N = 582


Survey (%)


N = 581


N = 586

65 +


Survey (%)
N = 503



Survey (%)


N = 57

Not Very

Census (%)

Census (%)

Survey (%)
N = 551

aSource: U.S. Census Summary Tape File (STF3A-Long Form): Demographic Totals for
Philadelphia County.
bThe base was Philadelphia residents aged 18 and over.
cHigher income categories for survey and census were collapsed to establish comparative
dVariables not reported by U.S. Census.

nary life who are personal acquaintances of the respondent-local socially

if not always spatially. Among others, local heroes included family members, particularly the respondents' mother and father-the two heroes most
frequently named; teachers; clergy; and friends.
Four additional categories of hero were employed. Any hero whose
claim to fame resides in the political arena was classified as a "political
hero." Thus, political heroes include Hilary Clinton and Martin Luther
King, Jr. Saints and other exemplary religious figures such as Mother Theresa were classified as "religious heroes." The "arts' is a somewhat heterogeneous category that includes scientists such as Einstein or Linus Pauling;
philosophers such as Socrates; and painters, poets, and novelists such as

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Pablo Picasso, Maya Angelou, and Norman Mailer. Heroes not fitting any
of the first five types were classified as "other."
Some of the survey questions pertaining to the meaning of life were
of a philosophical nature that can tax respondents' comprehension more
than questions about concrete behavior. Accordingly, the philosophical
questions in this study were asked in a way that would increasingly sensitize
respondents to philosophical matters. One question, for example, asked respondents how often they thought about the "ultimate meaning of human
existence." Before being asked this question, respondents were read the
following statement:
People sometimes wonder about the meaning of life. Often we think about the
meaning of our own individual life. But we could also wonder whether human
existence in general has any ultimate meaning. How often do you think about the
meaning of your own life and then about the ultimate meaning of human existence
in general?

Respondents were then asked how often they thought about the meaning of their own lives and only then about the meaning of human existence
in general. It turned out as expected that while most people thought a lot
about the meaning of their own lives (making this question a poor discriminator), considerably fewer thought about the meaning of human existence
in general (making that question as it turned out a good discriminator).
These were the first philosophical questions asked in the spring. In the fall,
people were asked first how important the question of life's meaning was
to them. In both surveys, the more difficult questions about the meaning of
life were placed later, once people had been oriented to the topic.
The quantitative survey data presented here are actually a component
of a larger, much more qualitative study of what people think about the
meaning of life. When in the course of in-depth interviews, few subjects
reported having heroes, it prompted a question about the representativeness of the interviewees. That is what led to the survey research
reported on in this paper. From the in-depth interviews, it also became
apparent that many people interpret what a hero is in ways that vary from
the theoretical understanding suggested in the literature. That variance and
its implications will be discussed below.


The Prevalence of Hero Identification
In both the spring and fall surveys, only 44% of the respondents said
they had heroes. When the heroes named were examined and invalid re-

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Personal Heroes


sponses such as "I'm my own hero" were removed, it turned out, again
consistently, that only 40% of the respondents had heroes.
As previously mentioned, in-depth interviews reveal that people often
take personal heroes to be something different from what they are presumed to be in the theoretical literature. In the literature, personal heroes
are generally considered to be charismatic role models or an idealized reference group, signifying moral purpose or commitment. On this construal,
one's heroes indicate what one stands for.
Many people do interpret their personal heroes this way. When asked
what the difference is between a hero and a role model, one white female
interviewee, whose heroes included her mother and Dorothy Day, replied
that "a hero is a role model par excellance." Similarly, an African-American
man, whose heroes included Angela Davis, Malcolm X, and Matt Turner,
explained that heroes are people who inspire him to struggle against injustice and by whose example, he, himself, attempts to live. It is the putative
loss of such inspirational heroes and the moral horizons they establish that
the theoretical literature laments.
Three other interviewees, who were just as morally and politically committed, did not have heroes because they interpreted that word as signifying
impossible figures who are morally perfect in all respects. While these interviewees denied having heroes, all three said they have or have had "mentors," some of whom are not personal acquaintances. By asking only for
heroes, the survey likely undercounts such people who, if they reject the
word "hero," nevertheless rely on charismatic mentors in a conceptually
close way.
If such people are undercounted by the survey, many others are overcounted-overcounted if what we are really after is people with personal
heroes by whose moral example they attempt to live. Asked whether they
have heroes, some respondents mention not personal heroes but cultural
heroes-heroes of the group-such as Harry Truman. From in-depth interviews, it is clear that such people do not view heroes like Harry Truman
as exemplars around which their own lives are modeled. They mean, rather,
that such heroes have done something praiseworthy for the group to which
they belong. Such heroes are conceptualized in the literature as cultural
rather than personal heroes (see, for example, Wecter, 1963).
According to the literature, people do not actually want to be their
heroes but, rather, to stand with or emulate their heroes. Moral emulation,
at any rate, is the heroic function in which the literature is interested. Some
people, however, do actually want to be their heroes. In an in-depth interview, one white woman, whose hero was Princess Diana, insisted that she
actually wanted to be Princess Diana-because the interviewee wanted to
live Princess Diana's life.

