THE PHILOSOPHICAL FOUNDATIONS OF HEROISM

by Dr. Andrew Bernstein

Every rational person, growing up, had his favorite childhood heroes. Maybe it was a John Wayne character in a Western action movie, leading the cavalry over the hill in a last charge against vicious bandits or marauding Indians. Maybe it was a swashbuckling swordsman who, ever loyal to his King, saves the Queen from a nefarious plot, like d'Artagnan in Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers. Maybe, as one grew older, one's taste ran to more intellectual heroes, such as an uncompromising young architect who stands by his own judgment against an entire society in a book stressing the virtue of independence. Or maybe one found one's heroes not in fiction but in the great men and women of real life, such as: George Washington leading his battered troops across the Delaware to surprise the British Army on Christmas Eve--or Thomas Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence, risking "life, fortune and sacred honor" to establish the fledgling republic on the principle of individual rights--or a scientist/inventor like Thomas Edison or Marie Curie or the Wright Brothers devoting years of effort to discover new knowledge or create new products. Whatever one's individual tastes in heroes, one fact is abundantly clear: the great men and women whose achievements provide inspiration for millions come with an assortment of specific characteristics. Some are predominantly physicalistic heroes, some primarily intellectual, some are excellent examples of the principle of mind-body integration; some are grand-scale characters towering through a work of fiction, whether on the printed page, stage or screen-while some perform their great and notable deeds in actual existence. More prosaically, some are male, some are female; some are white, some black, some Oriental; many are Americans, many are not; some lived in the 20th century, many lived in the past, hopefully many are yet to come. And yet, through the teeming multiplicity of individualized differences, there runs a recurrent thread, a distinguishing essence that unites them all into a common classification, as differentiated from their antipode, from the mundane, the trivial, the everyday, the pedestrian, the non-heroic--or worse, from the evil, the villainous, the monstrous, the anti-heroic. What, the first question must be, is the distinguishing essence of heroism? What characteristics must one possess to qualify as a hero? What is it that unites Achilles, Cyrano, Isaac Newton, John Galt and Ayn Rand? What is it that differentiates them from: both the folks next door, and from Iago, Ellsworth Toohey, Adolf Hitler, Hilary Clinton? In short, what is the rational meaning of the concept "heroism"?

Get Mentzer's Latest Book Muscles in Minutes The philosophical causes are instructive. provides a set of definitions essentially no different. If only physical prowess is efficacious. are mighty warriors--and why the dictionary defines the concept "hero" in almost exclusively physicalistic terms. cheek-turning "lamb" in this world." like so many others. helpless. Such a mind-body split is the necessary application to the theory of human nature of the belief in two-world. As long as men are taught a religious metaphysics. they will hold that the spirit is a hyper-sensitive. then their lives depend on it--and it is the body they will venerate. both historically and currently. as long as men retain sufficient rationality to value their own lives.Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary defines "hero as: a) "a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability. inefficacious. pacifistic. they will necessarily celebrate the distinctively-physicalistic attributes of man despite paying lip service to religion. The American Heritage Dictionary. Without such a basis the concept can be neither rigorously-defined nor adequately-understood. b) an illustrious warrior. that his body belongs to this dimension of reality and his consciousness to a higher. Observe first the predominant emphasis on the physical. The Platonic-Christian tradition in philosophy trumpets two claims: 1) that man is a being severed into two parts. courage and warlike prowess-second the absence of any mention of the mind or intellect--and third the attenuated reference to the criterion of a man's moral character ("noble qualities" is listed as one of the term's meanings). as it proper base. bodily means are effectual. Based on this definition. is a high-level abstraction--it is primarily a moral concept--and requires a rational philosophical system. I refer you to my talk. that its constructs may be sound in theory but are futile in practice. spiritual realm--and 2) the logical consequence of this mind-body split. but the omnipotent deity ruling the next--so Hamlet is its perfect literary expression--the brilliant philosopher-intellectual who excels in the theoretical realm but is helpless to deal with the practical. . hand-wringing weakling too fine for this world--and that only brute bodily means are efficacious and practical. This is why the overwhelming majority of heroes admired by mankind. c) a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities. is helpless to deal with this one. the belief that this world is utterly material and carnal. (For a fuller analysis of the Platonic-Christian tradition and its mind-body dichotomy as the cause of heroism's construal in physicalistic terms. this is a common perception in our culture. that the mind is ivory-towered. d) one that shows great courage. one might conclude that an Arnold Schwarzenegger character is a hero but that Howard Roark or Ayn Rand are not. Just as Jesus is the perfect moral expression of this view--the weak. that brute. Sadly. Therefore. though endowed with such a promising name. since it belongs to another world. metaphysical dualism. including the principle of mind-body integration. "The Mind as Hero in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged." These attempts at defining the nature of a hero are woefully inadequate. on great strength. but that the intellect.") The concept of "heroism.

