Four Conceptions of the Heroic
by Vera Norman
Adapted from a presentation given at the
February 2003 FORum.
The characteristics of the hero have changed
over time: today’s hero doesn’t much resemble the Homeric heroes of the
Iliad and the Odyssey like Achilles, or of Sophocle’s
Antigone, or even the later Roman heroes of Virgil’s Aeneid
whose protagonist, Aeneas, manipulates the beautiful Queen Dido to take
advantage of her in such a way we moderns would find reprehensible and
The Classical Hero
Here are the main characteristics of the epic classical hero of Greek
and Roman literature:
He is of royal birth or even, like the
Titan Prometheus, half mortal, half god.
He must perform extraordinary feats.
His is a noble character which is close to
perfectly ideal but for a fatal flaw.
The suffering of the character is
Death must occur in an unusual way.
The hero fights for his own honor; his
deeds belong to the community only after his death.
The notion of virtue implicit in these characteristics is implicit in
the philosophy of the time. Reading Plato’s Republic, Aristotle's
Ethics, and the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, for instance,
what comes through is that only the well born can be thought to be
virtuous–heroism is only for the few–slaves, artisans, and ordinary
plebes have no business studying ethics and cannot be
successful at turning themselves into heroic types. The virtues include
courage, pride, honor, justice, magnificence–things to watch out for are
shame, cowardice, intemperance, foolishness...
A consideration of the hero, Achilles, serves as an illustration of how
different the Greek notion of heroism is from the later Christian notion
which immediately succeeded it. On the the eve of the big battle between
the Greeks and the Trojans, Achilles sulks in his tent because the woman
he thought he was owed as a prize has been taken from him. He finally
decides to join the battle because pride won’t allow him to have his
fellow soldiers earn all the battle glory for themselves. He fights
savagely and single-handedly kills more Trojans than the rest of his
troop. He shows no mercy to any of the enemy. When Priam, the king of
the Trojans begs for the body of his son Hector, Achilles, in a deranged
fit of excess, drags it around in the dirt behind a chariot and gives it
over for burial only when he is moved by the old man’s tears. In
Hollywood, a man of Achilles characteristics would be cast as a Mafioso.
The Medieval Hero
The classical hero is succeeded by the medieval knight in the heroic
literature. The knight, a post-biblical construction, differs from the
Greco/Roman hero by operating within a different set of virtues than his
earlier counterpart. In reading the stories of King Arthur and his
Knights of the Round Table, although this is a romantic reconstruction
of the ancient stories, there is enough reference to the description of
Teutonic Knighthood to get a picture of what the values were that made a
man a hero. In addition to the Aristotelian list of justice, courage,
honor, and the rest, are added new Christian ideas of the sacred. Now,
virtue is open to anybody. Even the commoner can be heroic if he adopts
the knightly code of ethics.
Here are the main characteristics of the Teutonic Knightly code as
exemplified by Roland, Parsifal, and Don Quixote.
A hero can be of common birth.
Battle is an ongoing test of manhood and loyalty to the liege lord.
A man has to be seen as having a good moral character including. chastity
and obedience (doesn’t actually need to be of such a character,
perception more important than actuality).
Must demonstrate obedience to hierarchy Must follow elaborate rules of
chivalry, dress, courtesy, and codes of conduct.
Wages war on behalf of liege lord’s principles–war is no longer a land
grab or to avenge honor.
A consideration of Machiavelli’s The Prince serves as an
illustration of the philosophy of realism behind the notion of the
heroic in the Middle Ages through the Renaissance. Machiavelli advises
the Prince that chaos is the enemy of civility. He tells him there is a
hierarchy of order which must be maintained in order for all men to live
well in a strong society they can rely on. The prince must be strong, he
must sometimes behave unethically although he can never appear to break
the moral code of the land. He must sometimes sacrifice the innocent in
order to preserve the greater good for the greater number. Individuality
gives way to the concerns of the state, and the hero becomes a good
soldier on behalf of the ruling dynasty. The search for glory extant in
the deeds of the Greco/Roman heroes is transmuted into the search for
future glory in the kingdom of God. In this age of the crusades, the
holy grail is the spiritual substitute for the hubristic adventure.
The Romantic Hero
The hero as rebel is an invention of romanticism. Think of the Byronic
poets, Wagner’s operas, Goethe’s Faust and Young Werther to get a view
of the heroic man as a brooding iconoclast who has discounted all the
old conceptions of a formal moral code to be loyal to a particular code
shared by only a few other souls of great magnitude or at least of those
sensitive fellow sufferers from a society which is restrictive and petty
in its insistence of social rule-making.
This is the time in history which sees particular notions elevated to a
sacrosanct status. This can be as broad-based as the notions of the
rights of man spurring on the revolutions the Americas and in France.
Or, it can be as particular as a rebellion against a classical style of
painting, writing, music making. This is a time of fervor in the service
of an idea. The hero can be devoted to his country–nationalism-- or
could just as easily be devoted to the notion that there should be no
nations at all.
Here are the characteristics of the romantic hero.
Birth and class are unimportant: the individual transcends society
The battle is internal: it is a psychological war won by the “courage to
Moral codes are eccentric–heroes make their own rules
Passions are outside of individual control
Self knowledge is valued more than physical strength or endurance
(physical courage is de-valued)
The hero is moody, isolated, and introspective
Loyalty is to a particular project and to a community of like-minded
This romanticism is a lead in to today’s conception of the heroic which
may best be characterize
by the idea of the anti-hero. The world, which even in the recently
passed romantic age was knowable and whose ills could be repaired by men
of knowledge and courage, is no longer a familiar place. The world is
hostile, unsafe, and if not deliberately cruel and unjust, is at least
discovered to be without meaning, cold, uncaring, and joyless.
The Modern Hero
Film noir illustrates what kind of modern heroic qualities are
appreciated by people cast adrift in a world which has no known reason
for existing, which could disappear at any moment, and where language,
math, history, and all objects, created by humans or “discovered” by
them are thought to be merely symbols of a despairing mankind in a world
where neither form nor matter is known to have reality or permanence.
What are the characteristics of the modern hero?
He seeks merely to survive–to create a pool of light in a world of dark
The war is against meaninglessness: the battle is to create meaning and
The heroes, like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, have a code of behavior
rather than a code of ethics - they portray men who are impassive,
hard-boiled, never surprised by events.
The world is seen as having no internal order: anything goes–the hero is
as likely to be debauched and depraved as the enemy.
The internal struggle is with addiction to drugs, liquor, sex, money.
The external struggle is with corruption in government, the military,
schools - formal organizations.
There is no sense of community. The hero lives for a small, select
circle which can be merely one woman or a few trusted friends.
Although the latest notions of the heroic in our society most closely
resemble the anti-hero as exemplified in the noir genre, FOR members are
more likely to define themselves in a combination of classic/romantic
hero modes. Most members express admiration for an ethical position
which most closely approximates the classic Aristotelian model of virtue
as an expression of good habits developed purposively over time and
maintained by thoughtful practice. This is coupled with an unabashed
enthusiasm for the kind of individualism advocated first by the
Enlightenment and put into practice by the romantic post rationalists of
the Industrial Revolution.
to this Commentary.
FOR's Amazon Bookstore
here to Amazon.com before you make any of your purchases there and FOR
will receive a small commission.