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Finally, many people do not seem to distinguish between heroes and

ordinary role models such as their parents. People who actually want to be
their heroes may be uncommon. However, in comparison with people who
think only of cultural rather than personal heroes or who do not distinghish
between heroes and ordinary role models, people who reject the word hero
in favor of (charismatic) mentor also, probably, are relatively uncommon.
If, therefore, what we are really after is people with personal heroes
by whose moral example they attempt to live, the 40% figure is probably
a substantial overcount. While 40% may be taken as an upper bound on
people with heroes that function this way, the actual number of such people
is, likely, much lower.5
Future survey research could determine that by including some questions that ask repondents to distinguish how their heroes actually function
for them. Un-fortunately, the typology of hero functioning presented here
was developed only after the in-depth interviews were transcribed and studied, which was also after the survey was administered.

Who Are Our Heroes?

The spring survey recorded up to two heroes for each respondent
whereas the fall survey recorded up to three. In the spring, 45% of respondents who named one hero also named a second. In the fall, 47% of those
who named one hero likewise named a second, and 21% named a third
as well. Between the spring and fall surveys, 162 heroes were named by
246 people. The heroes named ranged from Albert Einstein and Abraham
Lincoln to Oprah Winfrey and Oliver North.
Table II presents the types of heroes chosen by respondents. Since
many respondents named multiple heroes, there are two different units of
analysis to consider: respondents and hero mentions. Whereas in column
1 the unit of analysis is repondents, in column 3 the unit of analysis is hero
mentions. Thus, column 3 presents the number of mentions associated with
each type of hero as a percentage of total hero mentions.
Whether our unit of analysis is the individual respondent or the hero
mention, the data presented in Table II, like Smith's (1986) findings, indi5If anything, the biases in the data probably tend to inflate the percentage of respondents

with heroes-although only marginally. As we will see, race, age, and gender are all statistically unrelated to hero identification. Since education turns out to be positively related to
hero identification, the overrepresentation of more educated respondents may inflate the
percentage with heroes. Education was also positively-rather than negatively-related to
religiosity, but this relationship was not statistically significant. Thus, the underrepresentation
of the less educated would seem, again, not to underrepresent the very religious, who tend
more to have heroes. If anything, the data probably overrepresent them.

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Personal Heroes

Table II. Hero Types

Hero Types

Respondents Mentioning Heroes

of Each Type as a Percentage of

Mentions of Each Hero

Type as a Percentage of

Respondents With Heroesa

Total Hero Mentions









aPercentages do not sum to 100% because some respondents name multiple heroes.

cate that even if Lowenthal and Boorstin are correct that our media have
replaced "true" heroes with celebrities, that does not directly manifest itself
at the level of the individual actor. In terms of mentions (column 3), celebrities account for only 14% of all heroes named. Similarly, if we take
individuals as our unit of analysis (column 1), less than 16% of respondents
with heroes cite celebrities. Finally, when we include those who have no
heroes at all, only a little over 6% of respondents identify idols of consumption as heroes.
Not even comparatively do the data support the Boorstin-Lowenthal
hypothesis. Idols of consumption or celebrities are not among the most
frequently cited hero types. Instead, celebrities rank third in frequency after
local and political heroes. Among those with heroes, the number of respondents who mention local heroes (47%) is about three times greater
than the number of respondents who mention celebrities (16%). Similarly,
the number of respondents who mention political heroes (29%) is almost
two times greater. Likewise, in terms of mentions, the percentage associated with celebrities (14%) lags far behind the percentages associated with
local heroes (40%) and political heroes (26%). Celebrities, in fact, do not
rank that much higher than religious heroes (11%).
Boorstin and Lowenthal are undoubtedly correct that radio, television,
and popular magazines pay undue attention to mere celebrities, crowding
out the celebration of true heroism. The media's crowding out of heroes
by celebrities may well leave people with a dearth of heroic exemplars with
whom to identify. That may explain partly why only a minority of respondents say they have heroes.
On the other hand, the low frequency of celebrities identified as heroes
suggests that the public has not succumbed totally to the media bias. When