The achievement of values is not guaranteed.e. The essence of a rational morality is a ruthless dedication to reality and to the factual requirements of man's life on earth. It should be clear from this discussion that prowess or ability is a second critical component of a hero's make-up. lifepromoting values. even in he fails to achieve practical victory. Man's nature provides him with built-in needs and the ability to satisfy them--but not with the goods their satisfaction requires. Lacking this. An uncompromising commitment to morality is the foundation of heroism. the act of strongly-motivated striving. ability or prowess. action in the face of opposition. grow his food. one need not apply. Because of his unbreached devotion to the good. in the end. the hero's moral stature is unquestionably the most fundamental. in fact. unyielding foes or forces (be they animate or inanimate) may provide fierce resistance to the would-be producers--then a further quality. in addition to moral stature. a hero attains spiritual grandeur. then no competence on the part of human beings would be required for either the creation of values or their defense. both the industrialist who creates a new product and the police officer who rescues him from kidnappers are heroes--and for the same reason: the actions of both exhibit an unswerving loyalty. defeat the looters or even. often prodigious and sometimes in the teeth of antagonistic forces. But the truth is that the man who creates values is the primary hero. ability--again intellectual ability especially--is required to defend the good against their murderous intentions. Nevertheless. the man who defends the creator from evil is a hero because the creator has made human life possible. Struggle. Eddie Willers in Atlas Shrugged is as dedicated to man's life on earth as is Dagny Taggart or John Galt--but he is unable to run the railroad. Man's life requires the achievement of values: he must build his houses. bestial or human. "Those who . Similarly. intellectual ability--is crucial to his survival on earth. not Webster's): an individual of elevated moral stature and superior ability who pursues his goals indefatigably in the face of powerful antagonist(s). repair a locomotive. no matter the opposition.A hero is (this is my definition. Although the point can be stated simply-the hero is a "good guy"--its reasons are philosophical and apply to all instances of the concept. be they insentient. power. competence. If we lived in a Garden of Eden. The hero is the man dedicated to the creation and/or defense of reality-conforming. Notice then the four components of heroism: moral greatness. if not a physical. since evil men attempt to enslave the creators and survive as parasites off of their effort. Where nothing is given to man and all must be produced--where implacable. that make possible all these accomplishments and more. automatic or effortless. to the values required by human life. ability--above all. the pursuit of goals involving great exertion. develop the medicines that cure the diseases which afflict him. is required to ensure survival: expertise. and triumph in at least a spiritual. i. no matter the opposition. in which an omnipotent deity provided all goods and full protection. invent a motor. But since metaphysical reality requires that man's values be created and produced. philosophy. This distinction must be made because of irrational philosophy dominating the culture. Because of the culture's mind-body split the defender of rational values has very often been recognized whereas their creator has not. Of these. science. and discover the principles in logic. This is the indispensable moral pre-requisite of being a hero. form. These are the product of his own effort. even difficulty. is inherent in the nature of life.

