This is an excerpt from the book series Philosophy for Heroes: Knowledge. You can get a copy here.
My journey into philosophy started with this quote:
My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.
—Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
Biography —Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand was born in 1905 in the Russian Empire and studied history and philosophy. Inspired by the movies and pictures and disgusted by the communist Soviet Union, she decided to emigrate to the United States: only there could she write freely. She became famous for her two novels, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957). She defended reason as the only means to acquire knowledge about the world, she was a proponent of rational egoism, and she thought of the initiation of force—be it in the form of a state (dictatorship) or the lack thereof (anarchy)—to reach one’s goals as immoral. Ultimately, she propagated laissez-faire capitalism with individual rights at its base as the ideal. Her tireless work for individualism and a world of heroes is what makes her a heroine as well.
The term “hero” is problematic because it is used with the very best as well as with the very worst intentions. To call someone a hero is to give him tremendous power and raise him to a position where he must not be questioned. For example, dictatorships usually seize upon this powerful concept and elevate a person to a god-like status. People can speak out against laws and regulations, but who wants to speak out against the person he or she is expected to adore and worship: the hero of the people? For these reasons, we have to examine closely what a “hero” really is.
Men have to have heroes, but no man can ever be as big as the need, and so a legend grows around a grain of truth, like a pearl.
—Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn
Conventional heroes often appear in times of crisis or in individual critical situations. Mostly by coincidence, they happen to be on the scene when a person of exceptional strength is required. Their heroic acts are then measured according to the evil or challenge facing them and according to their sacrifice. But the heroic act does not change the person doing it, and the accolade of the public ends eventually. After the situation has been resolved, the hero usually returns back to ordinary life—disenchanted, since he cannot survive daily life through self-sacrifice alone. It is as if those writers with a conventional concept of a hero know that their heroes could not keep up with the idealistic image that people project on them. They do not grow beyond their own sacrifice, leading to many stories ending with the heroic act or the death of the hero.
Did you know?
In the book series Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien, the hero Frodo undergoes a long journey to destroy evil once and for all. Through magical explanations, it is assumed that evil will not return once a magic ring is destroyed. In the story, after the heroic deed is done, the “resolution” for the hero is to sail away to another country and spend the rest of his life there. This idea of a final resolution of a problem is the traditional way of portraying a hero. But in reality, the real task would be only beginning: One would have to ask, how did the people turn evil in the first place? How can we educate them to prevent a similar disaster in the future? → Read more in Philosophy for Heroes: Epos
A hero is not created by a catastrophe. While an outstanding action can point to an actually outstanding character, just because a person happens to help put out a fire or save a child, this itself does not necessarily constitute true heroism, even though the deed is of course rewarded with gratitude and recognition. Such a “hero” born of coincidence will be forgotten as fast as he has risen. The elevation of a person to the status of “hero” is only an expression of appreciation for his heroic deed, not for his character traits. There are too many people celebrated as “heroes” who are then falsely viewed as moral authorities. Heroic acts are consequences—not causes—of such an authority. Rather than discussing how to imitate heroic acts, or for which causes someone should sacrifice himself, the essence of this book series is how to achieve true moral authority to fulfill the role of a hero, with or without performing “heroic acts.” Such acts with public appeal might follow from being able to make the right decisions at the right time. But those acts and the accolades should not be the sole motivation to be moral. We should work toward a world that does not require the sacrifice of individuals.
That is in stark contrast to most movies where experts and organizations of a society are portrayed as being incompetent, and only an extraordinary hero can rescue the world. As “heroes,” it is important to know our limits and focus on our strengths instead of trying to carry the whole world on our own shoulders. We do not have to feel responsible for everything that is happening, only to then complain that we cannot manage it on our own. There are experts who can help in their field a lot more effectively than we can. If the actual result is more important to us than the recognition, we have a simpler option to improve the world without having to sacrifice ourselves—we can donate to causes that advance the well-being of others.
What are false heroes, and how does a true hero interact with them?
Many seek social recognition for the work they do, for their effort, and ultimately for decisions to sacrifice short-term gratification for long-term goals. For this reason, the title “hero” is the highest honor, reflecting a moral authority others can look up to and emulate to improve their own lives. Using social recognition as our primary motivation for heroism fails because it requires us to depend on the moral authority of society, which (at least in times of crisis) is exactly what we want to break with our heroic acts. Thus, apart from natural disasters, a hero aligns him or herself with reason, regardless of whether it is with or against trends and public opinion. A true hero stands up to false heroes.
A true hero stands up to false heroes.