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we speak of whom our society identifies as heroes, therefore, we must distinguish between more or less visible aspects of culture, a distinction that
tends to coincide with the distinction between the macro and the micro.
On the one hand, the media have the power to exert a strong macrosocial
effect so that the heroes they laud will be very visible culturally. Far less
visible will be the heroes adopted by individuals, microsocially. Yet the less
visible heroes that emerge from the microsocial level are equally reflective
of who we are as a society. When the values of the micro- and macrolevels
diverge, as they evidently do in the case of heroes, it is important for analysts not to mistake the more noticeable macrolevel values as the values
of the culture tout court. Instead, alongside the more visible macrolevel
culture, there may in addition be a shadow culture at the microlevel that
goes undetected.
If at the individual level the data do not support the hypothesis derived
from Boorstin and Lowenthal's macrosocial thesis, it is because the data
overwhelmingly support the rival hypothesis derived from Taylor, who
claims that modernity tends to affirm ordinary life over any kind of transcendental calling. Taylor's thesis suggests the hypothesis that individuals'
heroes will tend to be ordinary people from everyday life rather than transcendental figures.
The data uphold this expectation. Local heroes-personal acquaintances from ordinary life-were by far the most frequent category of hero
mentioned. In fact, there were as many mentions of local heroes (40%) as
there were of the next two most frequently mentioned categories combined:
political heroes (26%) and celebrities (14%). The same pattern obtains
when the unit of analysis is respondents. Almost half of the respondents
with heroes (47%) mentioned personal acquaintances as among their heroes. Again, this is more than the combined number of respondents who
named either political heroes (29%) or celebrities (14%). Thus, to the extent that local heroes represent the values of ordinary life, it does appear
to be ordinary life that is affirmed by contemporary hero choice.
The contemporary affirmation of ordinary life is further indicated by
what is absent from the data: much mention of historical figures. Instead,
the data display a striking ahistoricity in hero choice. Of the 162 different
heroes mentioned, only 10 lived prior to the 20th century: Jesus, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Bach, the virgin Mary, Columbus, Saint Paul, Saint
Francis Xavier, and Socrates.6
might be argued that more historical heroes would have been elicited had the survey question been worded differently, had it asked explicitly for heroes "living or dead." That may
be. On the other hand, if hero identification with a dead historical figure were truly salient
for a respondent, the question even as currently worded should have elicited it. The ahistorical nature of the heroes cited in this study coincides with Greenstein's (1964) finding of a


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Personal Heroes


While commentators (Schlesinger 1968, for example) may lament the

dearth of heroes among our contemporaries, there is no reason our heroes
must necessarily be contemporary. Indeed, if people were actively looking
for transcendental heroes, history is replete with them. All 10 of the above
historical figures, for example, represent ideals that transcend ordinary
It might be said that of course people tend to choose contemporaries
as their heroes simply because it is their contemporaries with whom they
most identify. That, however, is the point: It is contemporaries we identify
with, whereas it could be otherwise. It is otherwise for those in public life
(Gardinar and Jones, 1983) and even for a small minority of the people
sampled here who are not. If people saw their lives as situated within some
kind of ongoing tradition or project as described, for example, by MacIntyre
(1981), then they likely would identify with the historical figures who symbolize the traditional ideals of that project. The ahistoricity of hero identification thus may reflect what Lyotard (1984) refers to as "the end of
metanarratives," the end of any kind of transcendental narrative, whether
historical or mythical, that gives ultimate meaning to our lives.
Again, it might be that the lack of reference to historical metanarratives reflects simply a contemporary lack of historical knowledge. Yet the
causal connection may well go the other way. If people saw their lives
rooted in some kind of historical metanarrative, then, presumably, historical
knowledge would follow. In that case, a contemporary lack of historical
knowledge would itself be symptomatic of a current weakness of metanarratives.