The essence of heroism is an unbreached and unbreachable allegiance to the good in the face of any possible form of opposition. pursuing excellence relentlessly. When one can say this truthfully of a man. uncompromised devotion to the good represents victory in. can sway the great man from his chosen course." He may fail in his specific value quest. The relevant principle is this: if one remains true in action--come hell or high water--to rational values. but to win home to one's love through a ten-year struggle against gods and man--this is the act of a hero. he may be shot in the back or die. never betraying one's soul. larger-than-life hero. "It's too cold at Valley Forge. but his principled. The essence of this point is simple: nothing is given to man on earth--struggle is built into the nature of life. "The mountains are so high. spiritual grandeur. The question can be raised: must one achieve full success in one's practical value quest--like Howard Roark-in order to attain the status of hero? In effect. If one achieves at a high level. having fought the entire world every step of the way--like Socrates. Read the Heavy Duty Training Bible Heavy Duty II . in a different context. If Hannibal had thought. then an extraordinary man like Cyrano does not qualify. the hero embodies nobility of character. therefore. Since reality--and especially men holding converse goals--can." or George Washington had decided." It's such a hassle finding clients. he lives without the woman he loves. Which brings us to the issue of triumph. he is murdered by his enemies. then one is a hero even though one fails in practical terms. must one win the battle and get the girl? Observe that if so. and conflict is possible--the hero is the man who lets no obstacle prevent him from pursuing the values he has chosen. the characteristic Aristotle deemed "greatness of soul. never yielding. his life is an inspiration. the greatest heroes of the human race. Ayn Rand--then it becomes abundantly clear that nothing can stop this man. and often do. a third characteristic of heroism is an uncompromising commitment to one's purpose(s) even in the teeth of powerful antagonism." goes the first part of a famous quote and here. Because of this. if one embodies all this and never cries for mercy. he is a towering. But if one achieves at a high level." or Howard Roark had said. they would not be the inspirations they are. we can draw a different conclusion--that those who do on the grand scale stand head and shoulders above those who don't and are. that is good--but one has not yet been tested by the full range of forces that a purposeful man might confront. Cyrano does not succeed in achieving any of his practical values: his plays are not produced. then one is in the presence of a hero. Even the most ordinary of men may take a trip to meet his lover on a sunny day--and there is no heroism in this. Of the essence of heroism is a grand-scale stature that towers above the ordinary like Everest over an ant-hill--and the key to it is this: no obstacle or opposition. no matter how daunting.can--do. finding it easy and meeting no opposition. if one strives mightily against any and all antagonists. Galileo. Because he displays such virtue in action against concerted opposition." and then relinquished their respective ambitions. a moral sense. provide stubborn opposition to a rational man's value quest. at least. And yet.