Heroism is not simply self-sacrifice. Heroism is possessing the foresight to take a stand for your own values. Heroism is not limited to overcoming a present conflict; it requires fully and consistently taking a stand for a cause and living your life accordingly. While obstacles are part of daily life, and while we can use them to grow, true heroes do not need emergency situations; they are not reactive but instead prepared, foresighted, and intimidating to their adversaries.
They can, however, also be intimidating to their admirers. For that reason, we must remember that a hero’s acts are contextual. A simple smile can be a heroic act in the right situation.
Even if we do not worship our heroes, they may cow us. It takes a certain amount of confidence and courage to say, “I can do something. I can change this and make a difference.” But if you, as a writer think, “What are my words next to those of my hero, Shakespeare?” then something is lost for those who need your help and your voice. Excessive humility is no virtue if it prevents us from acting.
The White Rose, a student group in Nazi Germany during WWII, risked their lives to distribute leaflets and were eventually executed because of it. They did it not because it was popular, or convenient; they acted against the opinion of everyone else around them and still did the right thing—regardless of the consequences to themselves. They were convinced that they could make a difference, and they wanted to succeed. Considering the mounting self-destruction of Nazi Germany at the time, not doing anything would have been a much greater self-sacrifice—and for the wrong cause.
Biography —Hans and Sophie Scholl
Hans and Sophie Scholl were born in 1918 and 1921 in Ingersheim and Forchtenberg (Germany) respectively. While they were at first avid members of the Hitler Youth, they recognized that they had to position themselves against national socialism to prevent things from getting worse. This was due to their liberal and religious upbringing, the influence of messages from friends in the war, the reading of philosophical writings, listening to religious sermons, and their mentor Kurt Huber at the University of Munich. They started sending out a large number of fliers to the German public to explain to them the grave danger Germany was in. Ultimately, they were caught on February 18th, 1943. Only four days later they were sentenced to death by the notorious People’s Court and executed the same day. After the war, they were regarded as important symbols of a German value-oriented resistance movement against the NS regime.
If we were to sacrifice our lives for a cause, what about all the people we could have helped if we had lived? What about the example we could have set for others during peaceful times? Are “good intentions” more important than the actual result? What, ultimately, is the measure of a hero? Is it possible for a successful businessperson to be a hero, or is this term reserved for those who stand up for others without recompense? Is social recognition the main motivator of heroism—an objective evaluation of one’s accomplishments benefiting society—or is heroism an individual, objective description of a person relative to his possibilities and decisions and independent of his actual capabilities? Can only conflict bring out true heroes?
Heroes and Conflicts
Great heroes need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed. It is all part of the fairy tale.
—Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn
It is correct that true heroes remain mostly unrecognized in the absence of conflict. They are scattered among us. Like Atlas, from Greek mythology, they carry society on their shoulders—often anonymously yet gladly so, since they are faced with resentment and jealousy. In the novel The Last Unicorn, the unicorn is captured by a local carnival. The owner had to put a fake magical horn on the unicorn so that the people did not mistake her for a mare. While this describes a sad state of affairs, this idea also gives us hope. We should not take the world for what it appears to be. They might be difficult to find, but there are true heroes out there. As Peter S. Beagle put elegantly:
If men no longer know what they are looking at, there may well be other unicorns in the world yet, unknown and glad of it.
—Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn
Why should we not study philosophy as passive observers?
Heroes do not need evil in order to triumph; their only goal is a better world in which they want to live. A hero is not born out of a crisis or a single act of heroism. A crisis just puts the spotlight on some people. If only heroic acts in a crisis made heroes, every hero ultimately would work toward their own destruction: an ideal world without crises would not need such heroes. Based on that definition, in an ideal world, there would not be any heroes left. But heroism does not diminish when conditions in the world are improving. A hero does not work for a world in which his heroic traits are valued less and less; rather, he is dedicated to create a world in which he can develop himself (and others) better and better. For this reason, the opposite of a hero is not his opponent but, instead, the passive observer.
The opposite of a hero is not his opponent but, instead, the passive observer.
Often, a hero is someone who distinguishes himself from the crowd and rebels against obstacles, someone who does not follow society’s standards, but instead acts according to universal, life-affirming values. It would be insufficient, however, to simply reject standards or follow certain tenets like “Love your neighbor.” We need to know the reason that a certain rule is “good” and in which context it is applicable. We need to know why we should follow or reject a specific social standard. In order to recognize and evaluate the world, we need a foundation—a philosophy, the Philosophy for Heroes.