Who Has Heroes?

As Table III indicates, there is not much in the data that explains
who is most likely to have heroes. No statistically significant differences
in hero identification were found between men and women, between
blacks and whites, or among people of different income or age categories.
In the analysis presented in Table IIIa, education did show a positive relationship with hero identification, but that relationship failed to be significant in the analysis presented in Table IIIb. Conversely, there was a
statistically significant relationship between self-perceived religiosity and
hero identification in the analysis presented in Table IIIb but not in that
presented in Table IIIa. The only attribute that consistently showed a stadecline over a 50-year period in the number of historical figures among the people that
schoolchildren say they most admire.

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tistically significant relationship with hero identification was concern with

transcendental meaning. That was measured by two variables: How often
one thinks about the meaning of life, and how definite one is about the
meaning of life.
How often one thinks about the ultimate meaning of human existence
was asked only in the spring survey, and thus was not included in the analysis presented in Table IIIa, which encompasses the combined spring and
fall data. To this question, respondents could answer "always," "often,"
"sometimes," "rarely," or "never." 'Always" is a quite emphatic response,
which presumably affirms a life that is continuously oriented around some
ultimate meaning. This was an affirmation that was made by only 17% (n
= 47) of the respondents.
In terms of hero identification, the small minority who always think
about the meaning of life are distinct. There was no difference between
those who thought about the meaning of human existence sometimes (n
= 176) as opposed to rarely or never (n = 46). In each case, 37% had
personal heroes. In contrast, of those who always think about the meaning
of human existence, close to 62% had heroes. Thus, in the analysis presented in Table IIIb, responses were collapsed into two categories: Those
who always think about the meaning of life and those who do not always
think about it.
In both the spring and fall surveys, respondents were asked, "Which
of the following statements best describes your attitude toward the ultimate
meaning of human existence?" Besides "Don't know," the possible responses were as follows:
(1) There is no real meaning to our existence; we are just lucky to be alive;
(2) Our existence must have some meaning, but I don't know what it is;
(3) We are here on earth for a purpose, and I feel I have some sense of what that
purpose is;
(4) We are here on earth for a purpose, and I feel I know what that purpose is;
(5) I have some other attitude toward the ultimate meaning of human existence.

In both analyses presented in Table III, the first and last responses to
this question were removed to create an ordinal scale of felt assurance
about the ultimate meaning of human existence. The 12% (n = 73) of
respondents who made either the first or last response express not so much
a level of certainity about the meaning of life as a repudiation of the very
framework assumed by the question. In terms of hero identification, they
represented a distinct group.
If we leave this group aside for a moment, then it appears that the
clearer the picture one has about the meaning of life, the more likely one
is to have personal heroes. Of those who think human existence meaningful
without knowing what the meaning is (27%; n = 161), only a little over

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Personal Heroes


Table III. Who is Most Likely to Have Heroes? Stepwise Multiple Regression
A. Combined Spring and Fall Data
Certainty about
meaning of lifea


Cummula- Cummulative R
tive R2















B. Spring Data
Certainty about
meaning of life
Reflection about
meaning of lifeb


Cummula- Cummulative R
tive R2
















aOne's attitude toward the meaning of human existence (see p. 224).

bHow often one thinks about the meaning of human existence.

30% have heroes. Of those who say they have some sense of the purpose
of human existence (41%; n = 242), 42% have heroes. Finally, of the 20%
(n = 117) who say they know what the purpose of life is-persumably, a
minority who live according to some articulated metanarrative, almost 56%
have heroes.
Returning now to those who either deny that human existence has
meaning or have some other attitude about human existence, almost 43%
have heroes, approximately the same percentage as those who have some
sense of life's meaning. Evidently, people in the anomalous category adhere
to a totally different orientation that attracts them to hero identification
more than those who are low on the more typical orienting dimension but
less than those who are high.
The statistically significant relationships between hero identification
and the two meaning variables (Table III) support Cooley's contention that
hero identification is an expression of transcendental ideals. Those more