He is also a doer. A hero is a self-driven. Mike Hammer. despite his intellectual prowess. therefore. This is why Hamlet. Some level of intellectual acumen is a necessary condition for great achievement. Wolfe takes practical steps to apprehend a murderer--Holmes certainly does--but neither is the hard-driving man of action that Mike . The recognition of virtue requires understanding. A hero holds purposes appropriate to man and is. No matter the predominance of physicalistic prowess in a hero's life or story. who solves the most complex murder mysteries from an armchair. the rough-and-tumble. The rational valuer. solves a murder by a process of thought. but the mere fact of its possession is not a sufficient condition. and in defense of these virtues he's willing to risk his life. Further. First. is ultimately not merely a tragic but a pathetic figure: he is paralyzed by indecisiveness in the practical realm and never employs his knowledge as a guide to action. cannot be considered a hero.45 dum-dums because he holds an impassioned commitment to justice. which requires thought. value-intoxicated doer. for example. It is why Howard Roark is. loves the Starrett family because he recognizes clearly their work ethic and productivity. it requires practical steps taken in pursuit of one's values. but may do so in varying degrees. Heroism requires application of one's knowledge. and who must be prodded by others to prevent the full squandering of his genius--can never be considered a hero. a commercial failure and a man whose greatest buildings were never erected. Watson. even so prodigious a thinker as Conan Doyle's Mycroft Holmes. and to do this he must be a thinker. for example. One may gape. one may appreciate the grand-scale. A hero's life is an unbroken and inviolable series of actions taken in accordance with his own principles in the teeth of any obstacle with which nature or other men confront him. heroic proportion of this aspect of his nature. And it is why Peter Keating. Observe the principle involved: since man is an integration of mind and body. A hero is a man whose life is dedicated to the creation and/or defense of rational values. along with Dr. since his life requires both mental and physical effort. a thinker. he cannot be sundered into mindless action hero versus purely theoretical.This is why Henry Cameron is a hero. hard-boiled detective Mike Hammer hates all murderers and characteristically fills them with . inactive mental giant. there is a continuum regarding a hero's nature: he must possess some quantity of both mental and physical prowess. but ultimately one is forced to conclude that a man who abdicates all initiative--who takes no self-generated steps to pursue values. has abandoned any and all hope of ever attaining such an exalted status. The gunfighter Shane. because his life requires a smooth causal flow between thought and action. is a man of the mind. and would remain a hero. even if every potential client were to reject him and Dominique were never to correct the malevolent universe premise that keeps her from him. A physicalistic brute who rains destruction on equally-mindless foes in a conflict that involves no recognizably-human values-as in some violence--glorifying action movie--is not a hero because his life embodies the repudiation of the mind. Similarly. but he is not the thinker that Nero Wolfe or Sherlock Holmes are. Because man is an integrated sum of mind and body. their honesty and unbending integrity. at the incomparable brain power of Sherlock's brother. A man who rejects his nature cannot possess virtue and can never achieve heroism. conversely. he must hold rational values. from the first moment of compromise. by his nature and within the scale of his concerns. even though he dies a drunk. in Jack Schaefer's beautiful novel. no wedge can be driven into a great man's nature. if he is a genuine hero he must be a thinker in at least a practical sense.

as for any man. without exception. because as we know from the Objectivist epistemology. Let's take a fictional example this time. she writes two of the greatest novels in the history of world literature. the good have no chance in a physical conflict with the evil. This is the essence of a hero's nature. educated in a dictatorship. sees Atlas Shrugged attacked by every major critic. then gives lectures. The Humanities professors. raised. she rejects it and fights for the glory of man's mind. one regarding the means by which men come to form the concept "hero. writes essays and newspaper columns. struggles to get The Fountainhead published. in protection of the honest producers. Shane identifies that Joe Starrett has discovered a new and better method for raising beef herds. she yearns for political freedom and. from one of my favorite novels. and he makes his choice. the literary critics. Obviously. etc. appears on television and radio. Shane is a man. he recognizes that. For a hero. Ayn Rand's heroism is largely intellectual. Ayn Rand is a real-life person. the character I mentioned earlier. are almost unanimously opposed to her books and ideas. Take another example. This is the metaphysics. Ayn Rand is one of the greatest heroes in the history of mankind. But an important epistemological question needs to be raised as well. they attempt to stonewall her. Through years of exhausting effort. from two concretes we can form a concept. In defense of the good. Ayn Rand is a woman. Raised in a culture dominated by Christianity. of a hero's make-up. he sees that Starrett's enemies are killers. Jack Shaefer's protagonist. But notice the many differences. But many of her fellow men are uninterested or antagonistic. He intercedes on their behalf. She formulates a revolutionary philosophy of reason and individualism. But what are the critical similarities by virtue of which we place them . In my judgment. What makes her so? Look at the facts of her life: born. alone. defects to America. his virtue necessarily requires practical application of rational thought. Shane's largely physical.Hammer is. these are the most fundamental of his characteristics. he rides into town alone to face the evil. He kills them. Shane. the educators. in effect. Would you consider both of these individuals heroes? I certainly would. A man's heroism may take a primarily physical form or a predominantly intellectual one or may consist of a balanced integration of the two--but as a human being. in this context. Shane is fictitious. there are many differences. publishes works of non-fiction and more--in an attempt to reach out to her fellow man with what she knows is a life-giving philosophy. by the doctrine of man's sinfulness. to shut her out of the universities by means of silence or virulent attack--but Ayn Rand's words can't be silenced and the philosophical movement she founded continues to slowly but surely grow in influence. making the valley safe for the good." What are the facts of reality which give rise to this concept? Why have human beings formed it? Which characteristics of men does the concept serve to identify? The best way to answer these questions is to examine the lives of several heroes and then extract the explanatory principles from the facts. the principle of mind-body integration is inescapable. but breaks through the hostility to achieve great commercial success.