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oriented toward transcendental meaning are more likely to have personal

heroes. If Taylor is correct that ours is a disenchanted age that affirms
ordinary life over transcendental meanings, these findings might also suggest why the majority of respondents do not have personal heroes.
It is true that not much of the variation in hero identification is explained by the independent variables in either of the two analyses presented
in Table III. We must remember, however, that hero identification in this
study turns out to be imprecise. It excludes those who prefer the word
mentor to hero, and it includes those who actually want to be their heroes,
those who cite cultural heroes, and those who make no distinction between
heroes and ordinary role models. From the standpoint of variation explained, probably what hero identification includes is more damaging than
what it excludes. Of those who have heroes, it is only for the smaller subset
whose heroes exemplify transcendental ideals that we would expect to see
a relationship between hero identification and the two meaning variables.
Cooley explicitly tied hero identification to religiosity, itself a dimension of transcendental concern. It may seem surprising, therefore, that religiosity fails to show a signicant relationship with hero identification in the
analysis presented in Table IITb.Religiosity, however, covaries strongly with
the two meaning variables. A full third of the very religious respondents
(n = 68) say they always think about the ultimate meaning of human existence as compared with fewer than 12% (n = 182) of those respondents
who describe themselves as other than "very religious" (X2 = 19.948; a =
.0005). Similarly, a full 40% of the very religious respondents (n = 121)
say they know what the meaning of life is; only 11% say life either has no
meaning or that they have some other attitude. In contrast, of those who
explicitly describe themselves as "not very religious" (n = 152), less than
7% say they know what the meaning of life is, and close to a third (27%)
say either that life has no meaning or that they have some other attitude.
Those who describe themselves as "somewhat religious" (n = 281) are in
between these two extremes (X2 = 84.8; a < .001).
Examined in isolation, there is a statistically significant relationship
between religiosity and hero identification (X2 = 14.2; a = .0008). Thirtythree percent (33%) of the "not very religious" (n = 113), 38% of the
"somewhat religious" (n = 284), and 54% of the "very religious" (n =
153) have heroes. While in Table Illa we see that religiosity has an independent effect on hero identication, it seems as if its stronger effect is
indirect through the meaning variables. Indeed, when we remove either
of the two meaning variables from the analysis presented in Table IIlb,
religiosity again shows up as significantly related to hero identification
(,B = .128, a = .028, when attitude toward meaning of life is removed;
= .153, a = .035, when it is how often one thinks of the meaning of

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Personal Heroes

human existence that is removed). The strongest effect of religiosity on

hero identification is, thus, in all likelihood indirect. Through religiosity,
horizons are lifted to the level of transcendental meaning, one expression
of which is hero identification.

Traditionally, heroes are the protagonists of myths-that is, metaphorical or figurative accounts that are addressed to the ultimate questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? Why are we here?
Addressed to ultimate questions as they are, myths relate to a sacred plane
of existence, a plane that transcends profane, everyday life. In the sacred
plane, heroes personify transcendent ideals and transcendent visions of
the good.
It often has been argued that ours is a largely demythologized, profane
culture, where people generally do not orient their lives meaningfully
around mythic paradigms or transcendental metanarratives. The data presented here lend support to that view. According to the data, few people
seem to think intensely about the meaning of human existence in general,
and, accordingly, few seem to conform confidently to any kind of articulated, grand metanarrative.
Taylor argues that it is everyday life that is valorized now, not some
higher plane of transcendent purpose. Ours, he says, is instead a bourgeois
culture, where the good is found in the ordinary acts of work, home, and
leisure. Without a transcendent plane in which we are required to orient
ourselves, we may feel little cultural need for personal heroes. As the
mythic dwelling place of heroes is culturally marginal, perhaps its heroic
residents are marginal as well.
Again, the data seem to support this view. Most people do not have
personal heroes, and among those who do, most frequently cited are the
local heroes of ordinary life. It is likely no accident, furthermore, that people with personal heroes tend to be both religious and attuned to grand
metanarratives. If in its most vibrant form, heroes relate to ultimate concerns, then it will be those who are consciously directed to such concerns
who will be most likely to have heroes. Heroes and heroic callings have so
far received little mention in the literature on desacralization. Yet like rituals, prayer, and attendence at religious services, they are important dimensions of the sacredly engaged life. Hopefully, this paper will stimulate
further attention to this topic.

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I would like to thank the following people for their helpful comments
on previous drafts of this paper: Orly Benjamin, Hugo Freund, Ernest
Hakanen, William Rosenberg, William Sullivan, and Alan Wolfe. I would
also like to express my appreciation to the anonymous referees who helped
make this a better paper.

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