in action. The designation "hero" is a moral approbation reserved for this elite. take on every foe. if necessary. By its nature it is reserved for the man set apart--for the select few who tower above the rest. complete an education or find a cure for cancer. it is for these men that the special designation of "hero" is reserved. A hero is related but is not identical to a moral man.e. Mother Theresa. A role model is a man who. they are willing to expend all their energy. A hero is all of these things and more. To attain this status one must reach the zenith of human morality--an undeviating commitment to rational values. This is so because men have recognized implicitly that there are a special few who take on all comers to achieve their ends.. It is only because some men pursue values in the teeth of opposition that the concept "hero" becomes necessary--necessary to differentiate those who. but he must be undaunted. most of mankind's heroes have been great warriors. to an achiever. A hero has faced it all: he need not be undefeated. is worthy of emulation. as a rational achiever. Madonna--or even from the folks next door? When the question is formed in this way. An achiever is a man who attains ends that are objectively life-promoting. like Ayn Rand. the answer should be clear. It is a sparsely populated classification. It is the antagonism he faces that calls forth one of a hero's most salient moral characteristics: his courage. i. It is not an accident that. It is from observation of these men that the concept "hero" is formed. Heroism is a moral concept. But in reality some men pursue rational values in the teeth of every form of opposition. have battled every conceivable foe in pursuit of their values from those who have not. in the teeth of opposition that would dismay a lesser man. the Pope. whether to construct a home. They hold rational. historically.together in the same class and distinguish them from Bill Clinton. Now we have a fuller understanding of my original definition: a hero is an individual of elevated moral stature and superior ability who pursues his goals indefatigably in the face of powerful antagonist(s). The hero is one who holds rational values and fights for them. . These other great men are not necessarily confronted by opposition nor does the attainment of their exalted status require it. A moral man is one who possesses an unbreached commitment to reality and who never indulges whims. life-promoting values--and in the attempt to create and/or defend these values. one who fulfills realityconforming purposes. against every conceivable form of opposition. engage in any struggle. to a role model.

one's work. Whether the threat is to one's life.The dictionary defines "courage" as: "mental or moral strength to venture. The brave man is not necessarily one who is unafraid but one who performs whatever protective actions his values require. Inc. Inc. Courage does not necessarily require the confronting of physical danger but it does involve more than facing extreme difficulty. persevere. one's loved ones. no matter the intensity of his fear. financial ruin. one's mind. The essence of courage is: standing up for one's values in the face of some threat to them. or whatever--whether it takes the form of physical danger. one's home.--the principle remains the same: one's values are in danger and one fights to save them no matter the opposition or odds. intellectual attack." This is a generally-good definition but I would like to amend it in the light of a rational philosophy. The hero is valorous because he stands up to every threat directed against his values. etc. Site by FX Media. fear or difficulty. This bravery is the especial moral hallmark of the hero. Heroism requires value conflict. Courage is integrity in a context: it is unyielding commitment to one's values in the teeth of a force or foe that threatens them. and withstand danger." It involves "firmness of mind and will in the face of danger or extreme difficulty. Home Welcome Articles Tips Books Consultation Catalog © 2002 Mentzer-Sharkey Enterprises. .

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